How to Stay Sane While
Writing a Thesis
Presented by Annette Stevenson
Student ASSIST 6773 2897
Building C37 – between the Deli Café and
newsagent “up top”
What today will aim to cover
• Identify your study goals as well as the
strengths and any weaknesses that you
bring to your study
• Rollercoaster of peaks and troughs
• Procrastination traps
• Overcoming the dreaded “writer‟s block”
and feelings of isolation
• How to manage your time and to minimise
Me and My Post-Graduate Study
1. My long-term goal(s) for my study is…
2. The strengths I bring to studying are…
3. The things that are impeding my study are…
4. My good coping strategies are…
Research Thesis Rollercoaster
(Elphinstone & Schweitzer, 1998)
• Normal to have highs and lows
• From excitement to sense of failure in a
• 3 „d‟s – depression, doubt, desperation vs
enjoyment and elation
• The self-saboteur
• The obsessive-compulsive side of you
• The anti-social you
• Post PhD blues
High Dependency on Supervisor (Elphinstone
and Schweitzer, 1998)
enthusiasm excitement relief
apprehension anxiety feelings of isolation
and self questioning
come and go
enrolment→→→topic chosen→→→proposal accepted→→→development of research area
Medium Dependency on Supervisor
(Elphinstone and Schweitzer, 1998)
data collection→→→analysis→→→→focus on argument/detail
Low Dependency on Supervisor
(Elphinstone and Schweitzer, 1998)
lessening motivation post thesis ‘let down’
focus on writing→→→→completion→→→→→→→→→→→submission
(adapted from Elphinstone and Schweitzer, 1998)
• I‟ve picked the wrong topic
Re-read proposal, review reasons for discarding other topics
• The data are all wrong
Be open to results going either way and testing hypotheses
• I can‟t write anything
Make writing a routine. Some “writer’s block” is normal
• The end is so far. I will never finish
SMART goals (specific, measurable, attractive, realistic, time-
Common doubts cont’
• This isn‟t good enough. It should be perfect
No such thing as the “perfect” thesis. Not your final work. Have
other strings to your bow.
• I‟ve left something out
Maintain perspective. Clear rationale. Project boundaries.
• I‟m not up to this. I‟m not good enough.
Progress journal. Identify strengths.
• Why am I doing this? Why am I putting up
with this pain?
Revisit why you took this on. Identify internal and external
sabouteurs. Support people.
• If I finish this, I will never write another thing
From burnout to book, article, etc. Visualise completion.
1. Action (set a goal and didn‟t make it)
Thought (This is frustrating)
2. Action (set another goal and didn‟t make it)
Thought (Why bother?)
3. Action (not bothering, avoiding)
Feeling (unmotivated or anxious)
Thought (I could fail. I am failing)
Study Spirals cont’
1. Action (set a minimal goal and make it)
Feeling (feel in control of work)
Thought (I‟ve achieved something)
2. Action (set another goal and make it)
Feeling (energised and motivated)
Thought (I am getting there)
3. Action (Achieving goals and doing well)
Feeling (in control, motivated, happy,
Thought (I am going to finish this. I‟m
• Remember that tenacity, endurance and motivation are
• Keeping a journal, or a web log – “blog”
• Acknowledge and celebrate your progress
• Stay connected – don‟t isolate yourself. Join postgraduate
peer support groups
http://www.une.edu.au/library/eskillsplus/ - online program for
postgraduate students (research, literature, endnote, career)
eSkills Plus Meeting Place – a social space for UNE
Attend seminar/discussion groups
Peer support and/or supervisory groups (formal, informal?)
• Perfectionist, dreamer, worrier, defier, crisis-maker,
over-doer (Grant and Greene, 2003)
• “How do I feel about the task that I’m putting off
• What are the advantages of starting this right now?
• What are the disadvantages of leaving it until later?
• What excuses am I making for not doing this task
• Will it kill me to do it for a few minutes at a time?
• How can I break the task down into manageable
• What reward can I give myself for finishing it? (Grant
and Greene, p. 83, 2003)”
• Warm up your mind
Be specific about what you are avoiding
List advantages and disadvantages to doing or not doing the task
Challenge the part of you that doesn’t want to do the task
Plan tasks in advance
Visualise yourself completing the task
Do a mental warm up – revision, brainstorming, etc
Swiss cheese technique – do anything related to task
• Set yourself goals
Set time limits
Review progress, learn from mistakes
Record progrss/achievements on wall chart, in journal, etc
Salami technique – break task into steps – do one at a time
Aim to spend 10 min a day on unpleasant tasks
Contract with others what you want to achieve
Procrastination stoppers cont’
• Make physical changes
Stretch, change posture, exercise
Attractive and inviting work environment
Go to distraction free place
Work alongside someone who works well
Have a sounding board
• Stay positive
Don’t look at decisions as right vs wrong – most decisions have
pros and cons
Replace negative thoughts such as “I can’t”, “I won’t”
Visualise self completing task
Pretend to be the well-organised non-procrastinator
Say no to requests. Be assertive. State your needs.
Ask for help
Hints for Pushing Through Writer’s Block
• Drafts – for your eyes only at first
• Don‟t wear critical and creative hats at the same time
• See writing is an evolutionary act
• Proofreading vs rewriting with critical hat on
• Copy editor for final draft
• Write about anything – get creative juices flowing
• Speak, verbalise, have conversations about your ideas
• Mindmap your ideas
• Mental warm ups – revising drafts, chapters
• Be physical
• Change physical environment
• Carry a notebook
• Focus on the smaller chunks vs bigger picture
• Do something creative
• Write how you feel about your thesis (unblock emotions)
Time Management Exercise
• Think about areas in your life in terms of
time. Do you give each area of your life your
preferred proportion of time or would you
like to re-balance the way you allocate your
NB: 7 x 16 waking hrs/day = 112 hrs
70 hrs = 63%
35 hrs = 31%
20 hrs = 18%
10 hrs = 9%
Time Management Exercise cont’
....0% ACADEMIC WORK ....0%
....0% HOME DUTIES eg housework, shopping, ....0%
showering, cooking, etc
....0% RELATIONSHIPS WITH ....0%
SIGNIFICANT OTHERS eg things we do to
enhance our relationships with those with whom
we are very close
....0% SOCIAL eg things we do to meet people, enjoy ....0%
friends & extended family
....0% PERSONAL eg things we do for ourselves ....0%
....0% OTHER eg paid employment ....0%
Time Management – The Central Skill
Yearly planner – set deadlines for each step
Reading - define general area
Reading - designing study (have “just in
Reading - collecting data (asap)
Reading - analysing data (computer hold-ups)
Writing - rough draft
Editing to final copy stage
Printing and Binding
Hand in Time!
• Physical (body)
• Emotional (feelings)
Talk to significant others
• Cognitive (thoughts)
• Behavioural (actions)
Holiday time during candidature
Negotiating supervision contract/arrangements
Arrange for a computer, and any other resources you need
• Read down the list of statements, ticking
those you feel apply to you. Alter statements
so that they apply to you better. Note down
any reservations or differences you have.
Organising Yourself cont’
• I don‟t think I work as hard as I could
• I couldn‟t tell you how many hours I put in last week.
• I often seem to leave things like essays/writing till the last minute.
• I find it hard to get down to work.
• I don‟t seem to be able to stick at a task (like reading through a
chapter) for very long.
• I think that others do more than me.
• I don‟t find it easy to talk to others openly about how much work
• I‟m never quite sure what I‟ve got to do next.
• I sometimes take ages to „get going‟.
• I‟m not sure whether I‟m doing enough or not.
• I tend to flit from one task to another.
• I seem to work better in some places than others.
• I work rather irregularly, putting in lots of time one week and
practically none the next.
• I‟m generally behind, sometimes several weeks behind schedule.
• There is no way I could do all the work I‟m expected to.
• I‟m not sure I always do the most important things first.
• I‟m not sure I‟ll be able to keep going right to the end of this
• I don‟t have any sort of long-term plan for my work.
Source - http://web.missouri.edu/~kleinp/images/cartoon_diss_def_small.gif
• Grant, A. and Greene, J. (2003) Coach
Yourself. Cambridge, MA: Perseus
• Elphinstone,L and Schweitzer, R. (1998) How
to Get a Research Degree – A survival guide.
Australia: Allen and Unwin.