Given that a lot of people are stuck at home with nothing else to do but to write their thesis/manuscript/Literature Reviews, here’s a short post on what I do to ensure I get some level of productivity in a day.
1.Have a rough plan/layout.
It might sound a bit silly, but it really does help to have an idea of what you’re supposed to be writing (and how to structure it). Go over a dot point plan of an outline for the chapter/manuscript with your supervisor. All you need to do is to literally write it out on a Word document and email it to them. Ask for feedback, and that way you’ll both have a clear understanding of what you need to write about (and how to do it).
2. Know yourself.
Do you tend to get distracted easily? Do sounds bother you? Are you addicted to social media (myes!)? Do you love playing the Sims 4 on your laptop (also yes)??
If you know that you struggle a bit with certain activities, then try and address them before you get started. It’ll take some discipline (like uninstalling the Sims 4 from your laptop… *sob*), but hopefully it’ll do you good in the long run.
I personally love writing, so provided I have a desk and chair I could probably write in most places- although I tend to avoid my bedroom, because I have no desk and chair in there (and I find writing while lying down or sitting cross-legged hurts my frail back).
But- I do know that I can’t stand talking/human noises. If it’s a whole classroom and the noise is constant, it’s fine (because your brain sort of drowns it out as background noise), but if it’s infrequent conversation, or spontaneous laughing, I’m very easily distracted. So, to address this, I saved up and bought myself some noise-cancelling headphones. I generally find loud noises and such to be quite startling, so these have become my go to wherever I may be. Downside is people can sneak up on you, but… at least I can concentrate when I need to. I just need to pick the right sound to play. When I was writing things that required a bit of concentration (e.g. discussion), I tended to listen to soundtracks and classical music, or even nature sounds, just because I found that music with lyrics was distracting- also I tend to sing along spontaneously and no one really needs to hear that.
3. Be in the right environment.
Obviously prior to the ‘stay at home’ period, you had the choice of either writing at home or writing at work. I was fond of the writing at home option, because I found work was too chaotic and distracting to concentrate. We’re in an open plan office, with lots of people coming and going. Any visitor to my supervisor had to walk behind me and my desk to see them, and the Post-Doc office was right behind me so I was in full view of pretty much every single individual. I found that really difficult to deal with, so I would often opt to stay home and write.
Others find that the work environment helps them concentrate more, because they’re surrounded by colleagues. The pressure from them helps drive the writing, because they feel compelled to work (and not get distracted).
Unfortunately for now, most people don’t have the option of going into the lab to write, so… you’ll just have to make do with what you’ve got.
If you have a room you can hole up in, that’s also a good way to get your concentration up. If you can designate that room as your work place, it might be easier to train your brain into realising it’s time for work. These things don’t happen overnight, but with constant repetition, you might be able to trick your brain eventually.
I like wearing PJs or trackies for as long as physically possible (because I am a lazy slob and enjoy the freedom of being able to do this), but if you find that getting properly dressed for work is helping you concentrate- just do it. Whatever helps, right?
4. Schedule your work day.
If you find that it’s harder to concentrate because you don’t have a set schedule- make one! If you’re a lab student, you have to plan and schedule your day out anyway (or at least be in the process of trying to do this), so why not just do the same thing at home? Set a timer and blitz it out for a certain amount of time (Pubmed-ing, writing, editing, etc), then set another timer for a short break. In one of my previous posts, a student talks about doing this on/off method to stay focused. Organise yourself appropriately.
5. Have realistic goals.
Sometimes, a paragraph is the cumulative result of hours upon hours of literature searching. Especially in the introduction or literature review. Other times, you can write a whole page in 15 minutes, because you’re just interpreting results. The point is, different texts require different amounts of time to formulate.
Also, if you write super duper fast, good on you, but if you’ve always known you’re not a fast writer, then don’t feel bad that someone else drafted something way more quickly than you did. Comparing yourself against other people is a good way to start feeling really bad about yourself- so try to stop yourself from doing it.
Just write as much or as little as you can. Regularly writing small portions is better than occasionally writing a chunk and forgetting about it.
6. Take breaks.
And by breaks I mean proper breaks (not half-arsed ones). If you’ve only worked for an hour and you take a two hour break… that’s not appropriate. But, if you’re taking a half an hour break after a couple hours of solid work, don’t then start scrolling through literature- that’s not a break! Leave the desk, go for a walk (exercising counts as a reason to leave the house!), make a cuppa, go and pee- physically leave the work space and do something completely different.
7. Unwind as necessary
If you find you’re not getting enough sleep, or you’re not feeling well-rested of a morning, maybe work on the schedule more so that you have time to unwind of an evening. If you find that post-dinner writing sesh is stressing you out- stop it. Exercise instead, or stream something. Working right up until bed time isn’t really good for you in the long run. Prioritise proper rest and sleep.
Also- we’re all stuck at home, so catch up with your mates! Call them, or do a video conference call! It’ll be good to see other human beings.
Writing purely about myself, I tended to have a writing day like this:
- ~8-9am: Get up, sit at laptop and start writing/editing. Put on headphones as necessary to avoid distractions.
- ~11am: Realise I’m starving and eat breakfast/brunch while watching Netflix. Have a shower and finally change out of PJs.
- Keep writing/editing and realise you’re stuck in a time loop- where if you leave, you’ll lose your train of thought. Now you are desk-bound forever, or until the next section break.
- ~2-3pm: Realise enough is enough- I need to pee, I’m also kinda hungry again, and I haven’t drunk anywhere near as much water as I should’ve. Eat lunch and take bathroom break. Make a cuppa that I’ll inevitably forget about. Keep writing/editing after a lengthy Netflix sesh while eating.
- ~7-8pm: Realise that I haven’t really moved around much all day and make a hasty attempt at fitness by going for a walk/run. Make dinner and eat it while streaming something.
- ~9-10pm: Either keep working like a lunatic or start some weird hobby (see numerous, previous posts on #hobbies).
- ~12-1am: Realise I should’ve gone to bed hours ago, and start making way toward bed.
- ~1-2am: Go to bed and stream something like an idiot. Eventually decide to go to sleep.
- Repeat from step 1.
Moral of the story: don’t be like me. It’s super bad for your health!
A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬