How to avoid going off at tangents

This post is by Karen McAulay, Music and Academic Services Librarian at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama

In a long, extended project like a doctoral dissertation, it’s all too easy to allow ourselves to get distracted, both by potentially interesting research ideas, and by humdrum everyday interruptions. Reading a recent Whisperer post about keeping a research journal, I was reminded of my own efforts to keep all the different strands of my research carefully recorded and in a retrievable form.

Are you scatterbrained?

The Free defines ‘scatterbrained’ as, ‘a person regarded as flighty, thoughtless, or disorganized.’  Isn’t this a fair description of most of us at some stage in the throes of thesis-writing, though? (not exactly flighty or thoughtless, but certainly with wildly disorganized thoughts!)

Before I tell you about the technique I eventually adopted to bring things back under control, let’s look at a typical PhD student’ s day, by the time they’ve  started the serious business of writing up that dissertation.

Picture the scene: you’ve eventually pinned yourself down at your desk, and you have a clear couple of hours in which you intend to do some serious writing.  You’ve assembled your notes, planned what to say, and have some idea of the order in which these thoughts are going to hit the page.  You’re unlikely to be disturbed by humankind for the rest of the morning.


Ping!  You get an email alert, or a text, and feel you’d better answer it,  because (a) it’s urgent; or (b) it won’t take a minute.  Except that you can’t quite lay your hands on the information you need …

Back to the chapter.  Until it suddenly crosses your mind that you need to make an appointment.  This won’t take long!  But you lose your train of thought.

You sigh, shake yourself down and return to work.  This time, there’s a new Facebook comment, and before you know where you are …

Finally, you face up to the blindingly obvious, close down your email window and mute your phone.  Now you’ll be able to concentrate.

This time, everything goes swimmingly, until a rogue thought – perfectly connected with your research – creeps, unbidden into your consciousness.  It’s relevant, and – hey, this could be a totally new insight.  This is what it’s all about, you sigh contentedly, breaking off from writing to search for a reference, check the library catalogue, or hunt for an abstract of that tantalizing conference paper.  You note it down, then decide that a quick cup of coffee will help you concentrate.

Suddenly the endlessly long morning isn’t quite so endless, which is a shame when you really had intended to get so much done!

Concentrate, concentate!

Fundamentally, this is all about concentration, isn’t it?  I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that my mind is sometimes like one of those firework fountains, sparking out ideas in all directions until I wish I could just lock it down to go in one, focused direction at a time.

With many of these distractions, there’s really no easy solution apart from a steely self-discipline.

Surprisingly as it may seem, we aren’t under any obligation to check emails or social media at regular intervals.  It’s simply a question of relearning the skill of sitting still and concentrating for a fixed period, gradually increasing the time as we become better at it.

Getting words onto the page

More than once, I’ve come across the suggestion that you should write every day, no matter what apparent rubbish goes onto the page. The reasoning is that you’re more likely to get results if you have a writing habit, than if you procrastinate and write nothing!  Even random writing will get the creative juices flowing  and re-reading your own faltering efforts will give you the chance to re-order, re-phrase, polish and edit until you’ve got something closer to a coherent argument.

Does this ‘write everyday’ thing work for you, though? 

Speaking personally, I have never been able to embrace the random writing habit.  I certainly can’t just start writing ‘stream of consciousness’ stuff and at some stage move into a more focused academic discourse.  Rather, I have an idea what I want to write, and I write it.

If I sense it’s going nowhere, I grind to a halt, and then start shuffling around sections to see if I can improve the logic.  And if it simply will not work, I still follow the advice that my supervisor once gave me, early on in my doctoral research – I write makeshift headings for each paragraph, and then look at the logic of the headings.

A variant on the idea of the Research Journal

Self-discipline is something that we all have to work at, but I’d like to finish this post by sharing with you a tool that I came up with during the final months of writing my thesis.

My documents folder still contains a few dated files enigmatically named ‘Tangental Threads’.  And the system works like this:- when you start working on a chapter, you simultaneously open your current Tangental Threads document.  Any remotely relevant distractions get jotted down in your Tangental Threads.  But you don’t take any action on them until you’ve finished your writing session!

I salvaged a few of my old TT documents to show you what I mean:-

  • “Monelle article – note salient points and see where I can allude to it.”
  • “At work – Scottish Life and Society book.  At home – Anderson, Imagined Communities.”
  • “Border songs – contact people suggested by xxx”
  • “University Library – King, Locke, Treitler.  National Library – Callander letter manuscripts.  British Library – see the Thomson edition containing his dissertation.”

I also collected full citations of the books I intended to follow up, and a number of quotations which I planted into text boxes to make them easy to find when needed in particular chapters. This is why I needed my notes to be digital.

However, it’s all a question of personal preference.

I did keep a handwritten research journal as well, but the TT documents were vital – a kind of digital scholarly “To do” list, and a catch-all for those fleeting thoughts that would otherwise either have distracted me from the task in hand, or perhaps have been forgotten altogether.  Adding library shelf-marks later meant I could sally forth to the university library knowing exactly what I was there for. And it wasn’t uncommon for me to include domestic trivia – after all, even doctors need dentists!

Indeed, whilst the doctorate is now done and dusted, my Tangental Threads documents do still live on.  Keeping lists like this is, for me, a vital way of organising my thoughts.  I wonder how many other busy people have found the same?

Related posts

How to write 1000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy)

Shut up and Write!

24 thoughts on “How to avoid going off at tangents

  1. Jess says:

    This is a good idea- I always have these “tangental thoughts”. At the moment (very early stages of my PhD) I’m keeping all my notes and writing in a private (unpublished) blog which I think has its benefits (categories, nonlinear, searchable). I have a ‘follow up’ category which kind of functions in a similar way.

  2. Kelly says:

    What an excellent article. I was actually avoiding doing writing by reading this article & suddenly remembered to make a doctors appointment when I saw that section above (obviously before I saw your ‘Tangental Threads’ section) … ha, ha … I will get back onto it now.

    Elegantly Academic

  3. Linda Kirkman says:

    I think I need a Tangental Threads file, what a good idea. Ignoring threads is like killing my darlings. I do make notes on my phone to follow up later, but a formal TT file sounds much more grown up, and a good way to minimise interruptions to the writing flow.

  4. Karenmca says:

    Curious to hear other people’s solutions – phone “notes” are a good suggestion! I also keep a “to do” list on my Palm for things that MUST be done (childish pleasure in ticking them off) & paper notebook for things that would otherwise be overlooked!

  5. Ben says:

    Great idea! I have a few documents like this but they’re kind of scattered around. I like the idea of keeping them separate and in their own folder. I also jot things down on evernote so I can get hold of them anywhere, you can use this on your phone too

  6. Jo VanEvery says:

    Great advice. I have 2 things to add.

    1) “write every day” doesn’t have to be freewriting, writing real sentences, or other forms of generative writing. Making a set of makeshift headings counts as writing. Writing an outline. Elaborating an outline. Writing comments on an article you’ve just read. The idea is that you form a habit of putting thoughts into written form. For some people that habit includes associating writing with a particular place (though I know one person whose “place” is a specific notebook she always carries with her)

    2) your Tangential Threads file reminded me of some advice I was given early in my PhD: Start a file for all the things you are going to write AFTER the dissertation. The dissertation needs a focus. But research ALWAYS throws up new questions. So in addition to items that are relevant to the dissertation but don’t have to be done now, there are likely to be whole other lines of argument that you don’t need to put in the dissertation at all. Your research ideas will not go off, nor run dry. And you are highly likely to need things to move on to after the dissertation. This file will come in very handy.

  7. @sauramaia says:

    i love the idea of a TT file. i submitted my thesis recently (can’t get enough of saying that out loud), and in the last few weeks i regularly found myself with 4 docs open at any one time, so i could.put random thoughts in the chapter they belonged. i use scrivener to put notes down for chapters that aren’t fully formed, that was useful too for storing the odd bits and pieces. .

  8. soundasleep says:

    As a software developer, I’m used to adding “todos” to my programming, which essentially lets me do this: I can come back to fix a bug, add a feature, look into a new idea later, without distracting my focus.

    I’ve done the same thing in my thesis writing, where a simple LaTeX \todo{…} command will add a quick footnote and I can continue my writing. I can then search through my document later (most likely another day) and search for “todo” in my PDFs 🙂

    • ingermewburn says:

      Interesting – leaving the note where you thought of it might help you remember the context better perhaps? Similar to the way I work in Scrivener I suspect

  9. LMS says:

    This was a great read. I especially love the point you made about how we don’t need to check our email and social media profiles constantly (even though we expect others to do so). I am trying to leave emails for a certain time of day because constantly answering emails can sometimes keep me from sitting down to work. Argh!

    I use Evernote for those random thoughts that come to mind when i’m writing or researching. However, I sometimes forget about those notes. (I guess that proves how tangential they really are, hehe.) So I think I’m going to comb through those this weekend and see what’s there.

  10. Karenmca says:

    I’m going to go off and research Scrivener immediately AFTER COFFEE! (Having an office-based existence does give me the justification for having a proper coffee break mid-morning!)

  11. PhDandworkingmum says:

    This is a great post full of practical things to do. But all the posts at the end make it even better a whole community of successful PhDer’s willing to share their ideas to help me be successful too. Thanks everyone. I am definitely going to revisit Scrivener for my next writing project, and start a TT file, and a file for ‘Things to do post-PhD’.

    PS. Reading this felt like being part of a small community of face to face friendly academics- which is a great feeling considering I am a remote part-time PhD student who doesn’t really have a community to belong to 🙁

    • LMS says:

      I’m a full-time PhD student who is also away from her home campus, so I know the feeling! Social media (especially Twitter) has been really helpful in terms of forming an academic community. We’re here for you! 🙂

    • Karenmca says:

      Yes, PhD-and-working-mum, I totally agree about the importance of feeling part of a community. It’s all the more important when you do your PhD “the hard way”. I followed the working-mum-and-part-time-research-student route, too, and I found it crucial to feel part of a community. When you can’t do the student socialising stuff, keeping in touch by discussion board or email becomes very important indeed. The nice thing is that the world’s your oyster these days, and you can find kindred spirits in all sorts of interesting places doing no end of interesting things. (One contact put me in touch with someone that I’d never have encountered in a million years under my own steam; something she shared with me, sparked off ideas which became a significant thread in one of my chapters!)

  12. babu says:

    A good narration of how the mind wanders around not allowing it to stay on track. I have the syndrome, but not a PHD but a hardcore working professional. I believe it is not to do things but the anxiety in us throwing up as as fear factor and we go on a Jitter. It is fear driving us crazy asking us to do so many things, and finally toppling us from concentrating on the job at Hand. writing them down on a piece of paper is a good way , i need to start it. But, sometimes what i do is first get to a focussed job on hand. Get kicked out by the mind a few times and end up doing what it says. Then forcefully come back and write what are the priorities and then go one by one. But, still there is a lot of jitter in me. Writing them down may help, along with having a prirority list. Thanks for pouring out wih a good narration.

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