Thesis Writing, Guru-Style

The tension is mounting. In the house over the road, the room next door, and the corridor downstairs, the rising panic of Ph.D. students due to submit in September is tangible. I'm one of them. But my panic has subsided since I discovered a method that has made the whole thing a piece of cake. Unfortunately it's still a tough, chewy cake to gnaw through, but I can see the end and there are plenty of cherries to lure me on.

The method comes from management guru Mark McCormack. As head honcho of a huge global enterprise, his success is driven by motivation for profits. His book, Getting Results for Dummies, revealed to me a simple system for accomplishing overwhelming tasks with minimum stress. His tools apply as much to a successful thesis write-up as to any major business project.

Number one on his list is to "eat the elephant one bite at a time." Phew, a Ph.D. thesis certainly is an elephant. Thinking about transforming 2 years' worth of spreadsheets, scribbled notes, and half-read papers into an elegant book in a matter of months scrambles my grey matter. So I don't dwell on the big picture.

Instead, McCormack recommends creating a list of incremental tasks that lead to the major objective. So I wrote out a "site map" of my finished product. I have a detailed breakdown of what each chapter will comprise, section by section, with numbers next to each chapter to show the order I'll tackle them in.

The next step is to set deadlines. Our quirky human psyche reliably underestimates how long it takes to do jobs. An initial scan of my thesis site map brought relief: Surely this would be quicker than I thought! Relief soon disappeared when I predicted how long it would take to complete each section and added up the weeks. Like cameras and scales, the calculator doesn't lie.

McCormack puts himself constantly under the gun, setting deadlines for every increment of a project (for example, every thesis chapter). Meet every deadline, and the entire thesis will be finished on time. The worst possible deadline is "as soon as possible," because humans have a talent for never completing tasks earlier than necessary. So next to each chapter title, I've written completion dates.

One chapter is a small enough chunk for me to focus on without fretting too much. However, finishing a chapter requires doing many smaller tasks, and for those I've adopted the McCormack List Obsession. Here, I believe, lie the cherries of the thesis cake and the secret of McCormack's success.

We writer-uppers have to take pleasure where we can. There's no getting around the fact that lifestyles will suffer. So, although it might not be any substitute for a night on the town, crossing off every task on a daily list and pitching the page into the bin really do provide a kick. At the end of every day, I write out a list of what I need to do the next day (draw figures 4, 5, and 6, photocopy references in the library). I love drawing black lines through those words--cherry after cherry, if you like. If the jobs aren't done, they go onto the next day's list. All the items on a list move me closer to crossing off a chapter on my site map (My shopping list ends up there too, but I need to eat to survive to write!)

The power of this system is greater than the immediate cherry value, however. Trying to bear in mind a long list of tasks is exhausting and--no matter how bright you are--impossible. The list system frees me of the thought-crowding effort of having to remember anything beyond my current task.

Suddenly, having to think only about the task at hand allows marvellous mental focus--it feels like being engrossed in a gripping book. I know that the quality of work I produce as a consequence will see me handing in my thesis with pride, instead of the sickening knowledge that I could have done better.

The fear of such disappointment is what motivates me to stick to the McCormack regime. I need that motivation, because although the list system is simple, it requires a hefty dose of discipline. Apparently, "away" motivation is more powerful than "toward" motivation. So, while postthesis freedom attracts me, I find avoidance more compelling--I couldn't bear the lifetime regret of not properly completing something that I have spent years on. Someone else might look forward to the graduation ceremony, but be truly driven into action by the potential shame of asking parents for money when the grant runs out. What frightens you?

But it's not all hard labour. A key part of the 'M' plan is time off--scheduled, of course! Working 7 days a week is tempting when time gets short, but brains resolutely need rest. I've discovered to my detriment that if I don't give mine a break, it will take one anyway, usually at the most inconvenient time. It takes my body with it, due to the unpleasant effects of stress hormones on immunity and digestion. So I recommend ditching the guilt at least 1 day a week in order to keep on achieving.

Instead, I create extra time by always working while I'm at work. Time wasters get short shrift, including people McCormack calls "time bandits." These appear in the form of the person who drags you to a long coffee break, or the technician who elaborates on his son's sporting feats. It's not by chance that these people are also 5th-year Ph.D.s, or those who get paid regardless of their productivity. Science departments are rife with such characters.

Unfortunately, the most irresistible time bandits are also mates. I deal with them by explaining that I must dash because of my long list of things to do. Remember who won't be proofreading for you at midnight near the end.

Some people seem to be born achievers, succeeding at whatever they turn their hand to. McCormack says that their success comes down to good management, not luck. Implementing his strategies can turn anyone into one of those apparently fortunate few.

I've toned down McCormack's overly pedantic system: He would have us record exactly how many minutes it takes to eat a sandwich in order to maximise lunchtime productivity. The modified plan has worked for me so far, but as I write this I'm still chewing through that tough old cake.

"M" Plan Action List

  • Buy a notepad and pen. Put it in a plastic bag to prevent it from getting tatty; it's about to become a workhorse.

  • Decide on your goal: an exact date for finishing your Ph.D. (Note: "as soon as possible" is not specific enough!)

  • Write out a "site map" showing all thesis chapters and their sections. Glue it into the back of your notepad and write the final submission date above it.

  • Give each section of the map a deadline. Allow at least 3 weeks between the last deadline and your submission date--for proofreading, figures, references, and polishing.

  • Check that your supervisor will be available to read and comment on the chapters.

  • Break down each section into further increments suitable for weekly lists. From these, you can make daily lists.

  • Arm yourself with your first day's list, and get into it! Cross off each task as it's completed. At the end of the day, transfer unfinished tasks to the next day's page.

  • Keep the notepad with you. Any tasks you think of can be immediately written down, leaving the mind uncluttered.

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