Sometimes I realise that an important idea I’ve been talking about, almost since the beginning of the blog, has never had a post of it’s own. One of those, is the ‘critical distance break’.
I’ve talked about it before in the context of the perfect-sentence vortex of doom, in terms of being creative, and in my ill-fated attempt to live blog the writing of an article.
Mostly, I use critical distance to talk about editing (though usually only in passing):
- How many drafts should I write?
- 10 uses for terrible first drafts
- Are you finished?
- A sea of red ink: when there are too many words
- Structural editing: getting your writing into shape
- How do I edit?
But I’ve never actually given a proper whole post to explaining what I mean by this, and how central and powerful a tool it is in my researching tool box.
First of all, what is critical distance?
Critical distance is a well-known idea in sociology and humanities research where the researcher can be ‘too close’ to the subject to be able to make analytical comments about it. You can’t be ‘critical’ without being able to ‘step back’ and assess a situation. Even within research fields like anthropology and auto-ethnography, where field work includes deep immersion in a context, you then have to ‘step back’ through reflection or theory before writing up your research.
Whether your PhD research is deeply subjective or highly clinical, you will be immersed in the day-to-day details of your work. You will be enmeshed in ‘normal’ ways of thinking and operating in your context. You will be right up there at the coal-face of your writing, your notes, your samples, your data, your code, your tables, your themes, your transcripts.
Your own researcher identity is also caught up in the details of your research. Your personal career success or failure, the relationships with your supervisor and other researchers, your sense of yourself doing a ‘good job’ will impact how you think about your research. You might be passionate about your research topic. These are also locked into the day-to-day experience of doing research.
And this is essential to the research process. But you also need to be able to look at the bigger picture. How does this compare to other works my peer reviewers or examiners have seen? This idea makes sense to me but can I get a reader to understand it? How might other researchers use this discovery? How is this work relevant to grant funding bodies priorities? When you are close to the details, it’s hard to get perspective on the bigger picture.
It’s also hard to see our own work ‘critically’ or ‘objectively’ when we are inside it. Just as my voice sounds different inside my own head from when I hear a recording, or the way I see my body is different when I look at myself normally compared to in a mirror… so I see my work differently when I’m busy doing it compared to when I’m evaluating it for an external audience. In the writing process, this is often the moment I stop trying to produce words and turn to start trying to edit them (hence all the editing posts).
It’s therefore hard to make critical judgements about your own work when you are too close to it. In English, we have a saying for this, ‘you can’t see the wood [or forest] for the trees’–you can’t get a picture of what the forest looks like when you are walking in it. But if you can go and stand away at a distance, on a nearby mountain, or perhaps get up in a helicopter, then you can start to get a sense of the bigger picture.
One of the best ways to ‘get into a helicopter’ or ‘get away from the trees’ in your research is by taking some time away from it.
It’s very difficult to task switch— going from writing to editing, or from creating to critiquing — so you will usually be inefficient at both if you try (this is how the perfect sentence vortex gets created, for example).
But taking a break, even if it feels deeply guilt inducing, is the quickest and easiest way to give yourself that critical distance.
So what is a ‘critical distance break’? And why would you want to have one?
A critical distance break is some time off, that helps you distance yourself from your writing or thinking. It can be a few hours, overnight, or an actual two week holiday.
You come back refreshed, with a fresh eye, which makes you less likely to miss mistakes, more able to make new connections or solve problems. Things that were hard to see, or hard to articulate, often ‘fall into place’ after a critical distance break.
Giving yourself a critical distance break between tasks means you have time to slightly forget what you thought you were doing. This means you start to approach your work as a reader, not a writer.
When you have critical distance, you are less likely to be caught up in how it feels to do the writing, so you are more likely to see how good what you wrote actually was. This works both for people who often hate all over their writing, and people who are in love with their writing as they produce it.
If the reason you can’t see straight is because you are exhausted, or stressed, or sick, then the break is also sick leave, a mental health break, a holiday.
This is why ‘sleep on it’, ‘go for a walk’, or ‘come back tomorrow’ can be really effective strategies to break through writer’s block, or to problem solve thinking.
A critical distance break can help you:
- be more creative,
- approach things from a new angle,
- catch more mistakes,
- be more efficient,
- be more critical,
- sound more scholarly,
- address your reader,
- see the bigger picture,
- make connections,
- not be so overwhelmed by difficult emotions,
- feel in control of your research,
- have the energy to have another go
- … and much more!
While it’s clearly very useful, taking time off can feel dangerous. In an academic culture where working all the time is valued, taking time off can feel like a career limiting move. In our wider culture, writing and reading and thinking are seen as luxuries, or leisure activities, and so they are not even valued as work!
And of course, most people are doing a PhD because they want to be doing a PhD. If you didn’t want to be doing it, you wouldn’t be! So you really do want to be doing the work, you are motivated to turn up and stick at it.
So I often get quite a strong negative reaction when I say to candidates: ‘why don’t you take a mini-break and get away from your research for a couple of days?’ Answers range from ‘I am a hard worker, I don’t take breaks’ to ‘my supervisor would have a fit if I took a holiday, I’m already so behind!’
And I understand that. I really do. But I also know that there are times when taking a break — a 10 minute walk, a 30 minute nap, a night at the movies, a long-weekend away — can often be more effective than working through. This is a well-known element of some of the most effective productivity strategies. For example, the Pomodoro technique builds in regular short breaks to keep your attention and focus high.
So instead of saying ‘why don’t you have a rest’, I started to prescribe ‘a critical distance break’. This is the kind of break you take that is actually a part of your process. A critical distance break is the time you need to be able to see your work from the outside.
The longer you have, the more effective it will be at getting away from your work. You probably don’t need a lot of time for small tasks or small sections of work–in fact, getting too far away from your work can be counter-productive when you are getting started. However, if you are trying to do a final structural edit of your entire thesis, it’s probably a good idea to take at least a couple of weeks, otherwise you just won’t be able to get enough air between you and your forest.
… so apparently the reason I never sat down and fully mapped out what a critical distance break is and why you should take one is because I needed nearly 1400 words to do it in!
If you are ‘stuck’, exhausted, confused, ‘blocked’ or struggling with any aspect of your research, why not try a short ‘critical distance break’? It’s one of the most effective tools in my personal tool box, and can be candidature transforming for students I’ve taught it to!