The problem: You have a deadline for a major project of some
kind. The deadline keeps getting closer and you still haven't started your research
You wait, and wait, and wait, telling yourself you will start it today...or
tomorrow. But you don't start it until very near the due date for the whole
project. Each time you try to start, the idea of researching seems like this
huge task that you just don't have the energy to do. So you don't do it until
you are so near the due date that you panic and overcome any barriers and dive
into the research. Unfortunately, you never end up doing your best work or really
getting a deep understanding because you are under time pressure now to complete
the endeavor. At times you even think it might be easy to simply copy and paste
some stuff you found on the Internet into your own work. You know it is plagiarism,
"but it is only a small bit, so I won't get caught...and the rest is my
own work, anyway!" you might say.
Have you learned all you could have learned?
Was the project / thesis / business plan really good?
Was it all your own thinking and work?
Likely, the answer to all three of these questions is no.
How research procrastination happens
Step 1: You get/choose an endeavor - a project, thesis, business plan...whatever.
The deadline is in 3 months, say.
Step 2: You think one of several thoughts:
- "The deadline is in 3 months. I will start now and get it done early!"
- You go on-line to a relevant on-line database of journals/newspapers/magazines
and do a search.
- You get 8,492 WONDERFUL "hits" of articles on your subject.
You think you have started your research and with a relieved sigh,
you shut down your browser window and don't do any more research for
a long time...
- You get 3 "hits" - and none of them are any use for your
research. You go to your teacher / boss and tell them that "you
did a search through on-line databases and didn't find anything on
your topic. It is a bad topic." Your teacher / boss just laughs.
You don't do any more research for a long time...
- "I have 3 months. I will wait a while. I don't need to start researching
yet. I will have lots of time later."
- As time goes by, the weight of the project builds in the back of your
mind. You know you should get started because the deadline is getting
closer by the day. As each day goes by and the deadline gets closer
it gets harder and harder to start the research you need to do. You
don't do any research for a long time...
- "I will do some planning. I will start with brainstorming a list of
possible research sources I will need to investigate."
- You do so and come up with a long list of possible sources, such as:
- On-line journal databases
- On-line newspaper databases
- primary research
- chamber of commerce meetings
- user groups
- RSS feeds from blogs
- email discussion groups
- online bulletin boards
- ...and 20 other sources...
- You look at this list every day or two for the next month, but never
start doing the research.
Step 3: You do practically nothing on your project for a long time...days,
weeks, and maybe months. In each of the cases in Step 2 you find that you don't
get your research started early. It is always some time much later.
Because "research" - the whole nebulous, undefined, huge,
idea of doing "research" - is daunting.
That's right: Most research procrastination is the result of you feeling:
- intimidated by having to start a big project.
- overwhelmed by the seemingly large size and scope of the
- frustrated at the poorly defined nature of the research
- unsure of how to maximize your limited time.
These feelings lead to:
- You starting to think the project is boring
- You come to dislike and even possibly to hate
the course / topic / organization / boss.
This is a paradox, of course! You can hold in your mind two conflicting ideas:
You know your endeavor is an interesting or exciting one. But at the same time
you feel it is boring and you dislike or hate it!
The result, however, is that you don't start your project early or on-time,
but late and under pressure. You never end up doing a great job.
The problem that you can solve
The above mentioned emotions are symptoms of some problem.
The problem is that "research" is too big and undefined a
- No-one can simply go and do "3 weeks" of research for a project...just
by "going and doing" the
- Research is not "3 weeks" of work. It is undefined and possibly
a black hole for your time.
- Doing "research" is like stepping into the unknown. You might
find wonderful data or information immediately or you might "waste"
3 days before finding the stuff you need.
- Often you don't know what you will find in your research until you find
- Often you don't know what questions you need to ask in your research.
- ...and other aspects that make "research" a steep mountain to
So, the solution must be to not try to do "research" as a
single huge, undefined action, but to do something else.
How to overcome procrastination in starting and doing research
Literally millions of people all over the world in all walks of life run into
this same problem. Here is how to overcome procrastination in starting and doing
1. Think about your endeavor. Ask yourself the following question:
"What would be the best resources for gaining a general understanding
of my topic?"
- List the three (and only 3) most likely research sources you might use to
get this general understanding. Also make sure these are not terribly difficult
sources to access.
2. Once you have these 3 sources, dedicate 2 hours for each of them.
Then do the 6 hours of research.
- Write down the day and time you will spend 2 hours on the first, 2 on the
second and 2 on the third.
- At the appointed times on the days you wrote down, do the 2 hours (not more!)
of research on each of the three sources.
- As you do the research and come across other possible sources of information,
write them down and make a note beside each about how important/useful
they might be.
- Write down questions that come to mind about your topic as you do this
initial research. These questions are the important ones that you must
capture and use later.
- Stop yourself at 2 hours. Do not do more. This initial stage of research
is only for you to get a good general understanding of your topic. Doing
more at this point will either tire you out and/or give you the false
sense that you have done at ton of research and can now you can relax.
You have not and you cannot.
3. Brainstorm a long list of resources you will research to get an
in depth understanding of your topic.
- Use the list of possible sources of information you made up during your
initial research in step 2 above as a starting point.
- Use the list of questions you made up during your initial research in step
2 above to help you brainstorm a wide and deep variety of resource possibility.
Be as exhaustive as you can in brainstorming possible sources.
4. Prioritize the questions you want answered and match these to the
possible sources you brainstormed in step 3.
Here you will be making up a prioritized list of questions you want answered
and the possibly best resources for each that will aid you in answering these
5. Set the amounts of time you will need to do the research to answer
If any one source requires more than 2 hours, divide the research task into
multiple 2-3 hour blocks adding up to the total time needed.
6. Schedule dates and times in the very near future for when you will
do the research on each question.
- Never schedule more than 3 hours of research in a day.
- If a friend tells you "I did 11 hours of research today!"
they are lying. They did maximum 3 hours, plus
- 1 hour of looking out the window
- 30 minutes in the washroom
- 90 minutes at lunch
- 30 minutes chatting online with friends
- 2 hours surfing non-related internet stuff
- 1 hour chatting with friends in the library
- 1 hour reading non-related resources that suddenly seemed interesting,
and 1 hour traveling back and forth from the library.
- Your mind can't handle more than 3 hours of real, focused research.
Take a break after 1 or 2 hours. And after your research take a long walk
alone if you think best this way or with a friend discussing your topic
if you prefer to bounce ideas off another person. In either case, use
several hours for your mind to absorb and sort out what you found in your
7. Do the research on the days and times you scheduled for yourself.
- As you do each research block of time, keep a sheet of paper with the question
you are researching in front of you in big bold letters. This will help you
keep focused on that question alone for this research session.
- Write down ideas that go through your mind, new questions you want to find
answers to, and new sources of information you might investigate.
- DO NOT try to answer the new questions or research the new sources at
this point. Don't get distracted right now from your original question!
8. Make up a new list of question and research sources for further
scheduling of work for yourself.
Schedule that work and do it. Research is iterative - it is not linear. You
will go around and around in research, finding new an deeper questions and bringing
into focus questions you thought you answered earlier. This is a natural process.
Do not get overwhelmed or too frustrated.
Some final suggestions...
- Be patient - some research findings will answer your questions right away.
Other questions may take much more time to answer.
- Trust in yourself - tell yourself "I will get this done. Relax and
let's get on with it. Focus on the small bit in front of me." If you
work away at it you will get it done. Don't get scared by the big idea of
"research". Stay focused on the small task that you have to do in
the next 2 hours.
- Develop a tolerance to uncertainty. Accept that you will be uncomfortable
mentally during the research process. Learning some new usually is uncomfortable,
particularly if you don't really understand the final shape of what you will
be finding. A tolerance to uncertainty takes time to develop as you come to
realize you can do the job required and that the uncomfortable feelings will
go away once you understand more about your topic.
In summary, dealing with procrastination in starting research is really
about breaking down your "research" into reasonably sized and understandable
chunks of work and in managing your time for doing that work.
The article © 2006 by Paul Kurucz. Please e-mail
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