How To Manage Research When Your Brain Is Terrified That You’re Going To Make A Stupid Mistake

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Matrix-style binary code on a computer screen in a dark room.

Anxiety-Driven Research Series

1. How To Manage Research When Your Brain Is Terrified That You’re Going To Make A Stupid Mistake (this is it)
2. Saving Information as Curatorial Praxis
3. You Have To Engage With Information If You Want Results
4. Put Your Research To Work

If you have a knowledge-driven online business, you are a writer and a researcher.

Words are central to any knowledge work, and if you have customers, if you sell, if you market, you are writing something every day. Maybe it’s not a great novel (though I sure hope you’re writing one of those if you want), or even the best sales copy, but you’re writing.

And writing is, to a large extent, the synthesis of research. We use writing to communicate what we know, to ask questions about and understand what we’ve learned, and to try to create certain results. In online business, we’re using written communication to find the right customers, build trust with them, and ultimately offer them the opportunity to buy from us. All. Day. Long.

You may not think of yourself as a writer and researcher, but if you’re posting Twitter threads on the current discourse, writing an SEO-friendly blog post on a subject related to your business, or even replying to a customer support email, you’re doing both. And you are definitely doing this if you’re on Team Newsletter, pumping that Substack for all it’s worth in the attempt to Grow Your Audience™️.

As something of a wannabe public intellectual operating outside of the academy and almost 15 years post-undergrad who makes all of her money from teaching and coaching and trying to have Big Ideas™️, I’ve had to learn how to research and keep track of that research for my work. Whether I’m writing for business or pleasure, I’m constantly processing new information, and need to make sure I don’t lose sight of it as I go through the creation process so I can properly attribute and engage fully with those ideas.

To that end, I have an effective, tech-facilitated research process to share with you. I test a lot of apps and am constantly tinkering, so I’m going to let you in on what’s working for me and the tools that are supporting my work in case it is useful to you. This will be a series because, tbh, it got super long 1. So stay tuned, keep reading, more to come, etc.

Ideas Are An Existential Threat

Before we look at my research process itself, though, let’s start with the very concept of research in the digital age, and the fact that it is a bit of an anxiety-inducing pursuit.

I love research because I love learning. I love to pull a thread, chase it to it’s end, get distracted by tangles, and get lost in it all. There are few better feelings in my life than being then able to pull those threads together, to weave them into something, to craft something new.

But, I also use research as a way to prevent myself from thinking, from writing, and from developing my own ideas because I fundamentally do not trust myself in the face of untold bytes of knowledge to be discovered.

I’m a rather smart but untrained armchair theoretician, and research becomes a way to try and mitigate against the risk of the unknown, and to fortify the intellectual intuition that I, despite a lot of therapy, still doubt.

This is a common issue. Call it credentialism, call it imposter syndrome, but if you’re smart and not a white man, or smart and were not properly mirrored by teachers and caregivers, or just a human in an instagotcha kind of world, intuitive curiosity is a sort of existential threat. There is so little room for error, for mistakes, which are unfortunately a key part of idea and theory development. You do have to actually try! You have to put the idea onto the page! You have to put it in front of others in order to find out what the idea even is and whether it holds up!2

Research then can become an obsessive errand, a way to hedge against potential criticisms, to ensure that you aren’t missing anything, that no one will call you out for being stupid and not knowing something you should have known.

For me, this is the place where my intellect and my anxiety conjoin in a pact of assured destruction, agreeing to collaborate in my doom, preventing the work from ever emerging, and in fact burying it in the rubble of my psyche.

The questions become, then, how do I know that I have done enough research? Can I voice an opinion with imperfect knowledge? Am I allowed to make mistakes?3

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How Will You Know That You Know Enough

I have a very strong intuitive hunch about an idea right now, that knowledge work entrepreneurship lends itself to a specific kind of labor alienation, and that it is creating a new, precarious working class of solopreneuers and small business owners online. The concept of labor alienation is Marxist, which means that there is a shit ton of writing (some good and some very bad) on it, so it follows that someone else may have already had this idea, someone smarter than me, with more context and training, who won’t make the mistakes that I will make if I try to develop it based on intuition and lived experience rather than established theory. So, I have set a bar for myself, reading quite a bit of the literature, trying to make sure that I’m not going to make a mistake, worrying that I’ll miss something important and get yelled at on Twitter.

This has been going on for several months.

But, I did find something very interesting. Reading it is providing context. And I think it doesn’t go far enough, and I will be able to build on it.

I actually found something else, too. A strong book. And another one, that got about 40% of it right before going off the rails.

I have three sources now, enough surely for an internet essay if nothing else. I have something to push against.

So, is the compulsive research limiting? Or helpful? Or both?

I don’t know. But I do crave the space to find out, the slowness of deep discovery, the ability to do real work without feeling rushed to produce in order to ask for money. Work online is marked by the speed of the algorithm and the collapse of time. This feels diametrically opposed to the work of researching and writing, which often requires some breathing room to fully flourish. But when coupled with the aforementioned anxieties, the time required to do good work and the fear of doing the work at all become conflated.

I have to ask, then, will I know when I’ve done enough?

I won’t. That’s not something that I can discern. So I’m exploring two approaches:

  1. Set a deadline. This is my least favorite approach, but it is effective. A publishing deadline encourages focus, and creates the limit against which I can push myself.
  2. Trust my intuition. That ol’ thing! The lack of trust that prevents me from taking action in the first place! But I have taken action in the past. I have felt it when the ideas and research click and there’s a moment of awe at the matrix that has emerged and I know I’m ready to write it. It’s one of my favorite feelings, a kind of full-bodied tension, thrumming, unavoidable and unignorable. It cannot be predicted. It can’t really be created. It just generates, unbeholden to any external timeline or expectation, when it’s ready.

With both of these, well, maybe I’ll get something done. I think the challenge is to decide what work goes with which approach. The knowledge work alienation project appears to be the latter, something that requires filling up my brain and then leaving it on the back of the stove to simmer. This piece on research management and the existential crisis it provokes works well on a deadline. Here I’m not attempting to create a cosmology, but instead something useful and reflective through a personal lens.

All of the information in the world is, well, kind of meaningless if we don’t apply it. And I’d venture that we don’t actually know the information until we have at least attempted application. I may be a voracious consumer, but I hope to also be a compelling creator, and any research management system must be geared towards that goal rather than simply masticating.

So to that end, welcome to the My Anxiety-Driven Research Tech Stack Series. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll share what I use, why I use it, and how it all fits together to create the illusion of security while ensuring I have the notes I need at the ready if I ever sit down to write something. You, too, can fortify yourself against the information chaos of the digital age with a few apps, some superfluous hardware, and a desire to know it all.

  1. what else is new

  2. screams silently into the digital void

  3. Welcome to the inside of my brain.

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