I recently asked some friends if they had any blog post suggestions, and “L” asked, “how do people find motivation to write [their thesis] when they are off campus?” Here are a few suggestions for her and you… and feel free to add your own comments below.
Having been there myself, I think one of the most useful things I did was to identify what the actual problem was… what was really preventing me from finishing my thesis. Yes, there was work, family obligations, and so on. But truth be told, the real thing was personal. I was afraid of what I would do when I was no longer a student. I did not have a faculty job lined up and was actually in another position and somewhat tied to where I was due to my partner’s employment. That was basically a fear of success. What would I do if I succeeded? But I was also afraid of failure. What if I couldn’t finish? What if I couldn’t write? What if I couldn’t say anything new or unique? I’m not suggesting that this is everyone’s reality, but many people have more going on with trying to complete their dissertations than not being able to schedule the time to write. When I admitted I was playing a giant head game with myself, things got easier.
So, beyond this, what works? Here are some strategies I found successful in my writing.
The Ideal Time to Write: the ideal ideal time to write is as elusive as the unicorn. There is no ideal time to write. What works for you this month may not work for you next month. What is ideal is to adjust as soon as possible once you realize your “ideal time to write” is no longer working. Some people also work better in one place than another. Three things that worked for me were writing at my workplace outside of the work week (I tried mornings, and weekends) and the other was working early at home, before everyone was up. Lastly, I would sometimes read for edits or write a paragraph while doing something else, while my son was playing nearby and I was keeping an eye on him, for example.
Deprivation and Reward: In order to get myself to write, I sometimes sat myself at my computer with a coffee and got at it first thing. When I wrote a page or so, I “allowed” myself a second coffee. When I did a bit more, I got a shower. A bit more, lunch. You get the idea.
Knowing When and How to Stop: I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is sitting in front of a computer long after they are done writing. They hit the wall but feel they should sit there for a set amount of time. Ultimately, this makes the whole process needlessly negative. Most people seem only able to write in chunks of a few hours at most. I found the best way to write was to tell myself to write for 3 hours and stop. As I came to an end of the time, I’d leave notes for where I’d be picking up. Going back to the thesis seemed much easier once I started doing that.
Think of Things in Bursts: There were times when my husband and I were both writing. And I was getting up early and writing for 2 hours. And it wasn’t sustainable. But that was okay. It’s okay to do something in a burst.
Turning Arbitrary Deadlines into Concrete Ones: One of the biggest things about being away from my university and my adviser when I was writing was to come up with timelines and deadlines. The PhD deadlines can be so arbitrary; stretching out for years but suddenly contracting at the worst possible time. Then I hit upon it. Conference papers and articles! Using the deadlines imposed by conferences and journals gave me the extra pressure I needed to get things done.
Mentorship/Feedback: Presumably your adviser is still in the mix. At times I did not communicate with mine that regularly because I was in hiding. But when I communicated what I wanted my deadlines to be, my adviser was a powerful ally. I was lucky. But you may have a colleague or friend that will take on the role of mentor. My suggestion here would be to be very clear about expectations, so they know you are not going to exhaust them and spit out a husk of a person. But also be clear about what you need them to do. A good model is to meet for coffee every 3 weeks at which time you’ll report on how you are doing. There may be more to it than that, it depends on their knowledge on your topic and level of engagement, however, just about anyone can do this for you. It can even be done virtually.
There’s obviously more that could be said on this topic… feel free to post questions and comments!