‘Keeping Focused’ on Research and Writing

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:12 pm

A colleague asked me to present a session at a forum yesterday for Higher Degree by Research (Masters by Research, Doctor of Education, Doctor of Philosophy) students. My first reaction was ‘Are you sure you have the right person?’ I tend not to perceive myself as particularly focused, and I imagine most of the people who know me best have a similar perception.

Sometimes the way we perceive ourselves and the way others perceive us differ, though: I was talking with a colleague at UQ a few years ago and started to say “I think of myself as a…” What I had in mind to say was “…mellow, laid-back sort of guy”, but she finished the sentence for me with “…high-energy person”. It made me think again…

So, yesterday I delivered perhaps the least focused presentation on ‘Keeping Focused’ ever.

It was from 2:15 to 3:00 in the afternoon and I knew the participants were likely to have been listening to talks with PowerPoint most of the day by that point, so I didn’t use that. I thought about the topic and the issues over the previous few days, then scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad on the train up from the Gold Coast to Brisbane. Spent some of the time talking to the groups, and some having them talk among themselves to share their own approaches.

Most of the other presenters will have shared their PowerPoint slides for students to use as notes or for people unable to attend, so I thought I’d use this blog post to summarise a few of the ideas I shared yesterday.

Preamble and Themes

Part of the challenge is that ‘focus’ may not mean what it used to, or at least not for everyone. In a more-complex and intensified world of work, taking a week to do nothing but write is a lot tougher. Even taking a couple of hours a day can be challenging. I was at the forum all day, listening to the presentations and enjoying them, but at the same time requesting data and calculating statistics about our School for a report, completing and submitting an Expression of Interest letter for a grant program, working on learning and teaching issues… and this is just a typical day.

The corollary is that what works for one person may not work for another. My own approach is to multitask. The research says we don’t do things as deeply when we do, but I do get a fair bit done. Others may organise their work differently, and find those whole weeks or couple of hours a day to work on research.

Suzie is doing a Master of Counselling program at the moment, and studying Solution Focused Therapy. One of the precepts of that approach is “If it’s working, do more of it. If it’s not, try something else.” My own approach to ‘focus’ seems to be working – I’m getting the publications out, getting the grants, all that stuff. So the test of an approach is empirical: does it work?

Who knows whether another approach might make me even more productive, but I also feel ‘productive’ enough for my purposes… and I enjoy my life, which is also a criterion!

This is part of the point and the argument: it’s hard to establish efficiency and effectiveness without deciding on the goals. What do you want to do with your research? What are your career and life goals? If you want to be a career researcher – PhD, postdoc, fellowships, research-only profile – then you need to be focused on research and writing to the exclusion of other things. If, on the other hand, you plan for something more like my career, which tries to balance teaching, research and service to the profession and community, multitasking may also work.

It also relates to the way different people’s minds work. Some can simply sit down and write (which partly relates to being immersed in the literature and the project to the exclusion of other things). I find that I need to load the ideas into my subconscious and then go off and do other things while they ‘cook’, then when the time is right the writing tends to be easy.

So, in all of this, ‘know thyself’ is important. I can talk about what I do and what works for me, and why, but finding out what works for you is the goal.

Day Scale

At the scale of focusing every day, I’d suggest the following:

  • manage email and social media in a way that works for you: for me, it’s helpful to respond to email as it comes in. For others, leaving it to the end of the day or other strategies work better
  • reference as you go: leaving referencing until the end is incredibly inefficient. Use EndNote or another referencing package if it works for you – I don’t
  • take weekends, or at least a day off a week (it needn’t be a weekend day if that works better with your life and those of the people you want to hang out with): being so hardcore at work that you work every day is a recipe for burnout. Not always easy, particularly for those working full time and studying part time.
  • attend to your physical health: your brain is in a body, and your body needs care. Don’t say “I’m too busy to exercise”, say “I’m too busy not to”. It might only be walking the dog, but getting the blood flowing gets it flowing to your brain.

Thesis (or Project) Scale

At the scale of a PhD thesis, or a research project:

  • work-life balance is key: the stats correlating PhDs and divorces are worrying. Finding ways to focus on work enough for your purposes but also have a life and relationships and friends will make your life better and your career more robust and resilient.
  • do something on your research at least several times a week. Keep it ‘top of mind’. Leaving it months means it takes a long time to get back up to speed. Even if it’s just writing an informal summary, or reading a paper of two, do something regularly.
  • focus on goals, not regimens: think about where you’re headed, rather than blocking out 2 hours a day or 2 days a week (participants’ mileage varied on this, and regimens did work for some)

Career Scale

People will advise you – as they have advised me throughout my career – to focus on having one clear, identified research program and focusing on that. I haven’t done that – I’ve followed the things I find interesting, and it seems to be working OK. (With some exceptions… I think I’ve been slower to be promoted than I’d have liked, for a variety of reasons: one of the trade-offs… But not inevitable.)

Something I learned from one of my own doctoral students in the past, Mark Hirschkorn, is ‘first do what is worth doing, then figure out how to get rewarded for it’. The times when I’ve tended to struggle and be depressed and unproductive in my work have happened when I’ve bought into other people’s reward systems, and tailored my work to that, rather than to what I thought was worthwhile and interesting work. Conversely, when I focus on the ‘good stuff’, the rewards seem to flow. Parker Palmer’s (highly recommended) ‘The Courage To Teach’ talks about how, when we teach out of who we are and do the work that nourishes our own spirit, it also nourishes our work.

I hope these bits and pieces might be useful to colleagues at all stages of their research careers. I certainly don’t hold myself up as an example… but I’ve thought a bit about how and why I do what I do… and it works for me. This is written as much as anything to encourage you to do the same kind of thinking about yourself and your own goals.