How can I write my dissertation at home?
August 30, 2012 9:28 AM   Subscribe

How can I write my dissertation at home?

There have been several other posts about how to be productive at dissertation writing, but most of the other question-askers seem to be trying to decide between places to write. I specifically want to work at home.

In a perfect world, I would have a private (or close to private) office that I could go to and work every day from 9-5, but I'm doing my PhD in New York and so, realistically, I'm lucky I even have an apartment to myself to write in. Unfortunately my school doesn't provide office space or carrels and the library there is less than ideal. I get distracted and annoyed by working in coffee shops, so that leaves my apartment (unless anyone out there has ideas of a place that I'm not thinking of, in which case I would be very happy to hear suggestions).

I'm looking for advice on how to make dissertation writing time at home as productive as possible and to make working at home feel more like an job and/or office. I know that I'm supposed to set aside regular hours and unplug the internet, but I'm looking for ideas on how to do that better and to really differentiate between computer work time and computer fun time in order to be as productive as possible at home.

Thanks, in advance!
posted by lxs to Education (21 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Can you set up a desk or a tabletop that is exclusively for dissertation-writing? Don't use it for anything else...this may set up a good psychological trigger that you are in This Place For Writing each day.
posted by xingcat at 9:30 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here are some things that helped me.

1. Lower expectations. Four solid hours of work on a dissertation is a good day. Shooting for eight will only leave you with guilt.

2. Find a sacred topos. The semantics of space. Pick a nook or table that is for writing-only. Don't do anything else there.

3. Unplug the internet and use some timer software to keep you accountable. That being said. A lot of dissertation work involves reading a, staring into space, and otherwise mentally digesting material. Just because they keys aren't a-clackin' doesn't mean you ain't a-workin'

4. Just do it. More than anything else, I would get caught in cycles of guilt- and avoidance, and then resort to worrying about questions like yours, when what I needed to be doing was just sitting down and doing the work. Like I am now, here on AskMeFi.

Good luck, don't be hard on yourself, and just do it.
posted by reverend cuttle at 9:35 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I did this. I used leechblock with set work times. I'm a big fan of the 'unschedule' method from 'The Now Habit' (here's a pdf explaining how it works). Also: go out for lunch to meet other people or you'll go crazy.
posted by The Toad at 9:36 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm in a similar position, so I'm interested to read others' advice. So far, I'm not doing a great job of focusing, but some things that have helped are:
- Turning off the wireless radio switch on the back of my laptop. I don't seem to have any hesitation about re-opening Firefox after I've closed it down, but actually flicking that switch gives me pause.
- Having mini-deadlines frequently. My advisor has been pretty available over the summer, so I've had deadlines where I needed to meet with him, or report to him that I've emailed X to Y person. But you cold also do this with other grad students. Friends of mine set up a weekly session where they each took turns presenting pieces of their dissertations.
- My university has a dissertation-writing bootcamp. You sign up in advance and you put a certain amount of money on the line. Then you have to show up to this room on campus 9am-1pm every day for a couple of weeks. You can't check email while there, and there are other, similar rules. Possibly your university has something similar. Ours is administered through the Vice Provost for Graduate Education. If you have a similar office on campus, you could call and ask if they have any recommendations.
- Printing out articles and reading them somewhere out of sight of my computer.

Good luck to you!
posted by pompelmo at 9:37 AM on August 30, 2012

Use something like Self Control (for OS X) or Cold Turkey (for Windows), put in all your favorite websites of any kind, set for 8 hours.

Clear desk.

posted by shivohum at 9:37 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I had dedicated "dissertation writing pants". Seriously.

They were trackpants, but I was still getting up and putting on my work-pants instead of loitering about in my pajamas on writing days. I also worked with a timer, in 45 minute blocks. For those 45mins, I was writing or working on figures, NOT going back to reread this paper or getting a drink or whatever. The other 15min of every hour: frivolous things, tea, getting the mail, moving the laundry, running a lap around my apartment building, cleaning whatever thing seemed so attractively in need of cleaning, ... Then back for another 45min block of work in my comfy, comfy pants.

It helped that I didn't have internet at home - I think shutting off the wireless radio is a good reversible idea.
posted by janell at 10:03 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Here's what worked for me:

Treat it like your job (because it is). Work 9 to 5. Every day. Take a half day on Sunday. When you "go home"*, you're home, so do what you like. Cook dinner. Watch TV/movies. But then go to work the next day. At 9. Because it's your job and that's what you do.

Don't have unrealistic expectations about working every second of that day. Take a lunch break. Take coffee/internet breaks. But, be reasonable about it and go back to work after your breaks (half an hour to an hour for lunch and a couple 10 or 15 minute coffee breaks seem reasonable).

As a suggestion for a place to work, is there another library that might work better? The NY Public Library has a number of branches, some of which do have work space. Plus, there are probably other places to work**.

*Whether this is just mentally "going home" (i.e. stopping working for the day) or physically "going home," it doesn't matter. Separate work from home.

**For example, the Columbia Main Library requires a Columbia ID to use it (and they check when you enter). However, some other libraries on campus *cough*Math Library*cough* really don't care. As long as you look like you know what you're doing, you can walk right in.
posted by Betelgeuse at 10:03 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some things that worked for me:

Even though you are working from home, get up at a certain time, take a shower, and get dressed as if you were going to school. This will put you in a headspace to "work" rather than "surf the web over coffee."

Set up a dedicated corner of your apartment for your work. Only do work in that location (don't, for example, watch movies/TV on your computer there).

If you don't already have this structure with your advisor, set up weekly/biweekly meetings with a partner/group of grad students at which you will talk a little bit about what you accomplished in the interim period. You can time your personal deadlines to these meetings.

Try to plan your fun/relaxation times to be not always at your apartment. It can be kind of a drag to spend day after day in one place, so at the end of your workday, try to reward yourself with a happy hour or coffeeshop break.

Keep your apartment clean -- whenever I would work from home, instead of writing my paper, I would wash dishes, vacuum, etc. But if I kept the regular cleaning schedule I had when I had classes and worked away from home, I wouldn't be so tempted.
posted by bluefly at 10:03 AM on August 30, 2012

Unfortunately my school doesn't provide office space or carrels and the library there is less than ideal. I get distracted and annoyed by working in coffee shops, so that leaves my apartment (unless anyone out there has ideas of a place that I'm not thinking of, in which case I would be very happy to hear suggestions).

Hmm it's hard to suggest other places without knowing what makes your university library "less than ideal."

Have you considered other libraries? You can register easily to access the Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance. I doubt they'd complain if you sat quietly at a table in their reading room with your laptop and typed away (especially if you're a graduate student in Art History as one of your previous questions seems to suggest).

There are also other private libraries in New York that might work better for your purposes depending on what bugs you about your university library, e.g. the Society Library, membership $175.00 per year for students, though it looks like the public can use the reference room for free. Or the Goethe Institute library (afternoon hours only.)
posted by Jahaza at 10:09 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I second the idea to check out alternative libraries. Many institutions in NYC have relationships that get their students library access and borrowing privileges at other libraries, check if this is the case for you.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:16 AM on August 30, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions!

I hadn't really been considering other libraries only because I feel like the times when I've been most productive in the past have been when I have a private or at least semi-private space to work in. I was hoping to find some sort of office/carrel situation.

I hadn't known about access to any of the libraries you mentioned, Jahaza, so I will definitely keep them in mind.
posted by lxs at 10:30 AM on August 30, 2012

I just handed my dissertation in last week and I wrote it mostly at home. I'm bad at scheduling time to work (my procrastination ability is unbelievable) and need to switch up locations often. I stayed home because for similar reasons - the library doesn't work for me and I like to be close to free food and coffee (i.e., my kitchen). What worked for me:

- I alternated days between working in my room and in the kitchen. Having a designated workspace doesn't work for me, I need to switch it up, so I went wherever felt right for the day.

- I kept both my room and the kitchen SUPER clean. I actually de-cluttered my room significantly before dissertation time started, threw out/recycled a ton of stuff. I find that having minimal stuff out to look at keeps me more focused and I can't concentrate in messy spaces.

- focusbooster. I (sort of) use the pomodoro method - after I've had a timer on for about two hours i settle in and can keep going by myself. Also, I usually decided on about six hours of work per day, and they could happen at any time so if I felt like taking the morning off, I did. sometimes I worked between 8pm and 2am. YMMV, but I prefer less scheduling of my time so as long as I fit the 6 hours in somewhere, I did anything else I wanted to.

Seconding what everyone else says about taking time off. I'd add to make sure you get some exercise too! Even just a walk does wonders. And yes, the cogs are turning whether you're typing or not - if you have a couple of seemingly unproductive days that's okay, it happens. I did all of my writing (the real stuff that wasn't notes) within the last ten days of the two months I had to get it done, it worked out just fine.

Don't overthink, just do. Good luck!
posted by 9000condiments at 10:39 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Even if you don't go out, get dressed like you are going to an office. It doesn't have to be a formal suit or anything, but just some real pants, a shirt, and shoes so that your mind switches from "at home" mode to "get stuff done" mode.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:40 AM on August 30, 2012

I've been working from home for 5 years now, doing most of it "wrong" according to what "they" say about how to be productive at home: I don't keep regular business hours, I don't have a separate room or special desk for my office, I stay in my jammies and slippers until I need to walk the dog at lunchtime, I often find myself working with my teenaged daughter flopped on my bed 4 ft away asking for help with her math homework, etc.

A couple of the things I do to make it work are: (1) take breaks by switching to a different, productive, task rather than surfing the web (says she, surfing AskMe...). It's easier to come back to task after you take a break to wash the dishes or do a set of push-ups than after you've disappeared down the rabbithole of the internetz, not only because after a while doing work seems more appealing than doing chores but also because you feel good about yourself for having done a good thing, and when you feel good about yourself it's easier to keep making good choices; perhaps paradoxically, when you feel ashamed of yourself for having made a "bad" choice you're more likely to keep doing the "bad" thing. (2) I have a set, early start-time (6:45 am), although the rest of the day unfolds more like 2-3 hours on/2-3 hours off than like 4 hours work, 1 hour break, 4 hours work. (3) I have nanny software installed in an attempt to limit my recreational browsing (I use Stayfocusd for Chrome).
posted by drlith at 10:56 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I finished my dissertation in April of this year and it was exclusively written from home. Everybody else has some really good tips about making a special spot and putting on clothes that aren't pajamas.

At first I had a schedule and I was supposed to write everyday from 9-5 just like a real job. But that really didn't work. I ended up spending a lot of time stressing over a blank white screen and not really getting anything done. So I did a NoWriMo challenge for academics. I set myself up to write a chapter a month, and that chapter should be about 8000 words. Giving myself weekends off, I was required to write about 300-400 words a day. I kept a running total on the whiteboard near my desk.

I would get up in the morning, do the morning ritual, walk the dog, and then go to my desk and start organizing thoughts. Then I gave myself until lunch to get that 300 words in. After lunch, I reviewed what was written, planned out where I was going next and revised what I'd worked on.

A lot of times it meant that I wasn't precisely writing things in order. Like I would write a bit on something that happened, and during the revising bit realize that I needed to explain more about why that mattered. Then the next day I would realize that I needed more background info on who was involved. So at the end of the week, I would have a couple thousand words or so and I would go through and organize them so they fit my goals for each chapter.

Now, some days I got to rocking and on a writing flow and I didn't stop at the 400 words, but other days I was struggling to get 299 that made sense. On the bad days I would allow myself to spend time organizing my research or cleaning up my bibliographic database, or attaching keywords to my notes.

I also took breaks during the day to play with the dog, fold clothes and clean house. My husband jokes that the house was way cleaner when I was writing because I didn't feel like I was procrastinating if I was doing something else productive.

Also, if you don't know about Zotero spend some time there today. It's fabulous and awesome and made writing so very much easier.
posted by teleri025 at 11:07 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Have you asked your department head if there is any time that you can use an empty room/office at school?

Also, what was a huge help to me was spending the first 10 min just writing down phrases that I wanted to cover, essentially brainstorming, and then going back to flesh it all out.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 11:39 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wow, there is a lot of great advice here. Why didn't I think of asking this question 4 years ago??

Anyways, since you're open to other places to write, there are writing spaces in NYC that might be a viable option...if you can afford it (and, as a grad student, that is going to be a big IF). For example, Paragraph, Writers Room.
posted by puritycontrol at 11:59 AM on August 30, 2012

The shit about how "the important thing is just to GET STARTED" sounds trite as fuck, but it's actually true.

It's good to keep a list of fairly routine things that you actually do need to get done. Not mere make-work like "reorganize my bookshelves again," but dull-but-necessary tasks like "fill in missing bibliographic data" or "add summaries to the ends of the sections I've written already" or whatever. And then if you're having trouble starting, whip out that list and do one of the things on it. Bam, you're working.

I find it easier to get started really fucking early in the morning. I mean, not that it's easy to do that, but that somehow waking up at 8 and having accomplished something by 10 feels way better than waking up at noon and having accomplished something by 2, even though it's really basically the same schedule.

Stop for meals, but keep food around that you can make and eat without thinking.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:59 AM on August 30, 2012

The bf is finishing up a PhD program in 5 years that usually takes 8, and he's written his whole dissertation in our tiny studio apartment (a lot of it while I've also been working at home).

Here are the things I've noticed that have worked for him:

-Rigidly regular schedule. Gets up at the same time every day and goes to bed at the same time every night, even on weekends.

-Takes a shower and gets dressed every day.

-Has a few things he can do for a "get the hell away from the computer" break. It used to be smoking, which he said was ideal for writing, but I don't advise taking that up. Since he's quit, it's his coffee making ritual.

-Keeping regular hours. With rare exceptions, he starts working when I leave for work in the mornings and stops work when I get home at night.

-One thing that works for him that I suspect may drive most people to their wits' end is that he works weekends, even if it's a half day. This keeps him from getting totally out of his groove during the weekend and having to waste half of Monday figuring out what the heck he was thinking on Friday afternoon.

-Guarding his working time from distractions. He doesn't take phone calls, won't get into IM discussions with me when I'm feeling chatty at work, and when I'm working at home and want a break, has no compunction about saying (good-naturedly) "Get the f**k out of my office."
posted by twiggy32 at 6:37 PM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I haven't written a dissertation. (So, y'know, my advice may be a bit off.) But I did just hand in a paper that, for my academic level, is a stretch. Like they say, just write it. And I second the idea of having tasks to do and tick off so that you're never idle or in a deep, deep rut.

What helped with my productivity was working at school - but lessons were:

1. good tools (friendly word processing? Maybe zotero? Bottomless water bottle?)

2. like twiggy32 said, guard your mind. This might take practice, but you should know what will surely distract you. Let's say, once you start chatting, you'll lose focus. Don't even start, then. I know people who can juggle five conversations and churn out watertight arguments, so it's really about knowing yourself and striking a balance between slave-driving and slacking. Aim for sanity-preserving.

3. don't be too hard on yourself the first few working days. Look at it more like a project, maybe, to figure out how to get over your own problems of concentration and become more productive in the long run.

Best of luck!
posted by undue influence at 7:01 AM on August 31, 2012

Also, yeah. Don't overthink preparations. Just aim to keep yourself in that focused headspace for x hours a day, no matter what. Adapt your methods and schedule to fit. Initially you'll do a lot of 'hmm, so is this gonna be helpful?' but you'll get to know the limis of your concentration over time.
posted by undue influence at 7:06 AM on August 31, 2012

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