10 tips for being a happy thesis writer

Is it possible to be happy while you write your thesis?

I was. It was the most relaxed and enjoyable period of my whole PhD.

Even though I was working hard, I felt relaxed and in control, and I believe that if I can do it, you can be happy while you write too.

Here are 10 tips for being a happy thesis writer.

1. Look after yourself

Never neglect your basic needs. Eat well, sleep well, and do things to treat yourself from time to time. Get outside every day during daylight, take care of your appearance

If you neglect yourself, it will affect your ability to work. But if you make time to do these basic things then you are keeping some control over your own life.

2. Look after your work space

At the end of each day, take a few minutes to tidy your desk.

Though this has a practical benefit, it also has a psychological effect too, in that it gives you closure on the day and gives you a feeling of control over the work.

3. Stop while you still have something in reserve

If you just work until exhaustion, then it will be very difficult to work the following day.

This is easier to do if you…

4. Set parameters for success

What makes a successful day? How much do you need to achieve in order to be satisfied with the day’s work?

Don’t set the bar too high. If you plan to do as much as physically possible, then the best you can do is just reach your target, but anything less is a failure.

But if you set the bar at a level you know you can achieve consistently, then you can exceed your own target. I used a target of 500 words per day, because I knew I could achieve that even on a bad day.

5. Take time to think calmly

Writing well depends on thinking well. If you are stressed and panicking and have to write as fast as possible, you won’t be able to think.

Slow down, take some time. If you think you can’t do this, that’s a sign that you should!

6. Take pride in your work

Take time to do things well. It’s not perfectionism to put care into your work!

7. Focus on one thing at a time

You can only fully engage with the work if you know exactly what you are trying to do.

There will be times when this is difficult becasue there are so many things to do, but you just have to acknowledge them, put them to one side, and tell yourself, “it’s OK, I’ll get to that stuff later”

8. Focus on the present moment

You may find yourself anxious about the future… what will the examiner think? What if they ask something I don’t know? What if I fail? What if I can’t get this done in time?

Focusing on these things means you are distracted from doing the work, which makes the outcome you fear more likely!

You can’t necessarily make the thought go away, but you can acknowledge it and then calmly bring your focus back to the task at hand. Repeat when necessary!

9. Finish things as you go

Try not to leave things unfinished. Stay with the task until you are done.

If you leave big gaps, you are saving up all the hard work for later, but if you finish the section, you can move forward knowing that it is done.

10. Stay connected

Stay connected with the people around you. You may need to shut yourself away for hours to get work done, but you also need to emerge, reconnect with the world, and remind yourself that there is a life beyond your thesis.


  1. Mahra Salim says

    Hi James

    Your exiting blog made me change my mind and go back about 16 years to restart my PhD which has been left unaccomplished, although I have never stopped researching and writing books and articles. My problem now is that I am 65 years old and I feel it is rather embarrassing to be student again although I have done a lot of work in my thesis but I was unfortunate with my supervisor more than one reason. What do you advise me?
    Aumaya Abbas

  2. Bryan says

    I once saw a very succesful author speak at a Litererary Festival and his big, simple, piece of advice regarding writing was to always leave something you want to write until tomorrow. This means that you can’t wait to start and will know what to do when you sit down. This sounds like it goes against point 9, above, but there’s probably a way round it. If, when finishing a day’s work, you simply write what needs to be done first thing tomorrow, then you should get a head start.

    I also read somewhere that it’s easier to ‘write in the morning and edit in the afternoon’.

    • James Hayton says

      That’s exactly what I meant with point 3 (which I stole from Ernest Hemmingway).

      Point 9 is to avoid writing 10s of thousands of words, but leaving huge gaps. Take care of the details and finish what you are working on before starting something else.

  3. Anna Banks says

    It’s good to know that you had fun writing your thesis. Only a little of us feels the same but with these tips, I’m pretty sure that more will now enjoy writing as well. It would also help o read and watch videos that are related to the study. It helps you to write something when there are visuals involved.

  4. B says

    Thanks for this blog. It has given me the courage to work in a way that makes sense to me ie researching, having something reasonably coherent to say and THEN saying it. The only way I can produce my thesis is to write through from beginning to end, and it’s working brilliantly. This is against all advice I have been given elsewhere and against the administrative systems in place at my institution. It takes courage to go out on a limb like this and, like you, I only discovered it when I felt I had nothing left to lose. I recommend magic whiteboard paper for sorting such a lot of information when it is time to write, especially for the right-brained amongst us.

  5. vidya says

    I have 3 months to submit my thesis and I have done NOTHINg in writing even though the thought process is complete ( I feel ) . Thank you for this inspiration. I hope to achieve this and write on this wall again that I did it ! wish me luck !

  6. HudY says

    Hi James,
    You inspired me :)
    I’m still a student but reading your blog and feeling the success between your words made me very excited to become like you and make my dream of getting a master degree later come true! Thank you for sharing your story and what you have been through .
    Best of luck always.
    Hudy H.A

  7. Kat says

    Hi James

    Wonderful post!
    I thought I’d add in an extra was of monitoring progress as opposed to word counts:
    This applies to the results section with lots of graphs and the written statistics. I make a goal for the day to finish one section of the results (all results relating to the heart failure data at baseline – approx, 10 graphs/parameters assessed – I’m in the heart failure field). I then edit, create, insert every graph that is neccessary and add figure legends and the stats into the document. This can take a consideable amount of time upt to 8 hours, purely because of all the editing, but it’s a nice was to track your progress even if your word or page count isn’t increasing dramatically. And it pays to spend time producing high quality figures and graphs! Discussions and Introductions definitely benefit from word count goals though :-)

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