Is it OK to take time off while writing your thesis?

August 14, 2013

I just received this question in response to the short guide to writing a thesis fast;

It is common for students to think they have to work all the time to make progress in writing. Then, there is guilt if you do not work. But working all the time makes life miserable. Did you schedule days off and time off during the day when you were writing your thesis?

Is this feeling common?

Yes. It is common to have a constant feeling that you aren't doing enough and to feel guilty if you don't work.There are a few possible situations where this applies:

  1. When you intend to work, but can't find the motivation and end up procrastinating
  2. Where you work, but the progress is very slow or it doesn't feel like enough
  3. When you make a conscious decision to take time off and get away from the computer

If you feel miserable when you work, and guilty when you don't then clearly writing will be a nightmare. So what is the solution?

Set the bar for success

Ask yourself; how much progress do you need to make in order to be happy?

In an ideal world, you want to finish each day and look back with satisfaction on what you have done. When I wrote my thesis, I set this at 500 words minimum per day, because I knew this was achievable even on a difficult day.

On a good day, I could smash the target and write maybe 2000 words. On other days I might have to fight and struggle my way to 500. Either way, I had a system which allowed me to feel good about my progress.

The target should not be your maximum

Your writing pace will naturally vary from one day to the next. Some days you might be able to write 2000 words, but this should not be your target  because most days you will fail.It is better to set the bar low, then smash that target, rather than just about reaching it on your best days.

Time off during the day

While writing, I would take breaks just to give myself time to think. This thinking time is essential, but difficult to get if you feel constant pressure to WORK MORE WORK HARDER KEEP WORKING NEVER STOP NOT DOING ENOUGH...You need some downtime, just to relax and think.

Being English, I am addicted to tea, so putting the kettle on got me away from the computer on a regular basis.

Go offline

Crucially, when I took breaks I was not checking email (I had no internet connection at all during the months I was writing), so this meant my brain could think over what I wanted to say before I went back to the desk.

Email and Facebook do not count as a break, and are by far the biggest productivity killers.

Days off

Because I had a set target each day, which I exceeded, when I did take days off I didn't feel guilty about it.

I felt like the thesis was under control, and so I wasn't worried about taking a day or two to myself.

Finishing the day with something in reserve

I always tried to finish working at a point where I felt I could do more. This made it much easier to maintain my productivity from one day to the next, which in turn meant I was more likely to beat the target every day, which helped me feel in control, which made it easier to relax... (see "the self-sustaining cycle of thesis productivity")

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