Strategies for Staying Focused on Dissertation Writing

As the semester begins to really hit its stride, I often find myself getting sidetracked from dissertation writing with student groups, fellowship applications, committee service, research, and day-to-day life. This post, which is yet another way of hitting pause on actual “dissertating,” will hopefully still be a productive form of self-accounting- a reminder that I do have strategies in place for staying focused and generating written material. It might even be useful to you, so here are some things that help me:

Devising a realistic writing schedule. I  have found that blocking out concrete blocks of time during your work week and treating those hours like classes that you simply cannot miss is a helpful way of staying on track. The “realistic” part of this strategy is also key- you need to take into account that certain days will be busier than others depending on your work and personal commitments, so maybe you can dedicate 4 hours on Wednesdays, but only 2 on Fridays. (Some people also establish a set number of pages or words to measure productivity- I’ve tried this in the past, but discovered that not meeting these quotas can cause even greater stress and anxiety. Instead, by counting hours rather than pages, at least I feel a sense of accomplishment for putting in the time).

Keeping a research journal. Mine is a small spiral notebook that I try to keep with me always so I can record random thoughts and sudden sparks of inspiration. This journal is also what I turn to when I hit a roadblock in my dissertation- I use it to free-write, brainstorm ideas, and reflect on the development of my project. It’s different from the book I use to write notes for class  because I really want it to be a space for thinking through my research.

Sharing my work frequently. I know that there is a tendency to try and keep your ideas and writing to yourself, especially when its still in that rough state, but sharing work that is still in progress can be eye-opening and even rewarding. Talking through your ideas with others and seeing how they react to your writing might give you a better sense of what next steps to take. I have found that setting up a concrete schedule for exchanging writing is productive because it forces you to actually sit down and generate material to meet the deadline. Of course, finding someone whose opinion you trust, who will tell you candidly when you are making no sense or are going off on a tangent, is crucial for this to be successful. Luckily, I have a twin sister who is going through the same grueling dissertation process at UCLA, so we have a regular Saturday morning exchange set up. But if you aren’t lucky enough to be born with your writing partner, participating in a dissertation workshop might be helpful for the same reasons because it forces you to share your writing with a large group of people who can offer different insights and suggestions for your project. (This semester I have the best of both worlds since I am also taking Duncan Faherty‘s American Studies Dissertation Workshop, which has been useful in illuminating my own project as well as addressing important questions related to research and writing more generally).

Creating a writing group. Sometimes if sharing your writing is still a bit too anxiety-ridden, getting together with a few friends to research and write in close proximity might be the key to increasing your own productivity. Seeing other people also engaged in work has pushed me to try harder to generate my own writing. Plus, it’s always great to have company when you are struggling through a particularly agonizing part of your dissertation. Of course, picking the right group to work with is important because you need people who are also committed to doing work (and not distracting you with YouTube clips or Facebook updates).

Establishing accountability emails. If getting together isn’t always the most convenient, especially for a lot of us at the Graduate Center and CUNY’s dispersed campuses, then setting up a virtual accountability system can be helpful. My friends and I have this arranged as an email chain, where we send each other a list of our our goals for the week on Monday and then email each other on the weekend with what we were able to accomplish. This has been useful because it forces me to devise more realistic goals (i.e., things that I can actually finish in a week). I also like this system for its motivating factor- seeing how much other people were able to get done pushes me to work harder to check off all (or at least most) of the items on my to-do list.

Getting out of my house. This might not apply to everyone, but I find that leaving my apartment almost always helps me get more work done because I can actually concentrate on my writing away from the many distractions of home. I also like to do my work at cafes rather than at school or the library because seeing strangers meeting up with friends or co-workers, talking, sipping on coffee, reading for pleasure, and so on, gets me into a better mood to tackle my dissertation. I have found that if the environment is less stressful, then the task of writing isn’t so daunting… But of course this is just my personal preference. Others might find a cafe too distracting, so I guess it’s up to you to figure out what space is most conducive to your writerly needs.

That’s all for now- Hope these tips are helpful and I would love to hear about what you do to stay productive in the comments!

Photo by Engin_Akyurt on Pixabay.

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