1- Decide when to start
You have to decide when you are going to write. The first thing to do is to set a date when you will stop doing research and start writing in earnest, leave yourself at least 3 months to finish off any last things you need to do. This deadline has to be absolute. Anything not done by then, doesn’t get done.
You will never complete everything on your to-do list, but this is liberating if you accept it as true. Setting a finish date for your research will help you focus on the few tasks which add the most value to your thesis.
2- Decide when to stop
Set your own thesis completion deadline (ideally three months after your start date). Imagine every month you add to the time as costing you $5000 (since you lose income and free time).
If you don’t think it’s possible to write a thesis in that time, write down every reason why not, and ask yourself if it’s impossible, or just difficult.
3- Set mini-deadlines for each chapter
You should already have a rough idea of what your content will be (in terms of chapter titles and so on, so set a deadline for completion of each chapter. These deadlines have to be tight (say 2 weeks per chapter), otherwise you’ll always be able to “start tomorrow”.
These dates have to be agreed well in advance with your supervisor, so they know when to expect each chapter for review (this is the only way to expect fast feedback from a busy academic). Also set dates for meetings to review each chapter, so for example if you hand them a chapter on a Friday, schedule a meeting for the following Wednesday.
4- Set easy targets for each day
Aim to do 500 words every day. It might not seem like much, but it means that you can achieve and beat your target every single day. It soon adds up, and if 500 words is your minimum, the average will actually be higher. Aiming for 1000, 2000 words or more, you’ll miss your target as often as you make it, which is terrible for morale.
It takes the pressure off, and gives you time to write the right 500 words, saving a huge amount of time in the long run.
Print out or make your own “word grid” and place it on the wall above your desk, fill it in as your word-count grows, so you have a visual record of your progress and productivity. It feels good to see it grow!
5- Create a comfortable, distraction free environment
If you have a choice, work from home. There will be fewer distractions than in the office.
Ideally, work at a computer with no internet connection, but if this isn’t possible, switch off all automatic email notifications and chat programs. That green dot next to your name is an invitation to friends to come and distract you.
Put your monitor at eye level, otherwise you’ll suffer back and neck pain. If you use a laptop, buy a second-hand monitor and external keyboard. It’s not worth physical pain.
6- Only turn on the computer when you know exactly what you’re going to work on
Discovering this changed my life. It also helps to…
7- Check email only after you’ve done at least 2 hours work
Even then, it’s usually not necessary. Email is a non-urgent form of communication and the biggest source of distraction in the modern working world. It’s also the first step into a procrastination loop, because it feels justifiable to check email when you get distracted.
8- Work for 25 minutes at a time
Use a timer, work intensively for 25 minutes on one thing, then take a 5 minute break. During those five minutes, get away from the computer, make a cup of tea, stretch your legs, whatever you want to do, but don’t check the internet. After four 25-minute bursts, take a longer break.
When your brain tries to distract you, you just have to make it through to the end of the 25 minutes, rather than aiming to spend all day concentrating. Take advantage of your brain’s natural attention span. If you think of something else you need to do, write it down, then carry on with what you were doing.
9- Get away from the computer when you aren’t working
Most people find this a challenge, but try to create a binary state. You are either working, or not. Being in some sort of half-way in between state is no use to anyone. If you can do this, you’ll end up spending less time at the computer, but getting far more done.
10- Look after yourself
Be nice to yourself; eat well, sleep well, and socialise. This is far easier if you follow the tips above, because you’ll have the time to spare for things you actually enjoy doing.
Understanding Academic Literature (Live Online Seminar)
Monday 16th December 2013, 4pm – 6pm GMT
Working with academic literature is one of the biggest challenges for most PhD students.
- How do you get started?
- How to select what to read?
- How to manage the huge number of sources?
- How to get to know the field?
- How to write about it?
In this live online seminar, I’ll take you through the most important principles when working with academic literature