Musings on finding time to do research

Research isn’t something you can fit in around other things. You can’t do 10 minutes on it right now in between those two meetings. You can’t squeeze in half an hour while you’re having lunch. You can’t do it while you’re trying to help the children with their homework. You can’t do 20 minutes every evening over the course of a week and hope that it will add up to the same as about two solid hours.

You need to devote proper time to research. The thinking, planning, reading, devising of methodology and so on demand quality headspace. If you spend a little time here and a little time there, you end up making very little progress as you can’t make headway in short periods. And if you leave it too long between sessions you forget what you did last time, have to go over it again and that eats into your time, too.

It’s easy to say that you have to block out time to do your research. Here you are: ‘Block out time to do your research!’ That was easy. But actually blocking out the time and keeping it blocked out is much more difficult. It’s easy to block out every Thursday or every Tuesday afternoon in your diary for working on your research – we’ve all done that. But how many of us then accepted an important meeting instead or had to meet a student about an urgent matter or have had something unexpected land in our inbox that day, changing all our plans? Familiar scenarios, I’m sure. I can almost hear you nodding vigorously in agreement.

But the worst thing of all for eating up your time is probably your email. Email was invented by the Devil, you know. It was sent to torment us. How many times have you got to the end of the day, exhausted, having worked non-stop and worn the keys on your laptop to dust, only to say to yourself, ‘I’ve achieved nothing today.’ Well, first of all, you have probably achieved loads through solving problems that have come to you by email. What you really mean is that you haven’t achieved the thing you wanted to achieve that day, which might have been working on your research.

Sometimes I look back on what I’ve done and think, ‘Why on earth did I spend so much time on that? What real difference did it make?’ I think we are often our own worst enemies – sometimes creating more work than is needed, doing something in more depth or detail than is required, going not the extra mile but the extra ten miles. We have to know when to stop. When to decline a meeting invite if someone else who is going can brief us afterwards. When to resist answering emails that will be fine to answer tomorrow (put your out-of-office message on).

So it’s not just blocking out the time in your diary; it’s keeping it blocked out, turning down unnecessary meetings, not looking at emails (just don’t even log in!) and not answering the phone. You must become a hermit who has taken a vow of abstinence from email, meetings and phone calls.

Once you have carved out the time and maintained it, you must then be not only in the right metaphorical space, but in the right literal space. You need peace and quiet, no distractions, no interruptions and a period of time that is long enough for you actually to achieve something. This is why writing retreats or research retreats – sometimes just a day or a half-day away from the office – are really worthwhile, as the whole atmosphere and space is conducive to getting on with your research.

When I think back to my PhD, I remember every evening, every weekend and every holiday for three years being absorbed by study. I could read a journal article and take some notes in an evening – that was do-able in 2 or 3 hours. Weekends and holidays gave me longer stretches of time to work on writing, planning, more reading and more writing. But times were different for me then. I was in a more junior role at work and didn’t have any children, so my free time was my own. I see colleagues now working on their PhDs with children at home and marvel at how they manage to fit a full-time job, family life and a PhD into their lives. I take my hat off to them!

Another way to help you make progress with your research is to share the burden with a co-researcher, supervisor, mentor or critical friend. Being able to talk about your work out loud often leads to problems being solved more quickly and being able to share out some of the work with others gets it done more quickly (and if you’re all working to the same deadline there is a certain amount of self-imposed pressure to meet that deadline so you don’t let the others down).

Finally, don’t expect too much of yourself and don’t blame yourself if your carefully laid plans to get on with your research are upset at the last minute. Set the bar tolerably low so you can feel you have achieved something. Don’t expect to write the whole literature review in a weekend – break it up into smaller, achievable tasks. Congratulate yourself and allow yourself to feel pleased with what you have achieved, no matter how small the step forward. And if your research time is usurped by other things don’t worry – this is just one session, not the whole project. Sometimes there really are emergencies that you can’t ignore and that’s OK.

In summary, then, make time for your research, rather than trying to squash it in around other things – you will be more productive and you will make headway more quickly. Remember those tips:

  1. Block out the time, preferably at least half a day
  2. Keep it blocked out, by turning down non-essential meetings, not logging in to your email and not answering your phone
  3. Find the right space to work in, both metaphorically and literally, away from distractions so you can concentrate
  4. Share the research burden if you can
  5. Don’t set your expectations too high
  6. Be pleased with what you achieve
  7. Don’t blame yourself if the plan goes wrong and you end up doing something else.

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