It’s always a pleasure to meet new research students at the beginning of your journey at my Managing your Research Project development session each year. However, I’m aware right now that there are lots of you (us!) having to quickly learn how to work in new spaces with new things to balance and consider – particularly how on earth to work well in a situation that is anything but normal! To help, here are a few hints and tips on how you might approach working from home and keeping your research project moving forwards at a pace that works for you.
Make time to switch off from your research
It may feel counterintuitive to start a blog post about ‘focusing on your research’ by encouraging you to switch off from it, but creating separation between your work and your relaxation time is incredibly important. Take time to step back and take care of yourself, and try not to allow the pressure to be productive to affect your wellbeing. Rebecca Dwyer and Ruthie Boycott-Garnett have both recently written excellent blogs on balancing your time as a research student in challenging circumstances.
Some things you can do to help with balance:
- Keep your work to one area of your home, so that you have a clear space to focus in.
- Try to create a routine for balancing your research with your other responsibilities. This doesn’t need to be the same rigid plan every day – but finding a pattern that works for you is incredibly important to separate when is ‘working’ time, and when you’re relaxing.
- When you’ve finished your research work for the day, step away from what you’re doing, tidy up your space, and either go for a walk or do some exercise at home to mentally draw a line under your work.
Stay connected to time passing
Lots of people are reporting a sense that time doesn’t feel like it’s passing normally right now – but maintaining your connection with time will help with focus, wellbeing, and your memory. Try using a reflective diary, bullet journal, or digital log like Evernote to jot down your to-do list for a day, record future tasks, and remember your thoughts – both for your research, and your personal goals. It will help make sure that today’s tasks don’t get lost – and that tomorrow’s tasks are waiting for you without having to retain them all in your working memory.
Generate some dopamine
Dopamine is essential for motivation, so if you’re struggling to get started or to focus, try one of these ideas:
- Have a to do list, and check things off as you complete them – no matter how small.
- Do some easy things first – contrary to popular belief, if you’re struggling with motivation, getting some easy things ticked off your list may help give you the dopamine boost you need to move on to the bigger tasks.
- Make yourself laugh – play a stupid song, dance in your chair, have a quick snack or some sugar, or give yourself a minute to watch something funny on TikTok (then, crucially, don’t get caught in a video rabbit hole!). Giving yourself a small dopamine rush can help you get into a more relaxed headspace to start your work.
Check your space
After ten weeks at home, it’s unsurprising that many of us have slipped into the habit of working in comfier spaces and the lines between home and research/work are more blurred than ever at the moment. But keeping a dedicated space to work in that is as comfortable and practical as possible (and easy to walk away from when you need to) can help you focus better when you want to work on your research, and help you to switch off when you want to relax.
Even if you don’t have a lot of room to physically go somewhere else to work, try:
- Having a basket that your notebooks and papers go into.
- Avoiding your usual relaxing spots if you can, so that you can enjoy these better when you’re not working.
- Closing all your tabs, and restarting your device to move from ‘working’ to ‘playing’ with any digital devices you use for both research and personal use.
- Have a tidy of your work area at the end of the day (to clear away your thoughts) rather than at the beginning when it’ll delay you being able to start.
- Create a schedule to keep the rest of your space as tidy as you can too – having a clear space around you creates fewer distractions, helps you focus, and is generally better for your mood.
Concentrate on just the first minute of your task
Sometimes, the thought of working through your emails, or sitting down to write, or typing up an interview, can feel like a monumental task. Try focusing on just the first part of that – like opening the document you want to work on, or writing a to-do list for your day, or opening your email inbox. You don’t always need to think about the entire task to get started.
Work in bursts to keep your focus
The Pomodoro Technique is a great way to work in shorter bursts if you’re struggling to find your focus. The traditional method is to set a timer for 25 minutes, and work until the time is up – then take a five minute break. Once you’ve completed four cycles of this, take a longer break, then start again if you feel like it. There are lots of different timers you can use – and to get yourself started, you can begin with smaller blocks. Often, setting the timer for 10 minutes is a great way to get started.
Find your flow
Peak flow is something that’s discussed in creative circles, and is incredibly beneficial for finding your rhythm with your work. It’s described as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter… when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience, 2008)
Think about which things help you get into that flow state at the moment:
- Do you need quiet, or noise?
- Do you focus better at your dining table or in the armchair with a cup of tea to hand?
- Is it better to structure your day so that you work once others are in bed or before they get up, or do you need to shut yourself away in the middle of the day?
- It’s hard to always make sure that you have what you need for your peak flow state – but knowing what helps means you can plan in blocks of time where you can focus to the best of your ability.
Connect with other researchers
Staying connected with the student research community is a great way to stay motivated, and to share your experience with others. For Manchester Met students, you can connect with your fellow postgraduate researchers online via:
- the Manchester Met PGR Facebook group
- writing a post for the PGR blog
- following the Graduate School on Twitter
- connecting with your PGR reps – you can find them in the PGR Hub on Moodle, or via DigitalRep on the Student Union website
- joining in with development sessions on Zoom – with space for up to 100 attendees, everyone is welcome to attend and you’ll be on the call with researchers from other universities too as we work to share our online provision across the North West
- entering Graduate School events – like the upcoming Three Minute Thesis competition.
Stay in touch with your supervisory team and the Graduate School
As well as the student research community, your supervisory team and the Graduate School are here to support you with your research. Keep up with your fortnightly check-ins with your Supervisor to stay on track with your research and discuss where your focus is taking you at the moment – and record notes from your meetings in SkillsForge as another way to keep track of your research project progressing and note down any barriers you’re experiencing.
The Graduate School are also emailing your student account every Friday with updates, news, developments and opportunities to keep you in touch with what’s happening for research students across the university – and you can find an archive of all the previous posts on Moodle.
Doing a PhD is always hard work and a test of stamina, but right now this is more the case than ever. Every bit of progress you make is a great achievement. So, be kind to yourself, remember to celebrate the small successes as well as the major milestones, and stay in touch so that we can support you on your research journey.