If you are trying to investigate something – to get answers to a question – how do you make sure that you use your time most effectively?
Here are 5 ways to do just that:
1. Write a hypothesis
This is the advice of Mark Lee Hunter, explained in a free ebook called ‘Story-Based Inquiry’, and is probably the most important action in keeping you on track.
A hypothesis might be that a particular statement by a politician is not true; or that one organisation hosted almost a quarter of the hospitality enjoyed by government advisors. It might be that rent charged by GPs has gone up by 70%.
A hypothesis helps you clarify exactly what it is that you are gathering evidence for – and it helps you see when your hypothesis needs to change.
A good hypothesis should be specific – numbers are good, even if they are plucked out of the air as something to begin with (those investigations linked above may have begun with different hypothetical figures – the important thing is that you start with something you can test). Terminology is important, too – avoid generic terms, and know the jargon of the field you’re looking at.
2. Break the investigation down into discrete tasks
An investigation is much more manageable – and easier for others to collaborate on – if you have broken it down.
Typical tasks might include the following:
- Find background information – e.g. news coverage, official reports, etc.
- Find experts
- Find witnesses
- Find people who are affected by it (they may gather in online communities such as Facebook groups, mailing lists or forums)
- Find laws and regulations relating to the issue
- Find documents – e.g. internal reports, meeting minutes, declarations of interest, etc.
- Find facts and data – these are often compiled in internal or external databases, research, etc.
- Write up the story so far – this is particularly useful for providing context for those who come to the investigation later.
3. Keep a record of what you’ve done and need to do
The potential for distraction is only partly addressed by a good hypothesis. If you have numerous parts to the investigation then you need to keep track of those – but also avoid spending so much time on one avenue that you overlook others.
Blogging the results as you go – and including what needs to be done next – can help you keep track of your progress.
Using categories (for questions or types of query) and tags (for people, places and organisations) effectively will allow you to easily find that information by just looking within that category or tag. You can also use a bookmarking tool like Delicious to keep track of online material, using and combining tags when you need to find them again quickly.
Blogging also makes it easier for others to find you – if they are interested in the same area. If you don’t want others to see what you’re doing, however, you can make posts or entire blogs private or password-protected.
In addition to blogging, there are a range of free online project management tools that can help keep track of the tasks ahead of you (for individuals, Springpad is quite useful in being on hand when something occurs to you).
And the Story Based Inquiry website provides a range of templates for keeping track of your investigation too: http://www.storybasedinquiry.com/masterfile/
All of the above allows you to get things out of your head and onto paper, clearing your mind to take a step back and re-assess what should be the priority next.
4. Exercise your right to information – but use the phone first
The Freedom of Information Act, Data Protection Act, Audit Commission Act and Environmental Information Regulations require public bodies to supply information when requested, as long as they hold the information and no exemptions apply. It is very useful for getting hold of information – but too often it is used with no clear idea of what you are actually looking for.
Speaking to someone who deals with that information can help you clarify what you ask for. Knowing what information is held, what the jargon is surrounding it, and what policies and reports relate to it, can all influence what you eventually ask for.
It also helps if you pre-empt any excuses that may be used to avoid providing you with that information.
5. Use computers to drill into large amounts of data
If your investigation involves going through lots of tables, it may be worth investing some time in learning basic computer assisted reporting techniques.
This will save more time further down the line, as well as potential errors which can creep in when you’re doing things manually (although you should also check initial results manually too).
Do you have any other tips for using time effectively in an investigation?