Welcome back to DoctoralWriting! We are planning a busy year of posts for you, and hope you’ll find plenty here to support doctoral writing in 2016.
January always sees a plethora of New Year’s resolutions and advice on how to turn those resolutions into reality. The world of doctoral writing is no exception, and we have established our own tradition of offering suggestions about how to cultivate good writing habits in 2014 and in 2015. All of the ideas in these posts still stand, and I’d recommend going back to them as a useful reminder of some good strategies.
Those New Year’s resolutions are all well and good, but actually making them happen seems to be somewhat harder. I was interested to see this article in The Conversation that offers psychological strategies designed to help. Although I’m no expert on the psychology Levy employs, I’ve tried to think about how these ideas might apply in the context of doctoral writing. Levy recommends focusing on ‘intentions, constructions and bundles’.
To turn good ‘intentions’ into actions, it can be helpful to use a cue to trigger the action. For doctoral writers, this might mean having some kind of external prompt that dictates sitting down at the computer and starting to type. For example, as soon as the rest of the household has left home for work or school, or as soon as the writer steps back into the office after a brisk post-lunch walk, or immediately after checking on the mice. Don’t allow space for a choice about what happens next, just do it!
‘Constructions’ refers to thinking about the abstract rather than concrete properties of the choice before us. Instead of approaching a specific writing task, it could be helpful for writers to think: ‘Do I want to write a thesis?’ and then realising that this isn’t going to happen without doing today’s writing. Personally, I can see how keeping the endgame in sight might work for some, although there are other benefits in keeping the writing tasks small, specific and doable. Experiment to see what is most motivating.
By seeing behaviour as ‘bundles’ it becomes possible to notice how individual choices represent a recurrent challenge (do I always want to delay opening my current writing by reading a few more articles?). What is perhaps harder is to stand back and recognise those habitual patterns of procrastination and their associated rationalisations. But paying attention to what doctoral writers are doing when they aren’t writing is no doubt a good place to start.
And finally, Levy points out that self-control seems to be a finite resource that requires topping up. This can be done through creating a positive mood by doing something that makes you feel more cheerful, like ticking off what you’ve achieved today or reading cartoons about PhD experiences – on second thoughts, a grumpy cat meme might be safer! Exposure to nature is useful, so head outside to drink your tea in the park. Avoiding temptation in the first place is also sensible, so turn off your email so that you don’t know that a new message has arrived; that way you won’t need to exercise your willpower to avoid the distraction of checking what crucial information has just popped into your inbox. Apparently sugar also works its magic on increasing our self-control over other choices, but unfortunately for many of us this is out of bounds according to our other New Year resolutions!
What strategies have you found helpful in getting your students’ or your own writing done? It would be great to hear from others about how to make a reality of those New Year’s resolutions to get doctoral writing back on track and racing ahead to the finish line.