At the Well blog


Research dive – or how to understand one’s way of working in isolation

The Pomodoro technique. Three hours of writing before checking your e-mail. The procrastination notebook. Social media blockers.

These have become relatively common techniques to fight the lack of concentration in writing research. At the same time, many lunch conversations drift towards this topic in the hope of finding yet new ones. They usually work for a while, they fail, then we take up a new one. Once we run out of them, we go back to the one that worked for that very productive week. It is almost like remembering an old forgotten love. We go around them in cycles of productivity. It is common to blame the lack of productivity on everyday life annoyances, whether they are work related or not. The objective of those techniques is to build temporary walls between oneself and those disturbances. However, the collapse of those walls is generally one click away and it seems that, as soon as we become too familiar with them, we sort of stop respecting them too.

During January and February I had the chance to use a technique a bit more radical than those everyday life ones. I went to a two-month writing retreat at the Saari Residence, located in Mynämäki. I had wanted to do something like this since I started my PhD back in 2013 and I thought of it as an isolating experience, like building a huge spatial wall between me and the rest of the world. Arriving to the Saari Residence definitely felt so: the way from the main road was beautifully surrounded by frozen fields, farms and a few residential houses. Once in Saari, and after the staff had showed me around, I got to know the silence that would accompany my two months of productivity and isolation.

They were indeed productive. However, I quickly realized that isolation was not exactly the word to describe my state of mind. As Internet lurks nowadays everywhere (and is even a basic tool for the process of writing), I found out that many of those annoyances were still present and threatening to ruin my writing plan. What happened there was rather a diving process: I managed to dive into my research and be surrounded by it from morning to evening. This does not mean that I worked 24/7 (is that even possible or sane) but it meant allowing myself to write uninterruptedly when I was at my most productive moment. I realized the huge role that social commitments and responsibilities play in my writing and how many times I had to leave the office at the end of working hours despite being at the best moment of the day. The retreat was useful in order to let those moments (of inspiration, of focus) come in in full force and embrace them until I was completely empty, until they were rally gone.

My isolation was not complete, I was surrounded by a great group of people in a similar state of mind, which helped share the experience and understand it. Company is important, for the sake of sanity, inspiration and creativity. Having active and talented people around helped deal with many moments where I was stuck with my own work. Observing them creating with languages that were new to me, helped me get out of dead ends even though, now that I try, the translation process cannot be made explicit. Social interaction, once it was put out of the frame of social commitment and time constrains, was not a disturbance anymore but a stimulation.

Isolation in the Saari Residence worked for me in a very different way than other techniques. Instead of disciplining my time, I let time discipline my work. This is probably not doable as a long-term venture. Research outside a research community becomes a bit more futile, and so everything I wrote did not fully make sense until I went back to civilization. However, I found that retreating to the Saari Residence was extremely helpful not only for the sake of productivity but also for the sake of understanding one’s work and connecting with one’s research through immersion.


Jose A. Cañada

Jose A. Cañada is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Social Research of the University of Helsinki. His project, titled “Securing the living – governance, materiality and understandings of life during biological emergencies” looks at governance practices and the use of scientific knowledge in the field of biosecurity.