Where do you start in your quest to keep your research active during the fall and winter?
Could you find 15-30 minutes every weekday to devote to research? I bet you could. That’s not a lot of time.
Research has shown that even that small amount of time, used well, can make a big difference to your research productivity.
Robert Boice is a psychologist who spent many years in faculty development researching successful faculty and running workshops for new faculty based on his findings. I highly recommend his book Advice for New Faculty Members (even if you are no longer a new faculty member).
Not all hours in the day are of equal value
Research is creative work. When do you do your best creative work?
- After breakfast before you leave for the university.
- Lunchtime: lock the door. Don’t answer the phone. And shut down the e-mail program.
- A regular time during the day
Choose a time of day when you can do your best work. If you are a morning person, first thing has real advantages because you can do it before you get sucked into other people’s needs.
But if your best time of day for creative work is mid-afternoon, you’ll need to figure out how to let go of the other stuff and work on research then.
Schedule time and protect it
If you are working in your office on campus, make it clear that you cannot be disturbed during that half-hour. Put a sign on the door. Let the voicemail pick up. Don’t look at e-mail.
Put an appointment in your diary so you won’t be tempted to schedule something else in that slot. You don’t need to tell other people what the appointment is. Just say “Sorry, I’m not available at that time. I have a previous commitment.” and then suggest a different time for the meeting.
You probably have less control over things like teaching schedules so you’ll have to work around that. But there are a lot of hours in your week that you do control.
At first this might be difficult. And you will be tempted to just check e-mail or do something else.
But do something research related during your designated time every day.
- write notes about possibilities in a notebook
- edit a draft paper
- make a list of things you need to find in the library
- read an article
- schedule some interviews
- write a job description for a (hypothetical?) research assistant
- write the next paragraph of an article you are working on
- write an outline or a mind-map for a new article
- freewrite for 10 minutes around an idea you have (set a timer; there’s an online one here)
Your goal is not to finish anything. Your goal is to make progress.
Make things easier
You might need a little ritual to divide this time from whatever came before. This will be particularly true if your best time is anytime other than first thing in the morning.
- Make a ritual around putting your sign on the door. Turning off the phone ringer. Closing your e-mail program.
- Just sit for 30 seconds. With good posture. Feet planted on the floor. Eyes closed. Take a couple of deep breaths.
- Do a few stretches, get a glass of water or a cup of coffee.
Whatever it is that makes the transition, try to do the same thing every time. Your body and mind will start to recognize this little routine and switch into research/writing mode more quickly. (A bit like having a ritual at bedtime makes it easier to sleep.)
You should also make it easy to find the thing you are going to do. Don’t spend time thinking about what you could do. You want to sit down and start doing it.
- Use the last 5 minutes of your time to decide what to do the next day. Write it down. Collect the materials you’ll need.
- Keep your research/writing stuff in a dedicated space, maybe a basket. That way you can easily pull out what you are working on and get started.
- If you have enough space, your dedicated space could be a special chair or desk. If so, sitting in that space will be part of your transition ritual.
It is not going to be convenient to tidy everything away at the end of each short session. What if you are in the middle of a sentence or paragraph? You want to sit down the next day, read what you wrote and just keep on writing. So find some way of keeping things so that they can remain open waiting for you to come back to them.
Anticipation is motivating
If the thought of stopping mid-sentence or mid-paragraph bothers you, you are not alone. But Boice’s research suggests that in the long term it might actually be more productive. You stop at peak productivity. Ideas are buzzing. You are eager to get back to it the next day.
The problem with writing until you are all written out, is that you are all written out at the end of it. You need recovery time.That and you don’t have time for that anyway.
You have 15 minutes. But 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 10 weeks is 12.5 hours of writing a term.
If you manage 30 minutes a day that’s 25 hours of research/writing a term that you weren’t doing before.
Sound too good to be true?
Try it. What do you have to lose?
Commit to 15 minutes a day each weekday for the fall semester.
Do it properly. Make it the same time every day. Have a transition ritual. Do some research/writing for that 15 minutes (thinking counts, doodling about research ideas counts, writing outlines and random thoughts counts, writing about what a stupid practice this is counts).
And evaluate at the end of the semester. If it didn’t work, unsubscribe from my blog/newsletter and go on the way you were before.