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Strategies to Maintain Focus while Writing Your Dissertation

How to find your writing rhythm and keep it going.

September 13, 2016

Danielle Marias is a Ph.D. candidate in Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. You can find her on Twitter @danielleemarias or at her website.


With the majority of my data collection completed, I elected to take a dissertation writing course in the OSU writing program with Dr. Vicki Tolar Burton. Initially, I thought this would be a good strategy for setting aside chunks of time to devote to writing my dissertation. The course did provide a protected block of time to write, but it did even more for me, my writing, and my productivity: it taught me strategies to maintain focus.


Today, the internet and Google and social media are flashier and more distracting than ever before. Our professional and personal lives are strewn with interruptions as smart phones enable us to take our distractions with us wherever we go. This makes it incredibly challenging to maintain enough focus to write a book-length dissertation.


The strategies I learned in this class are invaluable and I felt compelled to share them with fellow grad students who also may feel overwhelmed by the daunting task of writing a thesis or dissertation. To this day, I still use many of these tips, which have served me well for the entirety of my dissertation. By the end of the one-month course, I completed a solid draft of my first chapter (my most difficult chapter, to get the ball rolling!). I am tremendously grateful for Vicki’s wisdom and support and I attribute much of my writing success to her. Here a few of my favorite tips from her class:


1. Freewriting for 15 minutes per day. Prior to the class, we read “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis” by Joan Bolker. Although I quickly learned that only writing 15 minutes a day is insufficient for completing a dissertation, it was a great way to get my thoughts flowing and written down by hand on paper (not typing on a computer full of distractions). Freewriting was great because I was encouraged not to worry about grammar, word usage, or even quality, which often interrupt writing. I prefer revising over writing a rough draft so the only way to do that was to have something, anything, down on paper first. By writing down any thought or idea about the manuscript, including worries and insecurities, I was able to craft a more comprehensive final draft while also calming my mind.

2. “Only writing produces text.” This was the mantra of our class. The dissertation is full of words and I learned that writing does not magically happen—I had to make it happen and put the words down on paper. Prior to the class, I had procrastinated on even starting to write because of my own insecurities including worrying about the strength of my project, getting it published, completing a Ph.D., etc. However, writing was therapeutic.

3. Meditation. We ended each class meeting with 5 minutes of meditation to help us prepare for and focus on our writing tasks that followed. This was a great way to clear my head and let go of the rest of the day and just focus on my main priority—writing. I echo several GradHackers who have shared the benefits of meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction in grad school.

4. Intentions journal. After meditating, we wrote down specific intentions and goals to visualize what we were going to accomplish that day. Similar to making checklists, which I enjoy, this exercise helped me to feel organized and motivated to check off that goal on my list of intentions for the day.

5. Identifying our most productive times of day for writing using heat mapping. This enabled me to make the most of the day by doing tasks that matched my workflow. I learned that I write best in the mornings when my mind is clear. I would write in the mornings and do tasks that required less of my focus and brain power in the afternoons, such as formatting or catching up on emails (rather than starting my day by checking email, which I used to do).

6. Write first. It is easy to procrastinate on writing and do menial tasks instead, such as checking email or social media, or cleaning the house or reading the news. I would “reward” myself with these distracting indulgences after I completed my writing for the day.

7. Email & Smartphone. As mentioned above, I refrained from checking emails and turned off my smartphone until the afternoon after I had completed my writing for the day. I realized that the world will go on even if I don’t respond to an email until the afternoon.

8. Scheduling meetings in the afternoon. Again, I protected my mornings, my most productive times of the day, and scheduled meetings in the afternoons.

9. “Park on a downhill slope.” This comes from Joan Bolker’s book that was mentioned above. I learned that much of our time is spent re-focusing on what we did the previous day and remembering where we left off. This can be distracting and make it difficult to jump back in. Therefore, before ending a work session, I’d write down specifically what I needed to do next so I could easily pick up where I left off when I returned to it. No energy was used up to remember what I needed to do next.

10. Gain momentum. I found that focusing the majority of my efforts on writing my first chapter was a great way to gain momentum for constantly thinking about my project and my writing as it evolved and came together. Proving to myself that I could produce good writing by prioritizing my ability to maintain focus, I was able to apply that confidence and those strategies to writing the rest of my dissertation.


Congratulations to those of you who have reached the writing stage. What strategies do you use or have you used to maintain focus and accomplish your writing goals?


[Image by Flickr user UnknownNet Photography and used under the Creative Commons license.]


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