Yesterday I confessed that I suffer from Thesis-Specific Procrastination (TSP), and that I had discovered two fellow sufferers (so far). Today, I’m going to tell you how I spent a day in a pub with Liz, and left with 840 new words of meaningful text for my thesis corrections.

Liz does not suffer from TSP: if she did, the day might have gone rather differently. As it is, it was one of the most productive writing times I’ve experienced. If you are reading this and looking for the holy grail of boundless motivation, you may be disappointed. One size does not fit all. I have been down the rabbit warren of productivity and writing workflows many times, instigated new plans on hundreds of occasions, and always said “this is it! I’ve got it cracked!” only to relapse once more into a zombie-like benign inertia, punctuated with bouts of panic-writing. What happened in that pub, was that Liz and I diagnosed my issues, and created a ‘prescription’ of measures for me to remedy them. It was hard work and involved some rather distasteful self-reflection. But my friend made sure I had a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Much of this advice was not new to me – most of what I learned was how to apply it to myself, which is a bigger breakthrough than I could possibly have imagined.

Habit: My usual pattern of work is to start by re-reading the section I’m working on to refresh what I’ve already done. I believed I had a very short attention span, so after working on a couple of new paragraphs, I would then re-read the whole section again to see if it fits. This cycle I repeated continuously until I was happy with the section. This process, for any given section, spanned multiple writing bouts, so I was constantly having to ‘warm up’ before writing on the same topic.

Issues: The above statement is factually correct, yet inaccurate. I don’t just re-read – I edit. Heavily. Every. Single. Read-through. I don’t have a short attention span at all: the procrastination I experience is thesis-specific, remember? I never even attempted to produce a ‘draft’ in the true meaning of the word. It isn’t an unusual problem – there’s loads of great advice out there about the benefits of separating writing and editing, particularly in the context of writing up research. My problem is seeing the bigger picture. When you are up to your arse in alligators, it’s hard to remember you’re there to drain the swamp. The corrections / revisions to my thesis are major, and I was taking entirely the wrong approach. I tried to ‘dip in’ to the thesis and ‘fix’ what was wrong, using the flimsy, broken and unsatisfactory text I already had, as a basis on which to rebuild it right. One cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And one cannot ‘focus’ on writing an argument one paragraph at a time.

Remedy: Where the corrections require extensive re-writing, start from scratch. I know, I know, it made me gasp in horror too, to begin with. I needed to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. What is my overarching purpose in this section? What stages do I need to take the reader through so that they arrive at the same place as me by the end? I tried it, gave it a proper go. It started off painfully and excruciatingly slow. I gave a verbal cheer when I had produced 91 words, and informed Liz I was going to go for a smoke-break as a reward. She talked me down. I went back to it. The rusty cogs started to work loose, I started to gain momentum. After a couple of hours, I was flying along. I ignored what I had previously written, and wrote the section as I thought it should be. When I go back to edit, I shall just make sure that I have included all I needed to, and if anything in the previous writing needs to go into the draft I have created, I shall figure out how to get it in. Editing will also involve checking and adding references and cross-references: I didn’t stop for those, I kept right on moving!

Result: I wrote HALF an introduction to an experimental chapter, meaningful text that made sense and flowed. It is not perfect – far from it – but it is far better than the text I already had in there. I didn’t need to stop to keep re-reading (editing) what I had written, because I was moving fast enough to be able to see the whole argument thread from above. I was out of the woods and seeing the trees. And I was thinking “so this is how it feels to write a draft!”. I won’t get carried away and tell you the words spilled from my mind to my hands like running water. If only. But I wrote more (sensible) text in that session than I have done for weeks. And I felt good about myself. And – get this – it motivated me to do more, to sustain that feeling of moving along with the writing.

I’d like to point out a couple of other contributory factors to my success, because Liz and I agreed that these elements were significant:

    1. By meeting in a pub, I was outside of my familiar surroundings, and therefore away from the context that, for me, has become associated with unproductive work.
    2. There was no WiFi. I claim to have no problem with closing off social media and getting on with work, and I don’t. But it has become apparent that I have a problem with using social media as a reward system for micro-productivity. And ‘just checking Twitter’ often means engaging with other folk, reading a blog post or two, browsing the web… and sometimes a goodly chunk of time gone. More often than not, the time I spend on email and social media as ‘reward’ time outweighs that spent writing. Ouch.
    3. Because of 1. and 2., I didn’t ‘task-switch’. Switching between tasks is a focus-breaker, increasing cognitive load with each switch. And for me, returning to writing after a break of any length meant ‘warming up’ again. Combine this with my horrendous habit of re-reading and editing a whole section before moving forward with any new writing, and I had a terrifyingly successful recipe for self-sabotage.
    4. By meeting with a friend (who also had some work do to, Liz wasn’t just baby-sitting me), I had made a commitment to another. I break commitments to myself all the time, and it contributes to a lack of self-respect, and a negative attitude. I couldn’t very well sit with Liz in a pub for a study session, and play solitaire on the computer or stare out the window. And I couldn’t ‘just check my emails’ with no WiFi. I had to keep moving with the writing – that is what I had come for.
    5. At the end of the day, Liz helped me create a realistic plan to complete my thesis corrections, given the tight timeframe I have left myself. My friend acted as a sanity-balance, and thank goodness. Will I really come home after day’s work and do 4 hours thesis-writing? Every day? When will I eat, do household chores, or properly relax or socialise? I was humbled. An hour and a half is a far more reasonable goal for weekdays. I also allocated the slots I identified as pure writing slots. No editing permitted, no checking of references, and no restructuring. I have a whole day set aside in a couple of weeks for the purpose of editing all the revisions I will have worked on up to that point. And I shall print the sections and edit on paper, where I can see the bigger picture, the threads of my arguments, and how they all relate. No scrolling up and down my documents trying to remember where I wanted to insert that paragraph.

Summary of lessons learned

      • I do not constantly review – I constantly re-write.
      • Writing and editing ARE completely different, but I had no recent experience of that. I needed to learn from scratch what each of these phases felt like when doing them independently of each other.
      • The final result will only be as good as the materials you used to build it: sometimes it’s easier to start again with clarity.
      • I know a great deal more about my topic than I did when I wrote the thesis. I have a very different perspective now, after the viva, and it’s OK to re-write accordingly. In fact it’s more than OK – it should be the whole point of corrections.
      • Punishing oneself for under-performing is ineffective as a tool to increase productivity.
      • Rewarding oneself for micro-performance is equally ineffective – it just reinforces the feeling that this is too hard to do in larger stages.
      • I am a more productive writer when I have no access to the internet. It made me wince to write that. The truth hurts.
      • I can write anywhere. I need only my little laptop. With WiFi switched off, the battery easily lasts for more than 5 hours. So I don’t need to be near a power outlet. I don’t need to carry round batches of printed journal articles ‘just in case’. I can make a note in the writing that I need to check a fact / reference / whatever, and move on.
      • All the above required a significant amount of candid self-awareness; effort; and commitment. But it was SO worth it, and I can replicate

My Pledge

Hello, my name is Sarah, and I am a recovering thesis-procrastinator. This is my commitment to myself, made publicly.

I will stick to the plan that Liz helped me create. When I write, I will not edit. When I get stuck, I will move on. I will take editing seriously, as a separate activity. I will not force myself to write my corrections in linear order. When a section requires major re-working, I will start again from scratch, and note to myself that I can review the content of previous text and integrate it if necessary, but during the editing process only. I will not stop to check anything – just create a note to myself and move on. I will switch off internet connectivity for substantial periods of time. If my writing slot is less than 3.5 hours, I will not switch it on at all during that time. I will do nothing else but write, during my writing slots.

And finally: I will keep blogging about how it’s going for me.

Thesis corrections: un-learning 8 years of bad habits Part 2

2 thoughts on “Thesis corrections: un-learning 8 years of bad habits Part 2

  • Pingback: Thesis corrections: what happened? » Sarah Robins-Hobden

  • March 24, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Just to say that I am not a paragon of virtue!

    Like most people, I am not finding writing my thesis easy – the whole thing is a challenging and painful journey, and I frequently wonder if I totally lost my sanity the day I embarked on this path!

    I am more than glad that I was able to be a fellow traveller with Sarah. But I got a lot out of the day too. There is an old saying that when you point at a problem in somebody else there are three fingers pointing back at yourself. If it were not so, I would not have recognised some of the problems Sarah had – and by recognising them in myself, I am also able to take action to remedy them.

    Perhaps a key lesson of yesterday was the risk and gain both of us gained from being honest and transparent about our work practice. We were able to share what we were doing and learn from each other. Although Sarah was arguably more vulnerable – she has less time to get her thesis submitted – we are both very conscious of the pressures on ourselves and on our time, especially as deadlines get ever closer. I am more than ever convinced of the value of peer support – I suspect it won’t be that long before I am asking Sarah to give me a kick up the proverbial and help me to sort out my writing issues!

    To any other thesis writers out there, I would say, get yourself a buddy you can trust and can be completely honest with!

    Thanks Sarah for honouring me with that friendship!


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