Eating elephants 1

Nearly 1.5 years into my doctoral studies, I have already encountered some sort of block. Things are just not progressing the way I would like, something is not working. I feel like I have read every possible piece of available research about my topic but starting the first article seems like a horrendous endeavor. What am I doing? Where do I start? What perspective should I take? Am I prepared enough? Do I have the concepts right? Maybe I should just make another cup of tea…

A couple of days before the event that was to take place on March 21,2019, I received an e-mail stating that there were places still available in the Finding joy and productivity in academic writing lecture and workshop. Guest lecturer Carol Kiriakos, co-author of Tohtoritakuu, was to speak about practical approaches to academic writing. My first thought was, “This is scary!” Can you imagine? This was exactly what I needed, and here it was in my mailbox, and none too soon as the event was in just two days! I was not really sure what the ‘practical approaches’ might entail, but the words ‘joy’ and ‘productivity’ were what really caught my eye. Could I really find joy in my situation of ‘rookie’s block’, and could I ever become productive in my revelry of procrastination?

Carol Kiriakos provided answers to both questions, “Yes and yes.” First, you have to take an inventory of your beliefs; what beliefs do you have about yourself or your writing that keep you from writing? Participants took a few minutes to write down their beliefs, and to my astonishment, we were all struggling with the same issues: getting started, time management, insecurities pertaining to abilities, being prepared, procrastination, lack of inspiration, etc., etc. At this point, the group of participants became a united whole – we were all in the same boat struggling in the same weather to keep it afloat.

Once you are aware of what is keeping you from writing, you need to create a writing habit. At what time of day do you feel the most creative or productive? A rule of thumb is the further the day progresses, the less creative and productive we become because other things begin competing for our attention. How much should you write at one go? Kiriakos warned us not to set ourselves up for failure. If you plan to write 5 pages on a certain day and do not achieve that goal, most likely you are going to feel like you have failed and starting the writing process again may take an unnecessary number of days or weeks.

The third thing, and perhaps the most important, you should do is learn how to eat an elephant. Well? How DO you eat an elephant? According to Kiriakos, the answer is: One bite at a time. For example, if you write in your calendar “PhD thesis” for every day you would have time to work on it (as I have done and now have a lot of erasing to do), you are setting yourself up for failure. Not only is it impossible to write a PhD thesis in a day, but you are also creating the feeling that you never get anything done. A more sensible approach would be to write, “1 page for Section 2.2.”, for example, or simply “one paragraph”. The same idea can be used for setting goals, i.e. break them down into smaller bites. For example: long-term goal (months to years) -> short-term goal (weeks to months) -> daily goal (hours to days).

To combat procrastination, i.e. always waiting for inspiration or the ‘right moment’ to write, Kiriakos suggested free-writing. During the lecture and workshop, we participants engaged in two free-writing sessions, both lasting about ten minutes. Free-writing was a surprisingly good way to get into the ‘habit’ of writing. We were given a topic each time: The Ideal Academic Writer and The Most Important Thing to Me. Both topics also gave us a bone to chew, which helped us to process the beliefs we have of ourselves. When doing free-writing on your own, you do not necessarily need a topic; on the other hand, having a topic may get you put your thoughts in order. You need to set a timer, so you do not have to look at the clock, and then just write about the ideas or topics you have for writing your thesis on that particular day. With free-writing, you can find that inspiration, and the moment you sit down to free-write is exactly the ‘right moment’ you keep waiting for.
I left the workshop feeling I had eaten my elephant, or at least cut it down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Feeling inspired by Kiriakos and getting the push I needed to start writing, I decided to share my experience here. I recommend reading Tohtoritakuu to BA students , MA students, even to the experts whose doctoral hat is worn around the edges and whose sword has defended truth and knowledge many times over. It contains useful strategies for anyone contending with an elephant…. One bite at a time.

Text by Judi Rose

One comment on “Eating elephants

  1. Reply Carol Apr 26,2019 8:25 am

    Dear Judi,

    Thank you for summarizing your insights so beautifully. I’m delighted to see you found the lecture and workshop helpful. Happy writing!

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