studying law | 5 tips for staying focused when you’re working on a research paper

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

*This post was originally published on my previous blog, Kaleidoscope of Fashion

We all have those days when there is a research paper to write, the due date is looming not as far away as you had hoped, but oh there are just so many other things that you would rather be doing! Even mundane chores such as cleaning one’s room or doing laundry suddenly become the most interesting tasks in the world compared to working on that research paper! 

So here are 5 tips to help you stay on track when you’re trying to motivate yourself to get that paper done.  

1. Develop a plan and check in with the plan 
In tackling a research-based assignments, I find it helpful to break down the research topic into several components which then allows you to develop a plan and set a tentative deadline for each of the different parts of the assignment. 

This is probably easier said than done, given that a legal research paper often involves piecing together several different issues to then be unpacked by referring to a volume of legislation, case law, journal articles and books. Still, I find that in mapping out a plan at the start, I can at least see how much time I need each week/day until the due date, and figure out what is the biggest portion of the research paper, which topics require more research than others, etc. It also gives me something to refer back to if I get stuck into the research and realise that I might be running out of time, in which case the plan can help me estimate the extension required for the due date. 

Plus, I find that drafting a plan of attack before starting the actual research encourages me to start thinking about the topics earlier on.

2. Block out time in 30 mins increments
In both work and study, I have been trying to block out my time in 30 minutes increments in an effort to maximise efficiency, improve concentration and most of all, reduce stress. This is based on the Pomodoro technique (which breaks up time in 25 minutes increments) and Gretchen Rubin’s method of squeezing tasks into 15 minutes increments. 

Pomodoro is more proactive in that you take a block of time and carve that into 25 minutes blocks using a timer, and in between each block of 25 minutes, you go and take a short break. Then you take a big break after doing 4 x 25 minutes. 

Gretchen Rubin’s method, as described in The Happiness Project, is more reactive in that you work through your day, find that there’s 15 minutes to while away before your next task/engagement, so you utilize those 15 minutes in doing some other task. 

Personally I find that 30 minutes is the sweet spot, given that legal research involve lots of reading and sometimes it takes half an hour just to read through a case. It might feel annoying at first because you’ll feel like you have just managed to get your mind stuck into something, and then the alarm goes off and you have to go and take a short break. But, having stuck to this technique in both work and study for a few months, I find that overall it helps to improve my concentration over a longer period of time and makes me feel less stressed and tired at the end of the day.

3. Schedule in mini-meditations 
Meditation is one of my favourite daily activities, usually reserved for the moments when I wake up and just before I go to sleep. It is a beautiful habit for self-care as well as for consolidating your thoughts and finding peace and quiet in an otherwise overactive mind.

I have recently become addicted to a meditation app called Windy, which has beautiful 3D scenery accompanied by the soothing sounds of flowing water, raindrops on a tent, birds and crickets in the woods. The app also comes with a handy timer function that allows you to set how long you would like to meditate for. 

In between my 30 minutes increments, I like to set 5 – 10 minutes meditation breaks in which all I do is sit on the ground and simply focus on my breathing.  This helps me to go back to the research paper after the break with a somewhat fresher mind.

4. Give yourself time to think through the issues
This one sounds more like a “free pass” for procrastinating, but sometimes it helps to give your brain space to process all of the readings and research by doing something physical such as going for a run, walking around the park or even taking a shower. Whatever activity you choose, make sure it is properly timed so that you’re not taking too much time away from working on the assignment.  

5. Think of your future self
If all other strategies fail, just think about your future self. Would your future self want to be staying up until 2am the night before a research paper is due in a desperate attempt to write those couple of thousand words, with correct referencing and coherent arguments? Would your future self want to cancel out on social plans or consume energy drinks and junk food for the sake of powering through the assignment ahead of the deadline? Most likely not. 

In which case, present self, you need to get to work on that research paper right now. Good luck!