I had a bad previous experience with flow of ideas. I received a fellowship for six months to work on a project. I started on the project. I was very active and attentive with my supervisor who was very supportive and flexible. I worked very hard, but after two months many new ideas accumulated and I started trying on the dataset and searching for new datasets, after two more months, I had a shallow understanding of all of these ideas. It was late to focus on one point and I got depressed and I ended the project earlier and my supervisor told me I wasn't focused and I didn't do the tasks she suggested and my body language reflects I am not even listening to her (as I say OK a lot) and she will not write to me a recommendation letter.

I am now working on a master thesis with a new supervisor who is nice and flexible. As usual, I started working very hard, but having this terrible anxiety of losing control on the topic and after one month of work, I found that the idea I am working on, will not lead to a real advancement in science, so I changed my mind and changed the research idea a little to what I believe might benefit science. But I fear to discuss with her, because I know after another month, I will have another idea.

In brief, the first problem is that I lose focus not only because other ideas are attractive but also because I feel the idea I am working on isn't worth my effort and there should be an improvement. The second problem is assuming it is right to move between ideas, how to communicate this with the supervisor ?

2 Answers 2


First an anecdote. A long time ago I was a pretty good photographer. I had a simple manual film camera and two lenses, one fixed, one zoom. I made some nice photos, not just "snaps". Then, when I started to earn more money I bought more equipment. It seems that for every piece of camera gear I bought, I got worse. Just decision overload, I think. Instead of seeing what was revealed in the viewfinder and framing things, I would be indecisive about whether I should use some other lens, or whatever.

Next, a solution, I hope. But it doesn't involve your advisor.

Start a notebook for yourself. Either electronic or on paper. My preferred method is paper. When working on any idea you have another idea that is related, add a page to your notebook, or update an existing page. Just one page (making paper advantageous) so you don't spend too much time and effort on it now. Then, return to your original work.

This notebook is your "future work" resource. The pages are there just to give you a start on an idea that you once had that you now want to develop. In mathematics, it might consist of pages of variations on definitions that you think might be interesting, or potential theorems, or possible relationships between things.

If you can make the interruption of creating a new page in the notebook short enough then it doesn't interfere with your current work, but assures that you have a record of those thoughts so that you don't lose them.

I finished my doctoral dissertation having a fairly large file of these pages, many of them quite interesting. Among other things, the breadth of ideas I'd saved help me gain insight into the general area in which I worked and I don't think I'd have gotten that insight if I'd been too focused on only my dissertation. But I might not have finished the dissertation if I'd immediately followed up each of those ideas.

  • 2
    An outstanding answer! Did you note connections between the ideas or just let them lie there for connexions to be explored in the future?
    – JeremyC
    Mar 3, 2019 at 22:22
  • @JeremyC Hard to say, really. I've tried to do this all my life. Many things get left behind, some things bubble to the surface.
    – Buffy
    Mar 3, 2019 at 22:25

In addition to Buffy's outstanding response, I'll add another perspective.

If you have the opportunity, write papers. They demand your focus. In the process of writing them, you are forced to concentrate to one aspect and this emphasises which ideas are most promising or, in fact, are being closed by writing this paper.

If you cannot write a paper, two-weekly reports (to yourself, if not your professor) of what you have done and what you are going to do next is also a great help in keeping yourself on track.

That being said, it is perfectly fine during the first half of a project to have a sprawling growth of ideas (which you should write down), as long as you understand that in the last third of the project, you have to trim them to size. You will notice that these proportions do not add up to 1, because the transition from sprawling to focusing is an interesting one.

Tools like org can help you keeping track of ideas and to bubble them up (as per @Buffy's naming) as your shift of interest or focus demands. Good ideas will tend to stay at the top, while short-lived ones will slowly move to the bottom if you regularly "bubble up" ideas that you like.

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