How to stay focused and organise your research

When I started health writing, I decided to take on a project – and I chose to write a literature review.

After I typed my search terms in the search bar, thousands of results appeared.

“How could I possibly get through all this material?” I panicked. Needless to say, I felt overwhelmed and shied away. “I’m not up for this,” I thought.

I took a long break before bringing myself to write once more, that time on a smaller writing project.

I realized that I had to befriend research if I were to write anything of value.

I gradually learned to narrow my search results and focus on the most relevant material. But I still fell into those rabbit holes and I knew that it was affecting my productivity.

In this post, I share tips to help you organise your research, stay focused and productive, and avoid the lure of rabbit holes.

Research: a skill that takes time

The best thing about any skill is that it can get better by practice, whether it’s research or even learning to focus. Each of these skills can be acquired and perfected. But first, you need to have the right mindset. Research is time-consuming; it would only hurt you if you expected otherwise because you wouldn’t be feeling the progress you want.

Sheridan Henness, a senior medical writer with 14 years of experience, says that outlining and researching a narrative literature review can take 25 hours.

Remember that research may take up the biggest bulk of your writing time.

How do you organise your research?

1. Start broadly

Sheridan’s top tip for organising your research is to start broadly, especially if it’s a topic you’re not familiar with.

“Obtaining 2-3 recent (published within the last 2 years, preferably) review papers on the topic is the best way to get a quick handle on the issues of the area, because reviews are all about putting things in context,” Sheridan explains.

2. Try using a mind-map

Write your topic (it can be broad at this point) in the center of the page, and then, for a set amount of time (10 minutes or so until your ideas stop flowing), add on any other subtopics that come in mind surrounding the main topic.

Looking at the relations between the subtopics you chose can help you come up with new ideas.

In her research course, Jacquelyn Landis, a writer and editor with more than 15 years’ experience, writes that she frequently uses mind-mapping to plan and organise her research because it allows her to be more creative.

3. Narrow your focus

“The best way to stay focused during your research is to have a well-developed research question. Every search strategy stems from the research question. Using a framework like PICO and others will help you focus in on the terms you are trying to isolate in your searches,” says RaeAnna Jeffers BSN, MS-IS, a health sciences librarian at University of Texas Arlington.

This advice isn’t limited to academic writing; In order to organise your research, Henneke Duistermaat, a copywriter and the owner of Enchanting Marketing, says, “the most important thing is to be clear about the question you want to answer … Otherwise, it’s too easy to follow myriad interesting ideas and you risk feeling overwhelmed by too much information.”

Tip: Try writing your research question on a sticky note and keep it in front of you while researching to help you come back to your main point of research.

4. Create a search strategy

Write a plan about how you will perform your search, the search engines or databases you’ll use, and which search terms you’ll look for. Sheridan says that she always keeps a record of her search strategy to refer to later on if needed.

5. Write a rough outline

Don’t worry; your first outline isn’t set in stone. You will alter it as you delve deeper into the research. It will help guide you through your work.

6. Break your work into segments

Document your findings and track your time. If you have a list of 30 articles you have to go through, start spreading them across your schedule and write down how much time you need to go through one article to help plan a work schedule.

7. Use the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique, a method designed by Francesco Cirillo, is an effective technique that can help you focus during work. The idea is to work for 25 minutes and take a 5-minute break and that would be one Pomodoro. You can repeat this up to 4 times then take a longer break.

8. Take notes

Taking notes is essential while doing research. If you don’t take notes, you would forget a lot of what you read and possibly end up forgetting the source of your evidence.

9. Use a reference manager

Sheridan recommends using a reference manager to organise your work because using one helps you “see what you’ve got and group them into topics so you can more easily find what you need to. That can also help you see if there’s anything missing that you need to do more searching for.”

How do you stay focused?

1. Cut off distractions

Distractions are the bane of focusing. Whether you feel thirsty or can’t resist checking that notification, distractions pull you away and slow you down. In addition to the time wasted during distractions, research shows that interruptions lengthen the time needed to finish your task. Here’s how to avoid unwanted distractions.

  • Declutter your workspace – try to maintain a clear desk and desktop because clutter can interrupt your ability to think clearly and prevent you from getting into a work flow.
  • Close your phone while working – but if you can’t, you can turn off all notifications. You can make use of apps like Forest or Freedom which can block websites for periods of time while you’re working.
  • Keep a paper to write reminders for later – when you sit down to write, it’s easy to wander off to remember every important task you should do besides your writing. Make a habit of keeping a paper by your side and writing down those random thoughts that distract you so you remember to check on them later and stop thinking about them.

2. Choose your most productive time to work

We usually don’t have the same level of productivity throughout the day, so choose a time you’re able to focus to do your research.

3. Take breaks

Researchers in the university of Illinois found that taking short breaks has a beneficial effect on the ability to focus.

4. Stay healthy

A healthy brain lies in a healthy body. Remember to sleep well, eat healthy and exercise regularly to boost your ability to focus.

5. Focus on your process

If all you’re thinking about while you research is “when shall this end?”, research will feel like punishment. Instead, remind yourself of why you’re doing the research, to educate yourself and others through your writing about the topic.

How to manoeuvre research rabbit holes

I was researching this article and I found myself reading the copy on a motivational speaker’s website wondering what got me there. I retraced my steps and realized when exactly I’d wandered off.

But why do you we up down rabbit holes?

Possibly, two reasons: following our curiosity, and fear of missing out.

In our desire to make our writing project as comprehensive as possible, we fear that we miss out on any important piece of information.

Well, you don’t have to cover everything under the sun! As long as the idea is clearly explained and you don’t miss out on the crucial information, you’re good to go.

To avoid straying away while you do your research, RaeAnna advises us to “create a folder for things that you come across that you may want to read but are not necessarily relevant to the immediate search needs. That way, you’ll have it for a later time and can direct your attention back to the original point of your research.”

Sheridan has a similar tip: “Set a time limit on yourself – no more than 5-10 minutes of looking at other things. If you need to, use an actual timer, and be strict with yourself.”

Research can be an overwhelming process, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Decide exactly what you’re looking for, plan it out, then organise your time and practice staying focused. Everything will fall in place.

But most importantly, you just have to stop procrastinating and start writing.

As J. R. R. Tolkien wrote: “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.”

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