4: How to find time for research?

Do you frequently leave your office in the evening after a long and hard working day feeling  dissatisfied with what you’ve achieved and how you’ve spent your time? Your days often go by filled with doing a lot of ‘stuff’, but you hardly ever find the time to work on your research? And this stresses you out because you aren’t doing the very work that you feel would be most important and meaningful, rewarding and also enjoyable: Your research!

We’ve spoken to so, so many researchers, who share this problem, and over time, many feel disappointed in themselves because they’re sad about not being more productive or are getting disappointed in research as a profession. Don’t let it get to that point! There is so much you can do to carve out time for the most precious thing and we’ll let you know how to achieve this. 

But before we share seven tips that help you to make time for research, we would like to look a bit closer at why it is so difficult to find time for research. Understanding this can help you find your way forward. 

Why can’t you find time for research?

What we found, when discussing with researchers, is that how difficult it is to find time for research can be related to different types of research. It is often easier to find time for the more technical work. The type of research where scientific craftsmanship is in the fore: E.g. experiments in the lab, doing field-work, preparing an expedition, accumulating data, or working with a model that has been running for a while. 

What seems harder for most is the more intellectual part of research. The type of research that needs hard thinking, focus, concentration, or creativity: E.g. ’Thinking’ about your results, interpreting your data, trying to make sense of a result that didn’t come out as expected, generating new ideas that could put your research into an entirely new context, conceptualising a new model. But this intellectual part of research also includes writing about your findings, preparing a great talk, or working on a research proposal to gain funding. 

We found a good example of a person who mastered the deep intellectual work of research in Cal Newports book “Deep Work – Rules for focused success in a distracted world”. In his early days at MIT, Cal worked in a shared office not far from a famous professor, theoretician, and MacArthur ‘genius grant’ winner. Cal would often see him sitting at the commons space for hours, staring at notes he had made on a white board, completely immersed in his thoughts. He would go for lunch, come back, and the guy would still sit there and think. As Cal reports, last year this professor published 16 research papers. The book revealed that part of this man’s genius comes from his ability to concentrate hard for longer stretches of time and conceptualise his research as a whole.

But why is it so difficult to get into this more intellectual type of research? Well, it is: 

  • tricky
  • it takes resolve 
  • you may be afraid to fail
  • you may not know where to start
  • your procrastinator nature kicks in

and suddenly you find yourself in a situation where you’d rather sweep the floor of your office mate’s room next door than sit down and work on your research. You actively avoid getting started. Instead of focussing on your research you find yourself letting the distractions around you take over and busy your days with less important work. 

Do you recognise this as being part of the problem of not finding time for research? Then the tips below are especially valuable for you! You can cultivate the art of doing research and strengthen your abilities over time! Here are our seven tips that will help you to make more time for research:

Tip 1: Set realistic expectations

Let us share an quick anecdote here: We had a former colleague and professor, who wanted to finally take the time to write a book that had been in the works for a long time, together with two close friends, also professors. He booked a holiday home on a Greek island and off they went for an entire week, full of expectations that upon their return, a great part of the book would at least be sketched out. Guess what? They were in for a massive disappointment: Not much of the book got written in that big block of time and they returned with discouraging results. 

So keep it light and sweet. If you’re not used to doing deep research work, don’t expect yourself to be able to suddenly work on it successfully for a big block of multiple days. In doing so, you put immense pressure on yourself and if you work in a busy research environment with many interruptions, you’ll find it very hard to keep it up. Instead aim for just getting done a little and then as you gain experience and confidence, gradually step it up. 

Tip 2: Start with short time spans

Instead, start with a short time span to get a gradual start,  e.g. pick  one single hour out of the next three days in which you commit to working on a meaningful research task. Block this time in your calendar. 

If you’re really scared of getting started, or you don’t know how to start, you can even start with a 30 min slot for the first three days. Rest assured, everyone survives a 30 min time slot and once you get a sense of achievement and gain confidence, you can then step it up! In the end, try and get 1.5 to 2.5 hours blocked for research at least three days a week. Better yet, make it five days a week! Yes, we hear you: ‘How can you suggest for me to do this every day, I’ll never be able to, I’ve a ton of other things to work on’. Don’t worry, in the end you’ll love these time slots so much that you’ll be fighting to get your research block every single working day! 

Tip 3: Focus

During  your dedicated research block, focus on your research and nothing else. You can help yourself to stay focused with the following: Close your e-mail (it can be done!) and all other software you have open regularly on your computer. Stow away your mobile phone or mute it. Empty your desk if necessary so you don’t get distracted. If you receive a call, return it after your research block. If possible, close your office door. And here at TRESS ACADEMIC we’ve developed another handy aid for you: In order to give your colleagues a friendly signal that you don’t want to be interrupted for the next hour, use our handy door-hanger, which will send the subtle signal that you are ‘a researcher at work, thinking deep’! 

Tip 4: Have a small concrete task to work on

Another hurdle in getting started often is that you don’t know where to start. If you block time and the task in your mind is something like ‘getting started to write on my research proposal’, you’ll likely find it difficult to know what to do. Instead, before your research block, sit down and identify what you want to work on (the ‘big one’) and then break the big one down into many small, tangible steps. These should be so clear and specific that you can finish them in 1-2 hourly blocks. Let’s say your ‘big one’ is to  hand in a grant application for an upcoming funding scheme. Then you should have a long list of small concrete tasks like; obtaining instructions on how to hand in the proposal (lengths, topics, background information on you/team), re-reading the call text, brainstorming about potential ideas (just collect), working out one idea in more detail, sending it to teammates for comments, drafting potential research questions/hypothesis, completing the ‘background information’ in the application form, updating you CV and formatting it in the requested format and so on. 

Tip 5: Do it first thing in the morning

Most people are more alert and energetic during the morning. That means hard thinking and focussing is easier early in the day. Also, there’s a good chance that if you postpone your research block until later in the day, other things will come up (not always in your control) and you get distracted, or you may feel a bit drained and not ready to start anymore. 

So let’s outline how this works: When you arrive in your office in the morning, take a short time to get started, maybe get a coffee, or say hello to everyone, give instructions to your PhD students or lab assistants and then close your door and sit down and do your research. When your time block is over, you can stop and turn to other tasks. But the next day, you immediately return to your research. In general, you should stop when your time is up, unless of course you’re in a super flow and then nothing’s going to stop you …

We suggest to experiment a bit to find the perfectly right time spot here: If you find it easy to rise early, have you ever thought about getting in an hour earlier, when only a few other colleagues are working and there’s peace and quiet at your institute? It can feel absolutely inspiring to come in early and get your most important work done before others even hit the floor. Identify what works best for you and go for it!

Tip 6: Establish a habit

So, you’ve done your first three sessions of research? You have experienced that it works! Now go for more: Block the next 5 research sessions in your calendar, and then another five. Or: Go big and bold right away and block your daily time for research for the next weeks or even months ahead. It’s important that you stick to your time blocks and hold yourself accountable! If you do this a couple of weeks, you’ll first realise how much you can achieve and how quickly you produce results. After some time you have established a habit, and sticking to it is easy! Working on your research becomes second nature! You don’t question it anymore, you’re not seeking excuses or sneaking away. You’re moving through your big research tasks one after another, happy and proud of yourself!

Tip 7: Select the ‘right’ environment

It can mean a great deal to work in an environment that is conducive to your research work, e.g. working in the same space every day and having your notes, material, data ready for you to use can be a big plus. Think about the best spot for you to work, a place where you have the least amount of distractions and interruptions. 

Ideally, of course the best place for a researcher to do deep work, should be in one’s office, but we know that many of you have difficulties with this. Maybe you’re sharing a noisy office with 7 other colleagues, or your workspace is crammed in between the lab and the coffee-kitchen, with all of your colleagues passing by at least once a day, or your institute is being refurbished, etc . . . In this case, go to the library (quiet!), or work an hour at home in the morning, before coming into work. If you feel you would work best if you had a change from your office scene and you don’t mind a certain ‘buzz’, go to the cafeteria, that can be a great place to work in the morning hours.

We make time for things that matter in life, research is no different.

Your time for research is the most precious thing you have as a researcher. This is what will bring you ahead career-wise, because in the long run you’ll be more productive, with a greater research output, more publications, well-drafted conference speeches, and more successful grant applications! 

Your time for research should be the time you look forward to the most during your workday. It’s a time for immersing yourself in exciting work and getting into a flow, which brings high satisfaction and a deep sense of purpose. This is because you know you are doing the most meaningful work you can do, for your own success and that of your research institute. 

Enjoy your research! 

PS: Curious when this post was  written? At TRESS ACADEMIC, we have a ‘silence working period’ in the office from 9.00 – 10.30. During that time you can hear a needle drop! We mostly use it for writing but also for developing new amazing tools that will help academics become more satisfied and productive! This blog-post was written in 3 consecutive working sessions! 

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