Keeping Track Of The World

Research Methods for Regular People

Leading Writing Problems

I read a lot of writing by doctoral students. I have never considered myself a grammarian but with enough reading the contrast between good and bad writing becomes relatively obvious. Furthermore, some problems are more common than others. In the Lingua Franca blog Ben Yagoda notes that of the writing problems he encounters:

“The leaders of the pack are wordiness, imprecision, poor or incorrect word choice, and spelling and punctuation errors.“

via A Swang and a Miss – Lingua Franca – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This entirely matches my experience. Fix these problems and people are much more likely to know what you are taking about.

Improving your Internal Clock

If you do not have a good sense of how long it takes to accomplish your work you will soon be frustrated by either not having enough time to get things done or having more time than you need without the resources to move on to other tasks.

For this reason in is important to develop one’s sense of time. I accomplish this in a number of different ways:

  • I Track the time I spend working. This gives me a general sense of how much time I spend on my regular tasks. Using a time tracker I discovered how little of my day was actually on task and what I spend my time on.
  • I set a specific time period to work on one task. The evidence is that we don’t multitask very well. Focusing on one task at a time concentrates our energy and often leads to greater productivity. One system that aims to help you with this is the Pomodoro Technique.
  • I turn off my email. As soon as a message flashes across my screen my first urge is to answer it. Even if I choose not to, my focus has been broken and I need to spend time returning my attention to what I was working on. There are times when you need to be instantly accessible but most of the time an email can wait an hour or two before you answer it. It is hard to estimate how long a task takes if you are constantly being interrupted.

This ideas are only scratching the surface. For much more information I recommended taking a look at How to Hone the Accuracy of Your Internal Clock and Better Understand Your Time on Lifehacker.

Keeping Focus

I follow a number of blogs whose objective is to help people become more productive in their work. Despite its strange name and rather unattractive website I have found that Dumb Little Man: Tips for Life consistently has useful articles that provide quick tips for becoming more effective in work and in life.

Most recently a post on 5 Steps to Laser-Sharp Focus caught my attention because I have been struggling with distraction lately. Check it out and let me know in the comments any suggestions you have for improving focus.

How Not to Write


Getting Things Done

There are many different ways of organizing one’s life so you actually accomplish something. The method that has worked best for me is David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. It is only one of many options but if you don’t have a current system it is worth a look.

On his website Allen sells all manner  of paraphernalia to help people learn and implement his system but if you can discipline yourself to read a short book I recommend you just read his first book: Getting Things Done.

Allen also produces a blog that provides helpful tips on how to work his system. Here is the latest edition: Productive Living.

Do you have another system that works for you or experiences with Getting Things Done? Let me know in the comments.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

Anyone that does any kind of writing encounters writer’s block at one time or another. This could be because you are overwhelmed with information, because the project is unfamiliar, because your passion for writing does not match your passion for what you are writing about or any number of other issues.

Here is a list of a few strategies for addressing this problem from my own experience and from what I have observed in others:

  1. Start Writing. Just write down anything. It does not have to be coherent at this stage. Write down titles of books that come to mind, book or journal passages that seem relevant (cited carefully), snippets of ideas, bits of conversations—anything at all that is in some way related to the topic at hand.
  2. Ignore the Rules. There is a time for editing but when you are first writing concentrate on getting things down. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, flow or bad ideas. Just write.
  3. Start in the middle. There is no rule that you have to write in the order that you intend the document to be read. If you are feeling passionate about outcomes today write about outcomes. If you are excited about a particular source write about that.
  4. Simplify. It is hard to keep all the elements of a large project in our heads at the same time. Break the project into smaller pieces that you can easily conceptualize. NOTE: sometimes the problem is that the project itself is too big or too complicated. A conversation with a trusted advisor can help you figure out if that is the case and what to do about it.
  5. Talk about it. Some people are verbal thinkers. They cant figure out what they think without talking. Buy somebody a nice drink in return for using them as a sounding board.
  6. Take a long time. It is very hard to write something long on 15 minutes a day. Try to find blocks of at least a couple of hours to work on your writing. If possible set aside an entire day or several days.
  7. Be disciplined. Having a regular, protected time for writing helps to develop writing into a habit. If you expect to be interrupted at any time it is hard to concentrate on what you are writing.
  8. Read more. Find something to read and read it to get ideas percolating in your head. React to other‘s ideas. Let your mind wander to your own project as you read. NOTE: carefully record what you are reading and make sure you cite any ideas that find their way into your own work.
  9. Take care of yourself. It is hard to write if you are exhausted, sick, or depressed. Take time to sleep, recover and get the help you need.
  10. Exercise. Exercise is just as good for the brain as it is for the body. Exercise can clear brain fog, promote the production of ideas, and promotes restful sleep among many other benefits.
  11. Be Prepared. Ideas come at strange times. Keep a notepad within arms reach at all times. A phone, tablet or computer will also do.
  12. Diagram. Put your individual ideas in boxes and draw lines showing how they are connected. Here is an example from one of my papers:

This is not an exhaustive list—a quick Google search will find much more (here is a fun article on the topic from science and science fiction blog io9). However, it should be enough to get you writing again.

Pollsters and Journalists vs. Big Data

The Rise of the Poll Quants or, Why Sam Wang Might Eat a Bug – Percolator – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This article is of value because it challenges some of the ways in which we make our decisions. We are more persuaded by personal story than by data. We like a good story over a complicated story. We project our own preferences onto how we read data.

While we can never be without bias we can be aware of some of the bias’ we hold which, hopefully, will lead to us becoming careful researchers.

Don’t miss the comments section which points out some of the limitations of contemporary political polling.

Polls are descriptive not prescriptive so there is always a chance that people will choose to do something different than they say they will do. Thus, it was possible that I would be explaining why the big data pollsters got it wrong. But they didn’t. In fact, they were frighteningly accurate:

The Poll Quants Won the Election

The take away for research and data analysis is that the more data one has, from more different sources, collected in different ways that point the same direction the greater confidence you can have in the analysis.

Getting Motivated

We all struggle with motivation once in a while. One of the blogs I follow, Lifehacker, just posted some helpful hints. There is a fair bit of dross on Lifehacker but I find something useful a couple times a week. Todays post contains a helpful list of ways to give yourself a boost in motivation:

How to Give Yourself a Quick Motivational Boost

I have tried most of these suggestions and found them helpful.

What helps with your motivation?

No, You Can’t Multitask

We all want to get more things done. The temptation is to try to do multiple things at once. Unfortunately, research doesn’t work like that. Data analysis and communication requires intense, sustained and focused attention.

Here is an article that provides the evidence that you can’t multitask:

Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t | Faculty Focus

Book Note: Action Research (Stringer)

Every once in a while I run across a methods book that I think applies broadly to people doing certain types of research. For some time now I have been advocating the use of Action Research for individuals or groups who are researching their own organizations. One of the most mentioned texts on the topic is Stringer’s Action Research (2007). In this post I am going to explain why I think anybody doing research on an organization in which they are involved should take a look at this book.

This is the third edition of the classic work in the field of action research. It is focused on community-based action research with particular attention to the involvement of interest holders in the research itself. That is, if the aim of the research is to improve some aspect of some community’s life then those affected by the changes should be involved in the research. By involved in the research Stringer does not just mean that we consult a few key leaders. Rather he argues that we need a process for getting as many of those affected involved as possible. To adapt an example provided by Stringer: we would not think of making a man in charge of a women’s organization so why do we not consult parents when we make decisions that affect their children. Or to extend it further why do we do things to young people rather than with young people.

All this said, Stringer is not trying to be provocative. Quite the opposite. He is dealing with a contemporary world where our attempts at top down social planning have had limited positive outcomes at best. In an organizational context we need only look at the large number of outside programs that flow through our organizations. Some of them stick and make a positive difference but many of them just flow right through with little discernible long-term positive effect. Stringer’s book provides us with the tools to not only collect data about our current context but also to change it in positive ways.

Action Research begins with a discussion of why an action research approach to research makes sense and what it looks like in practice. Stringer focuses on working principles like relationships, communication, participation and inclusion that will resonate with many different organizations. From there he moves on to figuring out how to talk with people and how to understand the context in which you are operating. These sections are accompanied by excellent charts that summarize his main points and regular illustrations from his own work in community-based research. Having looked at the context Stringer then provides a number of helpful frameworks for collectively thinking about and analyzing what you have observed. This section illustrates the highly practical nature of Stringer’s recommendations. A practically which extends into his section on how to move into the action phrase of action research. His suggestions for how to agree on action and how to assure that everyone carries through with their commitments and are adequately supported in their action(s) are excellent. He even includes a section on resolving complex and common problems such as finding a unifying vision and an appropriate organizational structure to support the action. A section on reporting on the results further emphasizes what is modelled in this book. Communication only happens when the intended audience understands what is communicated. In view of this he provides some helpful suggestions on language, format and even medium. At one point he gives an illustration of how short videos proved to be the most effective way to communicate. Finally, Stringer provides a theoretical framework for action research for those who question is scientific validity.

This is an excellent book. It is written in language that is accessible to the practitioner without insulting the academic researcher. It is highly recommended as a first stop for anyone researching a community-based organization of any kind.

Reference List:
Stringer, Ernest T. 2007. Action research. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

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