Do You Love Your Dissertation?

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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.

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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

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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!

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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

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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

Writing Without Distractions

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You’ve settled in to type. Committed and ready to work, you have each item ready: the coffee is hot, the books are open, and the computer waits for your brilliant words. Placing your hands on the keyboard, everything seems perfect and ready for you. As you start writing, your phone vibrates with a Facebook notification. Suddenly you find yourself scrolling your feed, browsing Instagram, and checking your email.

After 15 minutes of social media browsing, you attempt to force yourself back to writing. Ready again, your phone buzzes. This time it’s a message from your best friend asking if you want to go out tonight. After sorting out your plans, you try once again to get back to writing.  But despite your effort, you discover that the words refuse to flow. Wringing your hands, you stare at the screen in disbelief as the blinking cursor appears to taunt you. You had lofty goals, but now all of your time has evaporated. You’re now distracted and disinterested in writing.  Frustrated, you decide to close the books and return to Facebook.

This is a common occurrence for writers. Despite our best efforts, the outside world calls us away from completing our papers. We’re all susceptible to being distracted. Distractions come in many forms. One of the most common distractions is social media, which is especially challenging for high school and college students. However, we’re all at risk to the dangers of distraction. We continually overestimate our own abilities to juggle between writing, social media, texting, and our own responsibilities. Furthermore, continued distractions and multitasking might actually be rewiring our brains.

Distractions add up. More distractions mean less writing, and less writing adds more pressure to meet deadlines. Distractions are especially costly in academic writing. It can have disastrous consequences on our grades and degree progress. Short term projects (term and research papers) are particularly high pressured. Distractions can lead to a failure to turn in work on time and/or poor quality writing.  Long term projects (dissertations and theses) create cumulative pressures. Constant distractions and subsequent lack of progress can lead to self-doubt, frustration, and shame.

We have a hard to remaining focused when doing something we don’t like. I’ve never encountered anyone who actually enjoyed writing a paper, dissertation, or thesis. This doesn’t mean that this kind of writing can’t be enjoyable, however completion of this type of writing requires that we work a little harder to remain focused and motivated.

There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming distractions. But there are things you can do that will give you the best chance to avoid them.

Create a routine. Writing is very much a mental discipline. The mental preparation to write is as important as actually writing. Preparation requires training our minds to enter into an almost meditative state. Get your mind into writing mode! Very few of us can write on a whim. Instead, we usually need to gently ease into the writing state. Develop a routine that prepares and relaxes your mind for writing. Start your routine at least 15 minutes before it’s time to write. This might involve enjoying a cup of coffee, reading for pleasure, or even meditation. Avoid anything that makes you upset, worried, or anxious. Also try to keep away from things you enjoy too much. Don’t start a Netflix binge (e.g. Stranger Things) right before it’s time to write!

anthony-tran-378336Create a relaxing routine before writing

Follow a writing schedule. If possible, try to write at the same time each day. Creating a consistent writing schedule will help to train your brain that it’s time to write. An inconsistent writing schedule makes it harder to create a routine, thus making it harder to avoid distractions. A fixed schedule also gives you a tangible goal. The knowledge that you always write one hour in the morning or afternoon encourages you to use that time wisely. It’s your writing time, therefore any messages, texts, or phone calls can wait until your time is done. If necessary, share your writing schedule with your family and friends. This way they’ll know you’re unavailable during your scheduled time. After a few days of this, you’ll require less mental preparation to write. A consistent schedule helps to rewire your brain to write, making writing less exhausting. Your brain will be ready to write when it’s time to write.

Smaller blocks of time are best. The longer we sit, the more prone we are to distraction. Moreover, it’s also bad for our health (poor health is also distracting). It’s a fantasy to believe that you can write for 8-10 hours straight. More likely, you’re only going to be truly productive for maybe half of that time. It’s harder to sit in one area for several hours. After a few hours you’ll be looking for anything to relieve you from the task at hand. And those distractions add up, making it harder to recover from each distraction.  It’s nearly impossible to avoid distractions after an hour at the computer. But it’s easier to keep motivated with smaller blocks of time. Think about it. Can you really sit in one location for more than a couple of hours?

Find a good writing environment. Writing requires a comfortable place where you can remain focused. Some people write best in the home. Others enjoy the presence of others (e.g. the library or Starbucks). Make sure that your environment is free from anxiety or stress. Don’t write in places that are loud or near people that distract you. Avoid writing in areas that remind you of household chores. Find a consistent zone that’s dedicated to the purpose of writing. This means avoid writing in areas that you usually watch TV, play video games, or do work. Claim your space!

freestocks-org-175144Find a comfortable and relaxing space for writing

Move the smartphone. Even the presence of a smartphone can be distracting. Move the phone out of your sight. A phone, even on silent, is a reminder of the world of distractions. A supposedly harmless look at Twitter or Instagram can eat up precious time for writing. Make it hard to get your phone. At the very least, move your phone into another room or turn it off. Indulge yourself with social media after your writing time, but not during it.

Turn off the internet. This is the nuclear option. You probably won’t want to do this if you need the internet to do research as you write. But if you absolutely can’t focus, then turn it all off (except the computer of course). Unplug the Ethernet cable, turn off the modem, or hide away the wireless router. Make it difficult to turn it back on. Do whatever it takes to keep you from distractions. Turning on the phone is easy, and this fools us into believing that a short look at Facebook won’t take up much time. Disconnecting entirely helps you to think twice about browsing.

Photos by Charlz Gutiérrez De Piñeres, Anthony Tran, and freestocks.org, on Unsplash

 

Standing up to Writer’s Block

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For writers, nothing is more dreaded or feared than writer’s block. There’s never a good time for it, yet writer’s block seems to strike us at the most inopportune times. It cripples our progress, making us feel that we’ll never finish our dissertation, thesis, or paper. Writer’s block is a confidence killer, and for many of us it’s almost impossible to recover from. It’s hard to continue while suffering from writer’s block. We often lack the motivation and will to stare at a blank screen.

Academic writing adds further challenges. A blank screen reminds us of our inability to produce, which only adds pressure to overcome it. We don’t have the luxury to work it out leisurely. There are deadlines to meet, and the external pressures are immense. Our professors and committee members are waiting for our work. In addition, we might only have a few hours a week to write because of obligations to work or family. More importantly, writer’s block stands in the way of graduation. Thus, writer’s block is more than a creative barrier. It is a barrier to our own career and personal goals, making writer’s block absolutely devastating.

I’ve experienced more than my fair share of writer’s block. While writing my dissertation, I’d often become frustrated over my lack of progress. There were days where I couldn’t write so much as a sentence. The blinking cursor taunted me, daring me to continue. Sometimes writing felt like trench warfare, and progress depended on a sheer determination of will. Over time I’ve developed practices that helped me alleviate and stand up to writer’s block. While writer’s block is unavoidable, there are ways to limit our experience of it. Writer’s block shouldn’t hinder our progress for days or even weeks. Instead, writer’s block is something we can manage and control.

Take breaks: Mental rest is absolutely necessary. We can spend way too much time staring at a screen. Staring at the screen reminds us of our lack of progress. From there the pressure grows to write something, anything to relieve the stress of our deadlock. In this situation, the will to write becomes frustrating. At this point it’s better to step away. It’s time to take your mind off of your project. A break (15-30 minutes) might just be the thing to get you back on track. A quick nap, a walk outside, or a snack are all good ways to reboot your mind.

Reward yourself: Writing doesn’t need to be torturous. There are ways to make writing not only bearable, but even enjoyable. Check your writing environment. Is your area comfortable? For example, a small and uncomfortable office chair will make writing feel like torture. Physical discomfort is not only bad for creativity, but also associates writing with physical pain.

Instead, make your area comfortable and well lit. Add snacks and drinks to your writing experience. Preferably these should be relatively healthy. However, there’s nothing wrong with rewarding yourself with a cookie or small piece of candy for a job well-done. Speaking for myself, I enjoy the experience of coffee and classical music. I create a relaxing and rewarding mood designed to encourage my imagination. Furthermore, this experience makes writing something I look forward to. Writing can become a meditative activity if you’ll allow it.

Change the situation: Writing at home has its pros and cons. Home can be both comforting and distracting. Over time, even the most comfortable environments become distracting.

A change in scenery can do wonders for curing writer’s block. At home you’re reminded of chores and other duties. Getting out of the house reduces the need the impulse to do the dishes, vacuum the house, finish the laundry, and so on (you can always do these later). Moreover, it brings you out of household isolation. Working around other people at a Starbucks or library can reignite our spirit. Writing doesn’t need to be an isolating experience. In fact, it’s not healthy to shut yourself off from the world for long hours at a time.

Go back to the sources: Writer’s block might be a sign that you need to do further research. Research is rarely a one-and-done deal. Meaning research is a cyclical process. There’s nothing wrong with searching for new sources or re-visiting your research. Returning to the research process is an excellent way to recover your inspiration.

Edit: Finally, writer’s block doesn’t mean you can’t be productive. Use the opportunity to read through your work for grammar and clarity. Working through your document can alleviate the anxiety of productivity, and may even spur new ideas. Don’t think of editing as a chore, but an opportunity.

Over the next few posts I’ll explore each of these practices individually, and show you how they can help make academic writing a joy!

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash
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