The PhD Chronicles: Back into the Rythm

Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes

So I recently mentioned that I'm getting back on track with my dissertation and so, since it's been about a month, I figured I'd give an update. 

Overall--it's going well. I feel like I'm actually making progress. For oer a month now, I've managed to work 20-30 minutes each day, if not longer on other days. This is a great and consistent effort that allows me to see actual progress; something that I need. 

So how have I been able to do it?  After a year of nearly faltering, I feel like I've turned the corner and am chipping away.  Here are some of things that have been working for me.  What I would suggest is that this is essentially a recipe. A grouping of habits that have helped me and "tastes" great to my palate.  You should certainly mix and match with what you think will work for you but also, maybe experiment a bit to figure out what's working. Sometimes, it's our own assumptions about what we think works for us that are our biggest barriers. 

A photo of a notebook page with each line filled with the date, the number of minutes worked and what got accomplished.

Short and Sweet

So I started January with a 20 minute-a-day dedication. But I soon found 30 minutes work best (more on that later).  This is a solid chunk of time and I'm finding that there is plenty to get done. Now, I know that many of us are like "but it's too short to get into the headspace for deep writing."  I'm not the first to recommend the short and sweet--BUTTTTTTT I do think the recommendation is often lacking some useful guidance so look to the next few practices that might help with that. 

But 30 minutes at 7 days a week, gives me a minimum of 3.5 hours, which is way more than I was dedicating to the dissertation beforehand because I kept thinking about "when am I gonna find a 3.5-hour chunk in my week?!?!?"  The other thing is that with 30 minutes done, I can decide to do more, but I have at least done that much.  Small victories are getting me there much more than claiming large-chunks of non-existent time have yet to.

Back and Forth

The trick for me has been to not do the same thing each week.  Right now, I will spend one week reading research and taking notes.  The following week, I spend integrating that research into Chapter 2. I will keep doing this till I'm done with that set of research and chapter 2. But this method does help on the "I need time to get into the mood."  By loading up ideas in my head in the research week, they will percolate there and when I'm back into the writing week, they will inevitably have sat long enough in the back of my head to start weaving or encouraging me to weave them into certain sections of my writing.  

But the larger point remains the same. Think about how you can move back and forth between reinforcing work so that it doesn't feel like you're starting a new.  This is something I realized helped me immensely. Rather than thinking about "THE BLANK PAGE OF DESPAIR", I took my writing chapter 2 weeks to say, "Ok, what do I want to add from my notes and where does it go?".  

"Here" I am

So I have a "research notes" document and a dissertation document. Whenever I am done writing for a day, I highlight where I am and comment "HERE".  This is a clear visual clue of where I left off if I have to close the tab (yes, definitely work in Google doc so you can access it whereever and have the most recent version).  It's a simple idea but one that will also save you time when you've only go 30 minutes to write. I usually find the place, read the previous 3-4 sentences, which will help me refresh where I left off.  Since it was just the day or so before, then I'm not reaching back weeks (ok, months) to recall my momentum.  After finding the place in the document and in my mind, I hit the clock.

Clock It

Yes, I use an actual clock. Not my computer time, definitely not my cellphone and not my watch. I found this simple (and cheap) digital timer, set it to 30 minutes, and get to work. I usually put it in my perifery so I can give it a quick glance as if I'm trying to figure out what next to do (e.g. "take on a new article to start and finish, or work through a pages in this book").  But I don't want it in front of me as count-down will be distracting. I also display it in such a way that my partner might be able to see it if she comes by. It serves as a good visual cue that I am occupied and how long I'll be occupied.  

Always Open

As I mentioned, I use Google Docs and on my main computer at home, I tend to leave three documents always open:  Literature Notes, the current chapter I'm working on, and the References document.  Once again, with it always open, it saves me another 2-3 minutes of needing to open them up. It's there.  Ready to go;  ready to grow (Ok, that is a cheesy line, but it is a rhyme I occasionally think to motivate me).  

Document It

Again, this is more for me but it helps to create a visual of my progress.  So each day, I document what I have done that day. As you can see from the photo, I note the day, the amount of time, and a brief description of what I did. I have to say that for me, it's so powerful to see what I've done in a month.  That in itself proves encouraging and helps me move forward on days when I don't want to do anything; those definitely still happen.  But I can leverage the momentum of the previous weeks to say, "Hey, you can do at least 20 minutes, you know you can!" And if I can trick myself into 20 minutes, then I can get myself to 30.  

Use Your Headings and Outline Tool

Google Docs has a great feature where when you create headings, it adds them to the document outline.  This outline is easily accessible on the left-hand side. I use this all the time and most of my documents but it has been quite helpful in moving more quickly through my dissertation documents.

Remember that as you're writing your chapters, you can use 1,000,000 section headings. They can be erased later but for now, they can allow you to move more quickly around your document to get to the right location. Therefore, when you're integrating research, if you use the outline, you can move more quickly and not get lost in the infinite scroll of so many pages.  

At this point, my references are 25 pages. Getting through that effectively is time-consuming. For my References, I make a heading for each letter in the alphabet in the relevant section. At the beginnings of the references with A, I make a heading of A. With the document outline, this means I can jump through my references to the relevant one pretty quick.  

Check-In Group

Last year, I started a check-in group where we met via Zoom once a week/every other week. I was nice to get into a Zoom room and chat with others. Unfortunately, it did not last long. Finding time in everyone's busy schedule and taking the time to log in to a visual/audio environment to report little or no progress might have been too high a threshold for talking about various work that we're struggling with.  Lesson learned.  

This January, I started a different check-in group via text message. I put out a call to folks on my Facebook and LinkedIn networks. I ended up with about 9 other folks working on bigger projects and needing someone or somewhere to talk about the progress (or the things that prevented progress).  

It's a pretty basic set up. In the morning sometime, I (or someone else) will text out to the group a basic question: "What is your goal today?" (typically, but not always related to the larger projects they're working towards).  People respond if they have goals or the bandwidth.  At the end of the day, I (or someone else) will share out the question "What were you able to get done today?" along with what they got done.  

For the past month, this has been quite effective. It's small, it's simple, and it gives me something to work toward. I encourage others and folks encourage me. We try to keep goals small and they're not even always related to the big projects that we're working towards. There's no big commitment and no one is breathing down one another's neck to get it done. But, it provides one more element to help me get things done.

Feeding the Soul

For nearly all of 2018, I didn't do any active blogging. I did reviews, but they were one-offs, done in advance and largely off the cuff. I had trouble dedicating time to the blog or just any creative writing not related to the dissertation. Thus, I didn't write much and that didn't feel good. 

As I started down this path to doing 20-30 minutes a day on the dissertation, I made a deal with myself. I would also write 20-30 minutes on whatever I wanted but if I worked on the dissertation, I had to work on some other writing as well.  To some, this may sound like I'm just making more work for myself but what I know about myself is that by having the outlet to write about whatever I want, I am better at writing the dissertation during the time I am focused on just that.  It's a case of where doing one thing frees me up to do the other thing. For me, there's something in this practice that gives me much more momentum than if I was just doing one thing.   The result is that I've been doing more blog posts, writing articles for other places, and even slipping back into creative writing and working on stories.  

Final Thoughts

So I was recently hearing about the book (but haven't read it yet) Tiny Habits and one aspect of tiny habits is to create recipes or join things together.  

Now, I've been doing this for years. This is how I've gotten to be much more consistent at going to the gym or working out in the morning. When I get home from work, my process is to empty out my clothes and such. Then, I get my clothes together for the next day as well as gather any food I'll be taking for work. If it needs to be in the fridge, then I put it on the top shelf, signaling for myself the next morning when I feed the cat that "THIS" is what I should take. However, in order to get food and coffee (yes, I'm a BYOC kind of guy), I have to attend to the kitchen sink (since I make cold-brew coffee).  This means I need to unload the diswasher (if necessary), load it up and clean out the sink before I can get to my coffee.  When all of this is done, I've managed to have everything ready for the next day, cleaned out the sink, and am ready to not have to think about work or working out again until the next morning.  

That is my preparation for the next day recipe and it works.  What I have laid out here is my current recipe of small habits that appear to got me back into the rhythm of moving forward and for now, it's working.  

What are your tried and true methods for getting yourself up and going on something or that have gotten you out of a funk?  

Want to keep up with my PhD adventures?  Check out any of the links below:
  1. Acceptance...and acceptance
  2. Orientation
  3. Day 1
  4. Week 1
  5. First 2 Courses Completed
  6. First 2 Courses Finished
  7. Semester 2, Here We Go
  8. The Existential Crisis of the Week
  9. The Balancing Act
  10. Negotiating Privilege in Higher Education
  11. Zeroing in on Research
  12. Completing the Second Semester
  13. My Educational Autobiography
  14. So Starts the Third Semester
  15. My Educational Philosophy...for now
  16. PhD'ese
  17. And Sometimes, You Feel It
  18. Semester's Endgame
  19. Year 1, Officially Done
  20. Year 2, Week 1, Day 1
  21. Year 2, Week 1 Done! 
  22. 1/3 Complete!?!?
  23. Click...
  24. Day 1; Semester 5
  25. Share and Share Alike
  26. Mindful and Mind-Filled
  27. 5th Semester Down
  28. Day 1, Semester 9
  29. The Two Demons of My Doctorate
  30. When Senioritis Kicks In
  31. The Final Friday
  32. The Year That Wasn't
Sub-series specifically about the dissertation:

  1. Dissertation Journal #1
  2. Dissertation Journal #2
  3. Dissertation Journal #3
  4. Dissertation Journal #4
  5. Dissertation Journal #5
  6. Dissertation Journal #6
  7. Dissertation Journal: QP Revised Edition

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