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?

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