Stay Focused While Researching

close up of a hand taking notes

When I ask students how they are feeling about their research projects, usually, there are two general responses – excited and overwhelmed. The open-ended nature of research means that we don’t know where it will lead us, so as explorers of new information, we can equally anticipate and dread the process

Research can be particularly tricky if you are taking on a large project or if you struggle with staying focused and organized. You can stay on track by having a plan and systems to address the various tasks of research. 

Create a plan for your research

It’s tempting to take shortcuts by trying to find citations for your paper right away, but the reality is that most people are not ready to find the best sources when just getting started.  

Generally speaking, there are phases to research: you move from exploratory research, to setting a more refined focus, and then to refined searching for sources to cite. Make a research plan for your project that takes these phases of research into account. Define your goals for each phase and what activities you will do in support of those goals. 

Your plan should consider that you behave differently at different phases. You will search several different ways, using different tools depending on how far into your research you are. Get tips for creating a plan for starting your research, for literature reviews, or for collaborative and original research project planning on our guides. Your librarian can help you make a research plan specific to your assignment.  

Set your intentions

Once you’ve made a research plan, you’ll be able to set intentions when you sit down to work to help keep yourself on task. State your intentions for the time you are about to spend on your project. For example, your intention might be to trace the scholarship of one particular author, or hunt down relevant citations from one set of search terms, or deeply read a relevant article. If you are in an exploratory phase of your research, tangents and rabbit holes can be useful. But if you are looking for sources within a specific focus, a rabbit hole can be a tempting waste of time.  

Schedule time into your calendar to conduct research and honor your commitment. Set a specified amount of time to work, and then check in with yourself to make sure you are still on task with your stated intentions. Turn off notifications and other distractors while you work. 

If you find yourself struggling with one of the steps in your research plan, don’t waste time being stuck. If you are having trouble with any stage of your research, reach out to us for help.  

Learn tips for planning, managing sources, taking notes, and staying on task when working on secondary research projects at one of the Organization and Productivity workshops on January 25 and 30. 

Megan Heuer


This post was written by Megan Heuer, director of educational initiatives for SMU Libraries. Megan leads our teaching team and is the research librarian for journalism, political science, economics, public policy, and international studies.