A dissertation is an incredible opportunity to be innovative in your field of study and examine things in a new way. But with innovation comes uncertainty. No one else has done a project quite like yours before and there is no road map. It is easy to start off confident and enthusiastic but a little further down the road, after hitting some road blocks, you may find yourself battling with doubt, anxiety, and procrastination. What can you do when this happens? How can you stay calm and productive while writing your dissertation?
To stay calm and productive while writing your dissertation you need to remember why you are pursuing this qualification and how privileged you are to have the opportunity to pursue your goals. You also need healthy habits to keep your body and mind healthy, a good relationship with your advisor and productivity hacks that work for you.
Remember your why
You didn’t just wake up one day and have a dissertation to write. You made choices and commitments. You made the decision to pursue a qualification and follow it through until completion. You made a choice.
Choices in this world are an incredible thing. The choice to dedicate your time and resources to studying after the age of eighteen is a privilege. The pursuit of knowledge in a world where far too many people can focus on nothing but survival is a privilege. It is also self-actualization.
Self-actualization comes at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This psychological theory represents the needs of humans as a pyramid with the most basic needs at the bottom. Only when a human has their basic and psychological needs met (food, safety, belonging etc) can they move up the pyramid to dedicate themselves to self-actualization. This is the quest to become the best you can be. This is dedicating yourself to academic or creative pursuits in order to realize your full potential.
If you are writing a dissertation you are on a journey of self-actualization. Something about this field of study inspired and excited you enough for you to commit to this qualification and this dissertation. And there is time in your day to dedicate to research and thought and study. It might be harder and more stressful than you imagined it would be. But it is also a way for you to challenge yourself and move closer to the person you want to be.
So when the dissertation blues hit remember your why. Remind yourself of the big picture of your story: where you’ve come from, where you are going and what you want to achieve. Think about all the people who’d long to be in your position right now. And change your perspective from “I have to work on my dissertation today” to “I get to work on my dissertation today.”
Be your own parent
When you were six your parents or carers ran your life. Getting up, mealtimes, playtime and bedtime happened on their terms and in their timing. You always brushed your teeth, ate your vegetables and were in bed by eight o’clock. Why? Because no one wants to deal with the tantrums of a tired and hungry six-year-old.
You may have matured a lot since you were six but your body and mind need no less care and attention to stay happy, healthy and tantrum-free. Healthy food, sleep, routines of work and play, exercise, time outside, fun with friends and family: these are not optional extras. These are the building blocks of health. These are the needs at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid that you need to get right before you can pursue anything else.
What happens if you neglect these basic needs? What happens if you neglect sleep, power your body with sugar and never exercise? The same thing that happened when you were six. You throw tantrums. You get cross and unreasonable. You shout at people. You refuse to do anything that is hard or boring or not fun (like writing your dissertation). You think you and your problems are the most important thing in the whole world. You get sad and worried and out of control. It might not happen straight away or dramatically but it will happen.
Without your mom and dad telling you to go to bed and eat a healthy lunch you have to step up and be your own parent. Take a long, hard look at your daily rhythms and routines and ask if they are helping or hindering you to be calm and productive while writing your dissertation. Twenty four hours in a day is a lot. You have plenty of time, no matter what your commitments. And time dedicated to healthy habits is never wasted. Better two focused and productive hours each day working on your dissertation than six hours a day of distraction and the hopeless re-writing of the same three sentences.
This is not about crafting the perfect schedule for dissertation success. It is about listening to your body’s needs and caring for yourself as kindly as you would care for a six-year-old. Would you let a six-year-old stay up until 2am if they had a lot of important things to do the next day? Would you make a six-year-old miss their friend’s birthday party or a doctor’s appointment to study? Be firm but fair, kind but uncompromising when it comes to healthy habits. Your body will be healthier, your mood will be better and your time working on your dissertation will be more productive.
Take care of your mind
It is not just your body that you need to take care of when you are writing your dissertation. In order to stay calm and productive you also need to make sure you are prioritizing your emotional and mental health. The healthy habits mentioned in Tip 2 are a great place to start. The mind-body connection is real and the behaviors that keep your body healthy will also benefit your mind.
Dissertations are not easy projects to complete. You work on them for many months and much of that time you are working entirely on your own. Even with supportive friends and family you can begin to feel isolated and alone. Often the stakes are high: earning your qualification, achieving your career dreams and securing the future you want. You keep going, remembering your why and keeping up with healthy habits, but sometimes that is not enough.
No one is immune to fear and overwhelm and spiraling negative thoughts. And even those with usually good mental health can struggle when undertaking a big, solo project like a dissertation. So never think you are the only one.
The best thing about negative thoughts is that you can change them. You can speak light into the darkness. You can remind yourself of all the good in your life. (Try making a numbered list of things you are thankful for that is as long as your dissertation word count.) You can focus on times in the past where something felt impossible and you did it anyway. You can adjust your focus from the big and huge and scary and just take the next step.
In most cases negative thoughts are lies. And nothing is more powerful at defeating lies than the truth. Collect a list of truths (people you love can help with this) that you can use to defeat the lies when they come and help keep your mind calm, positive and in the best place for dissertation productivity.
Keep your advisor informed (within reason)
You are assigned an advisor when writing your dissertation for a reason. It is their job to help you navigate your way through every aspect of the process. What is scary and uncertain for you is old news for them so make the most of their experience and support.
Plan for your meetings with your advisor and turn up prepared. They know that your dissertation is a work-in-progress and won’t be expecting you to produce anything close to the finished product. But their time and your time will be wasted if all you can tell them is “It’s going okay.” Far better for you to turn up with real questions and concerns. “There are anomalies in my data – how do I write about them?” “I’ve come across this contradiction and it’s making me doubt this aspect of my argument.” “Is this something you think I should include or leave out?”
When you have a meeting with your advisor coming up ask yourself brutally honest questions about your current progress with your dissertation. Check in with yourself about how it is going. If you are battling procrastination and distraction then try to find out why. You may think the problem is Netflix but it might be that you are overwhelmed by the amount of existing research in your area of study and need to clarify exactly what your dissertation will focus on. This is something your advisor could help you with. But only if you can share with them exactly what the problem is and what you have been doing to try and solve it.
Your advisor is there to help you but they are not your best friend, your mom or your therapist. Keeping the relationship professional – strictly about the work – will benefit both you and them. Email them only when necessary. If you think of something you’d like to discuss with them then add it to a list of things to cover in your next meeting.
Use the productivity hacks that work for you
In these days of side hustles and online businesses productivity hacks are everywhere. Apps, timers, breaks every 20 minutes, banishing your smartphone to another room, always doing this but never doing that – there are a thousand voices all telling you how to make the most of your time.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to these strategies. The classical music that gets your friend into the zone for writing might make you want to stick your fingers in your ears. Setting an alarm for a break might interrupt you when you are at your most creative and innovative.
Simply do what works for you. Anything that gets you sat down and working is a good thing. That’s all you need to do. Sit down and work.
What you write doesn’t need to be perfect. In fact it doesn’t even need to be good. But it does need to be written because blank pages are scary things. It is far easier to edit and add to words that are already there in front of you. In the early stages of writing you don’t even need to write complete sentences. You can simply take one section of your dissertation at a time and bullet point any thoughts, ideas, notes and references that are relevant to that section.
There will never be a perfect time. And often the thought of working is far worse than actually working. If procrastination is your problem and nothing you do is working then pick a time about 30 minutes from right now and work on your dissertation until then. No distractions. Nothing but your dissertation. Just for 30 minutes. The small time commitment is easier for your brain to commit to than the daunting prospect of the next three hours stuck at the computer. And the act of getting started and absorbing your mind in the project can often mean that, by the time the thirty minutes is over, it is no big deal to keep going. Even if this isn’t the case you will have spent 30 minutes working rather than 30 minutes procrastinating. So start now. There is no better time.
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