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The perils of desk research (and what to do instead)


“Desk research is addictive. It gives you the illusion of moving forward, but instead keeps you mired in analysis paralysis. There is always something more to learn. Another ‘what if’. And at the end you still don’t know what it’s like on the ground. That’s why no one discovers their path through doing more research.”

Can you relate? I know I definitely can! Instead, says Marianne Cantwell in Be A Free Range Human, you’ll get far further by getting out of your bubble and trying something new, rather than just thinking about it.

She recommends two types of project:

  • Play projects: A short project that can be completed in no more than one week that helps you to figure out whether you would really love that idea.

  • Test project: Once you’ve alighted on an idea that you’ve proven excites you, carry out a test project to see whether it will actually work in reality.

Chapter 8 is all about how to conduct a successful test project. Here are Marianne’s recommended steps:


  1. Choose a project that excites you – have a think about a career idea that you’ve been toying with. How can you get started on that in a short project form? And she says that it’s important to ensure that this is a play project and not a planning project – so if you want to teach public speaking, for example, it’s not about creating business cards or talking to people who already do this to see what it is like, it is about finding three people to whom you can teach public speaking and actually doing it.

  2. Cut it down to a project that you can complete in a clear timeframe – and she says ideally one week/.

  3. Aim to produce something tangible at the end – so if it’s the public speaking workshops, it’s the participant feedback or your notes for the sessions.

  4. Schedule it in

  5. Start – and throughout the process, keep track of how you are feeling – which parts feel great and which parts don’t. She says that the aim is to get you feeling alive.


Be a Free Range Human is focussed towards starting your own business, and Marianne has quite a few strategies for coming up with business ideas, that can also be applied to getting creative about play projects. A couple of the most interesting are:

  • What things in the last few years have we had to overcome (and so as a result could help others with)?

  • Which markets of demographics do we personally know really well?

Often when we decide to try something new, our inner critic comes up with all sorts of reasons why it’s a ridiculous idea and we shouldn’t go ahead. Which is, of course, why desk research is so dangerous: it feels safe, whilst being relatively ineffective compared to actually doing things. What thinks have you done in the past to get out of your comfort zone, and what did you take from those experiences? Think about your inner critic – what were those times when you proceeded anyway, despite a very vocal inner critic? How did things go?

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