154: Strategies for Building an Effective Dissertation Writing Routine

154: Strategies for Building an Effective Dissertation Writing Routine

 

In today’s solo episode, I share eight different strategies for building a dissertation writing routine that is effective, in other words, that will help you make more consistent progress with your writing.

 

From habit formation, to time-management, to understanding and accepting what works best for you, there are countless strategies you can try out to help you get out of a writing rut or writer’s block.

 

I recorded this episode with dissertation writers in mind especially given that my own dissertation writing experience was rocky and in contrast, my book writing process has been anything but that.

 

Tune in to learn more and share your favorite strategy with me on social media by following @gradschoolfemtoring on most platforms.

 

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Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

Welcome back to the Grad School Femtoring podcast. This is your host Dra. Yvette, and for today's solo episode, I'm going to be sharing some strategies for building an effective dissertation writing routine. I have been working on a Grad School Femtoring guide, under publication and under contract with UC Press. I am working with a co-author, Dra. Miroslava Chaves-Garcia, and together we have been working on this book in a rather seamless way. It has been such a joy and a pleasure to collaborate with her on this project, and it brings to mind just what a stark difference it is writing this book now than it was for me when I was writing my dissertation.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

I have learned several strategies, tips, tricks for implementing what has been an effective writing routine for myself, that I wish I would have known when I was a grad student- because my experience writing my dissertation as a grad student was quite the opposite. It was not joyful. It didn't feel seamless. It felt like there were a lot of roadblocks, a lot of bumps on the road, a lot of hurdles. Again, had I known some of these things, I think that would have minimized the discomfort. I don't think it would have been easy by any means. Writing a dissertation is never easy. Getting a PhD is never easy, by any means. But it definitely would have helped me out.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

Let's go straight into these strategies. I believe I have eight of them that I'm going to share today. The first three- I'm actually borrowing these ideas from this book that I read this year, called Atomic Habits by James Clear. Now, the book is all about habit formation- learning what it takes to develop habits, to acquire them, implement them, how to set up a system and set up an environment that will lead to success- however you define success, whatever you want to accomplish. How do you design the system to help you get that done?

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

So the first three, like I said, are from this book. The first one is, you want to make your system, your routine easy. What do I mean by easy? That means instead of setting up these lofty goals that, oh, I'm gonna wake up every morning at 5am and write for two hours before I get ready to go to work and blah, blah, blah. No. Just thinking about that makes me dread the thought of writing. But you know, some folks actually greatly enjoy writing. I am not always that person. Sometimes I do enjoy it. Sometimes I don't look forward to doing it.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

So if I make it easy and tell myself, okay. What is a very easy goal for me to meet? Maybe the easy goal is, I'm going to open up my document. I'm going to open up my notes. I'm gonna open up my article- whatever it is that I'm working on related to my writing- in your case, your dissertation. And I'm going to only spend five or ten minutes on it.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

In fact, James Clear introduces this idea of a two minute rule. If there's anything you want to start doing, try doing it for two minutes. So you want to start running. Put on your shoes, and go outside of your door. If after two minutes of being outside with your running shoes and running for two minutes, you're done- then you're done. But odds are, you're more likely to keep it up and do it for a little bit longer if you just get started for two minutes.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

In my case, I would always set ten to fifteen minute timers and tell myself- I'm at least going to open my document for ten to fifteen minutes. Again, more often than not, you will keep going longer, because sometimes the hardest part is opening up your laptop and getting started. So tip number one or strategy number one is to make it easy. Set easy goals for yourself.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

Now the second strategy is to make it attractive. What do we mean by that is- what can you do to set up a routine so that you look forward to dissertation writing? Like I mentioned earlier, I don't always look forward to writing. But what if you create or come up with some sort of ritual that you practice every single time before you get started writing? That ritual could be making yourself a cup of coffee or tea. That ritual could be playing your favorite music. That ritual could be logging on Zoom to meet up with the buddy who you're going to be doing a co-working session with. Something that actually genuinely makes you look forward to the act of writing- do that. Make it attractive. That's strategy number two.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

Now, the next strategy is to make it obvious. What do we mean by make it obvious? That means you want to set up your environment so that it is obvious that it's something that you want to or need to get done. That might mean having your laptop out on your desk, along with your notes, along with some books- whatever it is to remind you, oh, right, I need to work on the dissertation. That might mean- this is actually something that I've been doing since dissertation writing, that I continue to do now. Whenever I'm writing, I don't end at the end of a section, at the end of a chapter. I always end in the middle of something- in the middle of a thought, in the middle of a paragraph.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

Why? Because if I end in the middle, it's really easy for me to come back the next day and pick up where I left off, because I know where I left off. If I do somehow end at the end of a section, at the end of a chapter, I write down in my notes what it was that I last worked on and what I'm going to do next. So that way, next time I open up my computer, sit down to write, I know what to work on next. I don't have to keep splitting my hairs over- what is it that I'm going to work on next? No, I have a plan for what's next. So starting in the middle is also a way of making it obvious.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

Then also having a designated workstation or writing station, having things that prompt you to do it. For instance, make it obvious might mean- you want to learn how to play an instrument, then you're going to have that instrument out in your living room. Making it obvious might mean- you want to start cycling, so maybe you get a stationary bike that you have right there in your bedroom to remind you to ride the bike. Whatever it is- again, making it obvious will help you to get those things done.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

Alright, those are the first three. Again, I said I borrowed that from Atomic Habits. So if you liked those first three strategies, you should read that book. I found it really helpful, and there's a lot of gems in there. This is just three out of so many countless gems that I gathered from that book.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

Okay, the next one- and I think some of us might hear this over and over again. But it's all about setting boundaries. What do I mean by that, setting boundaries around your dissertation writing routine? What I mean is that you need to take a look at your obligations, and you need to take a look at the things that you're saying yes to and the things that you're saying no to. Because every single instance that you're saying yes to something else, you're actually saying no to your dissertation writing. So this means not only setting boundaries, but prioritizing your writing.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

I know that's easier said than done, because sometimes you can't help but have other obligations. You can't help but have a teaching assistantship. You can't help but have a part time job to make ends meet. You can't help but take care of your children, because you're a parenting student. I understand that. But there are also lots of opportunities that are presented to you that are not required, where you can say no. And just remind yourself every time, you're saying no to something, you're saying yes to something else.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

This actually reminds me- when I was an undergrad, I remember - I think it was my junior or senior year. I was presented with the opportunity to direct a theater show and I was so excited. But at the same time, so conflicted because I also was presented with the opportunity to focus solely on my research. I ended up choosing the research over theater directing, because I knew that my goal was to go to graduate school and that the research would weigh more heavily than the theater directing experience. In that case, I had to prioritize my research over my theater work. And I don't regret it because it worked out in my favor. I did end up getting into grad school like I planned. So in your case, how can you say no to things to say yes to your dissertation writing? How can you set more boundaries around it so that you can honor your writing?

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

The next strategy is all about accountability. This is a big one. I think you have to be really honest and reflective of how you work well. So you really have to get to know yourself, to learn what forms of accountability work best for you. Do not try to be like other people. If you start to compare yourself - I mean, it's hard to not compare yourself to others, right? Other people who seem to be, to have everything. There are folks who, they just seem to get it and to do things easily. Maybe they work really quickly, really efficiently, and you can't help but compare yourself. But in those instances, remind yourself that you have your own ways of doing things. You have your own methods of accountability that work best for you.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

For instance, I always wished that I could be the graduate student that could write by myself, work on my own, and get a lot done. But that wasn't true for me. What worked best for me was to be involved in writing groups, and to have co-working buddies and to have regular ongoing meetings with my advisor. That's what I needed to make progress- consistent progress. And guess what? I'm not fighting it this time around. I'm writing a book. I am very fortunate that I get to collaborate, and I'm not writing it by myself. So I have a co author, and what do we do? We check in every week on our writing progress. I also have co-working buddies, and I have at least one co-working session each week with someone so that I make sure that I touch my writing every single week.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

So for the accountability- accountability means taking ownership of something. What can you do to take ownership of your dissertation writing? How can you own it? How can you implement accountability systems within your writing? That way you get it done, and work with what historically has proved to be best for you. Don't try to be like other people. Try to lean into what works best for you.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

All right. Another strategy is to pay close attention to your timeline. If you don't have a dissertation writing timeline, this is my reminder to create one for yourself. In fact, I have an episode all about how to create a dissertation writing timeline. I will put that in the show notes in case you want to check it out. So what do I mean by this, by paying close attention to your timeline? I mean that you want to make sure that your timeline is realistic to you, and you want to determine monthly writing goals and weekly writing goals.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

I am actually finishing up reading this book called The Twelve Week Year. It's all about how to set up a system to get more done in twelve weeks than most people get done in a year. How do you do that? If you have a very clear vision, which then turn into goals, which then turn into weekly or "key tasks" that you can get done every week, then you're consistently working towards your goal. And if you consistently work towards your goal- and they even have a scoring system.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

Let's say you have ten key actions that you want to get done every week. If you get eight out of ten done every week consistently, if you're consistently scoring 80% or more, you're gonna meet your goal. So how does this apply to your timeline? Because if you have a timeline, and you have it set up so that you have your- maybe its quarterly or semester goals, and you're consistently meeting them. Then you have your bigger vision, the annual timeline of when you're going to finish and file. You're going to know exactly when you're ahead or behind. Or even when maybe your timeline is a bit too ambitious, and you might need to give yourself more time.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

I've seen this so many times, where folks say- I'm going to write a chapter per quarter or per semester. Then by the time I'm done with the last chapter, I'm gonna finish and file that term. But they might not account for revisions. They might not account for editing, formatting. All of that takes time. So just pay close attention. Make sure you have a timeline, pay close attention to it, be realistic with it- because that's going to help you keep your eye on the prize. If you have a timeline, you know what you're working towards. It's not going to feel like this nebulous thing that's out there, like, oh, one day, you're gonna finish. No, you're gonna have the end in sight.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

The next strategy is one of my favorites. It's all about time blocking. Time blocking is the act of setting aside a period of time on your calendar- it could be every day, it could be every week. But that time is supposed to be dedicated to one thing and one thing only. It's a kind of mono tasking, so the opposite of multitasking. But it's mono tasking for an extended period of time. So what does that mean? Time blocking can mean setting aside three hours once a week, or three hours, three times a week, or two hours, five times a week- whatever works for you. And that time is the time dedicated towards your writing. This can be time that you're reading, note taking, free writing, talking out loud, whatever it is. Anything that's going to help you make progress on your writing, you set aside that extended period of time for you to do that.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

I would do something similar to time blocking when I was dissertating. I would have one weekend a month that was my catch up weekend. So that weekend, I would spend multiple hours, like four to eight hours per day- almost like a writing retreat to play catch up on anything that I might have missed during that month, during the weekdays that you know, life happens. Now I do not do the writing retreats, extended sessions on the weekends, because I want to honor my weekends and my family. But I do do the time blocking.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

The time blocking means I have at least one three hour block every week dedicated to writing. And it's not always putting words down on a page. It can include- like I said- the reading, the note taking, the free writing. Even to this day, if I'm really stuck, I will talk out loud, record myself and transcribe it and get something out of that. So time blocking is great, if you haven't done that. The benefits of it is that it helps you to work on one thing at a time with fewer distractions, and if you have a to do list of a lot of things that you're trying to get done all at the same time.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

Now on to the last strategy. The last strategy is to know your pace. This kind of brings me back to the discussion of the timeline, because as a graduate student, if you're writing a dissertation, there is going to be an expectation that your advisor has about your timing, and how long it's going to take you to write the dissertation. Now, it can be difficult to manage expectations if your pacing is not aligned with the pacing that your advisor expects from you.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

For example, if your advisor expects you to write a dissertation in two years, but at the pace that you're going, you know you're not going to get done in two years. It is better to be upfront and have that conversation, even if it's uncomfortable. Have that conversation with your advisor to let them know- look, these are the things that I have going on. This is the pacing that works best for me. How can we work around me staying an extra year, so that I can finish the dissertation and do it in a way that is sustainable for me?

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

Something like this actually happened to me throughout the book writing process recently. While working on the first few chapters of the book, I noticed that my pacing was not aligned with the pacing of my co-author. She is a lot quicker than me. I'm slower with the writing. So I had to have that conversation of like, you know what? We're gonna need to shift our timeline, because I don't want you to be writing more than me solely because you write faster. Also, I want to make sure that I put in my fair share of contribution to the book. To do that, I'm going to need more time. And that can sometimes be an uncomfortable conversation. In my case, again, thankfully, I'm working with someone who I get along with very well, so the conversation was not uncomfortable or intimidating by any means.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

But it can be, especially if you are a graduate student talking to your advisor- there's that power dynamic there. But it's important to advocate for yourself. And that's one way to advocate for yourself- acknowledging that you have a different pace than others, and a different pace than what's expected of you. Then asking for accommodations- whether that means an extended timeline, or more funding so you could have a fellowship year instead of a TA ship, or whatever works for you to ensure that you get it done.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

You know, I would rather you work on your dissertation at a pace that works well for you, than burn yourself out, then have to take a leave. Or burn yourself out, then deciding you don't want to keep going- and you not only take a leave of absence, but decide to leave the program altogether. Or you stay in the program, but there's a lot of tension between you and your advisor because of a lack of communication. I don't want those things for you. Better to advocate for yourself upfront. The more you communicate and advocate for yourself, the better the writing process will be for you.

Dra. Yvette Martinez-Vu

Those are my strategies for building an effective dissertation writing routine. Hopefully you picked up on a few that will help you. Try them out, see what works for you. I know that I'm constantly vacillating between trying different things, and so far, so good. I have been really enjoying this writing process. Some days are better than others. I don't expect myself to be 100% consistent every single day, but I am consistent in my weeks and months. And by consistent, I don't mean that I get every single thing done. No- it means that I make progress, and enough progress to reach my goals. Then if I don't, I may just modify my timeline and that's okay. Remember, you're in charge of your dissertation writing process, routine and experience. That's it for this week. I hope y'all have a good rest of your week.

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