We have established that finding long periods of time for deep, creative research tasks (be it writing a paper or designing our next study) is critical to achieve our thesis milestones and finish the PhD. Yet, we are all very busy and have limited time for such creativity. To help in solving this conundrum, this short post describes a technique I’ve been using lately to squeeze a few extra hours a week to make headway in those hard, creative research tasks.
As a new father, I have found myself having (naturally) less and less time to advance on my research milestones, those wildly important goals that would move my career forward. Yet, I noticed something weird at the same time: I was spending more and more time looking at social media, reading news, listening to podcasts, … How was this possible? My best guess is that I was suffering a classic case of “time confetti”1: unavoidable but unstructured periods of time we all have, which once could have been filled with boredom (or thinking!), but now are compulsively filled with looking at our smartphones.
Don’t get me wrong, I am as happy as the next person about the fact that we seem to have banished boredom from our lives thanks to these little devices, but… can there also be negative consequences to zero boredom? The rest of the post describes a simple tool (taken from Cal Newport’s book Deep Work2, with a couple of twists of my own) which I have been using recently to make better use of those moments of spare time I normally would spend scrolling. Newport calls this practice productive meditation.
What is “productive meditation”?
In his book Deep Work2, author and professor Cal Newport proposes what he calls “productive meditation” as a practice to train our attention (probably scattered by years of scrolling and social media distraction), strengthening our concentration skills to do more of that creative, deep work that is most important in research and many other knowledge professions. His description of it is quite clear:
“take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem”.
For a researcher or doctoral student, such (typically, creative) professional problems could be: outlining a paper, designing a new research study, making sense of disparate pieces of a qualitative analysis, developing the storyline of your next seminar talk, etc. Solving such problems while we are commuting, walking the dog, waiting in long queues, or mowing the lawn would be, of course, productive… but why call it “meditation”? Because, as it happens when doing mindfulness meditation, we should bring our attention, again and again, back to the problem at hand when (not if) our mind wanders away to some other task or daydream or gets into some useless loop (i.e., going again and again over the same ideas/solutions to the problem).
Newport rightly points out that this is a practice, meaning that it will take quite some repetitions to get good at it. As with mindfulness, the first times you may find that you spend most of the time away from the problem. But, if you keep working at it (Newport recommends about 2-3 such sessions per week), in a month or two you will start getting results (i.e., new ideas/solutions to your problems) more consistently. The good side is that, if your life is anything like mine, finding time for this practice will be easy (as we all have these periods that would otherwise be wasted).
Newport gives two additional tips to make such productive meditation work:
- Be on the lookout for self-distractions (going to a different problem or task than the one you had set for the session) or looping (coming again and again to the same ideas). When you catch yourself doing that, do what many mindfulness traditions do: notice it (without judgment, just notice it), label it (“oh, some unrelated task thinking!") and come back to the next step of the original problem.
- Structure the sessions along the following steps: 1) Consider and store in memory the main variables of the problem (e.g., the key messages of the paper you plan to outline – its pseudo-abstract); 2) Define the next-step question to solve (e.g., “what is the sequence of ideas for my paper’s introduction?"); and 3) Once you have some solution, consolidate it in memory (review the answer you found and state it clearly several times).
This is a simple practice, yet powerful. In case you find it difficult to implement this technique in your own life, below are a couple of additional tips that have helped me.
Productive meditation tips: Plan, preload and capture
Most of the trouble I’ve found in trying to apply this productive meditation technique are related with my (somewhat faulty) memory and attention. While these have improved a bit over time as I practice, here are a few additional tips for those attention-impaired like me:
- The hardest thing about productive meditation (as the old Buddhist adage goes) is remembering to do it. To help with that, I use my trusted calendar app to plan ahead (and notify me 10 minutes before the start of) the 2-3 predictable periods I have foreseen in my weekly review to productively meditate. The event notifications helpfully include the concrete topic/task to work on as well.
- Preloading: Just before engaging on the physical activity over which I plan to productively meditate, I read again (for 5-10 minutes) the document or notebook where the main variables/ideas of the task at hand are written (e.g., the unfinished outline, problem enunciation, or other relevant background information). This seeds the main variables in my mind and primes my brain to start thinking about the task I wanted to focus on.
- Capture: Although Newport purposefully recommends to use your memory to store the output of the productive meditation, I still do not trust my memory so fully. Ideally, I keep my computer with the relevant document open (from tip #2 above), ready to capture my ideas when I come back. However, sometimes one needs to spend extended periods of time away from the computer. Thus, I always take with me some means to capture the results of my thinking, be it a tiny paper notebook, or my phone (e.g., for sending voice memos or speech-to-text emails to myself).
May you have many happy (and productive) meditations!
Have you tried productively meditating on creative research tasks? Have you able to practice it for a dozen times or more? Did you get any tangible results? Let us know (or add practical tips of your own) as a voice message or as a comment in the sections below!
Header image by fancycrave via NegativeSpace.
Schulte, B. (2015). Overwhelmed: How to work, love, and play when no one has the time. Macmillan. ↩︎
Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Hachette UK. ↩︎
Luis P. Prieto
Luis P. is a Ramón y Cajal research fellow at the University of Valladolid (Spain), investigating learning technologies, especially learning analytics. He is also an avid learner about doctoral education and supervision, and he's the main author at the A Happy PhD blog.