Distractions are a perennial issue for research students. Working on such a large project over a long period of time can feel overwhelming, and our brains can sometimes deal with that by seeking to procrastinate.
I certainly experienced this in my own PhD journey. When I started my PhD I was working full-time so I didn’t notice it so much, because I was used to fitting in study when I had a spare minute here and there. My problem really became noticeable to me when I moved to a job with part-time hours. I thought that with my hours reduced to half time, I was bound to start motoring ahead with my research at a pace that I hadn’t been able to reach up to that point. But that didn’t seem to be the case. I found that I was in a routine in terms of coming into the office on my study days, but once I got there I just found it really hard to focus on what I was supposed to be doing. I would think of one life admin thing that needed to be done, and then another, and another, and eventually I was so dispirited that I just couldn’t start, so just hung around checking social media or went home in the hope that the change of scene would help me get something done (sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t). I was stuck in this stage for what felt like months.
Thankfully, help was on the way. I had the opportunity to attend a one-day writing workshop, run on a similar concept to Shut up and Write: the day was timetabled with writing slots and lots of breaks in between. Food and drinks were provided and we were encouraged to set ourselves goals at the beginning of the day, and were given a sweet treat for each one that we achieved. I was a bit daunted at the beginning of the day, thinking that I couldn’t possibly just sit and write for that long. It was not very long before a distracting thought came up in my head of something else I needed to do. I realised quickly that I had to do something about this, in order to avoid sabotaging my day of writing, so I started a to-do list document, wrote down the thing that needed doing and resolved to action it during the break or at the end of the day. I was surprised by how quickly I was able to get back into the writing flow once I had done this.
I didn’t meet all my goals that day, but I was productive for the majority of the scheduled writing time. It was such a successful day, in fact, that I decided to apply the principles to my personal study time. So at the beginning of each day, I would write a schedule of work times and breaks, and keep that to-do list open to add anything that came into my mind that needed actioning while I was supposed to be working. Just that small act of structuring my day in an informal manner was a real breakthrough for me personally. Going back to the to-do list at the end of the day, some of the items were clearly just attempts that my brain was making to sabotage my progress. I am a naturally curious person and often that urgent task was just a distraction: interesting but not remotely related to my thesis topic (non-Māori engagement with Māori knowledge). So when I went back at the end of the day there was often only a very short list of things that actually required attention, and those urgent queries I had whilst in the middle of the working day didn’t seem half as pressing when I’d made it home at the end of the day and really needed a break!
The key with distractions is to understand yourself. Some people are really distracted my social media and need to switch off, while others are more distracted by the possibility of missing something important while unplugged, and so prefer to leave it on but switch off some of the notifications. There are also numerous apps that you can use to schedule your time or switch off your social media or online activities for dedicated times. There is no single formula that works for everyone, but I hope that my story encourages you to spend some time figuring out what works for you.