Cycles of research

A large parchment map laid out on a table held down by an open book, set of old-fashioned keys, and an envelope and quill

image from canva.com

I spent last weekend not getting much done. Not for want of things on my to-do list.

I have 118 things in my writing topics list – and that doesn’t count another two lists at home. A long-term research project I’ve been circling around getting started. Books and webpages to read.

This morning, coming into work, I got to thinking about cycles and how they fit into research.

I’ve lived all my life (bar one year I was unemployed) revolving around a fairly classic academic calendar. 41 years of the ebb and flow, of the flurry of new and exciting and possibility for change and progress, at the beginning of the year, the beginning of the term. The bustling energy in the air at the end of term as people wrap up. The flurry of special events at the end of term, whether that’s holiday parties or graduation or

My father was a university professor. That affected when we could do things – and it also meant we went to another state for nearly two months every summer, while I was growing up, where we had a tiny cottage.

Then I was in school myself, and college. And then working for a college, in graduate school, working for a high school, the year I was unemployed (when the hiring market still depended on the school year), and then at a university and now at my current job.

While I’ve had 12 month contracts at the last two jobs, there’s a definite change in feeling when classes aren’t in session. Other admin staff take time off. Things slow down. There’s space.

Today is the first day of a month off for our teaching staff (the place I work for has a regular school year, then a five week summer session that runs through the end of July). What was a bustling busy school on Friday is now quiet, and I might see only a handful of people in the course of the day. My boss is on vacation for two weeks.

I love the time for working on projects, being able to spend two or three or four hours deeply focused on something without having to come up for air.

But it’s also a shift. And I know now, because I’ve done this for enough years.

What does this mean about research?

Research projects come in all different shapes and sizes. Some are tiny – a thing that can be answered by doing a quick search on a webpage. Deciding on a recipe to make. Which movie to see. (And these are research projects, they’re just so small and so much a part of our daily lives we don’t think about the steps.)

Some are much larger.

Research about doing research tells us that for many people, the hardest part is getting to the question we’re trying to answer.

When I have a weekend where I don’t get much done, I start thinking about that more. What is it I’m resisting? Why am I resisting it?

Sometimes there are good reasons.

  • This project is complicated, and I’ve got too much else going on.
  • This project depends on knowledge I don’t have yet, but I haven’t figured out how to break down what I need to know so I can learn it.
  • This project deals with stuff I’ve got strong emotional reactions to.
  • Part of this project requires access to material that isn’t simple to arrange.

Sometimes the reasons are more complicated.

  • This is a project I want to do, but now is not a good time.
  • This is a project I should want to do, but I don’t and I can’t figure out why.
  • This is a project I need to do for someone else, but I don’t want to.
  • Part of this project means admitting I don’t know things I feel I ought to know.

And sometimes it’s for reasons not as much under my control – the chronic medical stuff eating my energy and ability to concentrate. Or doing things outside of my usual schedule and forgetting I need downtime to compensate. Life coming up, as life does.

This is where my religious practice at least gives me some hints. One of the things I love about religious witchcraft is that things go in cycles. I may not have the time or the energy or the ability to do this ritual thing in a given year – but I can maybe progress toward doing it next year. Or some later year. Or applying an idea to a different ritual.

I can also use those cycles and calendars to help me structure long-term projects. For a long time, as a witch, I struggled with how to fit that wheel of the year onto the academic calendar, when my year got busier and busier in September and October, and often most busy in the deep winter and early spring, when my ritual year talks about resting and preparing and growing.

One of my eventual solutions was to recognise that my ritual life and my professional life were, of necessity, going to need to work in counterpoint. When my professional life is more demanding, I step back and make time for the introspection and quiet in my religious life, doing things that have fewer explicit demands and commitments. When my professional life quiets down seasonally, then I can work more on bigger personal projects.

The last year or two, I’ve gotten in the habit of taking a week off work in the winter and in the summer, to make a lot of progress. (This July I finished organising my bookshelves and launched a new research consulting business. As I said to friends, I seem to be very bad at this vacation thing.)

Clearly, my task for the next week or two is figuring out how to break down my next big research project into smaller pieces, so I can actually start to make headway on it. Since, after all, all the sensible planning in the world doesn’t make the work of doing the research go away. It just makes it less frustrating.

About the Author

Jenett is a librarian and priestess in a small initiatory religious witchcraft tradition fascinated by the intersection of how we find information and how we can use it to make our lives (and other people's lives) better. She lives in the Boston metropolitan area with a cat and a fair number of books. Along with other online projects, she maintains a site, Seeking, with introductory material about religious witchcraft, research, and other useful tools, and offers research consulting on esoteric and eclectic topics through her business Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

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