Friday, 17 February 2017

Regaining momentum when lost

What contributes to us losing our way on a research project? The 'monsters in our box' are a lack of planning, a lack of planning detail, over-packing our diary, not building good habits, procrastination, not understanding why things need to be done, and not having a 'safe pair of hands' to unburden ourselves to can leave us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by a project.

Understanding that these monsters will prevent us from success enables us to put things in place to avoid falling into their traps.

Some things that will help get us back on track when we strike any of these monsters are:
  1. Plan. A detailed plan will help us keep on track, especially if we have planned well enough to have micro-tasks, daily goals, weekly aims and tasks that can be reorganised as we complete or reassign importance (read more here).

  2. Micro-tasks. When we feel lost, we can use the detail in our plan to get a couple of micro-tasks done. Then at least we have moved further forward, which usually makes us feel less burdened (read more here).
  3. Build routine. If we develop a routine for our research project, supported by our detailed plan, and block out time for our tasks, we are likely to stay on track. Some of us want to do the same job at the same time in the day: others prefer variety. Do what works for you. However, we have to be consistent in actually doing the work we set out to do.
  4. Re-establish routine QUICKLY when derailed. It takes us roughly 70 iterations to embed a habit in ourselves (Lally, 2010), and around 7 missed iterations to make it hard work to rebuild momentum. It is MUCH easier to regain our habits if we only miss one or two days. As Gilkey (2016) says, “the longer [we]’ve been out of [...our] routine, the longer it’s going to take for [us] to transition out of and into it again”.  If we leave things for a week or two weeks, it becomes significantly harder to rebuild habits: so try to do something every day.
  5. Diarise. Enter our planned events into Google Calendar (read more here), and only tick tasks as being done once we have completed them. We need to be realistic too about how much time tasks will take: we have to resource ourselves well with large enough timeslots.
  6. Set a timer. If we are really having trouble getting into things, there is a cool trick - using a timer - that takes one hour to work through here. Usually by the end of an hour, we are back on track.
  7. Understand 'why'. Be really clear about why we need to do each of the tasks in our plan, and why each step is important. Reminding ourselves of 'why' will help keep us on track.
  8. Buddy up. Have a friend who we can compare notes with regularly. Knowing that we will be checking in with them might be what gets us motivated to get just another couple of jobs done.
  9. Talk to our Supervisor. When none of the listed techniques help, we need to go and see our supervisor. Straight away. We don't go dark and stop communicating: we meet and say "I am lost". The resulting discussion will help us no end.
So, to all my students reading this, please come to see me straight away when you are lost. Together we will forge a path to help you complete your projects well.


  • Gilkey, C. (2016, 23 August). Pulse #86: Buffer Days: The Key to Easier Travel. Retrieved 17 January 2017 from 
  • Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European journal of social psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.

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