Little Helpers That Get My PhD Writing Going

Currently I am writing the “kappa” of my PhD thesis, which is the cover essay of a compilation thesis. The kappa includes the background of the thesis, research questions, research approach and applied methods, and a synthesis of the papers included in the thesis. During the last couple of weeks, I noticed that I make use of little helpers which keep me motivated to write instead of looking for other, easier things to do.

Write EVERY Day!

This is one of the main lessons I learned when joining the #AcWriMo last year, about which I wrote here. Prior to that, I had always thought I would need this big blocks of free time, to really get some writing done. However, already by using the Pomodoro technique, I realised that this is actually not true. You DO get a lot of things done, even in 25 minutes, as long as these 25 minutes are uninterrupted and dedicated to the task at hand. Ok, apparently it works for certain tasks. But writing a PhD thesis? After all, you are supposed to think thoroughly and write carefully, so for sure this necessitates long periods of time that you can dedicate to writing. Right? Well, that may be true, however, I think that continuity is even more important. Writing every day means that you engage every day with your draft and thus you keep in touch and don’t lose the thread. In addition, there are always some tiny things you can take care of, such as adding the list of papers to include, checking your references, making a figure, double-checking your numbers, proof-reading a section. Whatever fits in the little time available for that day.

Even if it’s only one Pomodoro, for example on a day, where you have teaching or meetings, you still keep in touch with your thesis. And sometimes magic happens. For example, while commuting, doing the dishes or the laundry, or while meditating, your brain may continue “working” on your thesis and all of the sudden, you remember an article, that could help you make a particular argument. Or you have an idea how to restructure your chapter. And this is really fun!

Get Support on Twitter

Last year was the first time I joined #AcWriMo. Usually, November is the designated month for this, but some people on Twitter continued in December with #AcWriDec2017, and also in January (#AcWriJan2018). I never ever could have imagined, how supportive it is to see and feel on a daily basis, that you are not alone. PhD students cheer for each other; share tips; comfort each other, when it’s not working as hoped; encourage each other to take a break and just let it be… I LOVE IT! By the way, this works cross disciplines and is not limited to writing advice. See for example Macarena de la Vega, who is doing a PhD in historiography of modern architecture. I “met” her during #AcWriMo, where she shared this picture of a treat (more about “rewards” below):

She got my attention when I read “New Zealand”, but then I saw, that she is from Melbourne, where I was supposed to attend the OzCHI conference a few weeks later (see my post here). So yes, besides writing advice and moral support, you can get awesome ice-cream recommendations as well 🙂

In January, Macarena started a challenge called #30DayDissertating, which I found interesting.

It seemed to me as being quite similar to #AcWriMo, just not attached to a specific month. When I saw her tweet, I counted how many days I have left before I go on vacation (again, more about “rewards” below) and it perfectly fit the #30DayDissertating challenge. So I decided to join her:

…and report my progress every day by adding a new tweet to this thread:

This daily “checking in”, as Tracey calls it, is a commitment that really helps me going. It is actually something I look forward to every day; adding that progress tweet and searching for a fun .gif to attach to it.

Schedule Deadlines and Supervisor Meetings

Speaking of commitment: another thing that really helps is to schedule a supervisor meeting in advance and commit to sending the draft a few days beforehand. Admittedly, I still have room for improvement in this regard. The thing is that I just don’t want to send something that is messy or not really thought through. And yes, I know from supervising students myself, that it’s okay to send something that is not finished yet. That’s why it is called DRAFT, woman! 🙂 My main supervisor, Jan Gulliksen, once compared the writing of my Licentiate thesis with a bottle of Heinz ketchup. First nothing happens and then suddenly: all of it is out there. Related to this, I saw this nice tweet by Hugh Kearns:

The “when I’m ready” part was exactly what I had done before! When Jan had asked me, when he would get a draft or whether we should set a date for specific chapters, I always responded: “Oh no worries. I send you the chapter, when it’s done”. Perfectionism then got in the way and in the end he got the whole thing at once.

I learned a lot from that experience and now I schedule meetings, set a deadline for sending the draft, and tell my supervisors about it. That way, they know when to expect a new draft to read. Committing to a specific date to send it helps me a lot. Well…, I don’t change completely over night. I still want to send a good draft. But as I promised to send something this Friday, for example, this motivates me to get as many sections written as possible to get good feedback.

Rewards as Motivational Boosts

I think everyone has these few little things that make them smile or happy. Going to the movies, getting a massage, having a coffee with some chocolate. You name it 🙂

One of my little rituals to end a strenuous week is taking a bath for two hours with a glass of wine while watching an episode of Scandal or the like. It happens a lot, however, that I work quite late and then I have to skip it. Last Friday, though, I really wanted to have my little home spa ritual, which motivated me to work particularly hard that day. I didn’t even need Pomodoro to keep focused and having that little spa moment felt just so rewarding.

Something else I learned over the years is to keep vacations and the holiday season work-free. This can be seen as a reward as well, as it is inevitable to have to work quite hard beforehand so that you can afford being off. When I visited my family for Christmas and Easter during my Bachelor studies, I always brought books to read or papers to write. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get a lot of work done, but I thought it would feel good that I at least brought it with me. So WRONG! It felt awful, whatever I did. I never accomplished as much as I (theoretically) could have – so I felt guilty, that I didn’t work enough. When I did work on something, I felt guilty, because I didn’t spend enough time with my friends and family. As this was clearly not working, I stopped doing this altogether and now set my deadlines before the holidays. I just don’t count those days as an “option” or “backup” any more. And it feels GREAT! Guilt-free vacations are the best!

By the way, this does not only relate to vacations or holidays. Years ago, I worked almost every night and every weekend. I still do that at times, but these are then exceptions, it is not the rule. As I worked quite hard the last weekend, I really wanted to have the next weekend off. To make that happen, I promised my supervisors that I would send them my draft Friday afternoon. And as if the outlook of a free weekend is not enough to get motivated, I scheduled an Ayurvedic massage for Friday evening. This way, I have to send it beforehand and get double reward for it: a massage and a weekend off.

Little Reminders

Sometimes you can get carried away and become quite overwhelmed by this whole idea of a PhD thesis. I think we all know, that the PhD thesis is just one step; this draft is just one iteration, on which you get feedback and then improve it. But still – sometimes other thoughts dominate. Like: THIS IS IT! THIS IS THE ONE! You are writing your THESIS! It has to be BETTER! You have to READ MORE! You know NOTHING, Jane Snow. 🙂

A few days ago, I saw this tweet:

Reading this reminded me: My supervisor Åsa has been saying to me as well, that I already know everything I need to know to write this thing. So I decided to write it on a piece of paper and just stick it to my display. Facing my results section, however, I became kind of paralysed to even START writing it. Åsa gave me another advice that really helped. As I write a compilation thesis, the results are already in the papers. Åsa basically gave me a limit of paragraphs to present the results for each research question. She then said something that also ended up on a piece of paper sticked to my display: Don’t overdo it! And this was exactly what had paralysed and prevented me to even get started. My mind was already overdoing it and thus I couldn’t do anything. So this is was my screen now looks like:

Reminders: Just write and don't overdo it

Little reminders attached to my display

In summary, these are my recommendations:

  • Write every day
  • Join the amazing Twitter community
  • Make a plan with your own deadlines, tell your supervisors and schedule meetings with them
  • Reward yourself: you are doing great
  • Remember: You know A LOT. Just do it! But don’t overdo it!

Featured Image by Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash
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