I am writing a series of blog posts condensing the PhD-writing strategies that helped me finish my PhD. I went from being a not-always-effective researcher to finishing my PhD in a couple of hours a day. Read my story here.
Strategy 1: Prioritise
Time is tricky. That is true, in general, but it’s especially true when you’re writing a PhD. Unless you’re in a highly structured PhD programme you likely have a lot of unstructured time to do your research. Which may mean reading, thinking, and writing, gathering data, running your analyses, or staring out of the window waiting for inspiration to strike. Maybe you do a lot of the latter. Don’t worry. We all do. It’s necessary. But how not to let your PhD get lost in time? How to make sure your PhD gets written, and deadlines get met? Wasting time is only fun, if you’re not stressing out. Ah – the eternal academic struggle!
The problem with academia, especially in the early phases when you are still discovering what your work is about, is that time can seem both endless (the empty days) and a pressing problem (the deadlines). It can also seem as if you have gotten absolutely nothing done, even after a full day at your computer.
The solution? Prioritise.
As in – seriously prioritise.
If you could choose between writing 500 words, of a literature review, say, or a methods section, or an analysis of your data; or if you could check Twitter: what would be the best use of your time in terms of getting your PhD written?
For me, personally, this question was key to finishing my PhD. I finished my PhD with severe energy limitations, and this was about as bad as it got: are you going to check Twitter, or are you going to write two paragraphs today? There was no energy to do both.
I also had to ask myself: am I going to read or write today? There was no energy to do both.
If the answer was ‘read’, I had to ask myself: am I going to read this paper, or that paper? There was no energy to do both.
If the paper seemed less than relevant after a page or so, I’d abandon it, and choose something else to do. My energy was running out, already, and I had absolutely no intention of wasting it on reading a paper I was not going to use.
If this sounds like a torturous way of finishing your PhD you are right: running into walls as a way of life is in no way enjoyable. But it’s effective, I can tell you that.
For me, energy became a life-or-death type limit. It forced me to be very clear on what I wanted to do, and to devise ways to do it. I was forced to channel my energy.
The reason we so often NOT prioritise and focus is because we don’t have to. We have lots of time, lots of energy and lots of possibilities. Why not explore a little? Sometimes, exploring and cruising are indeed the best thing to do. Until they’re not, and we’re still doing it.
Not prioritising and not focusing are also the easy way out. It’s hard to choose one course of action, one next step. Once we’ve chosen, we also find out how hard the implementation of that step may be. Writing 500 words sounds easy, and sometimes it is, but very often it’s not. It confronts us with all the things we don’t know, all the answers we don’t have, all the blank space that is waiting to be filled. And we better fill it with something intelligent. That’s difficult. So we digress. Float off. Disengage. Check Twitter.
Ask yourself when you sit down at your desk in the morning:
If there was only one thing I could do, one action I could take, one paper I could read, one analysis I could run, one paragraph I could write, today –what would I choose? What is the absolute most important thing I could do today if I wanted my PhD to move ahead?
Take the question seriously. Take the limitation seriously. What if this really was the only thing I could do today? As in the only thing.
Then, take the answer seriously too. DO it. Take your own advice. Do what you need to do, and don’t be distracted.
Afterwards, you’re free. Free to wonder, free to drift, free to waste time. Free to check Twitter.
If you want, and have the energy, you can repeat the ‘if there was only one thing I could do’ question, and get more important work done.
But you don’t have to. Take it from me: we often do too much. Too many unimportant tasks, which with hindsight may not have been more than distractions. (Do you really need to read all 25 papers? No. Probably not.)
Force yourself to prioritise. Even if you can only manage one work session of an hour a day – if you use it wisely you will make great strides.
You will have done your ‘most-important-thing’. It is all you ever really need to do.