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How to Write A Thesis When You Can’t Even Look At It Anymore
by Dora Farkas, PhD If you are wondering about how to write a thesis when you feel completely overwhelmed, I understand your dilemma. During my first five years in graduate school I envied senior students who were so close to the finish line. I imagined that once you get approval to defend (full story below)
by Dora Farkas, PhD

If you are wondering about how to write a thesis when you feel completely overwhelmed, I understand your dilemma.

During my first five years in graduate school I envied senior students who were so close to the finish line.

I imagined that once you get approval to defend your thesis, everything gets soooo much easier.

All you have to do is to sit down and write everything up, right?

That’s…sort of true.

What no one tells you is that writer’s block doesn’t go away even when you have the green light to graduate.

In fact, writer’s block can get magnified ten times when you have a hard deadline.

All of a sudden it feels like you have a million things to do and not a lot of time.

Your committee finally gave you approval and if you miss it…you’re kind of doomed.

(You’re never really doomed, but let’s stay focused on how to make the deadline.)

Your initial feeling of relief (that you can finally defend) may quickly spiral into a vicious cycle of panic and overwhelm.

Now, you really don’t want to anyone asking you “So, how is the writing going?”

Maybe you can’t even look at your thesis anymore.

You would rather be doing anything else than write (don’t be surprised if you have a sudden urge to clean your bathroom).

Or, perhaps you are frantically writing and rewriting the same paragraphs

You may be flip-flopping back and forth between not wanting to look at your thesis anymore, and trying to get every detail perfect.

If you’re struggling to start or finish your thesis, you’re likely feeling some type of fear.

Fear is often the underlying emotion behind procrastination, not “laziness” or lack of motivation.

The good news is that once you identify your fear (even if you don’t have a solution), your writer’s block will start to dissolve.

Common sources of fear are:
•How will others judge your work?
•What if your thesis isn’t good enough?
•What if you discover that you have more work to do than you thought?
•Will you disappoint your spouse/significant other if you don’t finish on time?
•What if it turns out that grad school was a complete waste of time?
•What will you do after graduation?

You may recognize one or more of these fears.

It is legitimate to be concerned about how to write a thesis under so much pressure, and how graduation will affect your future.

However, you don’t have to let fear keep you stuck.

You can write despite feeling a little (or a lot) anxious about thesis writing.

Here are five steps to face that fear, and start the writing process, even if you’re feeling completely overwhelmed.
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How to Write A Thesis When You’d Rather Do Anything Else:

5 Tips to Get Unstuck

Feeling stuck is more about your perception of how to write a thesis, not the thesis itself.

How many times have you gained an insight while taking a shower or walk?

When you set up a structure that you can easily maintain, it is more likely that you will experience creative insights that will help you get unstuck.

Keep in mind that it takes time to develop new habits.

It is best to implement one new habit at a time and stick with it for a few weeks before trying something new.

And if you fall off the wagon, just get back on track as quickly as you can.

After all no one is perfect, yet every year tens of thousands of graduate students get a PhD.

If they can do it, so can you!

Step #1: Set Bite-size Goals (don’t bite off more than you can chew)

You might think that you need to allocate big chunks of time to writing your thesis in order to “get in the zone.”

In fact, giving yourself big goals and lots of hours to write, without any structure, is a recipe for disappointment.

How often have you resolved to spend a whole day writing, or to write ten pages in one sitting, and wound up with nothing to show for it?

This is because fear kicks in—the fear of failing at what you’ve set out to do. Soon you are failing to accomplish your goal, and you’ve created a vicious cycle.

Successfully accomplishing something, even something small, can put you back in control.

Break your work into small increments, tasks that can be completed in as little as 15 minutes.

This way, even on days when you “don’t have time” to work on your thesis, you can still find an opportunity to cross one or two of these writing tasks off your list.

This will boost your sense of accomplishment, and help you make the most of the small windows of free time you have.

Most often, you won’t have large blocks of free time for thesis writing.

Breaking your to-do list into small, achievable goals can help you seize the chances you do have to make progress.

Even if you have a whole day set aside for thesis work, stick with the strategy of setting small, measurable goals.

Organize the day into a few smaller blocks of time for writing, and keep your tasks specific.

Instead of marking your calendar with “work on thesis” try “finish drafts for three sections of chapter two,” for example.

Step #2: Remember: You’re Not Faking It (…and everyone else feels like an impostor too)

For many grad students, “impostor syndrome” is a major obstacle to starting a thesis.

You might feel like you still have so much to learn, and you’ll never possibly be ready to write an authoritative thesis on your topic.

The truth is, nearly everyone struggles with these feelings at some point.

Impostor syndrome is common in any competitive environment, especially among high achievers who hold themselves to a strict standard.

Most of your peers, and even your professors, probably have had the same feelings at some point.

The fact is, if you’ve gotten this far in grad school, you’re not faking it.

Simply being admitted to a PhD, or masters, program, puts you in an elite category, and sticking with your studies until it’s time to start your thesis is even more of an achievement.

If you’re feeling like an impostor, remind yourself that you’ve gotten this far on your hard work and talent, and that you do have what it takes to finish a thesis.

Remember, a thesis or dissertation is simply meant to show that you’ve contributed something to your field of expertise.

It doesn’t have to be an exhaustive, or particularly groundbreaking, study of your topic. And, it’s normal to have doubts about your work.

That makes you a scholar, not an imposter.

Step #3: Schedule Your Breaks—And Enjoy Them (otherwise, what’s the point of a break?)

Procrastination usually feels like the worst of both worlds: you distract yourself with chores or unimportant decisions, never tackling your work, but also feeling increasingly stressed by it.

While you’re not making progress, you’re also not allowing yourself breaks to rest and recharge.

The anxiety simply builds with no release, leading to exhaustion and burnout.

Taking breaks is just as important to your thesis-writing process as actually working.

Your brain—and your body—need to recharge if you want to stay focused and motivated.

The important thing is to make sure your breaks are real breaks: time away from your computer and away from your desk.

Do you find yourself browsing social media at the end of a long day of working, or checking your email during mealtimes?

It might seem relaxing to do these things, but you’re not giving your brain a real rest if your breaks are still in front of a computer.

Even if you feel “too behind” or “too busy,” you’ll be more productive in the long run if you prioritize regular break times.

Eat lunch away from your desk, and take short walks around the neighborhood once or twice a day.

If you have a hobby you love, like knitting or painting, spend a little time each day on it, without any goals or finished product in mind.

One of the best ways to get the most out of your breaks is to use them for physical exercise.

Aerobic exercise, in particular, can help you fight stress and anxiety.

Go for a jog, do some yoga, or even just do some stretches or sit-ups when you need a quick boost.

Step #4: Eliminate Choices That Make It Harder to Get Started (the hardest part of any task is to get started)

If the thought of simply getting started on your thesis is stressing you out, you might be suffering from decision fatigue.

We only have a finite amount of energy for decision-making each day.

Evidence shows that the most successful people save their energy for the important choices, by eliminating the unimportant ones.

If you’re wasting energy on decisions like what to eat for breakfast, or where to set up your laptop and work, you have less left over for the important stuff.

Even worse, you’re likely to get stuck on those decisions, and delay getting started on your work.

Set up a routine that makes it easy for you to get to work each day.

Write in the same place each day, for example.

This relates back to setting small, attainable goals as well.

Map out these micro-goals ahead of time, so when it’s time to get started, you only have to glance at your list to know what comes next.

Whenever you can, plan the next stage of your writing at the end of a work session, rather than the beginning.

That way, the next time you sit down to work, you don’t have to make any decisions about what to do first.

The key is to edit out the choices that are draining your energy, so you can focus on your thesis.

Step #5: Start Writing, Even If You Think You Have Nothing to Say (ideas are born with writing)

This is one of the most fear-inducing hurdles to getting started.

What do you do when it’s time to start writing, but you haven’t even settled on your thesis statement, or figured out what you’re really trying to say?

In fact, it’s perfectly fine to start out without a clear thesis in mind.

Even if you don’t know what you’re trying to say, just start writing.

Don’t worry too much about the quality or cohesiveness of your writing in the beginning, just put down what comes to mind.

It’s okay for your first draft to be messy and disorganized.

That’s what first drafts are for!

Usually, the writing process will help you organize your research and your thoughts.

You might notice patterns or conclusions that you hadn’t before.

Often, this early writing process is necessary for gathering your thoughts, and understanding what you ultimately want your thesis to communicate.

If you’re putting off starting your thesis, or feeling stuck, the biggest mistake you can make is to not write at all.

Like anything, getting started only gets easier with practice.

Remember, you can always revise and rewrite what you’ve already written.

Are you also wondering how to write a thesis when you feel stuck?

Which of these tips have you tried?

Write your questions or tips in the comments, and I will give you a direct response:
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