I’m writing a dissertation. In the Humanities. It’s a big project, and a very specific kind of writing. I don’t think it’s easier or harder than other kinds of writing, but I do think there are a few challenges particular to the territory. Personally, I’ve struggled with the persistent lack of deadlines. I’m also currently managing a whole new level of stress that is tied to my funding (or, actually, my lack of funding) for my fifth year. Anyway, all of that aside, here are some strategies that have helped me to get on track in my progress (even I get off-track fairly often).
(This post is pretty personal, and pretty boring. Here’s a picture I quite like, and the rest of the post is under the cut.)
*give yourself deadlines for completed work. Even if no one else will. No. Especially if no one else will.
*know that you will fail to meet your deadlines (at least some of the time). I’m really good at getting things in on time if they have a concrete, immovable deadline. Conference proposals, article submissions, applications: they’ll be in on time, maybe early. My dissertation work? I’m always ten days late. My supervisor knows this, and I know this. We talk about it, and work together to communicate about it.
*give yourself deadlines for progress. (These are actually goals, but calling them deadlines helps me stay motivated.) I usually give myself daily and weekly deadlines to the tune of “no fewer than 1000 words/day.”
*don’t punish yourself for failing. If I don’t meet my daily word count, I don’t have to make it up the next day. I tried doing that for a while, and all that happened is that I started avoiding my computer. You can’t write anything if you’re avoiding your computer.
*don’t panic over false starts. I spent nine months trying to massage a chapter out of pages and pages of notes and months worth of reading, only to change my object of study at the last moment. Making the switch was painful, but crucial to the project. I’m 50% of the way through the first draft of the new chapter.
*change up your routine if you need to. I oscillate between several organizational and motivational tools, keeping to the same schedule and motivators until they stop working. Right now, for example, I’m committed to writing 1000 words/day, and reading a minimum of 25 research-related pages (usually one article). Eventually, I’ll switch the core of my focus, and I’ll go back to reading almost full time, and writing a minimum of 100 words/day. Or I’ll hit a general slump, and I’ll be back to forcing myself to slog through any kind of work at 25 minute intervals. (The pomodoro timer system works really well for this.)
*do writing. It’s really easy to keep doing research. For months. Seriously, you can convince yourself that you’re not ready to write, and thus put off writing maybe forever. Don’t do it. Just start, even if your first few pages are garbage. The first few pages are always, always garbage anyway.
*be generous with yourself. Keep track of good progress, and remind yourself, often, that you’re getting shit done. Don’t punish yourself, and especially don’t punish yourself by taking away privileges. For example, don’t force yourself to read nothing other than research material until you’ve finished a chapter- you’ll start to hate your work and resent yourself at the same time. Do use privileges as a motivating factor. I really look forward to things like reading fiction, doing a workout, going for a walk, or seeing friends. Often, I let myself do those things after I’ve met a daily work goal (or half-day goal).
*do self care. Do it. If your stress level is becoming debilitating, or you’re experiencing any kind of work-related depression or slump, disregard all of the above in favor of caring for yourself. Know that caring for yourself may (but equally may not) involve maintaining a work-care balance. For example, taking a week off to do yoga and be social is not useful for me- I’ll find it harder to come back to the work I’ve not been doing if I’ve spent a week not thinking about that stress. What is helpful is limiting my work time during those periods- doing things like giving myself reduced work hours and goals. But: you need to find a system that works for you.