For years I was looking forward to wrapping up data collection so I could focus on thesis writing.
Then, as my data collection came to a close, I had all the time in the world…but I always felt like the days were too short to make progress on my literature review.
I dedicated all my focus to my literature review, because I knew this would be the most dreadful part of the writing process.
But, just the thought of reading over 100 papers from the literature made me cringe.
I wanted to get the literature review over with, but I didn’t know how.
I started each day by skimming a paper, I took notes, wrote a few paragraphs, checked my email, and then went back to reading more literature.
At the end of each day I felt like I had accomplished nothing and I didn’t know what was wrong.
I couldn’t complain about lack of time.
I had no family obligations, no part-time job, no experiments to work on.
I thought that freeing up my time from all other commitments would the help me to finish my literature review.
But, instead of feeling liberated I felt stuck.
The freedom of having so much free time had enslaved me.
I could spend my days any way I wanted to, and I expected myself to be done with my literature review at the end of the month.
My schedule alternated between 10 hours of work (with little progress to show for it at the end of the day) and “lazy” days when I felt so disappointed in myself that I could hardly motivate myself to get out of bed.
At the end of three weeks I had a “40 page soup” of ideas that was so confusing that I didn’t even know where to sart editing it.
I had reviewed over 100 papers and every time I sat down to review one of the sections I felt like I should be working on another section.
My supervisor was expecting a good draft in about 2 week.
I remember thinking “There is no way I can make this coherent in 2 weeks”.
The days went by without any progress until I only had one week before my supervisor was expecting a draft.
Perhaps it was the adrenaline rush of having only 1 week until my deadline, but in the final week before the deadline I became so focused that I got more done than in 7 days than during the entire month before.
The time management strategies that I developed during this week allowed me to find just the right balance between working and taking breaks so I could stay productive all day.
5 Strategies to Help you Cut Your Thesis Writing Time in Half
1. Cut your work day in half
Having an amorphous blob of time makes you lose focus, because you get tricked into thinking that you have the whole day to work.
Paradoxically, you will be more productive if you have fewer hours because your brain knows it has limited time, so you will be able to resist distractions more easily.
Instead of committing to writing for a “whole day”, structure your time by having morning and afternoon thesis writing sessions.
Set specific writing goals for the morning and the afternoon, and take a 30-60 minute break between sessions for lunch or exercise.
2. Minimize your decisions
Decision making is tiring for your brain, and the more decisions you need to make the less energy you will have to work on your thesis.
You make hundreds of decisions a day, and most of them are probably do not have a significant impact on your life.
If you can minimize the number of decisions you have to make such as what to wear or what to eat you will be able to focus better on your thesis.
While it is important to eat well and wear clean clothes you can make these processes more efficient with just a few tweaks.
For example, decide in advance what type of breakfast you would like to eat, and then modify it only slightly so you have some variety.
If you like breakfast shakes, have a “standard shake” that you drink almost every day, but have a few shake ingredients on hand so you can spice it up once in a while.
You can use the same type of strategy to make sure you have clean clothes.
Blocking out specific days of the week for laundry, and then decide the night before what you will wear.
These small changes in your habits can save you hours of time, and more importantly. help you to channel your energy towards your highest priorities.
3. Set Microgoals
What’s a microgoal?
A microgoal is a goal that can be achieved in 15 miutes or less.
This may be an unusual way of planning if your tendency is to be too ambitious.
You may want to write 20 pages a day, so writing just 3 paragraphs may not seem like a goal worth noting.
But, microgoals can be help you gain momentum with writing or experiments on days when you feel like “blah” (i.e. not motivated at all).
Microgoals can also help you realize how much you can accomplish in just a small amount of time.
When you set a goal that is achievable is in 15 minutes and you complete it, you will feel a sense of accomplishment.
This will help you to feel more confident, and when you feel more confident you will be more motivated you be to keep working.
Once you get into the habit of setting microgoals, you will notice small “pockets of time” (15 -20 minutes) throughout the day and you will be able to use this time to make progress on thesis writing.
4. Break the chains of your desk
Have you ever heard the saying: “The only way to finish your thesis is to glue yourself to your chair and stay there until it is done” ?
This conventional wisdom had the following effects on me:
1) Chronic back, shoulder, neck, and wrist pain
2) Eye strain and tension headaches
3) Glacial (almost negligible) progress on my thesis.
This led to even more physical pain and I eventually developed an inflammatory condition in my arms and wrists.
In retrospect, this cycle makes perfect sense.
How can you be creative if your whole body is tense, your eyes are strained from staring at the screen all day?
Ironically, my thesis started coming together when I had to limit my time at the computer because of the pain in my arms and wrists.
You cannot stay focused if you chain yourself to your desk all day.
In order to have the mental stamina to write your thesis you must take regular breaks throughout the day (at least one 10 minute break every hour).
I used to feel guilty about taking breaks until my injury forced me to take a typing break every 30 minutes.
I then realized that when you take a break, your mind is still working.
In fact, the creative part of your brain is liberated when you are not actively focusing on a task (i.e. sitting at your desk staring at your screen).
Suprisingly, my greatest insights hit me when I was walking during my breaks from typing.
Eventually, I got into the habit of taking a walk whenever I felt stuck, and the walks usually helped me to come up with an answer to help me to keep moving forward.
5. Pick your work environment carefully
The environment where you work may not be the optimal place for you to concentrate.
Many students notice dramatic changes in their performance when they change their environments.
A simple modification, such as working in a library instead of their apartment can double your focus.
But, keep in mind that an environment that works for your friends may not be the best for your thesis writing.
Some students work best in silent environments such a library, while others prefer a little bit of background noise such as in a coffeeshop.
If you have to work from home, some rooms may be more conducive to working than others.
Try out different work environments (consider asking friends or family about lending you a spare room for thesis writing), before deciding which environment (and which time of day) is best for you.
Surround yourself with positive people who can support you academically or emotionally.
The number one challenge of graduate students I work with is that they felt isolated and lose motivation to do work.
In college there were support groups in the form of study groups, office hours, and the residential community.
In graduate school many student do not have any type of support.
First-year students usually start out enthusiastically, but due to lack of accountability they lose track of time and fall behind on their milestones.
In contrast, the students who join a support groups feel that being part of a community is one of the best ways to keep themselves motivated.
Simply knowing that someone else believes in you and celebrates each milestone with you by a specified time will motivate you to complete your drafts on time.
To learn more tips to be more productive in graduate school, click here to get on the waiting list for the “Finish Your Thesis Program” and you will receive a free copy of Dora’s guide “Finish Your Thesis Faster”