The last two years of my doctorate, I had a side hobby of researching and experimenting with productivity tools and teaching others to apply them to their own lives via my blog The Tending Year. I started The Tending Year to manifest personal accountability to accomplish big goals; as a result I learned how to focus my labor so I could accomplish my to-do list in less time and with more intention. I have chronic health issues that affect my energy and ability to focus, and I live with chronic pain that requires me to take breaks from sitting, so I was particularly interested in learning how to write my dissertation in short, focused work sessions. Plus, I genuinely loved my dissertation topic, and I wanted to make the process as fun as possible.
So, how did I finish my dissertation on time and enjoy the process?
I knew what steps to take and in which order.
I broke the larger dissertation project down into actionable and achievable steps. This meant knowing which component tasks made up a larger goal, tracking how long certain types of tasks took me to complete and using that data to set deadlines that were reasonable. I shifted my approach from “write a chapter” to assigning actionable tasks to work sessions, such as “write a mind map for the first analysis section” or “draft a one-page description of my method.”
I knew how to plan an effective work session.
- Every time I sat down at my desk, I determined one to three actionable and achievable goals for the time I’d allotted to work that day.
- I monotasked, which means I focused on only one task at a time, which enabled me to reach a state of flow much more often.
- I developed a fun practice that I call the Goldilocks Approach to Productivity, which involves identifying a to-do task that is appropriate for the time/energy I have at the time and my goals for that day’s work session.
I used tools to help me focus.
- Like many academics, I’ve fallen in love with the Pomodoro method, a pulse-and-pause technique that involves predetermining a task, working uninterrupted for a set amount of time, taking an intentional break and then repeating the work/break process.
- I co-worked with others to mutually hold ourselves accountable to starting a task, working on it and sharing how the process went. Co-working is a great motivator to get started when you feel blah about your work or are procrastinating.
- I set intentional boundaries around my technology, such as deleting social media from my phone, using website blockers on my laptop and simply putting my phone out of my reach and inside a box or bowl with a lid while I worked.
I shifted my perspective from perfection to “good enough.”
- After hearing the phrase “a good dissertation is a done dissertation” multiple times, I finally decided to start using the comments function to write notes to myself and my adviser during the drafting process. These notes might say, “I know I need to research this historical event; I’ll do that in revision” or “I have brain fog and can’t think of the right word; will look up later.” This meant I finished drafts sooner and sent them to my adviser to get comments on the larger ideas instead of spending stressful hours on writing or revising tasks that truly could wait until later.
- Instead of pre-emptively diving deep into literature reviews and historical contextualization, which often felt overwhelming, I asked my dissertation adviser what her preference was for the breadth and depth I needed to include for examples, footnotes and context. I found that she was often very satisfied with one or two examples, and I saved myself hours of unnecessary labor.
- I tracked my progress not only by words written, but more intentionally by time spent laboring, and I endeavored to value the invisible forms of labor that go into writing a dissertation, such as brainstorming, outlining and revising.
I prioritized my mental and physical health.
- I took a lot of breaks and tried to make myself look away from my screen, get a glass of water and walk the dog around the block.
- I had strict start and stop times for working on my dissertation to ensure that I took time to care for myself and nourish my relationship and friendships.
- If I was experiencing pain, brain fog or fatigue due to my chronic health issues, I gave myself permission to take breaks, rest and take the rest of the day off.
- When I really focused during a work session on a predetermined task, I made a lot of progress, so when I finished my work “early,” I took the rest of the day off from dissertating. I also gave myself permission to take off whole days and weekends from working on my dissertation.
Now that I’ve completed my dissertation and my Ph.D., I’ve transitioned to doing my productivity research and coaching full-time. If you’d like to learn more about my work or book a coaching session, visit The Tending Year.
Kate Litterer is a productivity researcher and coach who specializes in intentionality, habit formation, mindfulness and slow living. You can read more about her at thetendingyear.com and follow her online @thetendingyear.