5 Steps to Crush Your Thesis Deadlines When You’re Superbusy

You Can Finish Your Thesis Even When You Are Spread Really Thin…


Everything went black for a few seconds…

What happened?

When I opened my eyes I was lying on my back on top of a fresh pile of snow.

It was almost 9 pm and I must have slipped and fell on an ice patch beneath the snow walking home from he library.

The back of my head was aching, but I was able to sit up.

When I tried to stand up to gather my books, I realized that my right leg couldn’t move.

My right foot looked kind of funny…I knew something was wrong.

I called the campus police from my cell phone and they took me to the medical center on a stretcher.

The good news was that I didn’t have any broken bones.

The bad news was that I had sprained my right ankle severely, and I would need to be on crutches for about a month, and do physical therapy daily until I had fully recovered.

The really bad news was that it was the final two weeks of the semester and I had two class projects due (on the same day), 2 exams to study for, and 6 graduate school applications to complete within a month.

I couldn’t see how I would be able to complete all of my assignments and my graduate school applications, especially with my new injury.

It wasn’t fun to hobble on crutches around campus.

I was late to every class, missed the beginning of every lecture, and it took me twice as long to commute between my dorm and the main campus.

My requests to get extensions on class projects and exams were denied.

The deadlines for graduate school applications were firm.

If I didn’t finish my applications on time I couldn’t go to grad school the following year.

And, if I missed my class project deadlines, I might fail my courses and no employer would hire me for a chemical engineering position.

No engineering career,  no grad school.

Unless I found a way to meet my deadlines, everything that I had worked for in the past 15 years would be wasted.

I had to find a way to complete all my assignments.

As my deadlines neared, the pressure in my chest increased until I could barely breathe.

I felt like a victim, like a the whole world was against me.

Why me? I kept thinking every day, feeling compressed under the weight of everything that I had to get done.

But, looking back at those weeks, I realize that getting injured during the busiest time of the semester was the best thing that could have happened to me.

This experience, while very stressful at the time, taught me the skills I needed to be productive in graduate school when I had so many deadlines and challenges at the same time,

And, with these skills I was able to finish my Ph.D. thesis on time, while battling another severe medical condition, brought on by the stress in graduate school.

5 Steps To Crush Your Dissertation Deadlines When You Are Superbusy

1.Get crystal clear on your goals

Do you know what your goals are for the next 1, 3, 6, or 12 months?

It is impossible to achieve your goals if you don’t define them.

And, when you have defined your goals, do you know how they are supporting you to finish your thesis?

Two of the biggest challenges that graduate students face are that they:

  1. Don’t know what milestones they need need to graduate, and
  2. What are the actions they need to take to reach those milestones

For example, if you have to give a presentation to your thesis committee in 6 months,  you need to understand in advance the results that you are expected to accomplish by the presentation date.

Then, for each result, you need to be crystal clear about what actions you need to take to take to consider that goal to be achieved.

If you need to write a report, what are the questions that need to be answered and what is the approximate length of the paper?

If you are expected to complete experiments, what are the results that your committee is looking for?

The better you define your goals and the actions you need to take to achieve those goals, the easier it will be for you to achieve them.

2. Purge ruthlessly

The biggest challenge that I hear from students when they don’t reach their goals is that they “don’t have enough time.”

We have all been in situations when we felt like there was too much to do, and not enough hours in the day to get through everything.

But, let me ask you this:

If you had to create an extra hour during your week, how would you do it?

Would you cut down on social media, emailing, TV, internet browsing, or social activities?

Most people can find an extra hour every week when they take a close look at how they spend their time.

Now, how would you find an extra three hours during the week?

That may seem like a lot, but it translates to less than 30 minutes a day.

What would you need to eliminate to get back an extra half an hour of your time each day?

Three hours a week may not seem like much, but if it is uninterrupted quality time (even if it is 30 minutes chunks each day), it will allow you to make significant progress on reports, thesis chapters, and even experimental work.

When you have a lot of deadlines, you need to start eliminating ruthlessly anything that does not help you meet your deadlines, or support your health or personal happiness such as:

  • Social or volunteering events that you feel compelled to attend
  • Internet browsing, social media, and
  • Household chores that can wait, or that you can get help with

3. Start your day with your highest priority

Look at goals each evening and pick the one that will make the most impact on your progress.

What needs to get done no matter what?

Once you pick your highest priority, commit to starting your day with that – before you even check your email or social media.

If it is a massive project that will take up most of the day, work on it at least one or two hours before you check your email.

One of the most common reasons that students get stuck is that they feel “overwhelmed” by all of their deadlines.

When you feel like everything is a priority, you are much more likely to procrastinate because you don’t know where to get started.

Forcing yourself to pick your highest priority each day will help you to take action, reduce (or eliminate) procrastination, and meet your goals on time.

4. Chunk down your priorities into smaller actionable items that can be completed in 1 hour or less

Let’s say your highest priority is to finish your literature search.

Writing a literature search can take weeks, and just the mere thought of it may overwhelm you.

It is tough to stay focused for more than an hour, so why not chunk down your big project into smaller bits?

For example, instead of “Work on literature review”, commit to “Read paper by Smith et al. and incorporate it into my literature review.”

The latter is an actionable goal that can probably be completed in about an hour.

What if you don’t know how long something will take?

Just take a guess – the more actions you take, the better you will get at estimating how long they will take (and you will probably get faster at doing them too.)

In general, most things take longer than we think they will.

If you did not complete what you wanted to, see what you learned about your work habits.

Maybe your office has too many distractions and you work better in the library, or your goals were too ambitious.

Once you reflect upon what you accomplished each day, go back to step 3 (set your highest priority for the next day), and plan the following day as strategically as possible.

5. Set “microgoals” if you are overwhelmed, unmotivated or don’t have long blocks of time to work

This is my favorite strategy and it will be yours too if you have a busy schedule.

A microgoal is something that can be completed in 15 minutes or less.

Students who work part-time or have families may not have several hours in a row to work on their thesis.

But, almost everyone has 15 minutes here or there to read a paper or write 1-2 paragraphs.

Over the course of just one week, you can make impressive progress if you follow through on your microgoals.

Just 3-4 microgoals a day adds up to almost 5 hours of work in a week – not bad if you “have no time” to work.

Microgoals are also excellent to pick up momentum if you have not been writing for a while or if you feel unmotivated.

Motivation comes with action, as long as the action is in the right direction.

A microgoal can be as simple as emailing your supervisor a list of questions so you know what to include in a chapter.

In the final stages of thesis writing it is important to write every day, and if you have other commitments such as a job or parenting you can keep your creative juices flowing if you set a few microgoals for the day.

Use microgoals during the times when you are most overwhelmed to pick up momentum and literally crush one deadline after another

The combination of clarity of what had to be done for each chapter, setting priorities for each day, and chunking down each priority into 1 hour bits made it possible for me to finish my thesis on an ambitious timeline – and you can use the same principles too no matter how busy or overwhelmed you feel.

Celebrate Your Success Each Week

While this could be the most fun part of the process of completing your thesis, it is usually the toughest one.

Even if you keep taking action, you may not feel like celebrating if you didn’t get as much done as you planned.

Maybe everything took twice as long as you thought it would.

Maybe you overslept, were too tired to work, or you browsed the internet instead of writing.

But, is there anything you can celebrate?

On a day-to-day basis it is tough to measure your progress, but can you see how far you have come in just the last week?

What are the actions that helped you to get to where you are?

You have the choice to focus on your accomplishments or what you didn’t get done.

But, I can assure you that you are going to get more of what you focus on.

If you focus on your feelings of guilt, you will feel more guilty.

If you focus on being proud of any actions you took (even if all you did was to make a plan), you will be motivated to take more actions.

Your celebration can be as simple as treating yourself to a nice cup of tea or coffee, taking a night off, or spending time with your friends.

You don’t have to spend a lot of time or money for celebrations – the most important thing is to acknowledge yourself for the actions you have taken to gain the confidence to take even more actions and achieve your results faster.

Dora Farkas, PhD

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