The research trap: when to stop planning and start making

In university I was a huge geek and got really excited when I was assigned a research paper. I LOVE research, and I would spend days in the library finding out everything I could about some obscure topic like the sublime in gothic novels, or the influence of Quebec theatre on the rest of Canada. And I was good at it: by the time I was done I would have way too much information to include in any paper, and my mind would be buzzing with connections and ideas. 

Of course, there always came a time when I had to close the books, step away from the library, and actually start writing the paper. This was the part I dreaded and I usually put it off for far too long. The fun part - the joy of following my curiosity, exploring, and uncovering - was over. Now I had to actually sit down and make something. 

I don’t think I’m the only one who finds this transition difficult. To me research, brainstorming, and planning feel like play while everything else feels like hard work. Often these phases feel safer than actually creating something: they’re full of curiosity, big dreams, and hope, whereas the creation phase brings the possibility of criticism and judgment. 

Curiosity is a beautiful thing, but only when it isn’t an obstacle to doing your creative work.

It’s all too easy to keep putting off getting started because you just need a little more information. It can create a powerful mental block that tells you that you’re not ready, you don’t have everything figured out, and you won’t succeed without having it all mapped out ahead of time. 

I’ve learned that there is no such thing as ‘having everything figured out.’ The only way to know exactly where something is going is to start working on it. Even in my meticulously researched papers, I wouldn’t know exactly what information was required until I started writing. Once I began crafting my argument, I could see what was missing and go back to the library to fill in the blanks, but there was no way for me to plan everything ahead of time.

Is there a way that you’re letting research or planning get in the way of you actually producing something? Maybe you need to stop signing up for every online course you see and start doing some of the exercises. Maybe you need to stop researching exactly which brushes and paints will best suit you and just buy something and start painting. Maybe it’s time to stop reading books about writing and start on your novel. 

Whatever it is that you need to get started on, here are some tips: 

Set boundaries

Understand that the planning trap is a real thing and set up a clear path around it instead. You can do that by: 

  • Designating a specific amount of time to researching/planning/brainstorming and a clear date when you will begin using the information to actually make something. 
  • Making a list of questions you want to answer and not straying beyond that list before starting. As you work, keep a running list of questions that come up and set aside a specific time to answer them. 
  • Setting designated times of day or week for learning and other designated times for creating.

Let learning be a reward

Do the hard work first and then give yourself a break by diving into that self-help book you’ve been wanting to read or googling that nagging question. I often tend to research and plan so hard that I don’t have energy left to actually make something and this is completely backwards: all the researching and planning in the world is wasted if it’s not turned into something concrete. 

Be mindful of your feelings but don’t let them control you

You will experience resistance when you start the project. That doesn’t mean you should turn around and go back to the drawing board. It doesn’t mean that you’re not ready. It means that you’re about to do something meaningful and worthwhile - because everything worth doing carries a little bit of resistance with it. Notice the resistance when it comes up. Feel what it does to your body. Take a few deep breaths and tell yourself, “I’m big enough for this.” And then get started. 

Don’t get side-tracked

You will want to change your mind. You will have another idea that seems better. You will start wondering what other people (clients, potential readers, your mom) will think and decide that it won’t please them. All of these thoughts will push you towards setting the project aside and doing more research. Don’t. Do everything you can to ignore these thoughts, breathe through them (repeat previous step), and keep working.  

Trust yourself

Trust that you have the answers. Trust that you are capable. Trust that you have enough knowledge and experience to make great things, without an “expert” guiding you every step of the way. You have everything you need to make your creative work, right now.

Do you have any tips for moving from researching to writing? From planning to doing? From learning to making? Leave a comment below!