To Do lists in reverse

I was recently asked whether I am at the stage of my PhD when I just write every day. I said yes, I wake up and write, read a bit and write some more. Every day (sigh). It’s sounds more dramatic than it is. Coming towards the end of my PhD I am finally at a point when I have things to say so most of the time I enjoy writing all day and every day.

The process is not straightforward, of course. Writing big chunks of text requires discipline, motivation and seeing the bigger picture. At times I struggle with my motivation or feel like I’m going nowhere (in circles, to be precise). As experience up to now has taught me to try new things when I feel stuck or demotivated, such as the procrastination jar or reading a newspaper to improve writing, I kick-started a new strategy to boost my motivation. I called it ‘To Do list in reverse’. As a committed writer of To Do lists for everything, my recent writing list had gone through the roof with bullet-points and numbers, crosses and ticks, pens of different colours. I needed a different approach as looking at the To Do mess made me cringe!

So I tried writing a list of what I had done instead…

I asked myself “What have I done today?” and here is how this helped:

  • A sense that I am moving forward in my writing – yes, the task is enormous, but being able to say “Chapter 5: Intro, reduced cases 1-5, populated last section” , “Drafted section 3” and “Added photos of children’s work” makes a difference. Focusing on the small things led to a sense of achievement and confidence that the pieces of my writing puzzle do belong and contribute to the whole. That’s the bigger picture just there…
  • A way to keep progress – writing down what I have achieved and when is a good way to keep a record, particularly in the final months of my PhD. I can see when I’m stuck so I can move to a different section instead. I can also see how long it takes to complete/redraft sections of my thesis which comes handy planning the next steps before submitting (and being realistic about these).
  • A way to motivate and reward myself – I like rewards for a job well done, but too often I get distracted by the list of more things to do so I forget. Writing down my little achievements enables me to celebrate the steps along the way. It’s the journey that matters, right? Then the focus should be on enjoying it for a bit, not immediately jumping on the next thing to do.
  • Review my working patterns – one thing I’ve noticed in the past 3 years is that work patterns change. I prefer mornings, then afternoons, even some days are better for writing than others. I currently like Tuesdays and Wednesdays, go figure.. Writing what I’ve done helps me to monitor how I’m doing and adjust to what works rather than insist on going early in the office or desperately trying to make myself write in the early afternoon.

So I guess I’ll be doing these lists for a while and see how it goes. The most important thing is that they keep me writing and moving in a shape other than a circle.

What strategies do you use to keep you motivated on the write-up run?


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