Hacks for managing multiple research projects?
November 13, 2010 11:02 AM   Subscribe

What are your tips and tricks for sustaining momentum and focus during longer-term research and writing projects?

I'm a graduate student, and I'm currently working on three separate long research papers. I've written long papers before, but not three important ones at once. I'm very into in my topics, all of which I'm planning to draw on for my dissertation further down the road, so I have a vested interest in doing a really solid job on all three. But! I'm having some trouble sustaining momentum and planning my workflow. I'm still on the reading/outlining stage for all three, but want to start writing within the next couple of weeks.

I already have Endnote, which I find sort of useful for organizing my separate bibliographies, FreeMind, which is helpful for brainstorming, Mendeley, which isn't very useful right now because my sources are almost exclusively physical books, and EverNote, which seems like it should be useful but hasn't really blown me away yet.

If you've planned out multiple projects at once, organized and processed lots and lots of sources (some of which overlap), and not driven yourself crazy doing it, I'd love to hear suggestions. I find visual learning aids (timelines, mind-maps, etc) helpful, but am open to other methods, digital or physical, intended for academics or not.
posted by oinopaponton to Education (6 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe this should disqualify me from answering, but I find running three simultaneous processes very hard. In your shoes, I would do them more sequentially.
posted by salvia at 11:16 AM on November 13, 2010

I'm also managing multiple research projects at one time. I find it useful to do 30 minutes on, 30 minutes off. The time on is focused work without web browsing (Temptation Blocker is useful for me here), and then the time off should be something fun or relaxing. I switch my time on periods across projects- so the first 30 minute block is project A, then 30 minutes off, then 30 minutes on project B, etc. This is way more productive for me than trying to work on one thing for hours on end.
posted by emilyd22222 at 11:26 AM on November 13, 2010

Stimulants. But seriously (that was not serious) I find it helps to have a "muse" - i.e., someone I can bounce ideas off of who will at least pretend to be interested - it helps me organize my thoughts and keep my concentration.
posted by Astragalus at 11:59 AM on November 13, 2010

Are the projects related in any way? I would find it really difficult to do, for example, three different lit reviews at the same time. It is so much better to have projects at various stages of completion -- for instance, work on the first until you get to the discussion stage, then the second until the analysis, etc. This would make switching between projects much easier. This is also good practice to maintain a research "stream" in the future (where you would have even more projects -- some at the conceptual stage, some almost ready to be sent out for review, being revised for resubmission, and so on).

I tend to more or less muddle through projects, however, there are some things I am very particular about.
a) scan all my physical references (for books, it could be a few pages or a chapter), save them, and create corresponding entries in EndNote, so I don't have to worry about doing this at the very end and about carrying my references around with me.
b) be meticulous about folder structures, naming, saving, and maintaining multiple backups of files.

I use EndNote, but used Zotero for a while and found the tagging and library features really useful for multiple projects, so I really need to go back to it, I think. I've had very little success with mind maps and timelines, so I'll be watching this thread for inspiration!
posted by prenominal at 12:29 PM on November 13, 2010

Best answer: It gets recommended here all the time, with good reason: Scrivener. I'm a PhD student and I use it to draft my chapters. I tend to work on them individually, but they all interrelate. I create a project for each chapter, and Scrivener lets me easily drag and drop notes and files between each project. There's a beta now for Windows, if you don't have a Mac, but I don't know how stable it is just yet. It also has a great outlining feature, and lets you work on paragraphs on a very microscopic level before compiling it into a completed draft. If you poke around and search their forums, you'll find a few grad students who work with it and have shared their workflow.

The other thing I recommend wholeheartedly is having a paper-based commonplace book that you carry with you at all times. I have a Moleskine because I think they're nice and durable, but you don't have to spend a lot on it. The important thing is that you have it with you any time there's the slightest chance you'll have an idea that you want to capture. For instance, right now I'm working on one section of a chapter and something struck me that might be worth exploring in another section. I don't want to lose focus on what I'm doing now, so I jotted down a note in my Moleskine and will be able to come back to it later. I'm pretty forgetful and when I forget to do this sort of thing I lose all kinds of things that I wish I had access to again. I write down books I want to check out, lists of things I want to do, "mind-maps," notes from meetings... You get the idea.

If you are having trouble with momentum, something that works for some people is the Pomodoro Technique. Basically, you make a list of tasks you have to perform, in 25-minute chunks. (So you wouldn't be so general as "Work on Chapter One"; you'd have to say "Revise page 6 of Chapter One.) You then work on it for 25 minutes, take a five minute break, and then move on to the next thing. Honestly, I think just writing down a list of small, bite-sized tasks that you want to accomplish on a given day is very helpful whether or not you work at them with a timer or not.

You also might benefit from doing freewriting first thing in the morning as a way to "de-clutter" all the stuff that's on your mind. An addictive site that might help get you going is 750Words, which records what days you write and how long it takes and other data. Again, there's no need for an electronic site to do this, but some people find the data and charts to be a nice "carrot" to work toward.
posted by synecdoche at 12:45 PM on November 13, 2010 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: How did it take me so long to try Scrivener?! Thanks everyone.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:58 AM on November 30, 2010

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