What helps me survive writing my dissertation

For dozens of years in a row, I was a student that took classes every semester which were taught by a professor and culminated in a final project or exam. I didn’t really need long-term goals because they were largely articulated for me. I got pretty good at writing a 15-ish page paper every semester for every class.

Transitioning into the new full-time job of writing a long document (my dissertation) has been somewhat bizarre. I can’t rely on my old thought patterns anymore.  I’ve made number of changes to my working style that improve my mentality and attitude toward writing, which I hope could be helpful for someone else out there. (This seems to be a pretty common type of post for a PhD blogger!)

  1. Getting out of the house to write. Writing at home never, ever ends well. I have two cats that love affection and play, I have video games, I have my piano, I have snacks, I have chores, I don’t have to get dressed… all of these things are awful for writing work ethic. Plus, leaving to write forces me to see other human beings, and also makes writing seem more like a job.
  2. WasteNoTime. Like all human beings I can kill a lot of time on Twitter, and even if I say “okay, no more Twitter,” I can find other websites to cure my boredom, ad infinitum. This browser plug-in locks down my internet for a period of time that I designate (I usually do 20 or 60 minutes). You can blacklist and whitelist certain sites, and there are other customization options too. Really instrumental for the “shut up and write” concept.
  3. Investing in ergonomics. I’ve recently been suffering with really unpleasant recurring neck pain, and my doctor told me it was because I work hunched over at my laptop. I’ve since augmented my workstation by buying a laptop stand that holds my screen at eye level, and an external keyboard and mouse. I concentrate on keeping my chin in and leaning back in my chair.
  4. Scrivener!! Microsoft Word is horrible for writing long documents. HorribleBut Scrivener, on the other hand, has changed my world. It’s kinda like a trapper keeper on your computer, or like if you could have an ideal work table just covered in all different kinds of media for your work and all of that was imported to your computer screen. They explain it better than I do. But the point is: your ideas don’t come from beginning to end. Most of the time they come in a bunch of scraps that you later have to piece together somehow. Scrivener works with that. And now that it’s out for iOS and I can write on the train, I’m falling in love all over again.
  5. Time Out. This takes over your screen every now and then for mini breaks (15 secs) and longer breaks (10 mins), all the durations customizable of course. I become a zombie sometimes when I work at my computer, but stopping every now and then forces me to be more mindful about how I’m using my time. This is another stellar app for breaking bad habits. (I hear it’s possible to break habits on your own through your strong constitution, but that sounds hard.)
  6. Writing something every day (i.e., five days a week). My desktop background is text pulled from this blog post, which states that academics who wrote every day wrote ten times as much as those that didn’t. So I have a daily goal of 250 words. They don’t have to be great words, but words of some kind. That blog post also gives ideas for other ways to be productive when writing on a blank page just isn’t going to happen.

July is already almost over so most academics I know are currently lamenting the disparity between number of goals they’ve reached vs. the number of goals they intended to reach this summer. Sometimes when you’re in a rut, weather-induced or otherwise, shaking up your work routine by incorporating a new tool like this can really do the trick!