Do You Have To Feel Miserable During Dissertation Crunch Time?
In the Spring of the 6th year of my doctoral program and I was finally able to schedule what I hoped would be my last thesis committee meeting. My committee consisted of three very busy professors and it was next to impossible to find a date and time when they were all available.
After my 45 minutes presentation at this meeting a heated debate ensued among my committee members regarding the interpretation of my data. After a long discussion, my committee agreed to give me the green light to defend my thesis.
Unfortunately, the only date when they were all available to attend my thesis defense was less than three weeks away (20 days to be exact). In other words, I had only 20 days to complete the writing of a 150 page thesis and prepare 50 slides for my thesis defense.
My immediate reaction was to go into “crunch-time” mode: cut myself off from all social life, and lock myself in my room with piles of nutrient-poor emergency snacks and caffeine to keep me awake for the next 20 days.
As I envisioned my life for the following 20 days, I realized that the “crunch-time” approach had never been successful.
In addition to health problems such as back pain and tension headaches, this poor lifestyle led to low quality work.
Instead of isolating myself from the world and abusing my body for 20 days, I decided to focus on producing a high thesis. I realized that the best way to keep myself focused and motivated for the following three weeks was to prioritize my health and get support from my community.
I already knew from past experience that lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and isolation actually interfered with my ability to write and think creatively. What did I have to lose by taking a different approach?
If you are writing your dissertation and you feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be completed by the deadline. If you feel compelled to neglect your health and your personal relationships. If this is happening to you, I would like to encourage you to consider an alternative and more empowering approach.
12 simple habits that will help you to reclaim your health and personal life while writing your dissertation
Note: Sign up for free webinar “How I Finished My Thesis by Working Fewer Hours” at end of post
1. Make a decision to become a master of your time
It is easy to become the “victim” of your own schedule.
Many students need to juggle family commitments, jobs, and social activities that suck time away from their thesis. It might seem like you have no choice but to cut down on your sleep or exercise in order to meet your deadline.
During the time I was writing my thesis I also had to attend to commitments outside my studies. There did not seem to be enough hours in the day to complete everything.
By restructuring my day and using the productivity-enhancing strategies that I will show you below I was able to meet my ambitious deadline and write a thesis that led to three first-author publications.
2. Put email and social media on the back-burner
Digital communication has become an incredibly significant time and energy sink in the last two decades. When you begin your day by checking and email and text messages, you are actually prioritizing other people’s agendas.
In fact, you are creating more work for yourself because when you reply to an email, the other person will respond and create even more work for you. Make your research and dissertation writing a priority during your work day.
Email and social media will be there waiting for you, after you have completed your most important tasks for your day.
3. Break down your long-term goals into short-term milestones
One of the challenges that graduate students face is that their deadlines are so far in the future (6-12 months) that they are not sure what they need to do during a particular week in order to be on track with their thesis. In fact, they might feel so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project and of the long-term deadlines that they put off making progress on it.
As the deadline gets closer they start working unreasonably long hours to catch up, leading to extreme exhaustion and low quality work. With your supervisor’s help, break down long-term projects into smaller milestones that you can accomplish within a few days or weeks. Use this timeline to determine whether you are on track, and if not, adjust your plan accordingly.
4. Shift your mindset from what you have to do to what you want to accomplish
If your life is being dictated by a to-do list, you will always be trying to catch up with a never-ending list of errands and feel exhausted at the end of the day. If you have a to-do list already, take a look at it.
How many items on it are supporting your personal and professional goals? How many items are supporting other people’s agendas? Is there anything on the list that is not supporting you, but you feel “compelled” to do?
If you want to complete a high quality dissertation and live a full life, delete these items from your list, because they are just eating up your time – a limited resource that you can never get back.
5. Identify in advance the three most important results you would like to achieve each day
Once you have short-term milestones, and you are clear on what you want to accomplish, decide which three accomplishments would be the most important to complete by the end of the day.
To increase your chances of success, identify these three goals the day before, and visualize that you have already completed them.
Having a clear picture of your end result before you even enter your office, will significantly boost your focus, keep you motivated throughout the day and help you stay on track despite interruptions and unexpected “fires” that need to be put out.
You might not be able to achieve all three goals, but having a clear picture of where you want to be at the end of the day, will significantly boost your chances of success.
6. Structure your day so that it is in alignment with your productivity cycle
When I plan my days, I group my desired results into two categories: 1) major results that require a lot of creativity and concentration (e.g. writing, working on presentations) and 2)minor errands that require little or no thinking (e.g. scheduling appointments, paying bills).
I am most productive in the morning, and I start my day by taking actions to achieve the major results for my day, and I leave phone calls and shopping for the afternoon.
If you are an evening owl, get all the errands out of the way during the day, and focus on your important projects at night when your creativity is at its peak.
7. Focus on one task at a time
The idea that multi-tasking makes us more efficient is a myth. Your brain can only focus on task at a time. When you think you are multi-tasking (answering emails while working on your dissertation), your brain is actually switching back and forth between the two different tasks.
The result of multitasking is that your performance on both tasks is reduced and you will feel exhausted from the effort of the continuously switching back and forth.
You can multitask to a certain extent (e.g. run your laundry while writing your dissertation), but use a timer to ensure that you can put your focus fully on your dissertation instead of keeping part of your brain preoccupied with the demands of the other task (e.g. when it is time to switch to the dryer).
8. Give your creative mind a chance
We all need breaks, but one of the big mistakes that students make is to check email during their time-off. Did you ever notice that some of your most creative ideas come to you when you are not at your desk? The reason is that there is a part of your brain called the Default Network, which turns on when you are not actively focusing on a problem.
The Default Network of your brain helps you to develop creative solutions and see problems from a new perspective. It becomes engaged when you are away from your work.
The Default Network becomes active when you are exercising or strolling. Suddenly you might see your problem from a new angle and develop insightful solutions that had never occurred to you before.
Unfortunately, the Default Network is most likely turned off when you are glued to your computer. If you want to give your creative mind a chance, you need to develop a regular break schedule even if for just 15 minutes at a time.
9. Always be ready to use short fragments of time to make progress on your dissertation
During the 20 days that I had to finish my thesis there was not a moment to waste. I also had family commitments to manage and meetings to attend, and I did not always have long stretches of time to write.
Sometimes I just had 10-20 free minutes between commitments, but I was always ready to take action, no matter how small, to make progress.
It is amazing how much you can get done in a 10-20 minute “dash” – sometimes I read a whole journal article or wrote an entire page of my thesis.
Even if you have the luxury of long stretches of time, I recommend trying a 10-30 minute “dash” where you write as much as possible without any interruptions. You might be surprised at how much you can accomplish in such a short amount of time.
10. Carry around a notebook and pen at all times
As the deadline for your dissertation comes closer, you will inevitably spend a good portion of your waking hours thinking about it. You always need to be ready to capture creative ideas that will either strengthen the arguments in your thesis or help you take shortcuts to finish your dissertation sooner.
Bring your notebook and pen with you everywhere to collect all your ideas, especially since your most creative thoughts will probably occur when you are not at your desk.
You can also keep this notebook next to you while you are writing – this way you can jot down any errands that pop into your head, so you can attend to them after you complete your writing rather than feeling compelled to attend to them right away.
Have you heard of Moleskine notebooks? A Moleskine is a must have by PhD students.
11. Be proactive in negotiating the requirements for your graduation with your supervisor
Does your supervisor keep raising the standards, so that no matter how much you do, it is never enough?
If you feel trapped under a never-ending list of demands, get support from other committee members or your department chair, to clarify exactly what you need to do in order to be allowed to complete your dissertation.
While conflicts with your supervisor can be very frustrating, keep all emotions out of your discussions. During your meetings focus only on the problem and not on your emotions (anger, frustrations) due to the problem. If your supervisor critiques your work, do not take it personally.
Becoming comfortable with harsh criticism is part of the “Rite of Passage” to the real world, especially in academia.
Use harsh criticism constructively to develop mutually beneficial solutions for you and your supervisor, and to improve the quality of your research and dissertation.
12. Nurture your mind and body unconditionally
We are all familiar with the concept of “rewarding” ourselves for doing a great job, with small luxuries such as a dinner at your favorite restaurant with friends or a rejuvenating class at your fitness club.
What about taking care of yourself during the mundane workdays when you make little or no progress? If you can schedule daily exercise into your routine, it will boost your productivity and self-confidence immensely.
Realistically, I know that if you are working full-time, have a family, and trying to write your dissertation, there might not be enough hours in the day to make it to the gym.
At the minimum, take a 20 minute stroll, or get your heart-rate up with a jump-rope (it only takes 5 minutes!).
Also be sure to keep your pantry full with nutritious foods. I know how hard it is to resist chips and ice-cream at night – it is best to just toss them (or not buy them in the first place) so they are not in your environment.
Finally, nurture your mind by surrounding yourself with positive people. A supportive community (either formally through your university, or informally through your friends) can give you the emotional stamina you need to make it through the last few weeks or months of your dissertation writing.
In summary, remember that being productive is not just about rearranging your schedule so that you have the most number of hours to work on your dissertation. Managing your energy, so that you can stay focused and creative during your work hours, is actually the most crucial component of your productivity.
Do you want to be better at Academic Writing?
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Recently I Tweeted a link to an article called “How to write 1000 words a day for your blog” which I thought had some good productivity tips for thesis writers. @webnemesis wrote back: ” would like to see someone write a blog post on how to write 1000 words of substance for yr dissertation every day”. Of course I answered: “Challenge? Accepted!”
When I was nearing the end of my PhD, I added up the number of words I had to write and divided them by the number of days of study leave I had left. Then I freaked out and had to have a little lie down. According to my calculations I had to write 60,000 words in 3 months.
After a cup of tea (with maybe just a whiff of scotch in it) I contemplated this problem and made a PLAN, which was cobbled together from all the advice books on writing I used in my workshops with doctoral students. A case of eating my own cooking if you will. This PLAN worked for me and I share it with you here.
The PLAN works best closer to completion, when you have absorbed a lot of information about your topic and have thought about it for awhile. The basic premise is: “there is no such thing as writing, only rewriting” and that half the struggle of a thesis is to get stuff out of your head and onto the page in order to start the rewriting process.
Step one: spend less time at your desk
Now close that Facebook window and listen to Auntie Thesis Whisperer for a moment. The secret to writing at least 1000 words a day is to give yourself a limited time frame in which to do it.
What’s that I hear you say? “Are you crazy Inger??”.
Well, as I’ve said before, just because Mr or Ms Bottom is paying a trip to Chair Town it does not always follow that productive work is being done. If you give yourself the whole day to write, you will spend the whole day writing and, in the process, drive yourself bat shit crazy.
One of my supervisors once said “Doing a thesis is like mucking out a stable”. His point was that you have to tackle it one wheel barrow load of shit at a time – if you stay in the stable too long, the stink will kill you. So dedicate less than a quarter of the day to making some new text and then take a break and return later to clean it up. This sounds counter intuitive, but trust me – it works.
Step Two: remember the two hour rule
I think most people only have about two really good, creative writing hours in a day – two hours in which new ‘substantive’ ideas will make their way onto the page. Most of us are in the best frame of mind for this after breakfast and before lunch – whatever time of the day that happens to be for you. So writing new stuff should be almost the first thing you do when you sit down to your desk. Personally I find it hard to resist the siren call of the email, but if I am on deadline I do an emergency scan then close it until lunch time.
Step Four: start in the middle
When I am on deadline and need to generate words I don’t even attempt to write introductions, conclusions or important transitions. As Howard Becker in his excellent “Writing for Social Scientists” said: “How can I introduce it if I haven’t written it yet?”.This attitude is echoed in “Helping Doctoral Students to Write” , where Kamler and Thomson recommend that thesis writers think about their work in terms of ‘chunks’ rather than chapters.
A chunk can be anything up to two pages long – the text between each subheading if you like. No doubt you have some scrappy notes which you can transcribe or cut into a new file as a ‘seed’. Once you have planted the seed, just start adding on words around and over it – this builds a chunk. Don’t worry about where it fits yet – that’s a rewriting problem.
Step Four: Write as fast as you can, not as well as you can
This advice also comes from Becker, who points out that thinking happens during writing. The surest way to slow the process is to worry too much about whether your thinking is any good.So give yourself permission to write badly. If you can’t think of a word use another/equivalent/filler words: don’t slow down and start to think too much.
Do this ‘free writing’ in bursts of about 10 to 15 minutes. When you need a rest, review and fiddle with the text – maybe plant a new seed – then move on to another burst. It’s likely you will produce more than 1000 words if you do this for two hours – in fact I usually did around 3000. It’s grueling and bad for your back and shoulders, which is why the two hour time limit is important.
Step Five: leave it to rest… then re-write
Because you are writing without judgment, most of the words you generate in step four will be crap. Carving off the excess crap in the editing process will reveal the 1000 words of beautiful substantive text you are after. But take a break before you attempt this, or you wont have the necessary perspective. Go and have a coffee with a friend, walk the dog, watch some TV – whatever takes you away from your desk for a couple of hours. Then come back – maybe after dinner – and start sifting through, massaging and editing.
Be strategic about this editing – some parts will be easier than others. But do try to pull some ‘finished words’ – even if it’s only a paragraph – back into your draft each day. This gives you a sense of achievement which is important for morale.
So that’s how I wrote 60,000 words in three months. When I present this method in seminars it invariably horrifies those people who like to write line by perfect line. I’m sympathetic to the reasons people like to write that way, but it seems to me that they suffer a lot more pain than perhaps they need to. I’d love to hear your views on this and any tricks you have to share.
Reading like mongrel
How to write a lot
A thesis workout schedule