Momentum, Writing and State Change

This is a common feeling for graduate students:

We don’t know quite how to do what we know we’re supposed to do, or we fear we can’t do it ‘well enough’, and so we end up doing nothing much at all. Sure, we write here and there, we are making ‘progress’. But we fall far short of the potential of which we (and our advisors) know we are capable.

I read recently a great piece in Inside Higher Ed about why graduate students have such a hard time writing their dissertations. It boiled down to this:
1) we don’t know what we’re supposed to actually be producing (i.e. the form)
2) we are paralyzed by perfectionism (i.e. the practice)
3) we don’t have the support we need and end up berating ourselves for numbers 1 and 2… (i.e. the community)

Thanks to my advisor and the support of my PAGE network, I actually think a lot about (#1). I have read other people’s dissertations, have explored non-conventional dissertations, and have a clear sketch of the form I want my dissertation to have, when complete. The form is there, and I seemingly know what I need to do to get there. However, what I have learned is that the process by which my advisor and other graduate students have told me in order to produce that form does not really work for me. I’ve adapted to false starts, feelings of failure, and doubting my entire project, all because I hadn’t yet found the process that worked for me in producing the form. Over the last few months, I’ve started piecing together the right process for me.

Through the same avenues, I feel surprisingly supported in this work. My advisor is (amazingly) approachable, reminding me not to be ‘oppressed by my data’. Similarly, I have many graduate student peers in and outside of my department, within UW and beyond, to whom I can reach out to for help. And when it comes to sharing stories about projects and unhelpful work habits, my non-academic friends are also an incredible resource. I have also sought out enough personal resources to recognize and name many of my habits, but this sometimes isn’t enough.

At the end of the day, all of this support, training and awareness of form is quite useless if the practice isn’t there. The Inside Higher Ed article points out that writing comes from practice. 30 minutes a day, sit yourself down in the chair and write. At the bare minimum. Do this.

Well, sure. Sounds easy enough.

But lately I’ve also been thinking about all that we do to get ourselves primed, or poorly primed, for that ‘sit down and write’ moment.

How many other thoughts do I have in my brain? Am I cycling through my to-do list? Does my brain even know how to prioritize what comes of higher importance? I may *think* I am working productively when I sit down to work, but am I actually?

One of my academic mentors shared with me her writing habits. On days she’s not teaching first, she carves out her mornings, doesn’t check email, sits down with a strong cup of coffee, and writes for 4 hours. End of story.

I know that such a habit wouldn’t quite work for me (I need to start my morning with stretching and physical therapy, or else my whole day will be shot and I’ll be in pain and unable to focus…)

But this practice, of knowing what works, is something all of us graduate students could be better at. Priming ourselves to work might be mockingly be called a ‘life hack’, but I tend to think of it this way: if I’m choosing to commit myself to a project (in this case, finishing my dissertation), why wouldn’t I want to show up 100% each time I want to make progress?) How can I change my state so that I’m most ready to work?

What follows are some simple questions:
1) What are my actual goals (big picture, with the diss, today, this hour…)
2) What patterns usually sabotage me in meeting these goals?
3) What can I do to optimize the time I’m going to spend meeting these goals?

A dear friend of mine shared his ‘priming’ exercises, which involved breath exercises, music, and a cold shower. I’m not sure those specific ones will be what I choose, but I love this notion. If something feels worth doing, if it aligns with my values, and I know it will help me achieve a goal (in this case, finishing my dissertation in the ambitious timeline I have set, with energy to still live a full, healthy and curious life among my community), then ‘priming’ is not just a necessary thing. I actually owe it to myself to set myself up for a strong writing practice.

So, in broad daylight, to be accountable to this space, I’m committing to learning what priming exercises work for me, and developing a more consistent and efficient writing practice. I owe it to the work, and I owe it to myself.

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