Keeping up research momentum

Lyn LaveryIt’s rare for any research project to go to plan at the best of times, never mind in the middle of a pandemic. There’s definitely an element of unpredictability in the air, which makes planning difficult and can make us feel like we’ve lost all momentum with our research projects. Before I get to the content of this post, I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s completely acceptable to not be making progress at the moment. Do what you need to look after yourself, your family, your career, financial commitments and anything else that’s needed. If you’d like to keep up momentum with your research in these challenging times though, here are some tips to help you out.

Do something every day

This might sound onerous, but I’m not suggesting here that you knock out thousands of words each day, just find something small that you can achieve. If we leave our research projects idle for any length of time, they can be extraordinarily difficult to pick back up again. By doing something small each day, you’re keeping yourself connected to your research and making a little bit of progress into the bargain. Choose whatever is achievable for you that day – it could be as small as filing some journal articles or you might decide to proofread a few paragraphs of writing that you’ve completed. Whatever it is, make sure it’s a task that you definitely have the time and energy to finish – that way you’ll also get a dopamine kick from completing it!

Go for the quick wins

Another way to get a healthy dose of dopamine is to keep a list of “quick wins” for those days when you’re getting constantly distracted/interrupted. A quick win is a task that will only take 5–10 minutes to complete, such as emailing a research participant, double-checking a quote from the literature, or checking some references in your reference management software. Knocking off a series of these tasks over the course of a day can really help keep up momentum, and they should be easy to fit in between those endless Zoom meetings your calendar is full of these days. This strategy works best if you have a list of tasks ready to tackle – otherwise you might spend 5–10 minutes just deciding what to do.

Keep a “done” list

A “done list” or “anti to-do list” is a log of the tasks you’ve completed. We can often be so focused on our never-ending to-do list that we neglect to celebrate the things we’ve achieved. Focusing on our achievements is a great way to increase motivation and momentum, as well as heighten positive emotions. This technique is particularly good at fostering our intrinsic motivation, so it doesn’t rely on external sources – a perfect source of momentum regardless of the environment we find ourselves in or what’s happening around us.

Park downhill

Parking downhill is based on the idea that if you have an unreliable car, it’s best to park it facing downhill. That way, if your car won’t start the next day you can take the handbrake off to get some momentum to try and get it started. The same technique can be applied to your research and writing – always leave your work at a stage where it will be easy to get started again the next day. This might be especially helpful in the current environment as motivation levels can vary hugely from day to day – if your motivation is at an all-time low, the last thing you’ll feel like doing is picking up a complicated piece of theoretical writing that you abandoned several weeks ago!

Take note

One of my favourite strategies when I was completing my PhD part-time was that if I had to leave a task mid-way, I would leave myself a note about where I got up to. It was common for something unexpected to crop up the next morning, and best laid plans for my research would get waylaid. Sometimes it was several days (or even weeks) before I got back to the task, by which stage it was incredibly hard to recall where I was at with it. It strikes me that this could be a helpful strategy in pandemic times also – the chances of us getting waylaid or having to unexpectedly change direction are pretty high!