Your thesis proposal has been approved. You are now officially writing a thesis. You sit at your desk and the worries and doubts begin to overwhelm. All of the emotions and frustrations that you laughed at when reading PhD comics are suddenly no longer funny. How are you going to survive the next year of thesis writing?
1. Find some accountability. Maybe it’s about setting specific due dates and deadlines for yourself. But more useful is finding someone to sit down with once every couple of weeks, who will ask you straight out “what you have done this week?” This person will most likely not be your supervisor. It could be another student who is also in thesis mode, or someone who has previously written a thesis.
2. Just write something. The most paralyzing thing is a blank computer screen. The idea does not have to be fully developed before you put it on the screen. Even if it’s a half-formed thought, putting it on the screen (or on paper) will help get you started. Remember there is plenty of time to edit, re-write and rearrange (especially when your supervisor takes a red pen to your submitted chapter and slashes it to smithereens).
3. Stop researching. Sometimes research stops being useful and instead becomes a procrastination tool. Do you really need to track down one more book? Probably. But not right now. Get out of the stacks and start working with what you’ve already researched. You can, and will, get back to that “one more source” and you’ll have no problem incorporating it into what you’ve already written.
4. Print off and read what you’ve written. This is especially helpful if, like many people, you only have a few days a week devoted to thesis writing. By printing off what you wrote the session before, it is easier to pick up your train of thought and start jotting down notes of where you want to take your argument. It also can serve as an encouragement, “hey, what I wrote last week isn’t half bad.” And, there is something about reading your work on the printed page rather than off the computer screen that changes how you understand and respond to your writing.
5. Go for a walk. Sitting down with your thesis for eight hours at a time isn’t as productive as it sounds. Your body will need a break from sitting at the desk, and your brain will need a distraction. Break up your day by going for a mid-morning walk or by spending an hour at the gym. The exercise will clear your head allowing your afternoon writing session to be more productive.
6. Keep a notebook. It will be inevitable that on the days that you’re not working on your thesis, your brain will spin out the most brilliant argument that you just have to include in your chapter, usually at the most inopportune time like in the middle of family dinner, in the middle of a good night’s sleep, or while you’re at work. By keeping a notebook handy, you can jot down the idea so your brain doesn’t have to try to desperately remember the idea until your next writing day. Trust me, the brilliant thought you had on Monday will most definitely be forgotten by the time you sit down to write on Wednesday unless you write it down.
7. Turn off the Internet. A quick “I’ll just take two minutes to check my email, Twitter, news feed” inevitably becomes an hour…or two…or three.