Repetitive Tasks In Research
Sometimes research is exciting. You have breakthroughs, discover something completely new that no one has before, but other times research is monotonous. There are a lot of repetitive tasks and it can feel like you are just drudging through an endless field of monotonous numbers and pieces of data. Unfortunately, like most other jobs out there, there are boring and undesirable parts of the research process during a PhD. Often, these tasks are repetitive and involve inputting, cleaning, and collating your data. There is not much fun to be found in entering several hundred numbers or names into a database or spreadsheet, but unfortunately, it needs to be done.
It is really easy to be excited about your PhD research when you are actively discovering something new or having a breakthrough. Those days it is easy to stay on task and the day flies by. Other days, however, you dread the work you must do and may in some cases procrastinate and put the tasks off because they are so boring. Eventually though they need to get done. So how do you combat the boredom that comes with these repetitive tasks? Well there are a variety of approaches you can take to this topic, and I have listed just a few below. Each approach may not work for everyone so there is a little but of trial and error here, but this is a collection of common methods used to combat boredom during your PhD research.
This blog post was written by a recent anonymous doctoral candidate on behalf of Dave Maslach (so, they feel more comfortable with a frank discussion), but it is based on the following video: video.
What are the boredom inducing tasks associated with PhD research?
Many of the tasks that can cause severe boredom during your PhD research (and even beyond) are repetitive tasks that usually don’t require your full attention in the same way that experimenting in a lab or working with ancient documents in an archive would. They are tasks such as data entry, data cleaning, general data or source organization, and transcription. Occasionally you may also find yourself bored with the intense amount of reading a PhD involves particularly in the early years. Some books and articles are interesting to read, but there are some of course that are incredibly dry and don’t hold our interest, but we still have to read them for their pertinent information.
Unfortunately, there is no way around having to do these boring tasks. They are vital to the research process and provide some or all of the groundwork and foundations of your research. While you could just take the plunge a plow through these tasks and get them done as quickly as possible, there are some ways to make them more enjoyable or at least not quite as awful.
Schedule your day with tasks in mind
The more boring and repetitive tasks usually don’t require all our brainpower to accomplish. While it is always important to be careful and precise in things like data entry or data cleaning, these are not tasks that are going to occupy your full mind the way something like conducting interviews or running tests is going to. So, it is important to schedule your day according to when you are most alert and full of focus. This will be different for everyone and require you to get to know yourself a bit more in order to start judging these things.
I found during my PhD that when given the ability to set my own schedule I am not a morning person. I usually worked between 10 AM and 6 or 7 PM. I was most alert between 10 and 1 and late in the afternoon between 4 and 6, so that was when I did my most important or focus needed tasks such as writing or lecture planning. I found that I was less focused and a bit tired in the period right after lunch so that was a good time to do things like data entry. Of course, I know other PhDs who preferred to get up at the crack of dawn and were more productive early in the morning, so they kept a different schedule. This is one of the upsides of the freedom of a PhD schedule you can play around with your tasks and fit them into your day at points when you think you will be most able to accomplish them.
Remember to Take Breaks
Even if you are able to usually schedule your tasks so that your more boring tasks are done during the times of the day when you are not at your most alert, there will of course be times when you are up against a deadline and have to do things like data cleaning or data entry all day possibly for several days. Whether you are only working on these tasks for a few hours or if you have to do them for a few days a great way to combat the boredom of the tasks is by taking breaks.
I learned firsthand how important these breaks were when I was a summer Research Assistant for a Professor at my university and had to transcribe data such as rainfall amounts from typed and handwritten records from the 1800s. This was probably the most mind-numbing experience of my entire life. It was hundreds of pages of rainfall stats from around the UK for the entirety of the 1800s in badly printed or handwritten records. Looking at the pages too long made my head hurt. For my own sanity, the accuracy of the data, and the benefit of my eyes I had to take frequent breaks. I played around with a few break methods during this RAship and through the rest of my PhD. Here are some of the ones I found that worked best.
This is probably the best-known technique usually touted as a productivity method. It is considered so effective because it also combats some of the boredom of some tasks (you can read more about it here). In essence the Pomodoro Technique is breaking tasks down into 25-minute increments and then taking a short 5-minute break, then repeating that cycle. Ideally you should use a timer to track the 25 minutes and then the 5 minutes to keep you on schedule. I found this very helpful for data entry as around 25 minutes my mind would often start to wander.
I have also used modified versions of the Pomodoro Technique in non-boredom inducing tasks such as writing. Even if a task is interesting your focus will eventually wane a bit and you need to take breaks. I found 50 minutes and then a 5-10-minute break worked well in these cases. My focus starts to flag at 50 minutes, so it is usually best for me to take a break at that point. Your experience may vary.
Refocus through short bursts of exercise
When you feel your mind really starting to wander it is best to just take a break. A good way to get out excess energy and refocus yourself is through a short exercise. Get up and do some jumping jacks or take a walk down the hall and get yourself some coffee. I personally just get up and walk around a bit to get the blood flowing and refocus my mind.
This is again good for combating boredom in other tasks as well. If you are writing or doing some data analysis and really can’t figure out a way forward, leave off the task for a little bit and go do something else. The ideas will still be working themselves out in the back of your mind and you may find that the solution to the problem that has been nagging you all morning comes to you during a short walk.
Try to avoid working through lunch
Even though your task is a bit boring and repetitive and doesn’t seem to require that much brain power, do try to leave it for a while and give yourself a real break. Don’t work through lunch, you’ll be more focused and better able to work if you let your mind (and eyes) rest for a while and recharge.
In much the same way that your mind can get stagnant working on the same repetitive task over and over, working in the same place can have that effect too. A change in surroundings can give you a new perspective on things or simply break the monotony. During my PhD and master’s, I generally switched between working at home, in my office on campus, in the library, and occasionally in cafes. Sometimes this change of scenery was a matter of convenience. I generally worked in the library when I needed specific books or resources that I could not remove from the library. However, for boring tasks like data entry I preferred working at home or in cafes. Being at home meant that I could take breaks from the boring data entry and wash a few dishes or throw in a load of laundry. For me doing household chores was preferable to data entry.
Many people find that working in cafes helps them focus because they are less isolated than if they are sitting in their office entering name after name on a spread sheet. There are people around and distractions available to break up the monotony of the repetitive task at hand. They don’t have to interact with the other people in the café unless they want to, but there is also the potential for movement, noise, and of course a caffeinated beverage.
Make Research a Game
Another way to make boring research tasks more enjoyable or at least break up the monotony is to gamify the tasks. Gamifying everything is very popular right now, and you can use this method in any aspect of your life. The idea behind gamifying is to make goals, award yourself points, and almost pretend that your life is like a video game. You can do this on your own and make up rules like if I get 50 pieces of data entered into my spreadsheet in the next hour, I get a soda or to go for a walk.
Gamifying life is very popular right now so you can actually get phone apps that can help you set up this experience. Most of the apps let you pick an avatar and set short- and long-term goals. You accumulate points for things in the app and much like other games you can unlock achievements and rewards. This type of method for breaking up the monotony of your research tasks not only gives you added incentives, but also in a sense allows you to transfer some of the sense of drudgery to your virtual person. While in reality of course you are still doing the work for a while at least you can feel like your character or avatar is the one working.
For more information on the gamifying trend see this article.
Switch It Up
Unless you are up against a deadline likely you have some leeway in when and how you perform your boring research tasks. This gives you the opportunity to switch things up and not drive yourself crazy by spending many hours every day doing a repetitive task. Switching it up can play out in a few ways.
Switch Up Your Days
Having a steady schedule can be nice, but you may find that you are starting to dread the certain point everyday you have set aside to do boring research tasks. Keep your days exciting and stave off some of the dread by switching up your schedule. If you set aside Wednesday afternoons to do data entry and find that you are already dreading the task by Monday night, maybe switch it up and get the task out of the way Monday afternoon. Vary your schedule for some more excitement, and just this small change can even alleviate some of the boredom that comes with these tasks.
Switch Up Your Tasks
Spending several hours or several days on some of these boring research tasks can make you feel like you are losing your mind. If you have the time switch up your tasks. Maybe send an hour or two on the boring task and then switch to something more exciting or enjoyable for a while. This will keep you more focused during the boring task and also alleviate some of the boredom. It can sometimes be easier to focus if you know a boring task is only going to last an hour or so than if you know you are going to spend all day on it.
Similarly, if you are having a hard time focusing on the boring task it might be best to set it aside for a while. Even though these tasks are boring, repetitive, and don’t require your full focus they are still important, and still need to be done accurately. If you find you are really having trouble concentrating and are making a lot of mistakes it is best to leave it aside for a while or possibly that whole day. Some days you may just find it harder to concentrate than others. Don’t beat yourself up about it, that’s normal. Move on to something else and come back to the task when you feel more able to complete it.
This might be the most decisive entry on this list. Some people thrive on working with a lot background noise while other people need total silence to work. I tend to be someone who prefers a quiet workspace, except when I am doing something like data entry. For the first few days I was an RA on the project above I worked in my office as usual but found that the quiet was deafening and made the task feel more endless than it already was. I found that having music on in the background or even sometimes a TV show allowed me to enter all the data much more easily and made me feel less like I was trapped in a silent box with just the rainfall numbers for company.
Background noise level is something you need to play around with for yourself. Some types of music are more distracting than others, and having a TV show on in the background can also be heavily distracting. The background noise of a café is usually a happy medium for a lot of people as there is the noise of other people, but nothing that you are particularly paying attention to, but it is there and makes you feel less isolated.
Boredom is a reality of PhD research. Not everyday is filled with exciting discoveries, but the boring repetitive tasks are necessary and need to be done as accurately as possible. An element of the boredom will always be there, but there are ways to alleviate some of the boredom.
Check out these in-depth posts about doctoral research and life: