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Whether you’re in school or you have a job, you likely have or will have to research at one point or another. And if you’re like most people, you will have to do it several times. But research is a daunting task. It seems like we put it off and put it off until the very last minute when we have to get everything done now. That’s obviously not the way to do it. Now there are a three of reasons why this might occur:
- We aren’t too enthralled about the topic.
- We don’t have the proper tools and/or resources.
- We just simply procrastinate out of habit.
Now I can’t help you too much with numbers one and three, they are obstacles you’ll have to overcome within yourself. However, I can help you with number two, which will most likely make one and three easier to conquer, not having to worry about number two. Personally, I’ve battled all of these, and sometimes all three at once. I’ve never been good about not procrastinating, but one thing I have found that helps me is to first create a plan of action.
Create A Plan Of Action
I recently read a fantastic article on the iDoneThis blog and in it it was mentioned why the “just start/just do it” theory doesn’t really work.
Facile advice like “Just start!” is no weapon in the struggle against those negative feelings and the heavy inertia of inactivity. It’s not merely by getting to point of “just do it!”, but by getting in the right place first. Merlin Mann reminds us that getting started requires acceptance, not struggle:
“It’s not that successful and productive people don’t … feel that same fear—it’s just that most of the good ones have figured out how to either accept the fears as a natural part of the process, or they just choose to ignore each fakey barrier the second it appears.”
It’s quite easy to say “Just start!” or “Just do it!” …Especially when it’s someone else we’re talking to and not ourselves. But where do you start? In my opinion, it starts with a plan. And that plan starts with an outline. This is the first step of getting it all together. One of the hardest parts is getting started. Sometimes we think that what we need to do is just start researching, but with no to very little direction, it can take much longer, lead to more distractions and be frustrating. Having an idea of what you want to cover allows you to fine tune what you plan to research and ensures you stay on task better. In fact, before writing this article, I made a quick outline in Evernote. It’s likely subject to change even as I write this article, but it’s a starting point.
However, the outline is only a part of your plan of action and should be written as so. In a way, you want to create an outline about what all you want to do and in that outline include that you are to make an outline of what you want to research. You can choose to make the outline of what your project will consist of before or after your “Plan of Action” outline.
So what else should be included? Well, this somewhat depends on you and your circumstances. Below are some things I feel are also necessary in your plan of action:
- Timeframes for all the sections of your project (e.g. research, writing deadlines)
- Day-to-day goals for accomplishing the tasks and sections
- If Applicable, specific tools or techniques you plan to use
- A list of everything you will need.
Tools For Gathering All The Information
There are lots of research tools and they can’t practically all be covered in a single article. This is somewhat because there are several variables, from the individual person to the topic to the available resources at that time. That said, there are some essentials that everyone should use no matter the what the research project is. Many of these have helped me and continue to help me, as every article I (and likely most writers here at MakeUseOf) write deals with research to some degree.
- Evernote, Springpad or OneNote
- Digital notepads
Evernote, Springpad or OneNote – Gather all your research in one place
I group these all together because we all have different preferences and needs. While I might prefer Evernote because of price, features and usefulness, you might prefer Springpad, OneNote or even another similar program, such as SimpleNote. What you need is a program to compile all your information from web articles, to photos from pages out of a book or magazine, to thoughts, and notes that you want to ensure you cover in your article.
Perhaps you’ve already got used to using one of these programs and although it’s not a bad idea to keep an open mind, if you’ve already created a system, you might be less productive and efficient if you change it. But whether you have used one or more of the above programs or not, below are some links that can help you in your decision making.
- Comparing Evernote To OneNote On An Android Phone
- Springpad vs Evernote- Why Visual Orientation Matters In An Online Notebook
- 10 Awesome OneNote Tips You Should Be Using All The Time [Windows]
- Simplify Note-Taking & Sync Notes Everywhere With Simplenote Apps
- How To Use Evernote: The Missing Manual
Diigo – Webpage bookmarking and annotating tool
Diigo is another great researching tool for bookmarking and annotating saved webpages, and it is certainly nothing new to the web. Bakari Chavau covered it back in 2010 and it still remains a solid tool. One thing that sets Diigo apart is its variation and amount of tools that it provides to users. From bookmarklets to browser plugins and web apps to mobile and desktop apps, it has you covered. Diigo isn’t just one tool , but an entire company with several tools – all which are free.
Probably the most useful tool, though, is the Web Highlighter which bookmarks, highlights, shares and creates sticky notes on the webpage. These changes are saved with the tool so that whenever you return to that webpage, those “changes” are still there.
Zotero – Collect, cite, organize, sync and share your information
Zotero is another tool which we’ve covered on MUO and it has been a very well-known research tool for Firefox users for quite some time. But what you might not know is that it now works as a standalone version for Windows, Mac and Linux, as well as a bookmarklet, browser extension for Safari and Chrome. It also provides integration with Microsoft Word and Libre Office (included with the browser extensions, but must be downloaded separately for the standalone versions), as well as offering third-party plugins. All of these can be found and downloaded from the Zotero download page.
In a way, you could think of Zotero as your all-in-one research tool. You can use it to collect your information, cite it, organize it, sync it, collaborate, and share it.
Xmarks – Sync your bookmarks to the cloud
Xmarks might not be aimed at or designed specifically for research, but it does come in handy. Sometimes we share links as bookmarks. And sometimes we use multiple browsers. And sometimes we’re not even researching on our own computer, but a public one. Well, with most of these services that I’ve mentioned so far, accessing them from the cloud is one of their biggest assets and Xmarks is no stranger to that party. Like we’ve stated on MakeUseOf before, Xmarks allows you to sync your bookmarks, not only to the cloud, but to other browsers and mobile devices. Although some of the features do cost (like syncing to your smartphone or tablet), the primary services and benefits of it are free. Now, Xmarks isn’t the only method of syncing your bookmarks to the cloud, but it certainly is one of the most popular and best ways to do it.
Digital Notepads – Quickly jot down ideas without hassle
Sometimes, even if you use a service like Evernote or OneNote, you might just want to quickly make a note with out the need of an account or program. I’ve compiled a list of some great websites that allow you to do this without any need of signing up. These are excellent if you just want to jot down a quick thought or idea.
While researching you might run into a word or so that you don’t know. This could even be while you’re already starting the process of putting it together. You could open your web browser and go to your favorite search engine, or you could use CleverKeys by the reputable Dictionary.com. CleverKeys is a free downloadable program that integrates with your software to provide access to Dictionary.com’s definition database in your word processing software, email and browser. In addition to that, it doesn’t clutter your computer screen. Unfortunately this is Windows only.
Where To Research
One of the challenges on the Internet is sifting through the copious amounts of information that is either irrelevant or inaccurate for one reason or another. There are two places that I highly recommend: Wikipedia and your organization’s own resources provided to you. Now, you might already have thought that Wikipedia was the place to go or maybe you even disagree with that, but there’s no arguing that it is a great resource in at least accompanying other sources that you’ve gathered.
Now what do I mean by “your organization”? I mean your school (college or high school), or workplace (or any other association that you might be doing research for). Most likely they have an abundant amount of resources available to you, especially in the educational setting. All you need to do is put in the effort to find it.
What To Write With
Alright, so you’ve gathered your information with the best tools and from the best sources, now what do you use to put it all together? Microsoft Word? Well, if you have already chalked up the money for it and it’s on your computer, then I would recommend you use it so it’s not a waste of money. And it’s not a bad program! It just can be a little pricey for some. If you are one of those who want a cheaper or even free alternative to Microsoft Office, look no further than the MakeUseOf article, 9 Of The Best Free & Low-Cost Alternatives To Microsoft Office.
So what do I personally recommend? If the cloud is something that you are interested in, Google Drive (Docs) and Microsoft Web Apps are both great options. If you are want a full-fledged desktop office suite, then consider Kingsoft, SoftMaker or LibreOffice. I extensively review each of those and more in the article I linked to above.
Tips To Make It All Go Smoothly
Despite all that I’ve shared, there are still more things that you can do to help make the process or researching go as smoothly as possible.
Sync and backup
Many of the services I’ve covered already sync with the cloud, but unless you go the route of using a cloud service like Google Docs to type your research paper, you’ll have the files on your computer. And any time that’s the case they are vulnerable to being lost and must, I repeat, must, be backed up. There are some awesome back up services available for syncing and backing up your local files to the cloud, as well as many for automatically backing up your computer to an external hard drive, flash drive and/or CD or DVD. Personally, I love SugarSync. But there are a plethora of excellent cloud services.
When researching, you are clicking links like crazy, hoping to find that one great source of information. This opens you up to additional vulnerabilities that you may not otherwise be subjected to. This happens for a couple reasons:
- Higher concentration of clicking/link opening
- Anxious and willing to try anything
With those two combined, you’re just asking for trouble. I know – I’ve been there. The solution lies in a tool called Web Of Trust (WOT). You can read more about it in the MakeUseOf review, Browse Safely With Your Own Internet Bodyguard Called WOT.
Secure your computer
In addition to surfing safe, it’s good to make sure your computer is protected to any potential threats that you might encounter during your “high concentration clicking session.” If you’re unsure what kind of antivirus program to use or how much you should pay, first you probably you do not need to pay for one as you can get an awesome antivirus program for free. Second, read this MakeUseOf article by Matt Smith for more information: Free Anti-Virus Comparison: 5 Popular Choices Go Toe-To-Toe.
Note that the second part to having a secure computer is ensuring that you have the most recent updates and patches: 3 Reasons Why You Should Be Running The Latest Windows Security Patches & Updates.
Organize your files
I’ve talked about this a lot on MakeUseOf. In fact, I mention this and backing up as much as I can. Why? Because they both tie into practically every “tech subject” and are the two most important things to make sure you are as efficient and productive as you can be on your computer – that’s why you have a computer in the first place right? Sometimes I think we forget that we have one to make our lives easier and instead get lax. This creates lost files and I’m not talking about the computer crashing kind of thing, although that happens too. I’m referring to files you lose because of your laziness. Please. Do yourself a favor and make your life easier and organize your files: Creating Order From Chaos: 9 Great Ideas For Managing Your Computer Files.
Save two copies: one as a PDF
When sharing your work, it’s nice to have a copy that is for editing and a copy for viewing. Not only does a PDF provide the reader with a cleaner reading experience, it keeps you in control of the changes to the document. It’s more universal. And there’s even a modified PDF format that prevents the document from being printed, which ensures a more paperless lifestyle.
Research is a hard enough task without excellent tools to help collect, save and organize your information. Why make it harder than it has to be? Use these research tools on your next research project and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
What are your thoughts on the process of researching? Are you one to procrastinate on it? Or get it all done ahead of schedule? What tools have you found useful to your system? If you haven’t yet created a system or used tools to benefit you, how do you think the tips and tools mentioned in this article will change your next research project?
Below are some related articles that also might interest you:
- 5 Web-Based Tools For Any Browser That Every Writer Should Use
- How SkyDrive And OneNote Web App Can Help Your Online Research
Image Credits: RESEARCH. Magnifying glass via Shutterstock | An image of a hand drawing a sketch via Shutterstock | Close-up of typing male hands via Shutterstock | Laptop with Internet Search engine browser window via Shutterstock | Typewriter via Shutterstock | Laptop exchange of data with cloud via Shutterstock | Mouse and rescue circle over white background via Shutterstock | Online Security via Shutterstock | File organization via Shutterstock | PDF Symbol via Shutterstock