Getting Out of a Research Slump

Ever gotten to the end of the day and realized you haven’t actually done anything? Had a task related to your research that you just couldn’t quite motivate yourself to do? Run up against a barrier in your work that completely stalled you for weeks? Felt like you’re just not working hard enough or putting in enough time?

Odds are, if you’re doing research, you’ve experienced a research slump. The bad news is that this is fairly unavoidable: it happens to everyone. The good news is that there are tricks you can try to help get yourself out of the slump and become more productive and efficient. Oh, and maybe help alleviate that guilt just a little.

Of course, everybody works somewhat differently, and ideas that are helpful for some people won’t be for others. That said, I wanted to share some of the advice, a large part of it credited to Prof. Jeremy Darling, that has helped me recently.

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1. Work a little bit every day.

Yes, that’s every single day — weekends included! The hardest thing to do is pick a project up again after you haven’t worked on it in a while, and the longer you stay away the harder it becomes. But if you at least think about your research a little bit every day, the problems will stay fresh in your head and you’ll find your brain will keep working on them even when you’re not explicitly trying.

2. Recognize that no amount of time is too short in which to get something done.

Sure, we can hope for nice blocks of time in which to do productive work. But the truth is that we lead busy lives, and if we keep waiting for that three-hour block in order to be productive, we’ll never get anywhere. So throw out that mindset, and realize that even though you only have 20 minutes before colloquium, you can still get something useful accomplished in that time.

Figure 1: Seriously? You expect me to do research while the internet has baby hedgehogs?

3. Minimize distractions.

This one’s easy enough to figure out for yourself: email, Facebook, and pictures of cute kittens are going to cut your productivity. I won’t spend too much time on this, since the internet is full of suggestions (such as this article). If you really have no willpower (guilty as charged), look into apps like Leechblock and MeeTimer.

4. “Grade when you’re tired.”

This is advice I was once given in the context of being a TA. As negligent as it sounds, the upshot here is to do repetitive or mindless tasks when you’re not at your peak mental state — save your prime brain-time for working through problems. In the context of research, this means that if you tend to be at your best in the morning, then although it can be tempting to start your day with a well-defined task such as reducing data or reformatting your bibliography, this is a waste of your peak mental state. Instead, spend that time designing your next experiment or writing a section of your paper, and save the mindless tasks for later in the day when you’re approaching your post-coffee crash.

Figure 2: Some lists just aren't that helpful.

5. Make lists.

I’m not talking lists of big, global things that need to happen, but of individual bite-sized tasks that you can reasonably accomplish. Break it down in a way that allows you to feel like you’re actually getting somewhere. When I have a list that says “write paper” I tend to sit there and stare at it, but when I have a list that says, “generate diagram for figure 2” or “write introduction paragraph discussing previous work” then I can see more clearly where I need to go. This also helps you more easily find tasks that suit the time period you have in which to work (see item 2).

Figure 3: Importance vs. urgency of tasks.

6. Be careful about a task’s importance vs. urgency.

Imagine a plot measuring the importance vs. urgency of all the tasks that arise in your life (see Figure 3). Categorizing items that fall under quadrants I and III (both urgent and important, or not) is pretty straightforward; the tasks to keep an eye on are the ones in quadrants II and IV.
Things with fixed deadlines can easily feel like you need to deal with them before everything else, but often times a second look reveals that these items aren’t as important as you might have thought initially. Try to avoid devoting all of your time to these!
A similar trap is to let things slide that are important but don’t have looming deadlines. This is the category research most frequently falls under, and the reason why it often gets pushed aside in favor of doing homework, answering emails, or dealing with other things that have a higher urgency. You can fix this by imposing regular deadlines on your research. Again, “I’ll have this paper done by Sep 15th” is a good start, but “I’ll have this figure generated by tomorrow” is better.

7. Quantify your time.

Here’s where we deal with that guilt issue. One of the biggest problems I’ve experienced as a grad student is the feeling that I’m never working hard enough or putting in enough hours. The trouble is that these feelings stem, in part, from a pervasive attitude that researchers should always be working. Undergrad, grad, postdoc, or professor alike — there’s an expectation that you’ll be in the office or lab late at night, that you won’t separate between work and home life, and in short, that you’ll be doing research all the time. I’ve come to realize that the lack of quantification inherent in this expectation made me uncomfortable. If I’m supposed to be always working, I can clearly never meet that goal — so how can I avoid always feeling guilty? The fix is to impose some numbers.
Set yourself a minimum number of hours you should be working a week. Note that this is “working,” not “trying to work” — staring at a blank page doesn’t count. You don’t have to be overly ambitious, though: my baseline was 20 hours a week. That is, after all, what we grad students are technically getting paid to work. So, breaking that down, that’s just under three productive hours of real research work every day. When you look at it like that, it sounds so easy — and yet when I operated under the nebulous “always working” expectation, I’d frequently have days in which I didn’t accomplish that. Quantifying my research time helped to make it seem achievable, and it was that change in mindset which makes it possible for me to now meet and exceed my time goals on a daily basis.

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The most important thing to remember is that not working because you feel guilty about not working is a dangerous loop. Cut yourself some slack, accept that everyone undergoes research slumps on occasion, and get back on the horse. Here’s hoping these tips have helped — and feel free to leave your own in the comments!

About Susanna Kohler

I received my BS in physics from University of California at Santa Barbara in 2008 and my PhD in astrophysics from University of Colorado Boulder in 2014. My dissertation work focused on studying and modeling the extremely energetic outflows from active black holes at galactic centers. I'm now the Communications Manager and Press Officer for the American Astronomical Society.

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  1. In my limited research experience (3 years of PhD), I think point 5 has the most useful part. Make lists, but take the time to break tasks down into bite-sized chunks. I think it feeds back because it saves you the trouble of (re)thinking what bit needs to be done next; it provides small enough tasks to use small pockets of time usefully; and it makes you feel like you’ve accomplished things when you see so many ticked off, even though the fraction stays the same! So my to-do list for a proposal I’m writing has things like “add paragraph about host”, “add reference list”, “shrink section 2”, and so on. Each of these things takes much less time and gives more direction than “work on proposal”.

    I wish I’d started doing this earlier…

  2. Great advice!

    If you’ve seen the movie “Real Genius,” there’s a line where the arrogant professor says he can’t be held to a deadline because, “We’re not making cheese sandwiches.” This typifies an incorrect stereotype of scientific research, which is that you should just sit around waiting for the big idea to hit, and in between revelations, you don’t produce anything. Of course it doesn’t work that way.

    If you’re stuck, you can’t just wait for inspiration, you have to keep up to your elbows in your work, manipulating it, examining it, and learning more about it. Even if you’re not quite sure what you’re accomplishing, you have to keep producing tangible output: cheese sandwiches.

    For me, the cheese sandwiches look like piles of hardcopies of plots (anything I can think of that I could put on an x-axis and y-axis), 10-page-long explanations written as though I am explaining my work to a 5-year-old, piles of scratch paper scribbled with calculations written by hand to try to figure out what my code should be producing for simple limiting cases, innumerable lines of code rewritten from scratch when I just can’t ferret out where the error lies… At the end of the day, I feel better if I have a THING to point to that show that I was working—and, of course, it is in the work on these cheese sandwiches that I discover the solutions to problems, new ideas to explore, and ultimately the answers to move my work forward.

  3. Susanna, thank you for writing about these ideas! In particular that “no amount of time is too short in which to get something done.” During my graduate orientation, one of the faculty at Michigan told us that the difference between publishing 5 papers and 2-3 papers literally comes down to the choices we make in the 20 minutes before colloquium, or your next class, or journal club. It is so easy to say, “I have to leave in 15 minutes, so this would be a perfect time to check the NY Times or Facebook, or show my office mate that hilarious youtube clip I saw last night.”

    The advice he gave us new grads was this, “If you catch yourself justifying procrastination due to time constraints, and instead choose 8 times out of 10 to scan astro-ph for an interesting abstract to read, or write something in your research notebook, or simply go for a 5-10 minute walk around your side of campus to think about research or class work, you will be amazed the things you will accomplish. This is because academia actually is +- 8 hours a day of almost needing to be somewhere!”

  4. Thanks Susanna, that’s great advice! The only one I’m not sure about is working a little every day, weekends included. One of the most difficult things are being a graduate student is maintaining a good work/life balance – for me, taking a day or a weekend totally off is imperative and improves my productivity the rest of the time.

    • Thanks for bringing that up, Ellie — that’s a completely valid point, and I didn’t mean to imply that you shouldn’t ever take time off! I wasn’t as clear as I should have been. What I meant was this:
      For some people, working on the weekends is a comfortable thing to do. For those of us for whom it isn’t, even spending fifteen minutes each day of the weekend thinking about research while, say, preparing to go spend the day hiking, or after coming back in the evening, serves to keep it fresher in your mind. For me, that’s made the difference between wasting half a day on Monday trying to get back on track after a weekend, as opposed to coming in and being able to pick up right where I left off.

  5. This advice is stellar. Thank you so much for sharing these awesome tips.

  6. I have read this post ~10 times since you posted and have recommended it to dozens of people. In particular, I really like the idea of the urgent vs. important plot, it’s given me a new perspective on how better to manage all of these “lower priority” tasks. Thank you for your insight (although I admit I did spend the last ~5 minutes of my time at work looking at photos of baby hedgehogs).

  7. Thanks for this! I am in my postdoc feeling mostly unproductive since I’m learning new skills and developing a new research project in a different area. I’ve always made lists for my experiments during grad school and this is how I was productive enough to publish 8 papers and present abstracts at several conferences in my 4 years there. Year one is always a daunting year. I will say that yesterday I felt extremely accomplished after I spent the better part of the day writing notes for new ideas to study. I went home satisfied with my progress because my line of thinking was providing the basis for the rationale to do the research I hope to do. Theoretical work and the development of hypotheses to study at the bench are a part of research, but it can be relatively easy to feel unproductive when you’re not generating any data. It can also be fairly easy to become distracted by blogs, facebook and that new dress on sale at belk. I worry about life after postdoc. Will I always feel unproductive? I sometimes think I have too much free time. In grad school, teaching, tutoring, volunteering, and classes required me to organize my time more efficiently. Being a member of the academy really requires self motivation, extreme organization and limitless inspiration.


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