Thursday, October 2, 2014

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to find focus for deep work

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


Regardless of where you are in your academic career, finding time and space for deep work is essential to move your research forward.

You could easily fret away your days and weeks taking care of the maybe more urgent, but certainly less important tasks. Ever spent an entire day on running to the copy center for copies of notes, filling in admin forms, sitting in meetings and replying emails? Happens to me as well - but last time I checked my job description did not contain those tasks (or somehow the description did mention I need to help out with my department, but certainly other tasks are my core business).

So how can we make sure that, in the jungle of responsibilities you might have, you can do your deep work - the deep thinking that actually moves your research forward, the very core of advancing your field?

I have a few tips for you, that worked well (although needing less strict guidelines) during my years as a PhD student, and that, now, have been finetuned for live as a young faculty member with a very heavy teaching load.

1. Block periods of time for deep work

If you don't schedule it, it is not going to happen. Since I have quite a number of different tasks, combined with a heavy teaching load, I make a weekly template for my semester, and I make sure I block at least 10 hours a week for research into my schedule. Those hours then are again subdivided into time for writing papers, time for reading papers, and time for doing the actual research. While these hours are limited, I block them off in my calendar, and protect them for dear life.
Admittedly, at the beginning of the semester, in which I'm preparing a class I'm teaching for the first time, my weekly template tips a little heavier towards the teaching and class preparation time, but once the semester catches on, I will shift the balance back towards more time for research and deep work.

2. Make sure everything you need is on your desk

If the time is there for your hour of deep thinking (or more time, if you can), then make sure you have everything on your desk you need to start thinking. Get all the research papers you need, take a pencil and paper, take your data, and then toss out everything you don't need. Put your cellphone on silent and stash it in a drawer, move your laptop to the side, and focus on the essentials.
Having everything ready on your desk is an excellent way to avoid having to leave your desk to search for a book. Similarly, clearing away all distractions sets the tone for a block of time of uninterrupted, deep work.

3. Find what works for you

Understand your circadian rhythms, and take advantage of your best times of the day for your deep work. This time is different for everybody, so pay close attention to your focus and energy throughout the day to identify your sweet spot. Don't schedule a block of deep work right after teaching class: you will be tired, and more often than not, extra questions from students, and random errands you want to run after class, will eat away the time you scheduled for deep work.

See if you can concentrate best with or without music (or perhaps a background track, such as binaural beats). If your office is noisy, noise-canceling earphones might be a godsend. I prefer instrumental music as a background in noise-canceling headphones in my office (because of the business of its location, right next to a large classroom), and silence and quiet when I work from my home office.

Try out different locations to see where you can concentrate best. Try out working from your office, home, library or coffee place, to see what helps you getting into your deep thoughts without getting disturbed. My office in Delft is by far my most tranquil spot, but I'm not even in The Netherlands most of the year, so I'm still looking for my best option: I'm undecided between my home office (which has the disadvantage of having a too small desk) and my university office (noisy, and the desk and chair are absolutely not ergonomic).

4. Take it step by step

Don't sit down with a pencil and a sheet of paper, thinking that you will for once and for all solve the mystery of Life, the Universe and Everything. Break down your research question into smaller steps. See where you can push the boundaries of what you know, and start exploring from there. Ask yourself questions, question the boundary conditions of what you read, question the assumptions of standing theories, and explore bit by bit.

5. Read for inspiration

Reading fuels creativity, and reading papers is not only the best way to stay up to date with your field of research, but also a means to start your own research. Look for contradictions between papers, and try to solve why these contradictions exist in the first place. Take a math-heavy paper, and see if you can derive the equations by yourself. Start from the body of knowledge, and see where it take you.

6. Hang into the discomfort

Deep work can be deeply satisfying and rewarding, but it is not a means for instant gratification. You only reap the rewards after a time of friction and discomfort. Don't give up when you feel that discomfort starts to arise. Don't listen to those inner voices that tell you that you will never be able to solve the problem at hand. Just take it slowly, one step at a time, and suddenly you will feel that the gears in your head start spinning again, and that you are overcoming this friction to start moving forward.

7. Start small, and reward yourself


If you don't have a regular habit of sitting in discomfort and doing deep work, you might want to start small, and build up your focus muscle. You won't be able to sit in monk-like concentration for 8 hours straight when you are used to multitask and rush around campus (and who ever achieves this deep level of focus anyway?). However, challenge yourself to start small - say, 25 minutes, for the first time. If you manage to concentrate on the problem for 25 minutes (a Pomodoro time), then pat yourself on the back, take your favorite food for lunch or promise yourself a cup of wine and a good book at night. Learn to hang into that discomfort, and reward yourself later on for doing so.

These seven tips can help you started on grinding down the deep research questions you need to solve to move your field forward. Tell me, how do you make sure you find the time for deep work, and what is your working style?

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