How Do You Deal With Distractions During Thesis Writing?
Distractions can make your life seem out of control.
Even if you lock yourself in a room to focus on your thesis writing, distractions in your mind will always be there.
Thoughts pop into your head about your career, the bills, your family, and that thing you forgot to pick up from the store (for the 3rd time!)
Some of these thoughts can be so intense that you feel like you must take action on them right away.
Perhaps you find yourself “taking a minute” to look something up on Amazon or Youtube.
A minute turns into 10 minutes, then 30 minutes…
However long you are distracted from thesis writing, that time is gone.
But that’s not the worst part.
The worst part about distractions is that they deplete your mental energy, which is what you need most during thesis writing.
I have supported thousands of PhD students and many have finished their thesis under the most dire circumstances.
Some students became widows, others received a serious health diagnosis for their child.
And a majority finish their thesis while working full-time and taking care of their families and (sometimes up to 5) young children.
Living with these circumstances takes enormous emotional strength on its own, so when you add thesis writing to the mix you can’t help but ask: “How did they finish?”
The one thing all these students had in common is that they intentionally conserved mental energy.
Whether you have a lot or a little time for thesis writing, your mind will find a way to fill up all of your time with something.
Your job is to make sure that:
1) you block some time for uninterrupted thesis writing (15 minutes minimum), and
2) you prime your mind to resist distractions.
The first part is the one that most students say they struggle with.
It seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day to take care of everything and then write your thesis.
But, when we take a closer look at schedules, many students could set aside at least several hours a week for thesis writing.
The question is: “How do you make sure you get writing done during the time you set aside for your thesis?”
You will always have random ideas, compulsive thinking and self-doubt.
As soon as you ask yourself: “How do I stop my mind from wandering?” you are depleting your mental energy.
Figuring out how to resist distractions (which will always be there) is exhausting, like running on a hamster wheel.
Instead, let’s look at ways to reduce distractions and get your work done anyway.
5 Steps to Work With Distractions during Thesis Writing
Step 1: Do your best to reduce external distractions – but be realistic
You cannot always eliminate interruptions during thesis writing, but you can take steps to reduce them.
For example, if you cannot focus on thesis writing while you are at work, it’s best to accept that as a given.
It’s a relief to stop fighting the inevitable (eg your boss interrupting you) and find another time and place to do your focused writing.
It’s much better to have 30 focused minutes than to struggle for 3 hours while fighting interruptions.
Perhaps you will need to wake up 30 minutes sooner, or go to the library for an hour to find that distraction-free time.
Remember, expect to be interrupted, and do you best to create conditions where these interruptions are minimized.
Step 2: Make a note of your distracting thoughts
Did you ever promise yourself that you would focus on thesis writing and then found yourself on social media?
Most of us had this experience.
What do you do with the intruding thoughts that urge you to go on social media or clean the house?
You don’t have to resist these thoughts, just get them out of your head.
Make a note of them either in a physical notebook or somewhere in your computer where you collect your ideas.
Then keep on writing until the next pesky thought pops into your head.
Keep getting the thoughts out of head, and when you are done with writing take a look at them.
Surprisingly most of them will not seem so urgent by then…but if they are, not you can act on them knowing you got your writing our of the way.
Step 3: Limit your thesis writing time
This one is counter-intuitive, but it works wonders.
Let’s say you are busy during the week, but you know you have “all of Saturday” to write.
This sounds good in theory…until Saturday comes.
Unless you have very specific goals, at the end of Saturday you probably didn’t accomplish as much as you had hoped.
This leads to disappointment, guilt, and lowered self-confidence: “How come I didn’t get my writing done when I had the time?”
Now let’s flip this around.
What if you told yourself: “I will write for 15 minutes”.
What can you write in 15 minutes?
You cannot write a chapter from scratch, but you can write a paragraph.
A paragraph seems negligible compared to a whole thesis, but it isn’t.
A paragraph is one of the building blocks of your thesis.
In fact, the only ways to write a thesis is to write one paragraph after another.
So, while you may have only written one paragraph in 15 minutes, now you have a confidence boost.
When your accomplishments fall short of your expectations (eg you hoped to get a lot of writing done when you had “all of Saturday”) your confidence suffers.
If you have trouble focusing on your thesis writing, limit the amount of time you set aside.
It’s impossible not to have distracting thoughts when you have all day, but it is possible to focus when you give yourself only 15 minutes.
Experiment with the length of time that you can write free of distracting thoughts.
You can start with as little as 5 minutes, and lengthen it gradually based on how long you can focus.
I don’t recommend writing for more than an hour in one sitting, as this can lead to physical pain as well as perfectionism (see next point).
Step 4: Get distance from your writing
Procrastination and perfectionism go hand in hand.
Getting distance from your writing will address both perfectionism and procrastination.
As we discussed in Step 3, limiting the amount of time for thesis writing can help you stay focused.
What do you do when the timer rings?
You may have an urge to check email, but resist the urge.
First, checking email will deplete your mental energy, which is the most precious resource for thesis writing.
Second, you need to move away from your computer (get distance from your writing) in order to nurture your creativity.
When do your best ideas come to you?
It’s rarely while sitting in front of the computer. Instead, most people get their best ideas while they are in the shower, walking, or exercising.
If you are stuck rewriting a paragraph, the only way to break that cycle is to get distance from it.
Get up, take a brief walk (without your phone), and when you get back to work move on to another section.
Remember, you will have lots of opportunities to rewrite every section of your thesis, there is no need to get them perfect (the perfect thesis does not exist anyway.)
When you are perfectionist, it is inevitable that you will put
(take a walk)
Step 5: Separate reading and writing time
Due to the overwhelming amount of information out there (at the tip of our fingers), it is tempting to keep reading so you “don’t miss anything.”
The first problem with this approach is that it is very easy to “keep reading”, and not have anything written.
It doesn’t matter how much you know. Your committee will only let you graduate if you have a written thesis.
When you keep reading (without writing), it is impossible to not get distracted
First, you will get overwhelmed with information.
Second, some papers will present you with conflicting information, so what should your literature review focus on?
Third, you will never feel ready to write, because there will always be “one more paper” in the bibliography that you want to read.
You may be wondering: “How do I write, if I don’t read anything?”
The way to balance reading and writing time is separate the two.
You can use notes that you took previously, or look through a paper that you have already read, but don’t use writing time to collect new information.
Even if you are not a morning person…
Writing first thing in the morning is one the best strategies to create high quality writing before your mind becomes inundated with distractions.
The other benefit of writing first thing in the morning is that it helps you to overcome the guilt of not writing.
You may even beat yourself up for coming to grad school in the first place.
Don’t give in to these negative thoughts.
You are in grad school for a reason.
You want to be – and already are – the kind of person who finishes things.
If you didn’t finish things you would not be in graduate school in the first place.
Think about how many deadlines you had to meet to get to where you are now.
If you are already a morning person, do what you can to create a distraction-free environment in the morning for your writing.
If you are not a morning person accept that. It’s a relief knowing that you don’t have to follow what others do, and you can still succeed.
But you will still start your workday with something, right?
Let that something be your thesis writing.
If this is a new habit for you, start easy. Begin with just 5 minutes of writing before you do any other work.
Or, do this just one day a week to start with. When you start easy, you can transform the experience of thesis writing into a “flow”.
Focus on developing this feeling of flow while writing, even if just for a few minutes.
Those short writing sprints will eventually get longer.
When you experience flow while writing, you will remember why you are in graduate school, and that you have what it takes to finish your thesis.
What is the #1 thing that distracts you from your thesis?
Leave a comment below and I will respond to you directly