Monday, 15 February 2016

The write stuff

As a PhD student, I spend a lot of time googling things like 'improve your productivity,' 'stop procrastinating' and 'planning tips.' I also hear about lots of different work strategies - some people like to keep a timesheet of their hours worked, for example, while others find that writing first thing in the morning or late at night is best, and so on.

One of the main things I've learned about my writing process during the PhD is that I tend to work best for short, intense periods of time. After about one-and-a-half to two hours my attention wanders and I'll begin to lose the impetus of my argument, start repeating myself or just find that I'm editing what's already on the page.

I now like to do my writing in several shorter bouts throughout the day, and I like to have something specific that needs doing. I have a tendency to under-estimate how much time tasks will take, but I've learned to break each task down into smaller chunks to try to mitigate this. So instead of saying, Today I need to draft my analysis of Text XYZ (a task that could take days if not weeks), I'll be more specific, for example: In the next hour, I want to write 200 words of analysis on TEXT XYZ using theory ABC. And if I manage to accomplish that task before the time is up, I can keep going if I'm feeling energetic, otherwise - hurrah, it's early recess! And I don't feel guilty, because I've met my target. In this way, I'm able to stay more motivated by feeling like I'm making good headway.

I've also tried: bribing myself, pulling all-nighters (especially for deadlines), getting up really early (like 5am) to write when it's still dark, free writing, recording myself and transcribing my blather, and more. Some worked, some didn't, but it's still good to experiment and find out what suits you.

Here are some tools I've found consistently useful during my PhD journey.

Tech support

There are lots of different strategies and apps out there to help with productivity, but here are a few that work for me:

1. The Pomodoro technique 

These 25-minute sessions help me focus for brief, intense periods of time, especially if I find I'm not on task or having a hard time getting started.

2. Rescue Time 

I use this app to help me meet specific goals in terms of hours worked. I've also used Rescue Time to find out how I'm using my time throughout the week. Read Fritz Siregar's review of RescueTime for a good overview of the app's pros and cons.

3. Pen and paper

Getting away from the computer and all its distractions to just focus on writing some raw material is always a good move for me. I find having something to work from when I get back to the computer is a relief and removes the immediate stress of the blank page and the blinking cursor.


1. Shut Up and Write

These meet-ups with other writers using the Pomodoro technique offer productivity and companionship at once! View UNSW's Shut Up and Write page for dates and times.

2. Friends

I live a long way from campus so I don't get to see my fellow PhDers as often as I'd like, but sometimes if I'm struggling to make progress I'll call or text a friend and let her know my goal for the day or the week. We'll check in with each other regularly and keep each other on track. Having someone to hold you accountable can be invaluable. Sort of like having a nice, imaginary boss.

3. Blogs

Again, there are so many blogs and websites out there with advice on everything from writing a research proposal to formatting your bibliography. Here are some I check in with regularly:

The Professor Is In

Thesis Whisperer

Grad Hacker

PhD Life

And for comic relief...

PhD Comics


It's not easy

Writing isn't easy - it's work. Even at this late stage of my PhD, I'm still finding ways to con myself into sitting down at the desk and bashing away on the keyboard. Most of the time it's a struggle, but on (very) rare occasions - usually when I've solved a difficult problem - it's very satisfying. Satisfying; not necessarily enjoyable.

I'm really interested to hear what other tips PhD students have to help with writing and productivity. Do you go to your lab from 9am-5pm? Do you work weekends? Do you set yourself a minimum word count for the day, or do you prefer to go by number of hours worked?

Looking forward to hearing your suggestions!

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