I’d like to share with you my thoughts about distractions. Not the usual, run of the mill kinds of distractions we find ourselves doing to escape our PhD work. Not Facebook procrastination or Netflix or anything we do to distance ourselves. I don’t even mean those ones that are not really our fault – family days, socialising or all those outside things that remind us that sunshine is so very different from the light of a 17” computer monitor.
No, I am talking about the real subversive distractions; the ones you do not notice until it is too late. They seem connected to your work. They are interesting and engaging and can be far more threatening to timetables and your self-imposed deadlines than any of the more overt kind of distractions – they are fantastic. I try not to let these ones take too much of a hold. I can get busted when binging on a Netflix show or reading a novel on the Kindle but if someone sees me surrounded by history books they are none the wiser that I’m happily skipping down a side track and not the research path of my topic.
Let me give you a couple of examples. My subject is history, and my topic that of logistics and supply systems in the British Civil Wars 1638-1660. I want to see how supplies were gathered, processed and distributed and the impact this had on strategy, people, politics and the way the wars were fought. Still here? Great, now onto my first example. Throughout my secondary reading I was occasionally coming across a name, Sir John Heydon. I started to research and collate a biopic of information on this chap, merely because he had caught my attention in an otherwise pretty dreary book. I spent hours on this intermittently and, even now, keep half an eye out for his signature amongst the documents I am transcribing. When a colleague found out what I was doing, I got a lecture on how I shouldn’t be distracted from my topic. I was warned that anything that distracted me from studying for my main research goals was to be avoided at all costs. Here I was, happily researching the life and times of a mid-level seventeenth century bureaucrat when I had books to read, documents to transcribe and a deadline to meet all of which had far more immediacy to my work than what the Earl of Clarendon thought of Heydon’s character. But evils of distraction or not, I really did enjoy it.
My other example is connected to arms manufacture, not logistics and supply. I noticed an apparent oddity in the technology of the firearms of the time. It had me wondering wonder why, in the creation of a professional standing army, they were using a much inferior firing mechanism. This led to a pretty intense amount of work on the development of firearms technology in Europe during the seventeenth century. I looked up from the books after a day or so on it and realized I was doing it again! Distracted by a little oddity to the “detriment” of my wider research. Chasing down the differences in matchlock and flintlock firing mechanisms when I should have been reading up on financial developments of taxation. I cannot imagine why I was finding myself getting distracted from the latter…
And yet, I don’t come down on myself anywhere near as hard on these types of distractions as I do the more internet browser based ones. I’m following my interests and still, tangentially, working on or around my topic. Sure it is a digression, but as long as I keep myself in check and don’t let my other work suffer for it, what is the harm? Or do I sound like I am trying to convince myself?
The work on the firearm mechanisms I am keeping in a drawer for now. Sir John Heydon is probably going to work his way into my appendices at least. The work was not a waste of time – I followed my interests, I remained productive. I do wonder if this will change as I get further along in my PhD – will these tangential diversions have to be stamped on in the interests of greater focus and higher word count? I hope not. On a rare day when I am just not feeling like reading what I must it is really nice, even cathartic, to read what I want and still be able to convince myself I am being “productive.” For other days, there is always Netflix.
Have any of you found yourselves drifting down a distracting tangent? What was it? And do you allow yourself the interesting diversion, or do you stamp down on temptation and stay on topic?
This post was written by Glenn Price, a part-time PhD student in History. Glenn began his research at Keele in the Autumn of 2015, which focuses on the English Civil War. Glenn can be contacted via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or you check out his profile on Twitter (@gwprice207).
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