Its reasonably fair to say that my doctorate wasn’t plain sailing.
Firstly, it was on social movements, with data collection being a mix of participant-observation and interviews, a notoriously messy way of doing things. Secondly, because the social movements I was observing were engaged in direct action, I had the misfortune of being arrested. Twice. One of those charges was quite serious and the process, from start to finish, took fourteen months. The first barrister I met said I’d likely get four years. He didn’t seem like much of a fighter and was more interested in his honeymoon in Venice so I changed him. Things worked out.
That meant I was a granted a six month extension for the submission of my doctorate, meaning the maximum period went from four years to four-and-a-half. Anything more than that would mean automatic failure.
But my problems didn’t end there. Eight months before that extended deadline, my then girlfriend and I went to Iceland for a month. All of the data had been collected but I had written up nothing beyond two draft chapters and, to be honest, they weren’t great. Losing a month at this stage was reckless, but I was in love.
Things don’t go to well in Iceland, and, when we came back, my girlfriend and I broke up. While break-ups are a part of life, there was a problem: we were living together.
One evening, about two weeks after I had moved out and started sleeping on friends floors and sharing their emperor beds (which was pretty great, thanks J) my now ex informed me that all of my worldly possessions would be outside her front door by the following afternoon. When I received the phonecall I was having a beer with my friend. He couldn’t stop laughing, “Need a place to stay?” he asked “because I know a decent Holiday Inn.” I couldn’t help but break a smile.
The next day my dad and I picked up my things, mostly books and clothes. I now had six and a half months to write my PhD. I had no money, nowhere to live, and my love life had gone from adoring infatuation to EastEnders ground zero.
I was now also on over-the-counter anti-histamines to sleep. For the first time in fifteen years I was unable to exercise and having daily panic attacks. I reconciled myself to writing this thing in six months. I could have asked for another extension, but, to be honest, I’d had enough of delaying.
So I briefly moved back in with my dad in Bournemouth. I would come up once a week to record a video, a radio show and the following day sell tomatoes at a market. That was how I would cover travel expenses.
Fast forward six months to the first day of Spring, March 21 2015. I submit my PhD with a few hours to spare. Fast forward another six months to mid-September and I pass my viva with no corrections. I had completely outdone myself for the first time in my life. I couldn’t have done a better job.
So how did I write nearly 100,000 (pretty good) words in six months and under such difficult conditions? Well, i’m going to share a few things I learned so you can maybe do yours that little bit more quickly. Fundamentally, all of the advice offered here applies to any long writing project, from an undergraduate dissertation to a book.
1. Make Sure You Only Have To Do One Thing That Day.
I’d been accustomed to planning 3–4 things a day. Often you’ll have a to-do list of 8 or 9 things. With long-term projects i’ve found that can be really counter-productive, because the brain is always looking for easy wins and discernible progress. That meant I would naturally incline to posting that letter, emailing that friend, filling that form and making that appointment before starting on my PhD. I quickly realised I was neglecting the most important thing I had to do everyday, thinking I was being productive by prioritising the ‘easy’ stuff I didn’t really have to do. On discovering this I made sure that I would do a certain amount of PhD work before anything else when I woke up, prioritising one thing a day. Five days a week that was my PhD. For the other two it was Novara Media (although I still sometimes worked on my PhD on those days).
While many people don’t have the luxury of that kind of work pattern or may be raising children, the fundamental point remains. To do really deep work on a long-term project requires more than a caught hour here and there, especially at the beginning. Even just committing one whole day a week could really break the camel’s back. Deep work needs your undivided attention, you can’t offer that in fragments.
2. Start Measuring Your Concentration.
As i’ve gotten older i’ve realised its futile, particularly with social media and mobile phones, to measure progress in time. At the outset of my doctorate I would speak about spending eight or ten hours in the library, although how efficiently i’d used that time wasn’t particularly clear.
When you write, what matters more than time is concentration. Twenty five minutes of pure concentration is preferable to ‘two hours’ where I would be intermittently checking emails, thinking, going to the toilet, getting a glass of water and so on.
So I started to measure concentration. I began employing the ‘pomodoro technique’, working in 25 minute blocks with absolutely no interruptions. I set myself eight pomodoros a day. That is less than four hours. Often I worked more, because that is only a fraction of the day, but I really found that short bursts of writing, coupled with decent breaks, were really effective. Sometimes I would write a lot longer than four hours, but I genuinely surprised myself by how much I could do in such a short span of time. Four hours of unadulterated concentration in one day can produce decent results. Sometimes three hours is impressive. Five to six hours? Like that? It felt like two days of work with my previous writing habits.
3. Chart Your Progress.
I started an Evernote notebook called ‘Pomodoro Diary’. There I recorded every 25-minute block of work that I did from October to mid-March. I thought about putting it on a graph and observing medium-term trends, but I decided that wasn’t really necessary with only a few months of data. For a longer project, like writing a novel, I think it might be worth doing.
4. Get a Decent Computer.
All my life i’ve used the cheapest computer I could get. As an undergraduate I didn’t have a computer until my final year. That had been slightly upgraded during the first four years of my PhD, with my field notes being recorded on an Acer netbook and, later, a Google chromebook. Both cost less than £250. Now time was of the essence I knew I needed something a bit quicker, especially as the PhD would become a single, unwieldy document. Google Drive wasn’t cutting it anymore, so I bought a Macbook Pro on credit. I know not everyone can do this, frankly I was surprised that I could, but it made a huge difference. Upgrading to a proper computer meant I wasn’t hampered in writing and accessing my notes simultaneously. It was a quick fix and increased my productivity significantly.
5. Start Using Scrivener.
Scrivener is just fantastic. You should try it, particularly if you are writing a long document like an undergraduate or masters dissertation. The split screen feature made editing the final document so much quicker. Its a heck of a lot better than Pages or Word for writing long documents, and while it costs £30, you can get a free trial for thirty days. You won’t look back, I can guarantee it. This alone made my working much, much more productive and would be my number one recommend.
6. Move to a High Carbohydrate Diet.
I’ve always been fascinated by fitness and nutrition. I’ve been ten stone and lean and fifteen stone with a eighteen inch neck and a gym as a second home. I’ve tried every diet for every purpose and am grateful i’ve learned what works for different things.
One thing i’ve learned is that you while you can get ripped on a paleo or a low-calorie, high-protein diet, you won’t be smart. At least I wasn’t. In fact with the paleo diet, which I was on for six months, my ability to concentrate completely disappeared. I became increasingly irritable and my factual recall got so bad that sometimes it felt like I was drunk. My sleep really suffered too.
My ultimate brainfood while writing? Spaghetti al buro: spaghetti, butter, double cream and parmesan. It might not be good for your heart — make sure to eat lots of fruit and veg as well — but carbs and fat worked like a dream for long writing sessions. The brain has 86 billion neurons which are constantly firing, so it is unsurprising that it consumes about 20–25% of the body’s baseline calories. If, for whatever reason, you are running a calorie deficit, your mental fitness will be paying the price. The brain needs glucose to function. While advocates of ketogenic diets claim the brain can shift to burning ketones once the body is in ketosis, pasta and rice, combined with fats, worked like a charm for me. If you are going to run a calorie-deficit i’d implore you to eat a decent amount of carbs.
7. Be Selective with Stimulants.
I’ve been off coffee since early January, drinking maybe three or four cups since then. That change is partially a response to something I realised toward the end of my PhD: black tea is a much smoother stimulant for clear thinking than coffee. Assam, in particular, is excellent. While I have found that coffee is great for morning sessions it becomes more of a liability as the day progresses. When I was on a bike for a few hours a day and working out, I could easily drink ten espressos (stove-top coffee maker at home and coffee machine at work) without really feeling it. That changed after I became less active.
However, in the final few weeks of my PhD, when I was pulling plenty of all-nighters at UCL library, I was probably having one to two thousand miligrams of caffeine a day (pills and tea/coffee). While that wasn’t optimal, it was definitely necessary.
For what its worth I am a lot more present and productive now on just a few cups of tea a day. I’m sleeping better too. Coffee is great if you have to stay up all night, which obviously shouldn’t be very often, otherwise black tea is preferable.
8. Have a Plan.
In addition to using Evernote for tracking my pomodoros (I know they sound ridiculous) and Scrivener for writing, I used Trello for creating timelines when chapters and sub-chapters would be completed. I almost always found myself either behind or ahead of schedule but this was still a very useful practice, especially at the beginning of what was a daunting project. It allowed me to visualise what the next several months would be like, moving them from the hypothetical to the possible. Bits of paper get lost while a tab can be opened at any time to act as a reminder, so I really would recommend using either Evernote or Trello for this.
9. Be Prepared Every Day.
At the beginning of the day write down in one or two lines what you want to achieve. Again, it helps to be relatively unambitious here, you’ll often surprise yourself. Don’t say ‘1000 words’ though, it could be 1000 words of garbage. It needs to be a specific part of your plan (see the point above) such as the formulation of a particular argument or re-draft. Whenever I set myself quantitative goals I wrote nonsense. Mostly.
Once you’ve done your alloted work for the day, and like I said I rarely demanded more of myself than four hours, relax. I listened to podcasts and read. Before you know it you’ll be itching to another block of work. And then another.