Back in March I blogged about my struggles with Thesis-Specific Procrastination (TSP), and how I was learning some new tricks to overcome it. At the end of the second post I made the following 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.
And then I pretty much went silent about the topic. So what happened? I finished the corrections and resubmitted the revised thesis at the end of April, thank goodness. My recovery from TSP though, was an incomplete and somewhat patchy journey. Learning new habits, and more importantly, un-learning the old ones, didn’t happen overnight. Many times I relapsed into self-sabotaging behaviours, particularly perfectionism and procrastination. But these episodes were shorter, shallower, and less frequent than they had been before. Sticking to the rules I created for myself required vigilance and effort. I found I frequently had to re-read my posts to remind myself of how it felt to be doing well, and that helped me to work harder to experience that again.
Some days I thought it just wouldn’t happen for me, that I didn’t have what it takes to make it happen. All untrue of course, and self-doubt is a common experience at many stages throughout the doctorate. Ultimately, when I couldn’t trust my own judgement (often) I put my trust in the judgement of those whose opinions I valued. Liz was tremendously supportive throughout this period, as were many of my other PhD pals. They made it so that it didn’t matter that I thought I couldn’t do it – if they said I could, then I simply would.
My biggest error – all the way through the writing and re-writing process – was to underestimate what was required in the corrections. The resubmission was 53 pages (18,114 words) longer than the original. But that didn’t mean I just had to write an additional 18k words and be done with. Some of the work meant going right back to the literature searching stage. Once a new section was written, it then had to be ‘weaved’ through the rest of the thesis. New arguments and evidence needed to be incorporated into the structure of the whole work rather than just inserted into the first chapter. And this had a knock-on effect on the arguments I had already built: it undermined some, and made me think very differently about others. All this required a lot of re-writing that didn’t contribute to the additional word count. I never quite ‘got’ how much work this requires, and this resulted in the underestimation of the time it would take me to do.
Recently, a friend of mine was explaining how she had received from her supervisor such heavy criticism of the first draft of her thesis, that she had considered quitting. Essentially, the supervisor wanted her to rewrite the whole work, and annoyingly, that included some chapters that the supervisor had already approved some months ago. (Supervisors do things like that). As my friend was describing the work she had done in order to make the thesis acceptable to her supervisor prior to submission, it struck me that she had essentially gone through the same thing as I had with my major corrections. The notable difference being that I reworked my thesis after the viva, and she reworked hers before. There’s a lesson here, that comes too late for me, but maybe not for others: substantial rewrites are part of the thesis crafting process. I’m willing to bet that those who get minor corrections (or the elusive and legendary ‘accepted without corrections’) are those who have:
- given their supervisor their work for critique on multiple occasions;
- paid attention to the feedback and implemented (most) of the supervisor’s suggestions;
- experienced substantial re-writes as part of the thesis creation process.
I know for a fact that had I given my supervisor the chance to read more of my work pre-submission, I would have had the critique and advice necessary to make my thesis good enough for minor corrections. I also know for a fact that he had been telling me this, in several different ways, throughout the year leading up to my first submission. I allowed perfectionism to chain me to my work, fear made me feel it never was ready for supervisor’s eyes. Then panic-fueled last-minute writing that would never have time to be reviewed. Huge mistake. You live and you learn.
And I have been learning! The key, as ever, is practise, practise, practise. A good deal of the lessons are applicable to my day-to-day work, not least because I am now in the final stages of creating my portfolio for the PGCertHE. Here’s the recipe of my writing practise that is working for me now:
- I write first drafts.
- I redraft.
- I copy-edit.
- I treat all three of the above as separate activities, and do them in separate work slots.
- When I don’t know where to start, I pick somewhere at random and just start. Before long I have an inkling of where something might be going, so I can switch sections and work on another if I want to.
- When something isn’t working, I ditch it and start afresh – new document, page, whatever. It clears the mind.
- I can survive without an internet connection for up to 2 hours without experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
- I’m learning to allow others to review my early-ish drafts.
- When a piece is being reviewed by someone else, I work on something else.
- I don’t punish myself when things aren’t going great.
- If I think I can rescue the session, I’ll take a break first with a specific purpose – take a walk, do a 10-minute meditation, think about my next bit of writing while making a cup of tea.
- If I think it can’t be rescued, I do a schedule-switch. Can’t get my head into this piece right now? Fine, I’ll clean the kitchen and take out the rubbish. BUT, that means replacing the kitchen-cleaning slot on Saturday with this writing slot. No negotiation.
- I reward myself for good progress, in proportion to the progress made. This one is awesome, and it requires being a bit of an adult (something else I’m currently practising). I have deemed a gin and tonic an appropriate reward for 800 words. The bottle of fizz is only coming out when the 2k mark is done. Obviously you’ll want to customise your goals and rewards to suit you.