These are my 2 daughters. The younger one was born in the 2nd month of the 4 that I was given to write my Master’s dissertation. At the time, I was also working full-time, which eventually gave way to 2 part-time research assistant positions that I undertook when doing my Doctoral degree. At the time of the PhD study I was also constantly working on developing my publication base, giving lectures and organising workshops, already developing a follow-up project to my PhD research, and applying for funding to carry it out.
I recently reflected on that difficult time as I was preparing to give a lecture to Master’s students at the University of Edinburgh, in which I was expected to give some advice on writing the dissertation. I talked about choosing the topic and methods of data collection, structuring the dissertation, and other aspects of this long and demanding journey. I also talked about the importance of time-keeping, organisational skills and organising your own workload, which I believe are all crucial factors that enabled me to “survive” that difficult period. Here, I chose 3 key strategies and skills that do not relate exclusively to writing, or to studying, for that matter, but also to working as a researcher, or managing any other difficult workload. I think it is these 3 strategies that ultimately enabled me to succeed academically and professionally, while staying sane at the same time…
“Bird by bird”, or setting up short-term goals.
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”
Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life”
Although I only recently came across Anne Lamott’s book which the above extract comes from, when I think back to the time when I was constantly overwhelmed by deadlines and under the pressure of having to submit something (the assignments, essays and, finally, the dissertation for my Master’s degree, or chapters and reports for my PhD), I find the concluding sentence to be particularly relevant to one of the strategies that I adopted and which helped me throughout this demanding, both physically and mentally, process. The key point of this strategy is to break large tasks into smaller components or milestones and focusing on one at the time, and adopting it will increase your motivation, teach you to manage your time, and result in you getting the necessary rest you deserve.
It can be really overwhelming, especially at the initial stage of doing your research, writing your dissertation or report, etc., to look at how much work lies ahead and compare it with the blank page you are starring at. This often results in a “writer’s block”, or losing the ability to produce new work, in a creative slowdown, or in you desperately trying to complete many tasks at once (e.g. to read as much literature as possible and to plan your research design while also writing a new chapter). One way or another, you soon end up with a sense of failure and a feeling of stress and frustration. To avoid this, I always break the large tasks into smaller ones, and focus on completing one at the time. This can relate to writing a 3000-word chapter and making a decision to write 500 words a day, to reading a certain number of published papers a day when getting familiar with the literature, to analysing/transcribing 2 interviews a day, etc. The key is to always stick to the plan, regardless of how long it took to complete the task on a given day. For example, you may find yourself surprised that it took you only 2 hours to read the 5 academic articles you had planned for the whole day, as it turned out that these articles were simply shorter than usual. Don’t be tempted, however, to add to your plan and read 5 more because you completed the task sooner than expected. Don’t think that you ought to read more, because working only 2 hours a day is not enough. Guess what – you are done for today! Acknowledge that you have successfully completed this step, and use the rest of your time on this day to get some rest and relax – it may turn out that the next 5 articles on your list are exceptionally long, and to complete your task for tomorrow will take you 4 or 5 hours. Same applies to writing or doing research – break large tasks into smaller components and always stick to your daily plan. Completing the large task by taking it “bird by bird” will soon result in a sense of achievement, will increase your further motivation, and will enable you to get more rest than if you tried, and failed, to do as much as possible every day.
Visualising the process/Visualising success.
As I noted above, the previous strategy can only be adopted successfully if you are rigorous about your schedule and plan the small steps carefully. To be able to stick to this routine closely, it helps to visualise the progress you are making. By visualising, I don’t mean generating mental images (I will talk about this too), but literally “making it visible to the eye”. The best way to do it is to get a weekly planner (as in the photos I attached), and plan carefully each of your small tasks or milestones.
Have a look at the photos I attached. They show my desktop calendar that I had when I was still working on finishing my PhD thesis, and was also involved in 2 research assistant jobs. The amount of work was unbelievable, but I had each week planned carefully so that I would manage to do all of these things. Keeping a planner like this not only helps to simply keep yourself organised and not forget about things that you have to do, but also helps to maintain focus and build your motivation, teaches to be rigorous about your own schedule, and helps those who can be too critical about themselves (thus, “blaming” themselves for having finished working too quickly, and feeling guilt about having too much free time). Also, there is something extremely satisfying and fulfilling about ticking off the tasks you have done for the day and looking at the shrinking list of the remaining tasks…
With regard to visualising success, in turn, what I mean here is to, literally, visualise, or generate mental images of, the moment of your “success” (i.e. the moment you have completed all your tasks) for the given day. What I mean in particular is to, prior to undertaking the tasks you have planned, sit down, close your eyes, and visualise the moment when you will have finished for today, especially focusing on the accompanying emotions. Now, before you decide that I should burn at the stake for this “heresy”, be aware that it has been scientifically proven that doing this results both in higher motivation and in actual achievement. I am not a psychologist, but my guess is that it just helps to stay focused on the projected goal, as we tend to “volume down” other thoughts when we visualise our goal, and that by following this procedure we kind of program ourselves to work towards this goal, or a “reward”, as behaviourists would say. This method helped me at times when the day ahead was particularly challenging. Every time I was about to quit, I would think about that “reward”, or the emotions that I would experience once I successfully completed everything that I planned.
Planning, planning, and … planning.
Both breaking the tasks into small components and visualising your progress require strong planning skills and planning is, in fact, the third “strategy”, or skill, that is absolutely crucial to achieve your goals. In order to plan the smaller steps effectively you need to also see the wider picture, and make sure that achieving these goals will, in fact, result in you finishing your project on time.
What I usually do is breaking up the whole project into large “chunks” at first. If you plan to write your Master’s dissertation in 6 months, for example, the chunks could be the periods of one month and would represent larger milestones, like “data collection”, “data analysis”, “reading the literature and writing literature review”, etc.). From there, I gradually break these into smaller components, so “reading the literature and writing literature review” could end up consisting of a 2-week period of reading followed by 2 weeks of writing the literature review (I would also write these down in my calendar/planner). Subsequently, I would separate each of these into two 1-week periods, and then plan each week in detail as I described previously. This way you will be sure that you can, in fact, afford to take breaks and time off as described above, without affecting the overall schedule. I also always tend to allow slightly more time for each task than it is likely to take, as it is easier, and more desirable, to take time off when you are running ahead of schedule than to rewrite your whole plan if you’re running behind. The latter will happen occasionally anyway, and the important aspect of planning is to constantly adjust the original plan. I know that I previously urged you to stick to your schedule, but if it turns out, for example, that I will not be able to finish today’s task completely, I will then add it to tomorrow’s plan, or spread it across several days ahead, so that it does not affect my “weekly milestone” and by the end of the week I will still be on top of things.
Do you have any strategies that help you take control of your academic progress? Share them in the comments below!