I was thinking about procrastination and how even though I work all the time, I still procrastinate! How? By wandering off on tangential thoughts and research “detours.” You know when you are busy with your “real” focus and then get stuck on an idea that is far from central to your research objectives? Then, at the end of the day you worked but not really… This can leave you feeling like you were just day-dreaming and wasting time by reading that interesting but not-so-relevant set of papers.  But in my experience, there are some benefits to these kinds of research detours…

  1. They are the wayward but worthy branches of your research tree

It is okay to be distracted by tangential thoughts related to your analysis; how else would you come up with fresh new ideas? In fact, these detours can reveal more about your work than you were aware of.  Like the wayward branches of a tree. And you can choose what to keep and what to prune off, but at least they show you the full potential of your research, the different directions it can take.

  1. They can unlock writer’s block

I don’t know how many times I have found the answer to my question, or the proper way to articulate myself from reading “irrelevant” things.  It is usually a serendipitous thing because I wasn’t looking for answers there, I was just curious about something.  But something (an idea, a style of writing) catches my eye, and suddenly I’m inspired; and just like that, I’m unblocked!

  1. There’s a bright side to dead-ends and time lost

Entertaining your tangential thoughts and detours takes time. And as PhD students, we don’t got it. Sometimes a detour may actually be a dead-end and you will mourn the time lost. But I have learned to look at that dead-end as productive day-dreaming.  And then I can’t argue with myself because day-dreaming is actually good for your brain. You can’t lose by gaining more broad knowledge of your field. I wrote about a similar thing on literature review and delving deeper, and with analysis it is the same.

  1. Detours still lead to the destination

Just like when the GPS takes you through the unknown route to your destination, sometimes your brain takes a detour that ends up making sense.  What seems like a distraction may actually end up being the answer to your questions. I was doing research on indices for determinants of health outside of the health system – environmental factors, nutrition etc. And one of the recommendations was the need for intersectoral action to address multidimensional contributors to health and disease. I got stuck on the idea of intersectoral action, and engaged with it for quite some time.  Long story short I am now presenting at two conferences with different aspects of my work on that topic.  My thesis is not on intersectoral action for health.  But the utility of my work in the real world is actually at the meeting of the health sector and non-health sector for more holistic action on health.  And this is the exact idea I was challenged to explore by one of my department heads when I presented my research proposal two years ago. The utility of my work and its contribution to the real world.

  1. If you can’t do it now, put it on your bucket list.

And finally, if you can’t go on a detour or get distracted, how about opening a Tangental Threads file as you work? It is especially useful when writing or analysing and all these thoughts are coming at you at once. You open a simultaneous file where you jot them all down – references, ideas, anything relevant but distracting. You can come back to them later on, or not. But jotting them down frees your mind to focus on the task at hand. I wish I found out earlier about this — think how many ideas I have lost! (Many are on post-it notes in some trash can somewhere).

So there you have it folks, when it comes to analyzing and writing, let your brain scatter a bit. But everything in moderation. You are still on a deadline.

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