How to use your body clock to set your thesis writing routine

To finish your thesis, you’re going to have to spend a lot of days sitting writing in front of a computer screen.

But spending more hours at the desk per day doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll finish any faster. You have to make sure that the time you spend there is spent well.

The 80:20 Principle

If you spend 10 hours at the desk, you might find that 80% of your productivity occurs in 2 hours, while the other 20% takes place in the remaining 8. It’s the 80:20 principle in action.

Strangely, the last 2 hours of the day can often be the most productive, even though you would think that’s when you’d be the most tired and least productive.

Circadian rhythms

Your general level of alertness naturally varies throughout the day, and for most people the pattern repeats on a daily basis- so  for example you might be sleepy in the morning and most alert between 3 and 5 pm, every day.

Short term stress can override the rhythm (like if you have an important deadline), but you’ll tend to revert to what your body is used to.

But your alertness will also depend on what your body is physically doing. Sitting behind a desk all day, your body’s core temperature will drop, your heart rate will slow and you will gradually become less alert and less capable of writing.

So it’s vital to get up and get your body working to keep your mind alert. 

What to do

You need to know what your natural rhythm is. When are you most alert during the day? And when do you just feel like sleeping?

Once you know what that rhythm is, you can start working with it, rather than against it.

  • Try to do the most mentally demanding work when you are at your peak, and do easier things when you’re not. If you peak between 6 and 8 in the evening, it makes no sense to try to be at the desk at 9am. Start later, finish later.
  • Also, try to build momentum towards your peak working time. So if it takes you time to build momentum at the start of the day, start the day with something really easy.
  • This is much easier if at the end of the day you leave yourself something easy to start the next one with.
  • Don’t rush to turn the computer on in the morning. You’ll just be on email and Facebook anyway. Take your time to prepare, have breakfast, do any miscellaneous chores and give your body time to physically wake up.
  • Only check email after you’ve achieved something for the day (no matter how small an achievement).
  • When you feel tired and feel like checking email, get away from the desk instead.

Reading email is not a break

Sitting in front of your email doesn’t count as relaxing. Physically you are doing exactly what you are when working, so there is no contrast.

Get up and stretch your legs instead. Better still, do 20 push ups and 20 sit ups. The boost will be better than a shot of espresso!



  1. Dingayo James says

    Hey James,

    many thanks for your research on these matters! To be honest, in my opinion procrastination is the most biggest and number one thief[….]wait a second; how does that work? Can you steal from yourself? Yes, time well spent against time not well spent.
    I’ll end here and hope you can fill in the gaps[….].
    Cheers buddy!

  2. Alice Wong says

    Hi James. I am SO glad to have found your site. I was feeling rather crappy for not being able to focus on my thesis and when I read this, I thought “Hey, there’s hope!” All of the things you said are SO true and the part about “reading email is not a break” really struck a chord in me. Makes me regret all those of hours of chatting and emailing on Yahoo. I have exactly 3 months and 8 days to submit my thesis so I’m trying to apply all the great strategies you’ve shared here. Cheers.

  3. says

    This arrived in my email just at the right time, I am going to make a concerted effort to find out what my natural clock is and try to gain some momentum by using this knowledge to my advantage! Thanks for another great post

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