Using the British Library

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The British LibraryUsing the British Library for the first time can be an intimidating experience, not least because it now resembles an overgrown coffee shop with people crammed into every nook and cranny.  However, it’s an indispensable resource for researchers, and getting acquainted with its idiosyncrasies could pay doctoral dividends.


First you need to register for a reader’s pass.  You can now pre-register on the website, thus enabling you to order items in advance of your visit.  After completing the online form, you should take the required documentation to the registration desk within three months.  You need to show them proofs of identity and address (examples are listed on the website) and also give them an indication of the material you intend to consult, by making a note of the relevant class marks from the integrated catalogue.  They will also need to see your student ID and evidence of your research programme, eg an offer letter or introduction from your supervisor.


The British Library is understandably strict on what can be taken into the reading rooms.  All coats and bags must be left in the lockers provided in the basement (you’ll need a £1 coin, but it’s returnable), and items you want to keep with you should be placed in one of the transparent bags provided.  In the interests of book preservation, Readers can only use pencil (incredibly, some books contain sections underlined in pen).  No food or drink is permitted either, not even water, although there are drinking fountains located outside each room.  This might all sound a tad draconian, but it’s in everyone’s interests that the collection is kept clean and secure.  On the bright side, the desks are lovely, with individual reading lights, powerpoints, wi-fi access and a very comfy chair.


Once you’ve provided the documentation outlined above, you’ll be presented with your shiny reader’s pass.  You need to show it when entering any of the reading rooms and it also acts as a photocopy charge card.  If you haven’t already done so, you should create a login – this enables you to order items through the website and track progress.

If you log in before searching the integrated catalogue, you can easily request items in advance of your visit.  You need to enter the date of your visit and the reading room you will be using (in some cases you won’t have a choice, such as with rare books or manuscripts).  This is very handy, but annoyingly flawed.  If on arrival the reading room is full, you will have to go to another and then wait an hour for your books to be transferred.  Quite.  In my experience, Humanities 1 is normally packed to the rafters, but Humanities 2 (just up the stairs) is relatively calm.

Under normal circumstances you should find a desk in the reading room and make a note of the number.  Then present your card at the issue desk and they will hand you a lovely pile of goodies.  If you order additional materials while you’re there, it normally takes 70 minutes and then an alert will appear in a panel at the back of your desk (yes, it’s very clever).

If you run out of time, you can ask for the materials to be reserved until the next day.  When you’ve finished you have to allow the security guard to check your bag, just in case you’re trying to smuggle out  Shakespeare’s First Folio.


The hopefully smooth process described above is based on the use of materials easily located in the Integrated Catalogue.  Unfortunately, the sheer breath of material held by the BL means that not everything is catalogued.  You might need to consult card indexes, ledgers, or ask other scholars working in the field.  Locating some manuscripts is down to serendipity, but you will get a feel for some of the tips and tricks.  There are specialist librarians available for consultation, and they really do know their stuff.

I would strongly urge anyone wanting to consult the collections to attend one of the British Library training days.  There are a limited number of travel bursaries available, and they also throw in a free lunch.  As they are organised by discipline, the training is focused and there’s a good opportunity for networking with other scholars in your field.


If you’re planning a long study session, you might want to forage for food at various points.  There is a cafe and restaurant at the BL, both of which are quite pricey, but the restaurant does serve particularly good food.  They also provide free water, and salads and soups are good value.  If you’re more organised than me and manage to take a packed lunch, there’s a common room for Readers on the top floor, complete with tables and a coffee machine.  There is a vending machine up there, but it looks like a strange device for incarcerating naughty sandwiches, and they don’t look particularly appetising.


Once you’ve been to the British Library a couple of times, it all becomes second nature.  Don’t be afraid to ask – that way you can be sure to get the most out of your visit and you’ll improve your research skills too.

Edit by Sarah R-H (27 June 2012) – Check out the post “I Tell You, ‘Tis Incredible to Believe” on Mike Stumpf’s ‘All is True’ blog for further helpful notes on using the British Library for your research.


My viva experience

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Apologies for the radio silence here on the blog, I was taken ill suddenly.  I am now convalescing, and thought I’d post this, as I started writing it just before I became unwell.  My viva was on the 24th September, and people often ask what it was like, so I thought I’d put my thoughts down in case they became useful to others…

Notes on my Viva

Just a note: I found my viva exam to be one of the most positive experiences of my doctorate.  If you’re looking for viva horror stories, you’ll need to go elsewhere, sorry.

Firing up

I had not been nervous really until the actual day of the viva.  Then it started to come on in the morning, building slowly, until early afternoon, when I started to feel drenched in fear.  Immediately before going in at 3pm, it was at its utter worst.  The viva took place in my internal examiners office, and as my Supervisor escorted me from the cafe, I felt I was walking the walk of doom.  I shook hands with my examiners, and sat at the table, in front of a small bottle of water with a plastic cup.

My internal examiner started off apologising for not having arranged tea.  He said that the viva would not be very long, and that it was unusual for a candidate to be told this in advance.  I wasn’t to read anything into this, the fixed duration of the viva being set by the train and plane times arranged for my external examiner.  We had two hours, and we kept up a good pace throughout the exam, and as it was, I felt I could have discussed some topics for longer, though I must say that I didn’t feel rushed or that we missed anything.

First gear

I was still exceedingly nervous at this point, and the first thing I was asked, was to talk for 10 to 15 minutes about the background to how my research came about, the journey that I took, and the highlights along the way.  I can sometimes waffle.  Really waffle.  Sometimes when the handbrake on my mouth is released, and after several metaphorical miles of talking, I can discover to my horror that my brain has been humming away in neutral for the entire journey.  I’m also blessed/cursed with self-awareness, so I *know* I sometimes do this, and I *know* how awful it is to find myself doing it.  So I worry about doing it, and become absurdly vigilant, often stopping mid-sentence and saying things like “ok, I should shut up now”, or “…erm, that didn’t answer your question, did it?”.  Despite all this, and after a very cautious start, I soon got into the rhythm of it, started to trust that my brain was firing on all cylinders, and found myself weaving a fairly coherent and competent narrative around the six experiments that form my thesis.  About 8 minutes in, I finally started to relax.  I realised I *did* know my work very well, that there was an interesting story to be told, and that they story was mine to tell.  And I started to realise that I had an audience of two avid listeners, who were hanging on to everything I said with genuine interest.  This had not happened to me before.

I don’t want to paint an impossibly rosy picture, so know this: that first question was the easiest.  I did not fully relax at any point during the 2 hours I was in there – but I think that must be right.  It is an exam.  The culmination of five years of my life: 3 of active research, and 2 of (on and off) writing.  You cannot relax if you stimulated, excited, alert and interested, and I was all of these.  Also, I was painfully aware that my thesis was not as tied up as it should have been.  For reasons I won’t go into here, I had run up tight against the wire with submission times, and some sections were mere vignettes rather than critical analysis.  I was fairly confident that my experimental methods and results were sound.  But I knew that the introductions and conclusions they were wrapped in were less so, and in some cases almost insubstantial. I was fully expecting what we commonly call “major corrections”, and praying not be offered an MPhil or failed outright.

Full throttle

We progressed through my thesis, stopping here and there so my examiners could question me further.  This wasn’t the page-by-page slow death I had previously imagined, and the questions seemed to fall into three loose categories:

  1. To explore in depth or recap something I had written about
  2. To establish something I had not written about, and perhaps should have
  3. To consider the what-ifs of my research (especially as my conclusions and discussions were not very strong)

This seemingly meandering route through my thesis took me by surprise – a lot of  the sections I had made notes on, and the majority of what I thought were glaring holes in my critiques, methods or research, were skated over or not touched on at all.  A couple of points that I had previously thought quite minor, we explored in great depth, and I found myself doing some proper hard thinking.  There was one particular section that I knew was very thin, and I had been prepared to be grilled on it quite hard.  In the end, I was asked a couple of minor questions, and it was left at that.  It’s only now, with the benefit of hindsight that I can see that I wasn’t pushed on that section because it wasn’t central to my argument.  And the sections I was stretched on, were very central to my argument.  Sounds obvious now, doesn’t it?

Throughout the viva, I felt I was being asked to look at my work from other viewpoints, and it wasn’t always easy.  Some of the questions I had to ask to be rephrased because I didn’t understand them, and a couple I started answering and had to be stopped because I had grasped the wrong end of the stick and proceeded to beat myself over the head with it. In one cringe-inducing instance, my internal examiner had to paraphrase my mangled answer for me, so that the external examiner could understand my response, whilst I sat nodding dumbly.

Most of the time though, it did feel like a discussion, with the questions being prompts.  My examiners posed some interesting ideas that I hadn’t thought of myself, and many of which will be very useful when revisiting my thesis.  Getting another’s perspective on your own research is useful, talking to two interested senior academics about your research is valuable, and having that dialogue with the person who is at least the UK, if not world expert in your field (the external examiner), is priceless.  Perhaps it is because I felt like this – I saw my viva as an opportunity, and not as a trial – that I feel so positive about the experience, and got so much from it.

Rear-view Mirror

I think It helped, too, that there had been a 5-month gap between my thesis submission, and my viva – something that frustrated me a bit at the time.  This isn’t an unusual length of time, but it was enough that I was able to let go of my thesis for a while, and it helped me get a more objective stance on it (though of course you can never be completely objective about an x-thousand-word thesis that took three years to research).  I went and reintegrated myself into other aspects of my life for a while, and when I returned, I certainly found myself being less precious about my research, more open to new ideas, and more accepting of constructive criticism.  Above all, I realised I was ready to “kill my darlings”.  I doubt I would have felt this way in the first three months after submission.  All things need time to mellow, and I’m glad I had the time and space to do so.

Rejoining the highway

Back to the viva… Afterwards, I was asked to leave the room while the examiners decide upon their recommendation to the exam board.  They came to get me shortly afterwards (15 mins or so?) and we returned to the exam room.  The examiners wanted me to know that I had viva’d well – that I had given considered answers, that I had shown a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of my research and thesis, and how it might fit into the overall field.  Then they worked through the first three outcome categories allowed for on the Sussex form shown here:

First 3 viva outcomes at Sussex
First 3 viva outcomes at Sussex

Category a) is rarely awarded.  Both examiners said that they disagreed with the way the outcomes are worded – they could no recommend outcome b) because the amendments permitted under this category are specific, and my thesis needed more revision than that.  But they didn’t agree with category c) either – they felt that there was too great a gap between b) and c), and they both objected  to the use of the word “fail” that applies to category 3.  (As it happens, I believe Sussex is in the process of reviewing the wording on these forms, but the wheels move excruciatingly slowly in HEIs).  So, the recommendation from my examiners was to be outcome 3, but they agreed that I need not sit another viva, and that my internal examiner could approve the corrections.  This all sounds a bit flat when written down, but it was actually very encouraging, and my external said that there was “at least one, if not two papers” to be had from my thesis – and to this point I had thought there was none!  I was also advised that I should take some time to immerse myself back into the literature before diving in to make corrections – and I shall be heeding that advice closely.


Afterwards I felt elated, excited about my work, energised and re-motivated.  I also felt a little intellectually knackered.  You know that feeling your body gets the day after a hard workout when you’re not used to it?  That’s how my brain felt.  Good stuff. 🙂

Questions I remember being asked (as I best remember them, not word-for-word):

  • Could you talk us through the background of how your research came about, and the journey you took, including some of the highlights you encountered along the way?
  • Your literature review on SSS[1] starts with Prof A’s 1981 paper, and work on humans.  I wondered if you’d considered going back to earlier work with animals, such as that of Prof B, as it may be central to some of your later work on learning?
  • There seems to be an absence of dissenting voices in your review – have you come across the argument that SSS does not exist, that the measurements might be a reflection of the wanting / liking dichotomy?  For example from Prof C, or Prof D?
  • The bulk of your research relies upon a single dependent variable.  What is your reasoning behind that, and how might it affect your conclusions?
  • You refer here to phenomena Y, could you expand on this please?
  • On page xx you outline two opposing theories of Z – could you explain a bit more about how the theories contrast?
  • Could you tell me how Flavour-flavour learning works?  Why, for instance, would a novel flavour become more liked after exposure with a sweet taste such as sugar?  And how would that be attributed to flavour, and not to energy learning?
  • You make the assertion of hypothesis H1 here, and it looks like you base that on a single published paper.  Is there any other reason you might expect X to be the case?
  • All your experiments use a fixed portions of food.  What made you decide on this method?  Can you think of any limitations using fixed portions might have had on your results?
  • All your data is collected from VAS (visual analogue scales).  Can you think of any other measures that might have been appropriate to take?
  • Experiment 1 presented some unexpected group differences at baseline – have you any thoughts on why this might be?
  • In Experiment 2, your results show a significant linear contrast, and would probably show a significance for a quadratic contrast too.  But this relies on the way you have ordered your categorical experimental conditions. How was this ordering decided, and was that before or after you collected the data?
  • Experiment 3 is underpowered – could you talk us through how this came about, and why you decided not to use some of the data?
  • The effect you found in Experiment 2 is absent from Experiments 3 and 4 – do you have any thoughts on why this might be the case?
  • You did an additional ANCOVA (analysis of covariance) on the data for experiment 4.  Do you think that conducting a similar analysis on experiments 2 and 3 might reveal some more answers?
  • Did you collect this sort of data from participants at different time points in the experiment?  So you could go back and look at that to see if those data provide more answers?
  • It is interesting that you used materials and methods in experiment 6 that worked well for other researchers, but didn’t provide you with the same effects in your work here.  What are your ideas on reasons for that?
  • How might expectancy effects have interfered with your results in the final two experiments?
    What could be done to improve the design of this experiment?
  • If you were to go back to the beginning of your research, what would you do differently?

[1] phenomenon that is the focus of my research

See Also

What happened after the viva? Dealing with major corrections: Part 1 and Part 2

Qualitative data analysis with NVivo

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NVivo is qualitative data analysis software, designed to assist you in your research.  Unfortunately, it won’t find the answers for you, but it does a cracking job of organising your data and helping you to interrogate it.  You can link your data internally and externally, use demographic variables, and explore relationships between participants and ideas.

In NVivo, an analytical project is broken down into two main parts: sources (the data) and nodes (containers for the coding of ideas or categories).  Sources can be created in NVivo or imported to the project as documents of various types, such as interviews, field notes, project journals, images, or audio files.  Nodes are created for any topic or category relevant to the project, and can be connected in ways to allow you to visualise and discover new connections.  Sources or nodes can be  explored either by browsing or by running queries.  The ‘Externals’ folder of NVivo is used to link to documents held elsewhere that can be associated with your project.  You can open the file in its native program and then record information on it in NVivo.  The ‘Memo’ function allows you to add your thoughts and ideas on the project.

It’s quite difficult to grasp the potential of NVivo without having a particular project in mind.  As a researcher in English Literature, it’s not an obvious tool I would expect to use.  However, I was soon able to see how it would help me in my own work.  For example, I’m currently working on an edited collection of interviews with late-Victorian women writers.  In NVivo I can import the documents and then code the content to identify patterns.  If I’m looking to compare their working environments, I could go through each interview to find where they mention this subject and then code it as a “working environment” node.  In future, I could quickly generate a document collating all those references, either as just a list of citations, or as contextual paragraphs.  The real power of NVivo is being able to quickly grab data that refers to a single theme or concept.

‘Cases’ are used for grouping together all data concerning a particular participant, and attributes can be assigned to them, eg gender, nationality, age, marital status.  Once the data was in place for my project, I could use the search tool to find all instances of unmarried Scottish women writers talking about their working environment.   The data can be generated as mind maps, showing the relationships and structure, and the results can be pasted into Word as an image.

I’ve only really scratched the surface of NVivo’s potential and there’s all sorts of other good stuff, such as the ability to analyse and annotate sound and video files.  The main disadvantage is that it’s not a particularly intuitive package and requires a certain amount of commitment to overcome the initial brain pain.  My preferred learning style is a chunky manual and a large cup of tea, but NVivo really needs a workshop.  Fortunately, Technical Skills for Researchers (formerly SciPS) will be running sessions throughout the coming academic year.  We’re also organising a surgery for existing NVivo users so they can get help with their own data.

NVivo has much to offer those whose research involves interviews or case studies. Although not vital in my particular field, it is nevertheless a useful tool and one that I shall continue using.

Really Simple Syndication (or why RSS feeds are useful)

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With our aggregated blog feed “Researcher Blogs” growing fast, we now have 7 contributers.  But what if you want to subscribe to the Researcher Blogs feed and read the posts from somewhere other than the Doctoral School blog?  Today’s guest blogger, Liz Thackray (lizit) explains…

RSS iconIf asked what Internet facility I would most miss, RSS feeds would come pretty high on my list. It is a facility I use daily for keeping up with news and information. At it’s simplest (and it does call itself ‘really simple’), I am able to click on the orange and white icon on any page where it is available and choose to add the page to my Google Reader account. Each time I open Google Reader, I am shown instantly how many updates there have been and I can choose to view them – and because it just shows me the headlines, I can decide which to read in full and which to ignore.

If you haven’t discovered the Commoncraft videos, they are brilliant for describing various technologies, and there is an excellent one explaining just how RSS feeds work. It also describes how to set up Google Reader for accessing RSS feeds.

Locating Google Reader
Locating Google Reader

Although there are other RSS readers, I find Google Reader is most convenient: my browser home page is set to Google, so it is quick and easy to click on “more” and on “Reader” and check what unread changes there are. As I have to actually go to the Reader page, I don’t get annoying pop-ups every time there is an update, but I choose when to check the feed and whether to read the updates. It can still act as a displacement activity, but it is my choice if I choose to be distracted!

I find RSS particularly useful for keeping up to date with blogs. I subscribe to around 60 at the moment plus the new Researcher Blog feed available from the Doctoral School blog. It keeps me in touch with what other people are doing, and I can get involved in discussions with other researchers on aspects of their work – or my work – which are of interest. I’ve found quite a number of senior academics and others working in my field are prolific bloggers, and it is handy to know what they are thinking about and working on – or to see their holiday photos and remember they are human too!

I also subscribe to some of the BBC feeds to keep me in touch with what is going on in the rest of the world.

If you haven’t set it up yet, I do recommend setting up an RSS feed and subscribing to both the Doctoral School blog:

and the Researcher Blogs feed:

– it’s another way of building up the community and of breaking down that sense of isolation too commonly experienced by DPhil students!

… and if you have a blog – do remember to fill in the form and get it added to the Researcher blog list…

Protecting your assets

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Laptops get stolen, memory sticks seldom survive an accidental boil wash (I’m on my third), and Word can be relied upon to corrupt your magnum opus at the most inopportune moment  – consequently, it’s vital that you back up your work regularly.  Unfortunately, most of us don’t realise the importance of backing up until it’s too late.   Victims of data loss acquire a certain spectral quality and can be easily spotted.  On the bright side, there are lots of tips and tools to help you:

Campus workstations

If you’re using the Sussex network, make sure you save files to your N: drive.  If you accidentally delete them, they can be recovered through the central backup.

Your PC/Mac

If you use a memory stick to back up your work, make sure you don’t leave it in your laptop/PC.  In the event of fire/theft/other calamity, you’ll lose both.

Windows includes a backup tool which can be scheduled to run at regular intervals.  This functionality is quite well hidden in XP (see here for a good tutorial), but quite conspicuous in Windows 7.

There’s a similar tool for the Mac called Time Machine.

These tools will only back up your files to a local/external drive.  For extra security, you need an online backup system as well.

Online backups

My weapon of choice is Mozy, which gives you 2Gb of remote storage free of charge.  The client works on both Windows and Mac and runs unobtrusively in the background.  In the event of data loss, you can simply visit their website and download your files.  If there is a significant amount of data to be restored, you can request a disc to be couriered instead.  Other backup tools are available.

Another useful tool is Dropbox, an application that syncs your files online and across your computers.  As soon as you click ‘save’, your document is uploaded to the Dropbox server and available through any other device on which you’ve installed the client.  The free account includes a generous 2Gb of storage space.  Dropbox also allows you to go back in time to undo changes to files or undelete them.  Spideroak is another tool that will do the same job for you.

Whatever you decide to use, a strong backup plan will mitigate against a variety of disasters.  It’s a bit of pain getting everything set up, but it’s much easier than having to rewrite your thesis.

‘Quick search’ and ‘Subject search’ sets in the Electronic Library – a blunt tool for researchers?

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Search options in Electronic LibraryA doctoral researcher asked me about the QuickSearch and SubjectSearch options in the  Electronic Library:

Why is it that I cannot select either a) all sets; or b) no sets?

Good question.  So I asked Helen in the Library’s Research Liaison section, and she very helpfully gave the following explanation…

Quick search and Subject search…. I must admit I’m not the biggest fan of these as search tools for doctoral students and in any 1-2-1s I tend to suggest that people use the databases individually. My reasons are that not all databases can be searched using Quick/Subject search, that the results often come back in a strange order so the 50th ranked article may be more relevant than the 1st, and that people may really need to tailor their search terms for particular databases (eg needing to be more specific with search terms within a database that searches the fulltext like JSTOR, not needing to use terms like ‘psychology’ in PsychInfo but needing to use them in the big, general databases). If they’re all being searched at once you lose the ability to do this.

Phew, I don’t mean to be negative about it, it’s a great resource for undergrads who just need *some* articles, not a comprehensive search. Dphils may want to use it to get a sense of which databases might have useful results but may struggle when it comes to more systematic searching.

To actually answer your question, the sets in Quick Search cannot be altered and each set searches databases for a particular subject area that have been selected by the staff here. It’s designed so people can just start searching. It is, however, possible to customise the sets in Subject Search so that you basically create your own set of useful databases that can then be searched. There’s a guide to doing this in the yellow box on the front page of the Electronic Library that would probably be more use than my efforts to explain – there’s a webcast option or a standard PDF guide. I think there is a limit to the number of databases that can be searched at once or it would just take far too long to get any results.

Hope this helps, feel free to send anybody my way if they have any more questions!

So there you go 🙂  If you’d like to ask further questions of Helen, you can email her at

Boost your productivity with the Pomodoro Technique

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If you’re anything like me, the prospect of having to sit down and write a chunk of thesis usually causes an outbreak of entirely uncharacteristic housework, or a lengthy (and rather one-sided) conversation with the cat.  However, I am now a reformed character, thanks to the Pomodoro Technique.  Named after those novelty tomato-shaped timers (pomodoro is Italian for tomato),  this time management technique improves focus and productivity by breaking your tasks down into 25 minute sessions.

The technique is beautifully simple, and the creators haven’t tried to make it appear far more complicated in order to sell you a book, and you don’t need to buy any equipment.   I’ve included links at the end to a number of online timers and downloadable widgets.

Here’s what you do:

1)  Make a list of your tasks

2)  Choose a task to be accomplished

3)  Start the timer (set to 25 minutes)

4)  Work on the task until the timer rings (or otherwise attracts your attention).

5)  Give yourself a big tick and then take a 5-minute break

6)  Start again, giving yourself a longer break for every 4 pomodoros (or pomodori, for pedants) completed

Defining your task can take a little bit of practice.  If a task takes more than 5-7 pomodoros, break it down further; if a task is likely to take less than 25 minutes, combine it with another related activity.

Be as specific as possible with your tasks: eg “Write concluding paragraph to chapter one” or “check references for introduction” rather than “write thesis”.  This gets easier after a couple of days and you’ll become much more accomplished at estimating how long certain tasks take, and breaking your work down into bite-sized morsels.

The key part is to keep focused on your task during the 25 minutes: don’t check your email, don’t fiddle about on Facebook, and don’t talk to the cat.  If something urgent suddenly pops into your head, quickly write it down and return to the task.  Use your 5 minutes breaks for having a stretch and pootling about in cyberspace.

Once you get the hang of it, the Pomodoro Technique is an incredibly powerful tool in your Doctoral Toolkit.  I can honestly say that it boosted my productivity by about 300%, and my partner (also studying for  a DPhil) has seen a similar improvement.  We are now terrifying models of efficiency and the studious silence of our house is punctuated by the sound of clockwork tomatoes.   The technique:

1) Improves focus and concentration by minimising interruptions

2) Boosts motivation by recording your activity

3) Give you more free time – 25 minutes of focused activity is often more productive than several hours staring at the screen.

The Pomodoro Technique website includes a wealth of information, along with a free eBook and worksheets for recording your progress.  Personally, I like, which acts as both a timer and an activity log.  Other timers are available:

Like any other tool, the Pomodoro Technique won’t work for everyone, but please let us know how you get on if you do decide to give it a go.