The problem with research is that it can easily turn into a bottomless pit that sucks all the life from your motivation and all the time from your day. You can start with a single Google search for “better public speaker” and end up Six Degrees of Separation-ing all the way to an hour of browsing Baroque art. This is actually possible. I just did it. (But not for an hour — just to see where I could end up.)
So we need methods. Efficient methods that will get you what you want to know without taking your whole day.
The Weakness Search
I like to start with a general Google search for what I’m trying to do. I searched for “train myself to wake up early” and got 247,000 results. We will NOT be looking at all of those.
We can already see that there are some promising articles on the first page. If your first page doesn’t come back with some great looking places to start, think about how you worded your search. Be specific. Don’t just put in “public speaking”. Put in “How can I be a better public speaker?”
There are a lot of great looking results there, and we don’t want to waste our whole Saturday on this task, so we need a plan. Here’s my tried and true strategy:
- Remove all immediate distractions. Are you multi-tasking the laundry? On the phone with your spouse? Watching Fixer Upper in the background? Stop. Are social media or email notifications on? Turn them off. Do you have other tabs open? Close them and start fresh. (Quickie Tip: Need to close tabs quickly but not lose them? Try OneTab for Chrome or Firefox.)
- Skim down the line. We want to make sure we aren’t getting sidetracked with irrelevant information, so we’re going to start with our first page of results and do meaningful skims. What’s a meaningful scan? I’ll get to that in a second; for now know that you want to skim each of the first page’s useful results for key information.
- Take meaningful notes. You’re not looking for THE answer right now. You’re looking for a theme. When you take meaningful notes, you’ll start to see that certain things, words, and topics are repeated. Some of these repetitive things could be the sad result of too many writers copying other people’s research, but not all will. Take notes as you skim each article and put a #1, #2, and so on by them, based on their location in the search results, so that you can find that source again quickly.
- Drop the losers. There will undoubtedly be some crap articles on the first page. SEO isn’t perfect, after all. When you open a page that looks useless after the first paragraph or two (or, worse, requires you to click “Next” after each tip), drop it immediately. It may be good information, but if you can’t access it quickly, it’s of no use to your research. Channel Elsa. Someone else will have that information for you in a better format.
- Thoroughly review the winners. Once you’ve skimmed your good articles, taken notes, and dropped the losers, you’ll want to go back for a more thorough review. This time, read your remaining articles fully. Take more notes.
- Apply the information meaningfully. Once you’ve got your page of notes, you can start working out how to apply it to your situation. We’ll cover this in more depth below.
Why only the first page of Google results?
The theory is that if you’ve used a good search term, you’ll get the majority of the information out there. I base this on the Pareto Principle — 80% of info comes from 20% of options. We’re not actually looking at 20% of Google’s results because that would take forever. Given Google’s fabulous algorithms and my own experiments, I’m convinced that almost all the information you’ll want will show in the first page of search results (assuming a good search term), and if you searched badly, you’ll also find out in the first page what you should have searched for instead.
How to Meaningfully Skim
Skimming is an art. It’s not a haphazard eye-roll down the page. I want you to learn to research well and efficiently because otherwise you’re wasting your time. Life’s too short to waste time so stop doing it. Do chores (i.e., things that need to be done but don’t directly advance your Magnum Opus) mindfully and don’t spend more time on them than you have to.
To meaningfully skim, you need to follow a process. It’s really quite simple; it just takes some practice.
- Read the first 2-3 paragraphs. This gives you the general idea and direction of the article.
- Read only the first sentence of the following paragraphs. You’ll remember from 5th grade that these are the thesis sentences; they’ll give you the idea of the paragraph.
- Rove your eye down the rest of the paragraphs looking for keys. Keys are dates, names, places and other facts that are important in more than a general idea sense.
- Read the concluding paragraph(s). The last paragraph should be a wrap up of the ideas the author shared throughout.
- Don’t divert. If you see an interesting link, do NOT click. Wait until you’ve skimmed all your articles. If it’s a new search term for you, you’ll make a note of that.
By reading just those key pieces and skimming the rest, you’ll have a solid idea of what the article covered. The main benefit of skimming is you can form a concrete understanding of an article or topic in a short amount of time. You won’t be able to sit an exam on the article, but you’ll be able to have a casual conversation about it at an awkward party.
NB: You should close each tab after you finish reading it, leaving only the current tab, your note-taking tab, and your search result tab open at any given time.
How to Take Meaningful Notes
Most of us suck at taking notes. There really should have been a primer on it at the start of junior high school. I’ve been terrible at note-taking my whole life, so I went out and researched how to do it better. It was one of my bad habits that I turned around.
Here’s my best strategy for solid note-taking. I call it “5SR?” (just made that acronym up, honestly). This style is strictly for personal research, not meetings or classes:
- Source. This one’s first because there is nothing worse than taking 40 pages of notes for your Master’s thesis, later finding the perfect quote for your Methodology section in those notes, and then being unable to locate the source for that damn quote when you go back to write your draft. This is definitely a personal anecdote. Now, the first thing I do is make note of the source for my information. You’ll want to get fancier when taking notes for papers, theses (ahem), exams, and so on, but for our quick-study purposes, you can get by with numbering each of the Google results 1-10. I source my notes with #1 for the first result, #2 for the second, and so on.
- Who, what, when, where, why. Do not under any circumstances make a note like “set alarm” in your notes. This is meaningless. Remember your Ws and give each note some context: “Set alarm to wake you up at the right time instead of 30 minutes early to account for snoozing.”
- Surprises. If you come across some information that surprises you, such as “It’s better to wake up after 6 hours than 8 due to sleep cycles,” then note it down.
- Science. Information from scientific studies may be more valuable than anecdotal (sometimes). Be sure to read the original paper yourself to make sure the person who relayed the information understood the science and relayed it correctly. “Smoking isn’t known to contribute to gangrene,” is probably true, but that doesn’t make it healthy, and failing to say “But it does lead to a number of other nasty things,” is a key omission.
- Search terms. In your research, you may find new terms to search that could put oyu on a more direct path to your bad habit-eliminating goal. Write those down.
- System. Make sure your notes are useful to you at the end. Keep a good system. Some people like mind maps. I prefer outlines.
- Repeated themes. Things that you’ve been ignoring because you don’t like them (e.g., “exercise more to lose weight). li>
After doing this, here are my notes from researching my own bad habit of snoozing and sleeping late.
You can see that I’ve noted 7 key themes to develop my own wake up early (and happy) strategy + search terms that I want to look into further, all related to sleeping better — because better sleep means I won’t want to sleep as late anyway.
Strategy for Changing Your Bad Habit
Now you’ve got your research and you should have some ideas of where to start. Before slinging spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks (I’ve always wanted to say that), we’re going to develop a strategy.
Because you don’t want to spend a whole year trying to change this habit, right?
You want to change it now, incorporate it, and move the f*ck on with your life.
So now you’ll move into a more personalized method because you’ll be arranging your notes into what you need to quickly learn and putting together a process that feels right for you. Next, I’ll be showing you my process as I go along then covering how to maintain habit changes.
Your Strategy to Change the Bad Habit
Take your notes you made with Part 1 and expand on them.
- Which articles were the most helpful? Go back and read those thoroughly, if needed.
- What search terms did you find that made you realize you need to expand your research? Search them and do a quick skim on the 3 best results (they may not be the first 3, but they should all be on the first page). You don’t want to spend all day on this, so subsequent searches should be limited to 3 results, not 10.
For my bad habit (sleeping late, snoozing, feeling tired) I noticed 2 key themes in my notes:
- Creating rituals
- Sleeping effectively
I know I don’t sleep well. My Fitbit makes sure I know it. It’s something I’ve just accepted because when you live with 2 cats in a noisy apartment complex, there’s little else you can do.
But times they are a’changing. My lease is up in June, so it’s a perfect time to re-evaluate my sleeping practices. It’s also important to not make excuses (like having 2 bratty cats or obnoxious neighbors). So, rituals and effective sleeping are where I’m going to focus my deep research.
Deep Research (efficiently, obviously)
Pick your key themes to deep research and jump in. Remember, you’re sticking to the top 3 search results this time. If only the top 2 or top 1 result looks good, then stop there. These are the terms I’m going to search next:
- Creating effective personal rituals
- How to sleep better
- How to fix sleep debt
- How to know when to wake up/How to find your circadian rhythm
I’m not really sure how to search for the last bullet, so I’m going to do a quickie search to see what pulls better results and I’m not going to waste any time if I can’t find anything quickly.
Deep Research Results: 10-minute takeaways
When I do deep research, I try to limit the research of additional search terms to 10 minutes apiece. This keeps me from wasting a whole day researching something and never actually getting started. Here are my 10-minute takeaways from my chosen 4 search terms.
Creating effective personal rituals. Not much good here. Biggest takeaway was to know your stress points and motivations and to do something that avoids the first and feeds the second. Create structure around a central element. The rest focuses on staying motivated, which is not relevant to this topic. I can come up with my own method here and further research is unnecessary.
How to sleep better. Control exposure to light. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even weekends. Make up missed sleep with naps, not sleeping in. Get light exercise during the day, even walking. Bright light in the morning; spend time in the Sun during the day; keep curtains open when inside. Turn off blue light 2-3 hours before bed. Stop stimulating the brain 30 minutes before bed. No caffeine, alcohol, exercising, or big meals before bed. Wind down. Focus on relaxing, not falling asleep. Keep the bed for sex and sleep only, not relaxing or lounging; if you can’t sleep, don’t stress, just get up. Ban pets. Aromatherapy. (Whew, there were a lot for this one!)
How to fix sleep debt. Know how much sleep debt you have; each hour missed should be made up 1 for 1. Ten or fewer hours: add a couple of 2-3 hour naps over the weekend and 1-hour naps during the week. For more than 10 hours of debt, take a vacation. Yes, really. Sleep until you wake up each day. You can make up a max of 20 hours. You can’t sleep ‘ahead’ to prepare for a late night. You can only pay back 1-2 hours at a time, so don’t sleep all day expecting to make up a huge debt. Important: Learn how much sleep you really need to avoid more sleep debt; may be different from what you need now because you’re currently in sleep debt.
How to find your circadian rhythm. Go to bed at least 8 hours before you need to be up and see when you actually wake up naturally; see how it changes over the week. Other notes: Best focus before noon; most likely to get distracted between 1 & 4pm; nap at 2pm; exercise between 4 & 5pm; most creative at 9pm. Humans are sleepiest between 2 & 4am and 1 & 3pm (more evidence for trying biphasic sleep). Controlled by a part of the brain called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), a group of cells in the hypothalamus that respond to light and dark signals. Light = cortisol production; dark = melatonin production.
So you can already see that I’ve got a lot to work with. Add in the notes we made from our original search and there’s a fine strategy in the making. Let’s see what I can do with mine.
Putting the Strategy together to Change Your Bad Habit
Go big to small. Determine your mail goal and develop your bad habit-changing strategy around that.
You may have noticed that my goal evolved over the course of my research. It went from wanting to be an early riser to realizing that the core problem of my so far being unable to do so was my ineffective sleep patterns. So my goal is now to sleep well and efficiently so that I can be happy about waking up early.
This is okay.
Don’t box yourself in.
My main goal is to get better, more efficient sleep and wake up early and refreshed every day so that I can live a good life and create my Magnum Opus. Now I’ll ask myself:
What is the biggest factor I found in my research currently preventing me from achieving my goal?
I’m confident that it’s sleep debt from not sleeping well most nights. This is what I’ll tackle first, using the information I gained from my research. I don’t think I have more than 10 hours of sleep debt right now, so I’m going to focus on making it up and developing a routine that prevents it from accumulating again, using mindful routines a
nd attention to my circadian rhythms.
My working strategy is:
- Continue power napping every weekday. Grab an extra 1-hour nap every Saturday/Sunday until I feel sleep debt is no longer an issue.
- Regulate light received. Go outside for 30 minutes each day instead of working through lunch; turn off my laptop and cell phone by 10pm. I may read by Kindle since it’s low, non-blue light.
- Set and stick to a strict + overcompensating sleep/wake cycle until it becomes habit to sleep and wake at natural times. I’ll start with a 10:30 bedtime and 7:00 wake up, which is 8.5 hours. I will use an alarm, placed across the room, until I get used to waking up without one.
- Create meaningful rituals. I’ll create a morning and an evening ritual and stick to them each day, to train my brain into going to sleep and waking up when I want it to. At night, I’ll turn off devices, grab a hot shower, moisturize, write down any last thoughts for the day in my paper planner, and read my Kindle until 10:30. In the morning, I’ll get up at the first alarm, feed the cats so they leave me alone, start the kettle for coffee, and take a few minutes to stretch/yoga.
Notice that I’m not overdoing it here. I’ve given myself a small, easy to remember set of rules that I’ll force myself to follow for as long as it takes to drop the bad habit. In my experience, about 50% of results will show up in a week.
Your strategy should address the biggest factor standing in the way of overcoming your bad habit in a meaningful, comprehensive way. If you need some help developing your strategy, share the key themes of your research with me in the comments, along with your main goal, and I’ll help you out.
Refining Your Strategy
You will probably find as you go along that your plan may need to be refined. That’s good. It means that you’re in tune with your body, mind, and life enough to recognize it. Be open to refinement, but don’t allow yourself to change your strategy merely because the first one you picked is too hard and you aren’t keeping up with it.
If you find that you’re not maintaining your habit, you may need to give yourself a swift kick in the will-powers.
Time (well) Spent
I spent approximately 3 hours researching this bad habit. I was researching and strategizing as I wrote these posts, so I could have done it in 1-2 hours if I was going hard and focusing only on research, versus research + relaying information. Your first time will probably take 3-4 hours, but once you get used to the process, it will go a lot quicker. The bigger the habit, the more research you’ll need, too.
Your first time will probably take 3-4 hours, but once you get used to the process, it will go a lot quicker. The bigger the habit, the more research you’ll need, too.
Maintaining a Habit Change
Damn, Aristotle. You know how to drive a point home like a dagger, don’t you?
Creating a new habit (or eliminating a bad habit) is only half of the battle. After you’ve done all the research, created a strategy, and implemented your new process, you’ve got to find a way to stick to it.
Easier said that done.
Different habits require different methods, so I’ll share some of my favorites with you here. Pick and choose as required.
- Understand your WHY. If you are trying to change a habit for no reason whatsoever, then you have no motivation to change it. You need to feel strongly about your end-goal and you need to keep that in mind. Remind yourself of it daily. Write it down and stick it on your mirror. Know your Why and let it motivate you.
- Use Increments. You have your main bad habit-elimination goal, but you set smaller benchmarks to reach. This one is great for your Magnum Opus. “I will stop putting off writing my novel. Each day, I will write 500 shit words of the novel. They don’t have to be good words; they just have to be words.”
- If/Then (aka Rituals). If a certain trigger is met, then you condition yourself to react a certain way. For example, in your larger goal of eliminating a bad habit of procrastination, one of your If/Thens could be: “If I am finished with dinner, then I will clean the kitchen.”
- Mark it on your calendar. Commit to sticking with the change for only 30 days. After 30 days, you can stop if you want…but will you want to? Create a ritual around marking each day off in your calendar and if you haven’t done your new habit that day, then go do it quickly so you can mark it off.
- Use an app. Forgetting to do something (or not do it) is an easy way to derail a change. If you need to be reminded (you probably do) or encouraged (you probably do), then download an app and set it up right now. I like Way of Life and 30/30.
- Don’t say “Fuck it” (“Never miss twice”). If you slip one day, don’t give up on the whole endeavor. Do your best to make the most of that day and start again tomorrow. The slip-ups will lessen as you go along.
- Avoid eagle-eyeing results for 1 month. The early days of a habit change can be exhausting, annoying, and painfully unfulfilling. You will probably hate the first week. You may not see the results you want to see right away. Withhold judgment for 30 days. Write down a summary of your “before” — like a written snapshot of your bad habit. Tuck it away and don’t pull it out for 30 days. At the end of your month, write an “after” snapshot. It may not feel like anything’s changed at all, but that’s okay. Just be honest. Then pull out your before and read them together. Notice what has really changed.
Which one do you think will work best for you?
You are the sum of your habits
If you want to create your Magnum Opus, you must do the work. Developing good habits and kicking bad habits is a huge component of that process.
Make the commitment to yourself to do just that.
You’ll need to identify where your weaknesses/bad habits lie, decide which one(s) you want to tackle first, research those habits at both a high and a low level, and then create a personalized strategy. Next, you’ll implement your plan, refine it as you go along, and maintain it. It’s not easy, but it does get easier. Each time you change a habit is easier than the time before.
What bad habit will you eliminate first?
Why are we limiting research? Because there will inevitably be changes and optimizations to your strategy. Your goal in the beginning is to learn enough to start effectively, and no more. As you go along, you’ll find that you may need to brush up on one aspect or another, and at those times, you can go in for another 10-minute takeaway deep research.
Do I need to start with my worst habit? No. In fact, it’s a good idea to start with a smaller one to get yourself an easy win + teach you how the process goes.
What if I don’t have any bad habits? Nice try. But if you’re convinced you don’t, then work on creating a new, good habit instead. Those are just as important to the Magnum Opus process. All creative endeavors need habit to be sustained, and most people need to learn how to develop habits.
What do you think? Do you have any research tips to share?