Help me finish a PhD in 6 weeks
July 31, 2012 11:46 AM   Subscribe

Help me to make a great leap forward in my PhD in the next six weeks. I am in the last year of my PhD (philosophy) so the thesis has to be finished by December, however, I am also full time university lecturer, so when the term starts my ability to write every day is drastically compromised. By selling part of my soul I negotiated almost complete freedom for the next six weeks and I want to use them to make massive progress with writing the thesis. I already have about 40,000 words written and I am hoping to write another 40,000 over the next 6 weeks. The challenge is to stick to the daily quota of 1,000 words, as some days it is possible, even fun, other days it is very very hard.

My question is what can I do to maximize my chances of finishing a rough draft in the next 6 weeks by doing 1,000 words a day? How do I keep motivated, energized, not giving in to "I'll never get there" kind of thoughts and not wasting too much time while at the same time not loosing the will to live. I need advise regarding tricks that keep one motivated, food supplements or anything else that helped you with a similar task. Are there any vitamins / amino-acids that might help? I do a bit of mindfulness meditation now and then to manage stress. So any help, and particularly personal experience of finishing something like this is very welcome. Thank you everyone.
posted by slimeline to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I wrote this on someone else's similar post earlier this year.

You just have to fucking do it.

Every day, I just have to fucking do it. I gotta write.

Think of the consequences if you don't write -- you might not get the degree, you'll disappoint your advisor (and any family/friends/significant other invested in you.)

Try to eat well and make a little time for exercise.

I know people that take adderall to make this sort of thing work for them. YMMV.
posted by k8t at 11:49 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just sit and type, don't edit. There will be time for that later. If you find you're in the zone, roll with it.

Get up and move around periodically.

Give yourself a little treat when you accomplish your goal.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:51 AM on July 31, 2012

1,000 words of fiction a day is easy. 1,000 words of philosophy...oy.

Here's what I would do. You've got to schedule yourself. I would wake up, exercise, eat a good breakfast, get coffee and then immediately get to work, with the goal of having my words done by 5:00. That means you get to look forward to a work free evening of cooking dinner and taking a mental break. If your daily deadline is just 'before I go to bed,' you'll still be staring at 100 words at 10 PM. Plus the later in the day it gets, the more anxious you'll get, and the harder it will be to get it done. You'll think you can 'make up for it tomorrow,' but you won't.

Get ahead whenever you can, because some days you will get behind.

Sartre had a similar sort of routine, but he substituted coke and other uppers for coffee during the day and dancing and drinking for mental down time in the evening. YMMV.

Other than that, just stay hydrated and eat protein.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:53 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

In your situation, I'd use the Jerry Seinfeld method. Put a calendar up on the wall. The first day you hit 1000 words, put an X over that day. The next day, another X. The goal is to not break the chain.

I would also reward myself after I put that X up there with something nice. A piece of chocolate or a beer or going outside for a quick walk.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:54 AM on July 31, 2012

1,000 words a day is not impossible (spoken as philosophy grad and an after-work NaNoWriMo winner).

My personal rule was that I was not allowed to get up out of the chair -- for any reason -- until I was done my quota. A rule specifically like that may or may not help you, but any personal rule goes far to ensure that your daily quota is met. Plan your work and work your plan.

Whatever you do, do not skip a day. Write your daily quota, and if you can squeeze an extra hundred or two words out there, it's only going to make it easier.

FWIW, I found that writing the damn thing was the least part of it, compared to all the research and organization. Actually shitting it out wasn't too bad at all.
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:58 AM on July 31, 2012

For a while I used 750 Words. I stopped once I was in the headspace of writing regularly every day, which was also when I got to the part of the dissertation that involved writing up my data analysis and results (a lot of graphs, charts, and tables).
posted by research monkey at 12:09 PM on July 31, 2012

As someone who just finished his philosophy Ph.D. this May, what worked for me was: work hard for two hours a day. Butt in chair, hands on keyboard, internet off. I do my best work in mornings, so 7-9am was typing time. At 9am, I could take a break. I would then think of chunks of work to do—maybe an explanation of a specific quote, maybe polishing the transition between two sections of a chapter, etc.—and would set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes and again put butt in chair, hands on keyboard, internet off. When the timer went off I could stop if I wanted to, or I could continue and finish that little chunk. Usually I wanted to finish the chunk, and there wasn't much left to do on that chunk anyway.

Then, take another break. I'd like to say it was quick, but realistically I was stopping for a good half hour or so. On the flip side, I was also thinking about what my next chunk was going to be, and sometimes I had the momentum to just continue straight into another chunk after finishing the previous one. At any rate, I kept picking small chunks and knocking them out. Those small chunks added up quickly, and when combined with the two hours of concentrated work at the start of the day, I made great progress through my last chapters.
posted by philosophygeek at 12:16 PM on July 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and don't make the mistake of thinking that you have to be motivated to get good work done. You don't, and you won't. You just have to sit down and start working, and the good work will eventually come. Some days you'll feel like you did nothing good all day, and then the next day you'll realize that you know exactly what you need to say after trying for a day and not getting it right. That happens more often than you'd think.

And, if you put in the time consistently, every day, it's much easier to sit down and type the next day.
posted by philosophygeek at 12:19 PM on July 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

Pomodoro Technique?

I am a world-class procrastinator and this is the only thing that has helped me meet self-imposed deadlines such as the one you are proposing; I have two articles that I am hoping to finish by the time fall semester starts in three weeks and this is what I'll be using to get them out the door. I like to do something active for the longer break; take a walk, do some yoga sequences.
posted by stellaluna at 12:44 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

On days when you're in the groove and enjoying yourself, do extra. Bank as many words as you can. You'll need a bank to draw on if you get sick or something very important comes up that can't be delayed. The worst that can happen is you get finished early and have extra time to celebrate and pat yourself on the back.

Don't skip a day. Don't fall behind. Your job is to sit in the chair until your minimum is finished.
posted by quince at 12:45 PM on July 31, 2012

In graduate school, I broke papers into 100-200 word chunks. It seems way more doable to write 5 200-word chunks in a day. Plus sometimes you will find yourself on a jaunt where you want to complete the thought and you find you've written 350 words instead of 200! Yes!
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:48 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Here are some tips from Hillary Rettig, a writing and productivity coach, specifically geared for academic writers.
posted by scody at 12:56 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

To get going in the morning I find that taking a pen and paper and just writing a page or so of anything I want (something about the news, my journey to work, my friends, my cat, anything at all) works quite well. I had to write 20,000 words in three weeks or so for a PhD review report thing recently and for the first week I did this every day and it really helped me to just start writing and to worry about editing later. I think this works particularly well for people who procrastinate or those (like me) who want the first draft to be perfect. Good luck!
posted by lizabeth at 1:20 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing I have been using a lot recently for goals like this, where the idea is to do a certain amount of *something* every day, is Beeminder. You can set a weekly rate for what you want to accomplish (in your case, 7,000 words per week), and then every day you enter how much of whatever you have done. I'm using it to get myself to meditate a certain amount of time every day, and it has been really effective in getting over the hurdle to just DO IT.

I think most incentive methods have a carrot/stick duality. For Beeminder, the carrot is the pretty graph, the constant rewards for good progress. The stick is that if you don't stay within the range of your goal (if you don't accomplish 7,000 words in a week), you "fail" the goal. You first "failure" is free (I have not failed any goals yet, I have not paid any money to Beeminder... I'd like to keep it that way).

If you want to keep trying for the goal on Beeminder, you "pledge" a certain amount of money to Beeminder that you'll stick to it. The pledge starts off small, at $5. If you "fail" the goal again, the money is deducted from your credit card, and a new, "higher" pledge ($10) is set if you want to try to continue on your goal. The pledges increase every time you "fail" the goal. The point of it isn't to bankrupt you, it's to get the "stick" part of the program to hurt enough that you don't slack off on your goal.

So, it might not be the kind of advice a poor grad student is looking for (look! an interesting technique to bankrupt yourself), but it might be just the stick that you need to get it done. From one grad student to another, it has really really helped me to stick to work goals that I have recently set, and makes it almost into a game.
posted by permiechickie at 1:46 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Start first thing. Write half your quota before you break. Don't get up unless you're going to the bathroom or are getting a glass of water. Ideally you'll reach flow and won't even notice that you're thirsty.

On days when you are being awesome and flow is achieved by all means write more.

My 1000 word trick is to write the number of words I have at the start of the day and add 1000 to it. After you've done your first 500 for the day, edit what you wrote yesterday and in the morning, if you usually edit while you write. Don't agonize over every word until you've written half of what you're supposed to write for the day. That slows me way down and your word count stays low, which is discouraging.

Some days you'll be motivated and some days you wont. Doesn't matter. Do it anyway.

Carve out some relaxing time at the end of the day, and take a whole night off every week. It helps keeps you happy.
posted by k8lin at 2:34 PM on July 31, 2012

A big help for me was to find a distraction-free environment and to strand myself there with no easy way to get back. For me, this was taking a long walk to a cafe with only a paper notebook, a pen, and keys. No laptop, no phone. The walk back was long enough for me to power through momentary distractions, and being away from distracting technology was also incredibly helpful. Later, transcribing my written notes was a good way to feel productive when I wasn't up for difficult brain work.
posted by shaun at 2:34 PM on July 31, 2012

If chunking tasks by number of words isn't your thing, you might try the Pomodoro Technique for managing your time. Basically, the idea is to break up your work into a series of sprints, with mandatory breaks between each sprint. Each work sprint is called a pomodoro. The suggested default length of a pomodoro is 30 minutes, but if that's not enough to make a dent in deep-thinking work like writing a Philosophy dissertation you could adjust the length of your Pomodoro to whatever works best. I've read that computer programmers using the technique often go with pomodoros between 45 minutes and an hour.

To keep track of timing, there are several free tools available including and Focus Booster. But I prefer using the interval timer on my running watch.

I find this technique is valuable when I'm having trouble getting started on work. I know that even if I totally suck at what I'm doing for the next 30 minutes and get zero words written, I will be allowed to stop in 30 minutes. Of course, starting is the hardest part so that (0 output produced) never actually happens.
posted by jlh at 3:06 PM on July 31, 2012

Here's what helped me when I was finishing mine - pretend that you are writing the content as an email to a colleague (or more precisely, a series of emails).

Somehow this removed the mental block that I always get when confronted when writing something formal. Sure you don't end up with perfect prose first time, but it comes out much faster and is still surprisingly coherent - assuming you can write coherent emails (besides, you can/should still edit afterwards).

Good luck!
posted by piyushnz at 3:32 PM on July 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

Champion procrastinator here -- olympic caliber, seriously. I had a serious problem in the last few months of my Ph.D. thesis when my mental health and energy were most compromised, and yet the urgency and consequences were the greatest. I dilly-dallied on the internet for hours (also around the time I joined Metafilter -- a mixed blessing, to be sure) a day, and often had days were I was in my office from 9am until 9pm and got absolutely nothing done. I got it all done eventually, and had to use a variety of tricks, hacks and just brutal tenacity.

However, one thing that I don't see in the above comments that was super effective for me was a kind of buddy system. My best friend in grad school needed to get an article out, I needed to get thesis chapters out. We would meet for super strong espressos at the beginning of the day, and declare how much we'd get done. We'd trash-talk and laugh at each other's pathetic goals ("One figure, cleaning up citations for a section, and 500 words? Laaaame! I'm going to write 750 words, and finish drafting up the main map for my chapter!" "A map? You call that science?", etc etc), set them and then compete to see who could get them done first. A further stipulation was that zero internet or email access was allowed, on the pain of automatic disqualification. Later in the day, when we'd meet for coffee or beer, we'd gloat or trash talk. Some days, we'd up the ante by betting a bottle of wine.

Clearly, the way you do this might differ. But the idea is that involving another person in your goals -- competitively or not -- rather than have it all about your own personal psychodrama, can be tremendously helpful. In general (and I don't know that you suffer from this), I find that my worst productivity struggles happen when I work alone. In a team or collaborative setting, I get amazing amounts done. Partly for this reason, I left the academic world which is often a very solitary existence.

Good luck.
posted by bumpkin at 4:02 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I was under pressure to finish my dissertation, I found that getting up early and sitting down to work first thing, coffee in hand--no exercise, no cleaning, no showering--worked for me. I would procrastinate if I let myself think about it too much. I couldn't let anything get between me and getting started for the day. No internet, either.
posted by feste at 4:28 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

For some chunks of my dissertation I did something similar to the pomodoro technique, but it was based on accomplishing a certain word count within the time limit, and once the word count was met, I got to start my break. I know that when I'm going at a good clip, with a detailed outline to work from, I can write academic prose at a rate of 300 words an hour. So I would break my work into half-hour time periods and require myself to produce 150 words per half hour. As soon as I finished 150 words, I was allowed to take a break, if there was still any time left in the half-hour chunk. In practice, this usually resulted in me writing the quota in about 25 minutes and getting five minutes to stretch my legs, get a drink of water, look out the window, etc. If I worked faster, I was rewarded with more break time. If I worked slower, losing my break time would put me on notice that I had to figure out what was bogging me down and solve that problem quickly—if necessary, by skipping that passage and leaving a "figure this out later" placeholder in the text.

If you can match my rate of output, you could hypothetically meet your goal in a little over three hours a day of writing time, but as I say, I could only hit this stride once I had a very detailed outline in hand. Getting from the raw research to the detailed outline (with supporting evidence all lined up for each point in my argument) could take a fair amount of time, so in reality, you may not be able to distribute your writing time evenly over the days allotted. But beware of delaying the writing phase too long—it's too easy to let weeks slip by while you pursue "just a few more" research sources or work on your outline.

Like piyushnz, I found it much easier to explain my ideas when I imagined myself writing an email rather than a dissertation. Sometimes I'd even use informal phrasing or start out by writing, "Dear FriendName, I'm stuck on part of my dissertation. I'm trying to explain how . . ." and then it would just flow. When I got to the end of the paragraph, I'd circle back to the beginning, delete the fake-email beginning, and compose a more formal topic sentence. Do whatever works for you.

Often I found that the hardest part of writing was getting started each day. I could waste an hour or two just trying to talk myself into sitting down and looking at the page before getting into my 300-words-an-hour rhythm. I eventually figured out that the best way to help myself over this hurdle was to end each writing session by writing myself a few "getting started" notes for the next day. Then I could start my writing session confidently, knowing that all I had to do to begin with was flesh out my notes from the end of the last session. That would get me rolling.

Previous AskMes on the psychological and practical aspects of finishing a dissertation in a short period of time:

eight months

four months

ten days
posted by Orinda at 5:39 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I find it helpful to keep a list of "brainless" but still necessary things to do when you hit a roadblock. For example, formatting citations, or looking up a list of exact references. Make a list of these things you need to do while you are on a roll writing, and do them when you are stuck. This is a good mental break, but it keeps me on track and motivated in ways that looking at pictures of LOLcats does not.

It will also help you immensely when you don't have to waste your time doing those things later. I would also recommend a set stopping point every night (though I am a morning person, so YMMV). After 9pm or so, my output to frustration ratio goes way down, and its better to just start over in the morning.

Finally, I'm not sure how philosophy writing works, but in my PhD field (science) a certain level of self-plagiarism is A-OK. I've already written about my thesis topic about a million times, and I can stitch old drafts together until they are readable - and this goes into the semi-brainless category. Also, outlines are your friends! Writing 1000 words is daunting, but if you already have a topic for most of your paragraphs, things just fall into place.
posted by fermezporte at 7:25 AM on August 1, 2012

I wrote my thesis in a month Here's How:

8:00 AM Wake up, shower, head to lab
8:30 AM Begin working in Lab making the compounds I needed to make to get complete characterization data as well as collecting the data on other compounds I had already pure on hand
Noon Lunch
1:00 PM back to lab
4:00 PM Head Home
4:15 PM Type Type and more typing
6:00 PM Make Dinner
6:30 Eat Dinner
8-9 TV Woohoo!
9-10 more typing
10-11 Pint of Whiskey and then sleep

I am a Chemist so as a philosopher you might not have as big of a tolerance so you might not need the pint, but I found I wrote and worked much better with the whiskey as otherwise I just wouldn't sleep. It was a hard month, but I needed to finish because I was going to become homeless.
posted by koolkat at 8:53 AM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

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