So You’ve Decided To Write A Dissertation, Part 2

You have chosen your topic. You have acquired a chair. You have attempted – with probably a varying amount of success – to turn off that competitive voice that constantly measures up your topic against that of everyone you talk to. Now comes the difficult part – actually writing the thing. Like I said in the last post, it is unbelievably daunting to start a task that you know you will not finish in this sitting, or this school year even. Here I share my insights into what helped me stay motivated and get those words on paper (or on screen, to be technically correct).

I did 90% of the work for my dissertation while living 2000 miles away from the love of my life, so instead of being upset, I chose to channel those feelings into my proposal. It was much easier said than done. The first step was to create a schedule for myself. Now, generally I am very good at meeting deadlines, but with a dissertation, there are few set deadlines that you have to keep unless you and your chair come up with something, and even then those dates tend to be fluid. For me, it was easier to set aside times to work rather than simply saying “I will write X number of pages by Y date.” I knew I could easily get discouraged if I accidentally picked a time frame that ended up being impossible to stick to, and as any over-achieving doctoral candidate will tell you, this is sadly easy to do. Since I had adequate time before my school’s deadlines (all I needed was to successfully propose by September 15th of whatever year I wanted to apply for internship, and this was the start of my second year), I had the option to work this way. Find what works best for you, and just remember to be flexible with yourself if you suddenly realize you’ve given yourself a 100-page deadline in the middle of finals.

My personal proposal schedule consisted of dedicating 10 hours every other Saturday to researching/writing my manuscript. I tend to work well getting into a zone and accomplishing a lot in one sitting, so this worked well for me. If I broke my work time down into one or two hour increments, I would spend most of my time reminding myself where I left off, which would only serve to frustrate me.

My dissertation ritual would start on Friday afternoon. I would make sure that my apartment contained adequate food – both substantial and guilty pleasure junk foods – to last me through the marathon of Saturday. (I subscribe to the theory that will power is like a muscle in that it can only handle so much “weight” at a time, and so while I am using my will power to continue writing rather than checking my email and social networking sites, I do not ask it to monitor what goes into my mouth. If your will power can multitask, then you are more talented than I am.) Then it’s an early bed time, which is not atypical for me on the weekends, as I was born at approximately age 50.

Saturday morning I would get an early start, eat a large breakfast, and consume a 5 hour energy. Part two of my ritual was complete. Next, I created my work space. Everything I could possibly need for the day was within reach – laptop charged and plugged in, highlighters, pens, notebooks, stacks of articles, chips. Time to motivate with one to three views of this video: 40 Inspirational Speeches In 2 Minutes was a gift from my friend Adam one day when I was having trouble bringing myself to finish a paper, and it has never steered me wrong. I would probably lead an army into battle after watching this video if someone handed me a sword and yelled.

Time to create an upbeat atmosphere to perpetuate the hyped-up, motivated vibe created by the video. I put on my favorite Pandora dance station, which usually led to a 10 to 30 minute dance party, followed by an intense writing montage. The rest of the day consisted of alternating power-writing sessions and brief dance parties. Hey, you have to know what works for you, and this system kept me pumped!

Some weeks, no matter how hard I tried, my apartment became one giant distraction, so I moved the operation over to Panera or Starbucks (minus the dance parties – unfortunately I am not at a point in my self-actualization where I can “dance like no one is watching” unless no one is, in fact, watching), and that seemed to get me back on track. The point is, you need to find a system or ritual that works for you, and be flexible if your needs change. And I highly recommend that video, whether you are writing a dissertation, taking a test, or about to take a long drive. No matter what is going on with your life, 40 Inspirational Speeches will definitely get you pumped.