Being Digitally Organized


Writing a dissertation or thesis isn’t all about the writing. Academic writing requires a lot of moving parts in order to be successful. Writing is, of course, important (words won’t magically appear for you), but it’s your little habits and practices that will make all the difference in timeliness and completion. Brilliance on its own isn’t enough to get you to your defense date. You’ll need organization to meet your deadlines, avoid unnecessary mistakes, tedious work, and/or a complete disaster (e.g. misplacing key resources, losing research, technical glitches, etc.).

Organization goes beyond the physical collection of papers, books, and research you might collect. In fact, chances are that most of your resources and research will be digital. Most research, even in the humanities, includes online and database research. Undoubtedly, you’ll have on hand dozens (perhaps hundreds) of online articles and statistics in your possession. Moreover, eBooks are finding a new prevalence in serious research and writing. Beyond eBooks and articles are digital newspapers, webpages, blogs, and even social media. Managing physical sources, papers, and books is only half of the battle. You’ll need to think about what to do with all that data you’ll undoubtedly accumulate. And no, leaving it all on your computer’s desktop isn’t an option! You’ll need to develop effective strategies and organizational techniques to manage your digital sources and files.

Thankfully, digital organization is rather simple. It doesn’t require much effort beyond instituting a few commonsense practices that will surely save you time, effort, and frustration. Additionally, there are a number of tools that can help you become a better digital organizer so you can focus on the stuff that matters—like writing!


Say NO to USBs!

Don’t use a USB stick! Please, please let go of those awful USB sticks. They’re a disaster waiting to happen. It’s not unusual for writing to be a mobile activity. More likely than not, you’ll need to work somewhere other than your home. That means you’ll have to take your work with you. So, it’s important to plan how you’ll take your work around with you.

While working as a librarian, it wasn’t unusual to find doctoral students using USB sticks to carry work around and save working versions of their dissertation. I’d always advise them to avoid using USB sticks. One, they’re ridiculously easy to lose. Two, they’re easily corruptible. Beyond these reasons however, USB sticks are not great for organization. They make it easy to lose, misplace, or save over important drafts of your work. Furthermore, they add the extra burden (and potential disaster) of moving your work from the USB stick to your main computer. USB sticks invite messiness, adding a unnecessary burden to your writing flow.


Do your work in the cloud

Embrace cloud storage. I love cloud storage. I used it almost extensively while I was writing my dissertation. I’m a huge fan of Google Drive, as I could switch between multiple computers without having to worry about losing my information on whatever I was working on. With dissertation writing, you’re going to need to keep everything organized and safe. You need to have the confidence that some sort of disaster isn’t going to befall you. Cloud storage allows you to work on the same document on any computer. No more losing USB sticks or worrying about losing your information. Moreover, Google’s Backup and Sync operates seamlessly with Windows. No more downloading or uploading because it’ll do it all for you. You can even work on documents offline as Backup and Sync will upload your documents for you once you’re safely back to Wi-Fi.

Can’t I just save everything on my laptop? Yes you can, but you’re also inviting the risk of disaster in case something happens. I always encourage students to use backups. Multiple if necessary. There’s no downside of using cloud storage, especially if it saves a local version of the file on your computer. Cloud storage is also amazing for organizing large groups of files (especially all those article pdfs). You can carry your entire research library with you wherever you go. This is especially helpful if you’re researching on a database



Don’t let your desktop become your own version of Where’s Waldo

For the love of God clean your desktop! Take a look at your desktop. Go ahead and look carefully. Can you see the wallpaper in the background or is it blocked by the clutter of files, pdfs, and shortcuts? If you can’t see your background it’s time to start organizing! Think of your computer as your digital desk. Having everything on the desktop (like papers strewn on a desk) isn’t necessarily helpful. For one, it’s time consuming to continuously scan over your desktop just to find one file. It’s also bound to cause you unnecessary anxiety—where did I put my file again? Yeah, you want to avoid that whenever possible.

Take stock of everything on your desktop. Is everything there necessary? Begin by deleting any old files and shortcuts that you never, ever use. Next look over any pdfs and Word files. Are these relevant to your research? Should they be somewhere else (like a research folder)? Start by creating categorical folders for research (articles, eBooks, papers, etc.). You can even break that down into categories such as those you need to read, important articles, or even by author. There are a variety of ways of breaking down and categorizing information. Think of a system that works for you and stick to it. Make modifications if necessary, but stick to it!


Don’t let this happen to you. 

Scan your articles after reading (Don’t print everything and don’t rely on paper). Some students have a bad habit of printing everything. Yes, it’s sometimes easier to read on paper, but be selective about what you print. Besides killing trees, printing dozens of articles creates an instant mess. Where are you going to store those papers? Will you carry them around with you everywhere? I’ll sometimes see students walk in carrying a mound of papers. It looks physically exhausting and potentially dangerous if you lose them—especially if you write notes to yourself on those articles. Let’s face it, printed articles are messy. Alternatively, try printing out only one or two articles at a time (what you reasonably can read in one or two sittings). Make your notes, highlights, and scribbles like usual. Once you’ve made your notes, scan your article and add it to your cloud drive. This ensures that your scribbles and scrawls are safe, without having to lug everything around. Moreover, you can always reprint the article if you want to add further notes. This is helpful if you just can’t stand reading articles on a computer screen.

Take digital notes. Digital note taking has been around forever. Evernote is the most well known, but there are plenty of choices when it comes to note taking. Some even simulate taking notes on paper (for touch based devices). Apple, Microsoft, and Google all have their own versions of note taking apps and software. Play around with a few and choose one that works well with whatever device you’re using. Some, like Evernote, will even allow you to take a picture of your handwritten notes, allowing you to upload it instantly to the cloud. Digital notes can help you with jotting down ideas and organizing your thoughts.

Above all, be sure to develop a strategy for saving and accessing all the data. Don’t wait to get organized. Start now and make it part of your research routine!


Photos by Brina Blum,  John Schnobrich, Paul Csogi, and Sear Greyson on Unsplash



Staying Organized = Success


Right off the bat, I want to dispel a common myth going around. This is the myth that your messiness and disorganization is a sign of higher intelligence and/or creativity. Now it’s true that some research has shown that messy and untidy individuals typically have a higher IQ and are more creative (though I’m not sure how one rates creativity). Unsurprisingly, this idea has floated all across social media as a justification for being messy. Without a doubt this new idea brought great joy to the droves of disorganized folks across social media. Science has seemingly proved that smart people are untidy! After years of shame, there’s finally scientific evidence to justify one’s messiness! In fact, I wouldn’t put it past some folks to intentionally be more messy and disorganized just to prove they’re smart! After all it’s all a sign of higher intelligence, right? So let’s leave a few more papers around in hopes that it’ll spur our imaginations! Sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s not how creativity works. Your messy and disorganized desk, work area, and/or computer doesn’t make you a genius. It might only be a sign that you need to straighten up a bit.

Many people find justification for being messy using Albert Einstein’s famous quote, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” This sure sounds great, but let’s face it. None of us are Einstein (no matter how messy our desk is). Einstein would’ve been Einstein with or without a messy desk. Moreover, it’s your writing and research habits that you need to worry about. Einstein isn’t going to be writing your dissertation, you are! And just because messiness worked for Einstein doesn’t mean it will work for you. Now it may be true that messiness might be a sign of intelligence and high creativity. However, this doesn’t give you a license to be untidy or to excuse messiness. Moreover, certain types of writing don’t work well in a messy environment. Messiness may not matter so much when writing a novel, but it will definitely hinder progress with a dissertation or thesis. Academic writing (especially when it’s for a professor or committee) often requires more organization than others. Part of this is due to the requirements you’ll need to adhere to for your committee, professor, school, etc. Furthermore, academic writing typically involves strict deadlines. You’ll want to stay on schedule when writing a dissertation (especially if you need to graduate at a certain time). Consequently, disorganization isn’t going to work in your favor. 

Messiness isn’t a virtue, and it definitely won’t help you finish your dissertation. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that your own messiness is somehow special (it’s not). Writing a dissertation necessitates careful organization and planning. It requires the ability to find information and research quickly and efficiently. Furthermore, it requires long-term planning over the course of months and years. You may believe that your organizational “system” of paper stacks, USB drives, and books strewn across the floor is working, but it won’t a year from now. A dissertation requires the use and citing of dozens of articles and books. Depending on your field, you may also have mounds of qualitative and/or quantitative data to sort. As such, it’s imperative that this information remain organized and accessible. Nothing will set you back further than missing qualitative/quantitative data.

None of this means that your desk, writing area, or computer must be spick and span. We all have our own own quirks and methods when it comes to organization. That being said, any organizational system must actually be a coherent and logical system. Therefore, don’t think about it in terms of only remembering where things are. Remembering where you put and/or saved an article isn’t a system. You should instead know where an article, book, or file is because it has a designated space (either physically or virtually). Simply put, you don’t need to waste time remembering where something is. Ultimately your memory will fail you. Rummaging through papers, flipping through books, and checking USB drives for missing information wastes time and is mentally exhausting. Trust me, you’re not going to want to search for that missing article you found a year ago when you’re near the end. You’ll need all that mental and physical energy just to finish (especially when working against the clock—i.e., graduation deadline).

It was always a struggle to keep things organized. But it’s well worth it. Over the next two posts I’ll give you some tips for remaining organized. Today it’s important to remain both digitally and physically organized. Organization is more than just papers and books. It involves a concerted effort to keep your digital files easily accessible and safe. The first post will be on digital organization where I’ll share some tips on how cloud storage and desktop management can help keep you on track. This will be followed by how to keep your old-school papers, articles, and books organized. So stay tuned for more soon! 





Do You Love Your Dissertation?


I know this sounds crazy, but do you love your dissertation? You probably have plenty of reasons to hate it. In fact, hating a dissertation sounds more reasonable than loving it. Let’s try a little thought experiment. Name five reasons why you hate your dissertation. Think about it and write those reasons down. Did you have trouble coming up with your five? I’m willing to bet that you probably didn’t. I imagine that you likely came up with reasons similar to the following: 1) I have writer’s block, 2) It’s keeping me from graduating and moving forward in life, 3) I don’t like my topic, 4) I spend all of my time on it, and 5) I can’t find sources or my research isn’t working.

How does your list compare? You probably had a few items similar to mine. Furthermore, each of us have personal reasons as to why we hate our dissertation. Looking back over my experience, I didn’t need to spend much time on my list. In about 30 seconds, I had my five reasons. I only had to think back on the frustration my dissertation provoked before a flood of anxiety inducing feelings came back to me.

Now think of five reasons why you love your dissertation. Were you able to come up with five? It’s a little harder right? It takes a little longer to find reasons to love your dissertation (assuming that you found any at all).

It’s easy to think of the things that you hate about your dissertation. Given enough time, those negative things can easily form the narrative that you tell about yourself. Thus, the dissertation becomes a barrier to your own happiness. Consequently, your narrative becomes one of anxiety and guilt. The dissertation acts as the focal point of all of your ills and misfortunes. For example, there’s the constant nagging guilt of knowing that you should be writing (most poignant when you’re having fun). Then there’s the dread of the work you still have left to do (edits and re-writes, research, and forthcoming chapters). Finally (not really, but you get the point), a hatred of the barrier your dissertation represents. Literally, it’s the only thing between you and graduation. It’s easy for that barrier to become a sharp divide between depression and happiness.

It deeply worries me that it’s so easy to redirect those negative feelings about your dissertation to yourself. Dread, anxiety, guilt, and even anger have powerful implications for our overall health. No one can adequately handle writing two or more years on something that provokes such negative feelings. Those feelings are inevitable going to come back to you!

It’s natural for those feelings to affect you. Your dissertation is an extension of yourself. It represents your work and knowledge as a scholar. This work is a key capstone of your academic career. As a result, negative feelings toward something so deeply personal will undoubtedly influence the narrative you tell yourself. I can vividly remember the things I used to tell myself when my writing was slow or non-existent. Thoughts such as: “You’re not good enough” and “You’re not smart enough” regularly worked their way into my brain. Unsurprisingly, it became a self-fulling prophecy. I told myself I wasn’t good enough and (surprise!) my writing slowed or stopped altogether.

We’re generally expected to hate our dissertation, but hardly ever are we expected to love it. And it’s that expectation, that narrative, which becomes so detrimental to our own progress. How can you finish something that you hate? I don’t know about you, but I usually avoid things that I dislike or hate. It’s crazy to expect yourself to complete something that brings you anxiety, stress, and even depression. I believe it’s time to change the narrative! It’s time to change your narrative about your dissertation and (by extension) yourself.

It’s crazy to hate your dissertation. Consequently, it makes far more sense to love it. A change in attitude can make a remarkable difference in your own personal and scholarly outlook. This means that you need to tell yourself: “I love my dissertation.” Not “like” or “it’s okay.” No, say it to yourself, “I love my dissertation.” Say it out loud. Really, I mean it. Give it a try. Now, say it louder.

Did anyone look at you funny? I promise it’s okay. There’s no need to be embarrassed.


Shout it: “I love my dissertation!” You can jump up and down too.

Seriously, love your ideas and your work. Believe in the work that you’re doing. Embrace your thoughts and theories. Every dissertation is unique and special. It represents years of hard work, dedication, and a creative scholarly spirit. Remember that only you could do the work that you’re doing now. Your dissertation is important (you must always believe this).

Before you write, tell yourself that, “I love my dissertation.” Make this a daily part of your writing ritual. Remind yourself that it’s important to have a positive outlook about your dissertation. Negative feelings and attitudes will come (it’s impossible to block them). However, you can choose your response to them. Counter those feelings instead of accepting them. We are the stories that we tell. Therefore, change your narrative, choose to love your work, and start to enjoy writing!

Loving your work is the key to finishing!

Photos by Michael Fenton and Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Finding Your (Middle) Motivation


At a certain stage, writing can feel like a slough. The slow and steady pace you’ve established begins to affect you. It’s easy to let the day in, day out grind of writing wear down your motivation. If you’re writing well, you’ve probably established a daily ritual and pattern to keep making steady progress. However, it’s hard to keep that motivation going as you begin to reach the middle stages of your writing project. I believe this is especially true for dissertation and thesis writing. There comes a point where it really starts to dawn on you how long it’s going to take to finish. For better or worse, you’ve settled in for the long haul.

Middles are often depressing. After several months (maybe a year) of writing, you realize how much is left to do. You might realize that a significant amount of work needs to be done. The psychological effect of what’s left to do can easily erode your motivation. It’s around the midpoint that our self-doubt begins to awaken. You start doubting your progress, work, and ability to finish. Furthermore, you begin to feel that you don’t have enough left in the tank to finish. This is especially true if your first few chapters were challenging or slow. It’s easy to let those earlier challenges cloud your judgement about the rest of the work. As such, you’re left asking if you have anything left to give. How do you face the remaining months (or year) of writing?

The middle of a dissertation or thesis is a crucial time. It requires you to find a way to refuel and recommit yourself to the project. Moreover, that re-commitment is important, even if things are going well. Meaning that it’s important that you continue building on that current success. Doing so also requires preparing yourself for those confidence and motivational issues that will likely arise. Otherwise, you might slip (back) into some negative habits. For example, it’s at the middle that you might start to feel the pressure build.  You might start to notice those deadlines around the midway point. Six months ago, you weren’t worried about those deadlines. Suddenly, you are more aware of those looming committee and graduation deadlines. At such a point it’s not unusual to feel a little anxiety. Committee members are asking for chapters, and decisions need to be made about graduation. Will you meet the graduation deadline? Therefore, it’s perfectly natural to feel anxiety about those second-half deadlines. It’s imperative that you remain motivated!

How do you stay motivated in the middle? That motivation is going to be different for each person. Each one of you will have personal struggles, challenges, and life issues that you’ll need to work through. There’s no way to predict what challenges await you as write. However, here are a few practices that can keep you motivated in the middle.

Re-evaluate your strategy. Ask yourself how you are doing. Are you missing your deadlines? Has your writing been excruciating or painful? Do you feel exhausted from the last several chapters? It’s time to change your approach if you answered yes to any of those questions. Just because you’ve made progress doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement. The midway point is a time to critically evaluate your progress so far. Don’t be afraid to judge your current writing practices and routines. Now is the time to start planning for the remainder of the journey. Therefore, you’ll need to determine if you have enough left in the tank to cross the finish line. If you feel drained, lethargic, and/or depressed, then you need to refuel! Remember, a dissertation or thesis is all or nothing. A half-completed dissertation won’t get you to graduation!

Re-commit. Evaluate yourself. Are you still excited about your work? Do you enjoy your topic? Do you enjoy writing? If you answered no then it’s time to re-commit to yourself and your work. Explore the reasons why you picked this topic and re-examine your goals. What did you set to accomplish or discover? Have you lost sight of your focus or purpose? Obviously, your main goal is to graduate. However, that alone isn’t going to be enough get your through those last chapters. There’s no such thing as powering through a dissertation. Finishing requires re-committing to those research goals you set for yourself. Use those goals as a reminder of the importance of your work. Remind yourself that your work has value and is necessary. No one else is going to finish or complete what you’ve started!


Re-discover your passion!

Re-discover your motivation. If you’re having trouble with re-committing, then it might be time rediscover your motivation. This might require a return to the research. Return to the books and journals and look for areas to explore. Perhaps there is new research available that might help get your over that writer’s hump. Moreover, research has a way of igniting your mind. It’s possible that you’ve starved your mind during the writing process. Your lack of motivation might be a symptom of a starved mind. Feed your mind!

Re-visit your deadlines. Did you set realistic deadlines for yourself? If you’re feeling pressured or stressed then it’s time to ask if your deadlines are feasible. It’s not unusual to overestimate your progress, especially early on. You want your deadlines to be realistic, otherwise those deadlines can become a catalyst for failure. Pay special attention to the deadlines you’ve negotiated with your committee. Don’t be afraid to ask for extensions to those deadlines. It may become necessary to give yourself more breathing room. Yes, you want to finish dissertation and graduate. However, a breakneck pace is only going to disappoint yourself or lead to burnout.

Re-evaluate, re-commit, re-discover, re-visit, and celebrate your progress! Be optimistic because you’re half-way done!


Photos by Warren Wong and Ian Schneider on Unsplash



The Writing War


Writing often feels like trench warfare, and the blank page is our field of war. We struggle against the enemy as we push forward in the hopes of making progress. Writing can become constant battles of small gains and losses over a long period of time. Consequently, the battle of progress is wearing and draining. Those constant gains and losses of “two sentences forward and one sentence back” destroys our motivation to continue. The war of progress is one that pits us against our ultimate enemy: ourselves.

I very much understand the war of small gains and losses that characterizes dissertation/thesis writing. While writing my dissertation, I frequently fought against my dissertation. I strove to conquer it with a constant bombardment of words, sentences, paragraphs, and my own sense of perfection. In my mind, I made the dissertation an enemy I needed to conquer. In my mind, conquering meant perfection. Consequently, in an effort to make it “sound right,” every word and sentence suffered heavy scrutiny and tinkering. Inevitably, the battle wore me down. My gains grew smaller and my loses greater. As my frustration increased, I regularly contemplated the “nuclear” option: deleting what I had and starting over.

Does this sound familiar to you? Has your writing become a never-ending war of attrition? Thankfully, writing doesn’t have to be this way. Moreover, fighting against our work is counterproductive. It’s a war that we can’t win. We can’t win it because it’s a war we fight against ourselves. Making progress in our writing requires that we shed off that warring mentality. Writing is not a war or an adversary to overcome. We must instead learn to let go of those adversarial tendencies.

pan-xiaozhen-254933Don’t fight a war when writing. Let go.

Let go of perfection. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being detail oriented. Any writer will need to pay attention to the details at some point. However, perfection can inhibit progress. Constant debate over every single word, sentence, and paragraph makes writing slow and cumbersome. It’s also mentally taxing. Long-term arguing with yourself over the use of a certain word or phrase blocks your mind from seeing the whole picture. Perfectionism keeps you from doing the important stuff. The time you spend debating over small words or phrases is time better spent writing and finishing your chapter or section. Highlight the phrase or sentence for later if you really can’t make a decision. You can always come back to it later. Remember, an imperfect chapter is better than a perfect sentence! So save the debate for the editing stage.

Let go of deletion. Related to perfection, constant deletion of the same sentence or paragraph will frustrate you to no end. It drives me crazy to hear when students delete and start over large portions of their papers. Never delete anything unless you’re sure that you’re not going to use it! It makes no sense to rewrite the same sentence a thousand times. Thankfully, technology makes writing incredibly easy. Instead of deleting, keep a running reserve of the unused phrases and sentences at the bottom of the page. With this reserve, you can cut and paste these phrases or sentences into different areas. In addition, it’s especially helpful when starting a new paragraph or section. Keeping those unused words or phrases provides choices and alternatives while you sort out how your paper should sound. Remember, you’ll probably change your mind several times. Rewriting the same thing you’ve already deleted wastes valuable writing time!

Let go of self-criticism. You are not the enemy! Embrace yourself and resist the urge to be self-critical. Yes, you will be unhappy with your writing from time to time. Few of us are ever 100% satisfied with everything we write. You must learn to recognize that and let go of the urge to go to war with you writing. Acknowledge your imperfections, accept your limitations, and embrace your work. There will always be room for growth and improvement. Your dissertation, thesis, or paper will not be perfect! There’s no such thing as a perfect work. The sooner you can embrace this, the happier you’ll be. And the more progress you’ll make!

Make writing, not war!

Photos by Fab Lentz and pan xiaozhen on Unsplash