Looking ahead to research : part 1 : asking questions

It’s the beginning of a new (Gregorian) calendar year, and that makes it as good a time as any to think about the research projects that might be ahead in the coming months. Welcome to part one of a (probably) three part series on planning long-term research projects.

  • Part one: asking questions (this part)
  • Part two: planning the unplannable and useful tools
  • Part three: ways to break down larger projects

What’s long term?

If you’re reading this, you probably do dozens of little tiny research projects every week. Here’s a few I’ve done recently :

  • Finding a recipe for a particular thing I wanted to make.
  • Looking at what kinds of things other people track in their long-term tracking.
  • Looking up information on a book series.
  • Reading reviews of books to see which books on sale I was particularly interested in.
  • Research for the fiction project I’m working on (which involves 1920s England plus magic.)

Most of those are pretty short and sweet – I’ve got a good idea what an answer’s going to look like, even if I don’t know the details. And they mostly don’t take too long, usually well under an hour a piece.

But what happens with a longer project? For example, that fiction project is spawning a lot of little questions, but they tie into each other, and it’d make sense for me to tie it all together in a useful way, wouldn’t it?

Or what about my desire to learn astrology at a deeper level? That’s a huge goal, and it’ll take years. How do I break that down into something more manageable? (Also in this category: learning a new language, a lot of ‘write a book’ projects, or developing multiple year career goals.)

Ask yourself questions

Take a few minutes and sit down and brainstorm. Are there things you’re interested in learning about or working out this year? What are they?

Here’s mine:

  • Astrology (with the goal of getting a good grasp on the basic concepts).
  • Building a repertoire of recipes and foods I can put together to meet my specific needs (living alone, and with some specific medical issues.)
  • The fiction writing mentioned above, and tracking it in a more useful way for future projects.

I’ll probably come up with more, but that’s a good start. If you don’t have any right now, think about how you could keep track of eventual projects, as you go along. (I have a space in my todo list projects where I make notes like that.)

What time and energy do you have?

Questions only you can answer! One of the things that’s been a sticking point for me is that my work eats a lot of my brain, so I get home from work and am not up for more intellectually demanding work. (Sometimes I am. Often I’m not.)

There’s also a time limit. I get home from work around 5pm and go to bed at 10pm (and really, it should be more like 9 or 9:30.) I have to eat dinner, do at least some household tasks, and also do other things that matter to me but aren’t research or writing.

In practice, I have about 2 hours of time I could possibly use at most. And lots of things can affect even that time – I was taking a significantly time consuming online class last spring, for example. Errands or appointments eat into that time.

I have more time on weekends, obviously, but that depends on other commitments, what they are, and whether I end up sleeping in or napping to catch up on sleep.

I bet you have your own restrictions. Whatever they are, think about where you have a little space, and where you don’t, and where you might, if you moved things around a little.

If you poke at your life for a bit, you may find different things.

  • Maybe there’s a chunk of time you can repurpose.
  • Maybe you really do need to focus on things that can be broken down into smaller chunks.
  • Maybe you need to focus on learning and research you can do while commuting, or exercise, or while you’re doing something else you have to get done too.
  • Maybe you schedule research days once a month or a quarter, and do your big projects then.
  • Maybe there’s some other solution I haven’t thought of here.

Realistically, maybe big research isn’t a thing you can do a lot of right now. Which is not much fun, if you’ve got big projects in your head, but sometimes it’s the truth.

(When might it be particularly true? Any time you’ve already got big changes going on – buying a house, having a child, starting or finishing formal education, making big career changes or moves, starting or finishing religious training, dealing with complex health challenges. If you notice, a bunch of those come with non-optional research demands in various ways, and definitely make demands on your time and energy all over the place in both expected and unexpected ways.)

What resources do you need?

The other big thing that can limit our research is access to resources. There are a lot more things available than you may realise, with a bit of time and patience (for example, you can often get books or articles from interlibrary loan that aren’t available in your own library, or are very expensive to buy.)

Figuring out what materials or skills or tools you need can be a great way to make use of smaller chunks of time before you have a longer chunk to dive into a big project. Finding articles, books, resources can be done in smaller pieces many times. You may find you need an overview of something before you can really use it for research. This is part of why thinking about your bigger projects in advance is so helpful.

Part 2

In part 2, we’ll be talking about how to plan for the unplannable (how do you figure out how much time or resources a big topic will need?) and about some resources to help you organise your research.

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