AcWriMo: Keeping Track and Staying Motivated

Dr Alex Pavey, Researcher Development Training Officer, Doctoral College

I’ve experimented with many, many different writing tips and techniques in the past, particularly when I was working on my PhD thesis.

I tried making writing the very first thing I did in the morning, and I also tried not sitting down to write until I’d spent the morning crossing off every possible admin task or distraction.

I tried writing in libraries, cafés, and different rooms in my flat.

I wrote by hand, and I wrote on my laptop.

I wrote with a dozen of library loans open on my desk, and I wrote while forcing myself not to glance at a single PDF or open up my reference manager.

I tried writing stream-of-consciousness, beginning to type before I knew what I was trying to say and not taking my hands off the keyboard until I had hit my word target. And I also tried carefully outlining and structuring a section before I let myself write a single word.

What I generally found was that every approach worked very well sometimes. There were very few strategies that worked at every stage of the writing process, and that permanently became part of my writing practice. And I think that makes sense, because ‘writing’ a thesis isn’t one single, simple activity. Sometimes we write to work out what we’re trying to say, articulating an idea that’s half-formed but exciting. At other times, we write to slightly refine something we first drafted three years ago. We write paragraphs that summarise the state of the art in an entire field, citing dozens of papers, but we also write pages of analysis based on nothing our own data and our own ideas. It makes sense that we might need different strategies and approaches at different times.

I recognise this now, but of course I didn’t always at the time. I spent plenty of seemingly unproductive afternoons staring at my laptop screen in a certain café, wondering how I’d been able to get thousands of words written the last time I was there.

There was one technique, though, that developed organically over the course of my PhD and that I found consistently useful. It’s also been the strategy that has seemed to resonate the most with other researchers when I’ve met with them to discuss writing, time management, or problems with motivation.

I called it my thesis diary when I began using it, although I now tend to think of it as a research log, and it’s a fundamentally very simple idea. One day I opened a new Google Doc, and typed this:

What I did today:

Every day, I made sure the last thing I did before I finished working was to fill in those three bullet points. And I always added the latest entry at the top of the document, pushing the older entries further down the page – so that the next time I opened it, the first thing I would see was the last thing I had done.

What I unexpectedly found was that this simple bit of admin evolved into an incredibly useful resource: a record of what I had done, including the things I might otherwise have forgotten, and a dialogue with myself that helped shape my research.

I’ve extracted a few examples to illustrate some of the useful things I found myself doing through my ‘thesis diary’…

Celebrating good days:
Date: Fri 6 Jan
What I did today:
Really good day. Integrated hard-copy notes from Weds into doc and finessed the Himes intro further.
– Some very good work on the main ch intro, tying it explicitly into incrimination and the main intro stuff well, plus tying together lots of the historic stuff too.

Keeping up momentum:
Date: Mon 22 May
What I did today:
– Intro/Concepts restructuring: KLynch stuff back into Intro; Noir lit review into Concepts. Todorov para cut back to Scrivener for now.
– Lots of good restructuring of intro and concepts, esp the beginning of Intro. Ended with work on mobility in Concepts – pick up from this point on Weds.

Keeping track of decisions:
Date: Weds 4 Jan
What I did today:
– Decided that integrating Killer and BM makes the most sense and annotated where to add in sections on BM into the current draft. Question over how much of the masculinity/violence stuff on Killer/Hollers that’s currently in there needs to be maintained, which can wait until the BM stuff is added.

Leaving notes and reminders for myself:
Date: Mon 16-Thurs 19 Jan
What I did today:
– Continuing good work on Hollers, fixed lots of things and integrated lots of secondary stuff nicely. Grinding a little towards the end of Thurs on the final sections of Hollers, but think I’m getting there – step back by doing another read through Fri AM.
Don’t be reticent about calling the shifting boundaries and paradoxes B experiences disorientating.

Recognising and giving myself credit for admin tasks:
Date: Fri 24 Mar
What I did today:
– Forms to offices (nursery, examination entry form)
– Brief notes from Avila as a supplementary citation on freeway construction, and downloaded Loukaitou-Sideris article on Arroyo Seco Parkway. Borrowed Bottles, Banham, Wachs from Bartlett
– Finished KCL application

Acknowledging difficult days…
Date: Weds 9 Nov 2016
What I did today:
– US election results. Struggled to do much.

The more I made use of this approach, the fewer mornings I spent struggling to decide how I should get started, and the less time I lost wading back through multiple notebooks trying to remember whether I had annotated a certain paper.

As I look back, I think that the reason my thesis diary became such a useful habit was that it addresses two of the key challenges we face as researchers – keeping motivated and keeping track.

It can be difficult to keep motivated on a long, complex project, when there’s always another task to move on to, and our to-do list never seems to decrease. We naturally and necessarily focus on what’s ahead of us, on what comes next. But this focus on what’s left to do often means we lose sight of what we’ve achieved – yesterday, last month, or last year.

We also have so much to keep track of. A research project involves hundreds of decisions – some that we debate and agonise over for weeks, but others that we make in a single afternoon and are half-forgotten almost immediately. We create hundreds of artefacts – Word documents, data files, lab notes, print-outs of different drafts. Often our schedules are irregular or disrupted by unforeseen events, or we have gaps between research days because of teaching, work, or other commitments. And when we next sit down at our desks, we have to build up all that momentum again. What were we doing? How far did we get through that paper? What did we decide to prioritise?

As a part-time PhD student, these challenges could feel particularly acute, and at the time I probably would have said they were particular to me – to the specifics of my project, my situation, and my good and bad writing habits. The more I’ve spoken to other researchers throughout my career, though, the more I’ve realised how common these experiences are.

If any of this resonates with you, then consider giving this strategy a try. Make it an easy habit to keep, and one that marks the end of your working day. Create a single, easily accessible document. Make it digital rather than handwritten, so it’s easily searchable. Make it cloud-based so you can always find it. And at the end of every research day, finish by briefly recording what you did that day.

What did you read, what did you write? What went well? What admin jobs did you have to get done? What decisions did you make? Where will you start next time?