Sometimes A Few Minutes is All You Have (For Now)
to Finish Your Thesis
Is it possible to finish your thesis a few minutes at a time? It was certainly not something I had planned.
I had envisioned sitting in front of the computer for many hours typing incessantly until my thesis was done.
But working non-stop led to little progress in my thesis and it had severely impacted my physical and emotional health.
In my fifth year I started experiencing excruciating pain in my wrists and elbows, which was later diagnosed as tendonitis (not carpal tunnel, fortunately).
As I result I had to limit my time at the computer, which was quite inconvenient at a time when I had to write a doctoral thesis.
My injury was so severe that my arms began to hurt after just a few minutes of typing despite my ergonomic keyboard and pain-relievers.
I considered quitting graduate school, but I decided that “I am not a quitter.”I was to finish my thesis despite my injury, even though I wasn’t sure how I would do it.
Through trial and error, I was able to manage my pain by alternating a few minutes of typing with a few minutes of rest and stretching.
Ironically, the frequent breaks and “typing a few minutes at a time” led me to produce more in a few weeks, than I had in the previous few years.
As a result of working on my thesis while battling my injury, I had discovered a strategy that
has worked wonders for busy students who have little time for their thesis
Did you ever notice that once you start doing something it is easy to keep going?
In fact, it is sometimes difficult to stop when you are in the flow, whether you are writing your thesis or cleaning your house.
If only the starting part were not so hard…
I used to wonder how could I beat procrastination?
I knew that once I started something it would be easy to keep going, but I just didn’t know how to make myself start whatever it was that I felt that I needed to do.
During my recovery I spent most of my days walking, stretching, and doing light housework to enhance the healing process.
I was on a strict schedule of when I could work and it was usually 1-4 hours a day, broken into 15 minutes segments throughout the day.
You can bet that when I knew I had only 15 minutes to get something done, I was as focused as I had never been before.
Tables that I had procrastinated for months got done in 15 minutes.I wrote an entire chapter of my thesis in less than a week in 15 minutes writing sprints sprinkled throughout the day.
This experience taught me several things.
First, not all time is created equal.Fifteen minutes when I am rested will be more productive than 3 hours at the end of the day when I am burned out.
Second, I experienced first hand what it was like to keep taking action.
While I had complained about my workload earlier, I was so eager to get something done, that I was happy when I could finally work.
I could no longer “work on my thesis.”
I focused on finishing my thesis.
This slight distinction is an important one.
When you focus on “working” on your thesis, you just keep writing – with no defined end in sight.
This is the heart-breaking story of so many hard-working students, who put in the hours but do not see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Shifting your focus slightly to “finishing your thesis”, raises a lot of new questions you might not have thought about before:
- How will I know when this chapter is done?
- What does my supervisor/committee expect from me so that my thesis gets DONE?
- Am I clear on all I need to do in order to finish my thesis?
- When is it realistic for me to finish my thesis?
- Will I get a job after graduating?
I know that the first time that I talked to my supervisor about finishing my thesis, I felt a little scared.
While grad school took a toll on my health, there was comfort in living the life I knew
and the steady, yet tiny, paychecks.
I felt that the certainty would disappear once I finished my thesis, and I would need to find a PhD-level job.
Would I be able to handle the responsibilities of a PhD-level job, fresh out of grad school?
To my surprise, many of my fears about finishing my thesis and going out into the real world, disappeared when I was coping with my injury.
I had so little time to work that I didn’t have time to “worry” about my life after grad school.
There was only one thing that was on my mind in my last semester: What do I need to finish my thesis, so I can finally heal my body and mind?
You don’t need an injury or a major life event in order to apply the strategies that worked for me. In fact, I hope that applying these strategies will help you to finish your thesis while also living a balanced and healthy life.
The top 8 strategies to finish your thesis more efficiently
Strategy #1: Delay checking of email and social media by one hour
To this day I always work for at least one hour before I check my email.
It is amazing how much better you can concentrate before your mind gets flooded with information from emails.
Of course, during this first hour of writing I also limit social media, messaging and any other technology that will distract me.
The first few days when I tried this, I felt the urge to check my emails during that hour, but the surge in my productivity was so rewarding that I now look forward to distraction-free writing in the mornings.
Strategy #2: Determine your top 3 outcomes for each day
Most people don’t get everything done they had planned to each day.
Unexpected phone calls, emails, experimental results and personal events that get in the way of your plans are a normal part of life.
Many students go very hard on themselves because they are not as productive as they would like to be.
One way to lift the pressure off your shoulders is to determine in advance your top three outcomes for the day.
What are the top three things you would like to complete to call this day a success? You will probably not get to complete everything – most people don’t – but you can prioritize your top three goals.
To increase the likelihood of your success, choose one top priority, the one that would make the biggest difference. If possible, commit to completing this task before lunch, or even before you check your email.
How would you feel knowing that you had completed your top priority during the first hour of the day?
Strategy #3: Get clarity from your supervisor and thesis committee
It is amazing how many students need to rewrite parts of their thesis (or even collect new data) because of misunderstandings with their supervisor. Some students are afraid to ask for help, others are afraid of confrontation.
Remember that your supervisor is not out to get you.
Professors are human beings too, and most likely, they have the best intentions for you.
Strategy #4: Determine your “thesis statement” and add layers of detail to your thesis every day
Almost every thesis has a central question or hypothesis, which is (not surprisingly) called a “thesis statement.”
Your thesis statement is usually one sentence in the form such as “The purpose of this thesis was to determine…”.
Once you have your thesis statement, you can begin adding details to it every day – background (motivation for study), methods, data, graphs, tables etc.
Strategy #5: If you are out of ideas, just write about anything that comes to mind about your thesis
Most students expect to have ideas before they sit down to write, but it is actually the other way around.
Ideas are born with writing.
When you write (even if those paragraphs will not make it into your final piece) you allow yourself to think creatively.
Once you get into the habit of writing daily, the quality of your writing will automatically improve.
As you write freely, you will be amazed at the number of ideas that pop into your head spontaneously.
Strategy #6: Write fast
This technique is particularly useful when you are beginning to write and getting ideas onto the paper.
When you write fast, you are blocking your inner critic who will censor you before you put useful ideas on the page.
Give yourself permission and get as many ideas as you can on the page.
After just a 15 minute writing sprint you might come up with more ideas than you had expected (it happens all the time).
Strategy #7: Break down thesis into manageable bits
One of the most overwhelming aspects of writing a thesis is that it is so long. Keep in mind that no one has written a thesis in one day (to my knowledge at least).
Some students find it overwhelming to write for even a couple of hours at a time. However, most people can write for a few minutes at a time.
For students who have writing blocks I recommend to begin the process with 15 minute writing bursts. Fifteen minutes is short enough to seem doable, but long enough to put at least a few paragraphs on the page.
One of the game-changers in the last few months and weeks before a deadline is to get clear on
what you have already accomplished versus what still needs to get done.
There is also a difference in how people approach writing if they have 2 hours vs. 15 minutes. With 2 hours to write, many students get very ambitious and frequently end up writing less (and slower) than they had planned.
During a 15 minute burst, however, students set a very small and specific goal (e.g. write the methods, begin the introduction etc.).
When you meet your deadlines, even small ones, you will gain the confidence to keep writing.
Strategy #8: Balance excellence with perfectionism
Perfectionism is your archenemy during the thesis writing process.
Your goal is to write something excellent, not perfect. If you aim for perfect, you will never be done.
When you feel your thesis is 98% complete (and revised carefully by professors, peers and editors), it is time to let it go.
No matter how much you write, you will always be asked to make revisions.
Instead of trying to make it perfect, ask yourself:
“What would my committee like to see?”
“How can write this chapter/present my results so it is easy for my committee to understand?”
The easier it is for your committee to understand your writing and follow your story, the more you will feel like they are “on your team”, and the more guidance you will receive from them to finish your thesis.
What’s the #1 reason that you don’t have time to finish your thesis?
Please leave a comment below and Dora will respond to you directly.