Too Much of a Good Thing, Or, It All Comes Back to Procrastination

This week on the research blog, I’m talking about how to tell if you’re doing too much research. Besides being a historian, I coach people on their writing. I had a student this week struggling with writing a literature review—which involves summarizing the current research on a particular topic. One of the questions this student asked was “how do I know that I have enough research?”

My answer was that you can never have too much. But in reality, we don’t have an endless amount of time to conduct research, we have to cut it off at some point. Research is a never-ending, time-consuming process. As the American economist Thorstein Veblen said:

The outcome of any serious research can only be to make 2 questions grow where only one grew before.

A little research multiplies the questions you had at the beginning of the process. It’s interesting, but you can easily spend too much time researching and not enough time writing, or applying that research. So how do you know when you’re finished researching?

The first thing to keep in mind is that research is an ongoing process. You don’t need to relegate it to one part of you project, you will go back to research throughout your project. Since research is ongoing, it takes the pressure off you to have it “finished” before you move on to the next stage. If you are stuck in your writing, doing a little more research can give you ideas and direction, then you can move back into the writing process.

You should also figure out why you are researching in the first place. I always come up with new questions during my research and it’s easy to forget what I needed to learn in the first place. Go back to what your original questions was. Sometimes I fall into the trap of using research to procrastinate on my writing—I give the excuse that it’s “productive” procrastination. And yes, I am learning relevant information during my procrastination research, but it can also reflect the anxiety you feel about working on the writing itself. Remember what you need out of the research, and only you have that, get to writing. Trust yourself, you’re a lot more prepared than you think.

And what if you aren’t ready to write? When I’m stuck on the writing, I like to go back to researching—it not only gets me in the right mindset to write, but it gives me more ideas to work with. I make a new list of questions I have after the research and type up, or write out, a few notes I have after my research. The act of writing gets me primed to work again.

So get to writing, too much research can be a bad thing. Start by writing out what you learned from the research, then write!

More about Thorstein Veblen, the man behind the idea of “conspicuous consumption”

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