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Creating a Work Structure that Makes Sense For You

Most of you have work habits that have been productive up till now. You made some sort of peace and worked out some sort of rhythm with the high school and college system of courses and relatively short-term deadlines. But what if now you are having trouble finding the time to work on the dissertation? What if, even when you have the best of intentions, other things are crowding the dissertation out? What if you sit down to work on the dissertation and just sit there and can't move forward? If your attempts to work are not succeeding, then you have a problem--a problem which you need to recognize and set about solving. Either you need to discover a different set of work habits than the ones you have relied on until now, or you need to find ways to set up external structures that resemble having classes and shorter-term deadlines.

You probably need to try some combination of both.

The old system worked because even if you did procrastinate, you could put in a mighty effort at the end and turned something in by the deadline. It is as if you hated shoveling snow, but you manage to shovel it if you have to in order to get to work in the morning. But now that kind of pressure is removed, and the snow keeps accumulating and the task looks larger and larger. To make matters worse, some students who procrastinate try to reassure themselves by imagining an even bigger, more awe-inspiring dissertation--which only increases their sense of inadequacy. It is a vicious circle. Now when you take on the responsibility that in the past was imposed on you (by deadlines and classes and teachers), you need to internalize the voices that imposed those demands. Here is where there is a battle of wills: Can you absorb these voices, and still preserve your autonomy?

Creating Your Own Self-help Guide

Whatever ways you finally settle on to approach work in a way that gets it done, they have to feel like your own. This is key. You have to respect your desire for autonomy. The best way to do that is to begin to evolve your own principles for effective working. In short, I am suggesting that you create your own self-help guide.

Many self-help books are written by people who have overcome a difficulty, and while they have some useful and important suggestions, perhaps the best advice, the advice that you are most likely to heed over a long period of time, is advice which you have worked out for yourself. Feeling that they were competent to find their own solutions to their difficulties, that they might even someday be in a position to share those solutions with others, may be an important ingredient that the writers of self-help books brought to their own transformation. Julie Morgenstern writes in Organizing from the Inside Out, "From the day I was born until I had my own child, I lived in a constant state of disorder. I was a classic right-brained creative type, always living in chaos, operating out of piles, spending half my days searching for misplaced papers, lost phone numbers, and missing car keys." Rita Emmett writes in The Procrastinator's Handbook, "For as long as I can remember, I practiced every delaying, guilt-producing procrastination tactic imaginable." (p.3) Creating advice from their own experience may be one way that people work through a difficulty with dignity. I'm sure this was one of the reasons I wrote my own dissertation about the difficulties of writing a dissertation.

I am not suggesting that you stop and write a book about procrastinating, but that you do begin to construct your own principles, your own guidelines for approaching the task in a way that increases your sense of competence and productivity. In short, I am suggesting that you create a document which serves as a stabilizing influence, like a gyroscope--your personal Rules for Engagement in work. Isn't this what Virginia Valian describes so admirably in her article "Learning to Work" from the book Working It Out? (see Useful Books)

"It occurred to me that mental work is like sex in certain respects, although at first it seemed a bizarre comparison. The most important aspect of the analogy was the idea that work was natural. I had always thought of work as something I had to make myself do, something I didnít intrinsically enjoy. The analogy suggested that I was getting in my own way, that I was preventing myself from enjoying myself. It wasnít that I had to learn somehow to force myself to work, but rather to remove the roadblocks to the way of enjoyment. I continued the analogy and decided that I needed a similar form of therapy (as described by Masters and Johnson). I needed to break the process down, starting at the least threatening level, slowly building up and assembling the whole, and discussing how I felt and what I was learning as I was doing it."

From this perspective and with little experiments, she arrives at a set of rules to guide her. This isn't to say you can't take ideas from other people's experience. It is simply to say that you should be open to finding what works for you and if you try someone else's idea, put it in your own words.


Steps to Creating Your Own Self-Help Guide/Journal

This journal is where you keep track of your work experiments, your plans, your accomplishments, your feelings and anything else that relates to the writing of your dissertation.

You can either create such a document on your computer or put them in a binder, writing them in the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper. The computer has the advantage of staying in one place. If you chose a binder make sure that you always return it the same location. When things have a home, they are much less likely to get lost.

Here are some thoughts about what you may want to include in this self-help guide. There is an example of entries into such a guide/journal at the bottom of this section.

  1. State the purpose as you see it for this self-help guide --something to this effect: "I want to use this journal to clarify approaches to work that succeed for me--habits that I am comfortable with."

  2. Include a mission statement for the dissertation. This states what you are aiming for--your goals for doing the dissertation. For example: "I want to finish the dissertation by such and such a date." (See below for more extended example.) You have a much better chance of arriving where you want to go if you are clear about the intention of the trip and the destination.

  3. Create rules and guidelines that evolve from your work experiments. After a trial period, write an assessment of each rule. Here's an example of a rule: "If I am unable to work on the dissertation, the very least I will do is write about my feelings for 20 minutes in my journal [see Julia Cameron's book, .The Right to Write or look at Ira Progoff's At a Journal Workshop. You may discover methods such as, building so-called "procrastination" activities into your work structure as ways of making the transition to work, e.g. start your work period with a half hour cleaning the apartment time. Above all you want to start making commitments that you can keep and thereby begin to have the experience of success.

  4. Create a time schedule template near the beginning of your work journal that you can copy and place at the beginning of each day's entry. See the example below.

  5. Write often in your journal. It should provide a space between not being able to work and being able to work. Writing in the journal should be an activity which helps you to gently make the transition to working on the dissertation. It is a place to keep track of what you do, of what is working for you, of your accomplishments. Sometimes it is a place to jot down at the end of a work period exactly what you need to do when you resume working.

It is important that you develop a friendly relationship with this document. Whatever directions and rules you evolve should be written in a tone of great respect to yourself the reader. Most people don't work well for someone who is bossy and authoritarian. Yet too often people talk to themselves in ways that would lead them to quit working for that boss in any other setting. Be the kind of "boss" for yourself that you'd like to work for.


Example of a Guide/Journal:

(When you open your own version of this document at the beginning of each work session, you would glance at the purpose and mission statements and then you would copy the template you design and fill it in as you work.)

Statement of Purpose of this Self Help-Guide (Example)
"My purpose in creating a self help guide of my own is to finally arrive at a disciplined approach to working on a long term project. My hope is that by keeping track of what works for me, I will gradually be able to become a dependable worker, who is intrinsically motivated and can work even when there isn't an immediate deadline."

Mission Statement for the Dissertation Itself (Example)
"I am determined to work steadily on the dissertation until it is finished. I will not stop working on it, as I have in the past. But even when I don't feel like working on it, I will revert to a lesser amount of work each day, but I won't avoid the task all together. I will keep this project in perspective, I will not neglect my relationships, nor will I let them interfere with the minimal work commitments that I have set myself."

Rules that I have Generated from my Experiments
1. "I will go to bed no later than midnight on the eve of a dissertation work day.
2. "I will get up and be at my desk by 9 am and I will keep the hour free of other commitments.
3. " I will work for 20 minutes no matter what. If it is unbearable to work on the dissertation itself, I will write in my journal about the feelings that are getting in my way."

Time Schedule Template
(Your version of this should be copied to the bottom of the document on each day you work.)

How did it go today:-
Full assessment after two weeks on:-

Journal Entries
Date: January 8th
9:00 Phone
9:20 I began a little late, because I answered the phone. But here I am and I will begin by working on the opening paragraph of Chapter 2.
9:40 Continued on chapter 2.
How did it go today: Normally, I don't think I would have begun work today without this plan. 2 minutes before 9:00 the phone rang. It was Jeff and I did want to talk with him. But at least I was able to say after 10 minutes that this was my work time and we had to stop. I think next time I will actually turn off the ringer on the phone so I don't pick it up.
Full assessment after two weeks on: January 22

Date: January 22
9:00 I am beginning on time. But I really don't want to work today. Ok, so I'll write about my feelings. I hate this project.
9:20 I'll reread what I wrote yesterday. ---After 20 Min: I read it over. Not so bad.
9:40 Ok, I'll finish the concluding paragraph to the section I wrote yesterday.
How did it go today: Actually, writing about the feelings some how diminished my negativity. I was surprised that I was actually able to get some real work done even though I was totally negative when I started. My mood actually changed for the better.
Full assessment after two weeks
Of the 6 times that I had planned to work I did do so on 4 times. I think I should plan to work on Monday and Wednesday. Thursday is not realistic. So I will amend the plan. But this is an improvement over not having touched the dissertation in two months.

Planning a Timeline






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Fred Stern, Ph.D. and Lois Feldman, Ph.D
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