Don’t Do This Unless Your Dissertation is About Strawberry Jam
The sweet and tart scent of home-made strawberry jam filled the air in the kitchen of the small rustic cottage.
Nearly 60 jars of fresh strawberry jams decorated with red laced covers lined the dining table and Silvi’s family was looking ahead to a profitable day at the farmer’s market.
Yet, Silvi never felt so miserable in her life.
Silvi’s grandmother, the farm owner, asked Silvi to help her crush, cook, and can strawberries – just a month before her dissertation was due.
Silvi spent her weekend helping her grandmother and she had to make up for the missing days by working extra hours the following week.
She gave up her workouts and several hours of sleep to get back on schedule, because she felt bad saying “No” to her grandmother’s request to prepare strawberry jam for their local farmer’s market.
Do you ever feel guilty denying a favor from someone you care about, even when you are busy writing your dissertation, because you fear that you will hurt their feelings?
No one teaches you how to write a dissertation.
After I received approval from my thesis committee to start writing, I found out that had less than a month before the deadline.
I soon realized that in order to graduate that semester, I would have to manage my time better and break several counterproductive work habits, that had made other graduate students’ lives miserable during the dissertation writing phase.
You might recognize some of these habits in your own workflow.
If you do, I assure you that you are not alone, and I have included practical remedies that can help you to reduce the harmful effects of these habits on your dissertation.
Seven Habits That Will Make You Miserable While You Write Your Dissertation
Habit #1: Let others waste your time
Do you know the chatty guy who likes to talk for hours or the needy coworker who always asks you to put out their fires?
These people are wasting your time – a precious resource that you can never get back.
Sometimes family members will ask you for favors that could be done by someone else, simply because they don’t understand how time-consuming it is to write a dissertation.
Silvi’s grandmother had no idea that a weekend of cooking strawberry preserves would disrupt Silvi’s dissertation writing schedule, and Silvi was afraid to say “No” and hurt her feelings.
Remedy: Learn to say “No” or “Not now.“ When you listen to the chatty guy you are actually encouraging him to keep talking. Each time you help the needy person you are making them more dependent on you. Instead, let them know that you are in the middle of something and are unavailable to chat or put out a fire – you will actually be doing them a favor too.
Don’t be afraid to say “No” to your family or friends. Your family and true friends will love you no matter what and will understand that writing a dissertation is one of the busiest times of your academic career.
Habit #2: Start your day by checking email
Do you automatically check your email as soon as you turn on your computer?
Responding to emails can distract you from your priorities and interfere with your concentration for the rest of the day.
Remedy: Begin your day by doing the highest priority task, especially one that you have been putting off for a while. Finish this task in the morning when your concentration is at its peak. Your email messages will always be there waiting for you.
Habit #3: Write “Work on dissertation” in your calendar
A vaguely defined task such as “work on dissertation,” is practically an instruction to take a nap.
Remedy: Set well-defined milestones for each week, and break them down even further into daily goals. It is more empowering to write: “Write the introduction to my literature review” than “work on dissertation.” In the former case you have a well-defined goal that you can achieve in a couple of hours. Be sure that you and your supervisor agree on the milestones that you have established.
Habit #4: Try to be more efficient by multitasking
The notion that multitasking makes us more efficient is a myth.
Your brain can only focus on one task at a time.
When you think you are multitasking (answering emails while working on your dissertation), your brain is actually switching back and forth between the two different tasks.
The result is that your performance on both tasks is reduced and you will feel exhausted.
Remedy: Structure your environment so that you reduce the need to multitask (e.g. switch off your mobile and shut down your email program while writing).
You can multitask to a certain extent (e.g. run your laundry while writing your dissertation), but use a timer to ensure that you can put your focus fully on your dissertation instead of keeping part of your brain preoccupied with the demands of the other task (e.g. when it is time to switch to the dryer).
Habit #5: Focus on crossing off items from your to-do list
A to-do list is just a group of errands, which may not support you in finishing your dissertation.
If you let a to-do list dictate your life, you will always be trying to catch up with a never-ending list of tasks and feel exhausted by the end of the day.
Remedy: Shift your mindset from a to-do list to what you want to accomplish each day. Delete chores that do not support your personal or professional goals. If there is anything that you can delegate to someone else, even if you need to pay for it, do it.
Habit #6: Expect your supervisor to tell you exactly what you need to do to graduate
Your dissertation is just one of a hundred things on your supervisor’s mind.
By the time you are at the writing stage, you will probably know more about your topic than your supervisor. It is very disempowering to be dependent on your supervisor, especially if he is indecisive or keeps adding requirements.
Remedy: Take ownership of your dissertation. Based on your experience, knowledge of the literature, and the scope of previous dissertations from your department, develop an outline for your thesis. If you supervisor disagrees, listen with an open mind and discuss alternative solutions.
Habit #7: Chain yourself to your desk and write for 10-12 hours a day
Did you ever notice that your best ideas come to you when you are not at your desk?
You might get inspired while you are walking, exercising, or taking a shower.
Remedy: If you want to give your creative mind a chance develop a regular break schedule and get away from your desk for at least 10 minutes every hour. Use your breaks to take a stroll or exercise, and it will help you to develop insightful solutions that had not occurred to you before.
Caution: Checking email does not count as a break – to see your problems from a new angle, you need to be away from your desk and get your body moving.
You Don’t Have to Suffer While Writing Your Thesis
If you break down your writing into manageable stages, establish realistic milestones, and set your daily priorities accordingly, you can probably develop a balanced daily routine that includes sufficient sleep, nourishing meals, and regular exercise.
Finally, nurture your mind by surrounding yourself with positive people.
A supportive community can help you stay motivated during intense periods of writing, so you can meet your deadline, and still have enough energy left to smile when you finally hand in your dissertation.
Do you feel like you have to give up your personal life to finish your thesis?