Small wins, part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about focusing on the small wins, rather than the big goals or major breakthroughs.

The first step is to define your threshold for success in the short term.

What would make today a successful day?

When I was writing my thesis, I set myself the target of writing a minimum of 500 words per day. This meant that I had a specific metric of success; on a difficult day, if I struggled to reach 501 words but fought my way through, it was still a successful day. If I blasted through 2000 words easily, it was a great day.

Sometimes, though, you aren’t in complete control of the outcome. Things can go wrong, equipment can break, experiments can fail… On days like these, your effort might not produce measurable forward progress.

But it’s days like these where your effort is most important. It’s the ability to stay engaged and creative when things go wrong that will make all the difference in the long run.

It’s still a win if you kept trying. It’s still a win if you stopped to think about the problem instead of just working on something else. It’s still a win if you stayed curious and engaged.

If you think this way, if you can look back on even the most frustrating days and say you did your best, more tangible success will come. It takes time, but it will come.

See also
Be like the ocean

Small wins, part 1

Success doesn’t happen all at once. It’s easy to focus on the end result and see it as a singular event, but that moment (whether it’s your graduation or a major breakthrough in your work) is the culmination of thousands of smaller, less dramatic successes over time.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is the way archetypal success stories are told. We all know about Isaac Newton and his falling apple, but the truth is that his insight into gravity didn’t just hit him on the head. It came about after years of constant, obsessive work; not only learning scientific and mathematical skills but inventing entirely new ones.

Newton’s apple, Archimedes’ bathtub and Edison’s lightbulb: All variations on the same story, all missing the long, slow, unglamorous daily accumulation of small, individually-barely-significant victories necessary to achieve something great.

Focus on the small wins, not the big goals.

One way to do this (and to build it into your daily routine) is to start the day with a to do list of no more than 3 things.

They don’t have to be the biggest, most important things you have to do. They should be small enough that you can achieve them fairly quickly, so you can build your day on a foundation of success.

The idea is to narrow your focus from the big, overwhelming, long-term goals to the small, manageable but important steps you can affect right now. Put all your focus and effort into doing them, one at a time, to the best of your ability.

You might find that your mind wanders or that you find a million other things that need to be done, but bring your attention back to that list of three.

Focus on the small wins.

You might also find that you resist doing one of the three things on the list. Stick with it, though. The rule is that you get all three done before you do anything else.

This trains the habit of seeing things through even when it’s uncomfortable. Do this repeatedly on a small scale and it’ll be easier when you face a larger problem in your research or writing.

Small wins.

See also:

Finish it!

Quick tip: To do lists

Why you shouldn’t always look for a gap in the literature

People often talk about finding a “gap” in the academic literature, but this isn’t always the best way to develop a research project.

Even if you find a gap in the literature, the mere fact that nobody has published on it isn’t enough to make it interesting to other academics (and it has to be of interest to others in order to get published).

Sometimes, the best research is done where there is already a huge amount of literature; where we think we know something but it’s perhaps based on a widely accepted but flawed or untested assumption.

Other times, it could be about finding an interesting edge to work on; taking existing research a little further or taking a different approach to the same problem.

So a gap in the literature isn’t really what you’re looking for. You’re looking for an opportunity to develop a meaningful research project. The relationship between that project and the existing literature could be complicated.

For more on this, check out this post from 2017!

The lonely thesis writer

Yesterday, I talked about how writing happens in the spaces between typing and the importance of taking time to just think. This isn’t easy, because it means being alone with your thoughts, but it’s necessary.

But this doesn’t mean you have to work in total isolation all the time. It’s equally important to talk to other people to explain and discuss your work. The questions they ask, the comments they make are a form of informal feedback that can help you refine the way you communicate.

For many, especially those doing remote PhDs, the only time they describe their work is in writing. This makes the job so much harder because the only feedback they get is at the end of a complete draft.

Talking to people about your work helps enormously, because it’s always easier to write about something if you’ve described it before. But talking to others about their work, or about what’s happening in the field is just as important again.

Being in contact, being immersed in the conversations in your field; this is how you get to know what’s really happening.

So you need both. You need time alone to think and to write, but you also need contact and conversation. Don’t do it all alone.

See also:

Talk to people

Who you work with is just as important as what you do

Writing ≠ typing

It might seem like you’re only writing when you’re filling pages with text, but writing and typing are not the same thing.

Most of the writing process is simply thinking. Thinking about the ideas you want to express, the structure, the way one idea leads to or follows on from another.

When I sit down to write, I’ll spend extended periods just staring out of the window while I juggle words and ideas in my head. But this, too, is only part of it.

It’s often in the times when I’m nowhere near a computer that the real writing happens. It’s while walking or commuting or doing anything else that lets my brain run free.

It’s creative, rather than productive, time. And, for me at least, it’s essential.

So don’t think of writing as just typing. Take the pressure off and give yourself time to think.

See also:

Productivity comes last

How to overcome writer’s block

Facing the problem in front of you

In doing something that nobody has done before, using techniques you’re still learning, it’s inevitable that you’ll face problems.

But there are different ways you can respond to these problems when they arise.

The first is avoidance. You can avoid the problem by procrastinating, or you can avoid it by working on something else. If you switch to working on something else when you face a problem (in research or writing), you’ll keep yourself busy but you won’t be effective. Ultimately, you’ll end up far more stressed because you’re working and working but not solving anything.

The alternative is to face the problem head on. Put all other work to one side, engage and take the time to figure it out.

It’s uncomfortable, but it’s when problems arise that you need to be at your most engaged. The more difficult the problem, the more engaged you need to be.

Achieving your goals

Back in 2005 (about half way through my PhD) I took a week off to cycle more than 500 miles from Edinburgh to Brighton.

Although physically it’s one of the toughest things I’ve done, it was also one of the most enjoyable. There was something about the simplicity of the task that made it strangely relaxing; all I had to do was get up in the morning, start cycling south, try not to get lost and try to eat enough. All other concerns were secondary.

But finishing was strangely anti-climactic. I was happy not to have to sit on a saddle again for a while, but the achievement also meant the loss of the goal.

I felt the same after finishing my PhD. It felt good to submit, but it also left a big hole to fill.

Goals aren’t necessarily about the outcome, they are about the process. And the reward doesn’t come after you finish; it comes in the form of meaning and focus in the present moment.

Knowledge and skill are not the same thing

It’s easy to worry about gaps in your knowledge, especially when faced with 10,000 papers you haven’t read. It’s just as easy to fixate on this as the main problem and get stuck in a reading trap. Reading paper after paper, cramming as if it were an undergraduate exam.

Reading papers without doing any practical work is like reading a hundred cookbooks without setting foot in a kitchen. Even if you manage to absorb all that knowledge, it’s useless without the skills to apply it.

Yes, you will be partly judged on your knowledge of the field, but they don’t expect you to know everything. It’s just as important to do your own research competently, and that takes practice.

Working on your skills is just as important as the reading.

The more you write, the harder it gets…

When you start a new chapter, there will be some material which just seems to spill out. You have a whole load of ideas bottled up, and so it’s easy at first to create new content and increase your word count.

But then something happens… It gets harder and harder to write the closer you get to finishing.

Why does that happen, and what can you do about it?

Picking the low-hanging fruit

Of all the content you want to put in your thesis, there will be some things you are confident in, some things that are easy.

Then there will be things that take a lot more thought. Things that you’re unsure of, or are are difficult to explain, or require thorough references, or are incomplete.

So if you start with all the easy stuff, eventually and inevitably you will be left with the more difficult things which take more time and thought.

It’s like picking the fruit from a tree. It’s easy at first to take the low-hanging fruit, but then gets harder the more you pick because the remaining fruit is higher up.

The more you work, the more work you create

What makes academic writing unique is the level of supporting detail required for every idea you present.

Almost everything you write requires some kind of reference either to previously published work or to some evidence you present as part of your research.

Even a fairly simple, uncontroversial and well-known factual statement may need a reference to support it. So writing that statement creates some extra work if you then have to go looking through the literature to find out where it originally came from.

This is often tedious work, so the temptation is to leave yourself a note (insert reference here) to remind yourself to do it later, because you want to carry on writing, creating more content and increasing your word-count.

70% complete…

So after working on a chapter for a while, there will come a point when everything that remains to be done is either difficult new content or tedious detail.

You will no longer be able to sit down and write 1000 words in an afternoon. It might feel like writer’s block, and you might feel the burning temptation to leave the chapter 70% complete and switch to writing about something else (where you’ll be able to take more low-hanging fruit and write fast again).

But that can only work in the short term. The same thing will happen again with the next chapter, and the next, until you have built up a vast amount of unfinished material. Everything that remains is difficult, and it’ll be one hell of a fight to get the thesis finished.

The stress-free route to thesis completion

If you fight against the inevitable, you will lose. But if you understand and accept how it works, then you can work in harmony with the task.

When you’ve gone through the easy phase of generating writing, and you start to slow down naturally, this is a signal that you should change your focus to working on either the finer details or to think about the difficult aspects of what you are trying to communicate.

Go back through what you have written. Edit. Put in the missing details. Put in the references. Take the time to think deeply about what you want to say next.

Try to anticipate what an examiner’s questions might be, and address the difficult issues now, while the subject and the ideas are all fresh in your head.

Accept that it’s necessary to slow down sometimes and take care over the detail. Be perfectionist about it. Do it well, and finish the section by dealing with all those tiny details before moving on to the next.

If you can complete one section…

Every section of your thesis requires the same basic elements before you can say it’s complete.

It will need all the references in place, with the full bibliographic information. It will need editing. It will need formatting to look like the final thesis. Any figures will need to be well designed and properly captioned. It will need to flow from one point to the next without any gaps to complete later.

You will have to do all these things at some point, for every single section of the thesis. You can either do it all at the end, under massive time pressure, or you can do it as you go. It’s up to you.

But if you can finish one section, just one section, taking care of all of these details, then you know what’s required for the rest of the thesis. And if you can complete one section to a high standard, then you know you can do it for the rest of the thesis.