Claire Aitchison

Are you one of those people who run full hurtle into the sea, diving under in one fell swoop? Or do you prefer to creep in, slowly acclimatising the body as you inch yourself into the cool water?

Taking a break from the PhD can be invaluable for both students and supervisors. But getting back into the swing of things doesn’t always come easily.

Review your practices to build on last year’s successes and avoid repeating bad habits

As you face the new year, begin by reviewing your writing schedule and practices (if you’re just starting out, there’s plenty of good advice and support). When you consider how your writing year needs to unfold, think honestly about what really worked last year—and, what didn’t. When do you do your most productive writing—will those times and circumstances be available to you again this year, or do you need to make new arrangements? What factors contributed to making writing fun and productive? Build on what works for you and set about making plans to change those habits and circumstances that inhibit your productivity.

Warm up routines: Prepare your space and settle your mind prior to your planned return

Clean up your (physical and virtual) workspace. Dust the home office, put up flowers, change the photos. Make it nice to be there. The same goes for your digital workspace. On your computer, update your website, email signature, screen saver and zoom backgrounds. Ensure work and home computers are synching. Clean up your desktop and review your filing system to ensure it is secure and functional for the next stages of your research journey.

Clear the decks before day one

Unless you prefer to jump in the deep end, begin with some small, manageable pre-return tasks so that you are readied for the full routine. In the days preceding your return, identify tasks that can be knocked off easily. Sort out those emails that need simple responses and get them out of your life as quickly as possible. If there are other administrative tasks you must attend to, try to deal with them too. Find anything that will take your attention away from your writing and manage these in the days before you plan to return to your writing routine.

Self-discipline and reward are your best friends: Start small and build up

Remind yourself of what you’ve already achieved; it’s an ego boost as well as useful for getting your head back into your work again. Look over your latest Table of Contents and be impressed with how much you’ve written already. Skim over the lit review chapter and your bibliography and remember how much you’ve read. Look at your original research proposal and realise how much you’ve moved forward! Smile when you reread your favourite chapter.

If you’re still not ready to hit the big writing challenges full on, then alongside thesis writing, how about allocating an hour each day for small but necessary activities such as checking your enrolment and supervisor details, revisiting your abstract and title, updating relevant software? But remember these writing-related tasks won’t progress your thesis writing as such–you must work towards the writing time targets you set for each day and week. Make sure there are periods of intense writing activity as well as pleasurable, less demanding work. You must take charge and find a way (no matter what your circumstances) to build writing into your everyday/week routine.

Ideas for getting the writing underway:

  • Set targets for blocks of writing. The benefits and techniques of timed writing bursts have been widely spruiked (see, for example, the Pomodoro technique and other suggested references below). Start with smaller time frames (even 5 minutes) and build up so that you can manage hours of productive writing in a day.
  • Plan your writing day. Divide up your writing time, making space for pleasurable as well as routine, boring writing tasks. Sometimes we must just push on, seemingly stuck endlessly in one chapter, but even in these situations, make sure you do take small breaks. Take time to do some other activities: stop, read, reflect, pause, check references, or read a seminal paper and then make yourself get back to the writing at hand.
  • Don’t become isolated. Especially given the constrained lives we’ve experienced during the global pandemic, it is important to cultivate writing buddies. Writing buddies can be other doctoral students, work colleagues or friends; they can be people we share our writing with or with whom we talk about our writing; or they can be folk who write alongside us, sharing the endeavour live on screen in their own space.
  • Don’t neglect the writing-related tasks of thinking, reading, talking and walking – these can help our minds rest, rejuvenate and recalibrate.

As we start 2021, take some time to set yourself up for a pleasurable and productive writing life that will sustain you through whatever surprises lie ahead. Please be in touch if you’ve got any tips to help make this achievable.

Suggested reading:

Elbow, P. (1973) Writing Without Teachers, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Guccione, K., & Wellington, J. (2017). Taking control of writing your thesis: a guide to get you to the end. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Silvia, P. (2018) 2nd ed., How to Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing APA