Hello! Today I’m posting a bit about my experience struggling to find time for my dissertation work. I hope to inspire you to think of new ideas to find time for your work, without taking too much of your time.
The idea for this post grew from a recent question asked of our Facebook group (Join here!).
The question asked was, “What is trickiest part of juggling your responsibilities? What do you struggle with most?” I offered several response choices, with an additional write-in option. Of 15 votes, “Finding the time needed” received 5; “Family needs/interruptions” received 4; and “Feeling burnt out/lack of motivation” received 3. “Working too many hours,” “Organizing my time,” and “Getting support needed” each received 1 vote. No one wrote in an additional option.
Obviously, this is not a scientific survey, but I felt moved to address the number one answer, “Finding the time needed” personally, as I have seriously struggled in finding time to write my dissertation, mostly due to financial and family obligations. I’ve known a few colleagues who have even decided to stop pursuing their dissertations for various reasons, a brutal decision to make. (I haven’t known any thesis writers who have stopped, but I’ll bet some have had to move on.)
And stopping is a viable option, one I’ve considered.
But something kept nagging me to continue, even after being in the PhD program for many years. I have always wanted to write about my ideas, but making it happen is another thing.
Here’s a brief rundown of what has worked for me. Though I still have much work to do, I have finally drafted two chapters.
First, I bet you’ve heard plenty of advice on “time management.” You may have heard that you should write for an hour every day, or even a half-hour per day.
I tried that method and hated it. I wanted, felt I needed, at least four hours per session, so I could delve into material, keep my focus, and re-read or research as ideas popped up.
Fat chance on finding that kind of time.
But one day I had two hours free. I told myself I just had to get something done. I wasn’t crazy about having only two hours, but I worked, and … it worked. I got something done. I started utilizing any two-hour slots that came up because of this success.
I was still trying to find longer periods of time for “real” work, however.
However after a while, I discovered I liked the two-hour time frame. I could get a chunk of material done, then I was ready for a break. I guess I got used to it, and perhaps if I try again I might get used to working in one-hour increments, but I’m still skeptical!
This summer, I even wound up with a couple weeks in a row to schedule my writing sessions on a regular basis, and I made progress. The ability to work steadily helped, but the habit was what ultimately paid off since that period was my only chance to schedule such daily time for my dissertation—it was the only time I had vacation from all of my jobs at once without any family commitments! But it didn’t matter because after getting used to the two-hour increments, I was better able to pop into my work whenever I could work.
Of course, another good suggestion you may have heard is to schedule time for writing, as if it were a job; Carolyn Law says this is “paying” yourself to do your work. Advisors also suggest that you go somewhere unique to work; essentially, find a place of employment for your project.
And for me, it did help to go somewhere. I started with The Thesis and Dissertation Office at NIU, outside of my weekly hours. I was lucky to have that space available, but I soon moved my dissertation “job” to my local library because of travel times and gas costs.
I then found that my local library was hit or miss; I could get a lot done, or not much, depending on the day.
Did you know that people bring whining, crying kids to the library? Lol.
I did bring earbuds and started playing white noise—better yet, cafénoise—in the background: one problem solved! But soon I realized that people are quite disruptive in the library; they cough, talk, argue—even sing and laugh out loud, all while using a nearby computer.
So I rearranged my home office to include a designated space for home work and a space for dissertation work. My desk is split apart now, but the arrangement helps separate my tasks.
Finally, I was able to schedule some of my teaching (adjunct) employment hours differently than usual, teaching 12- or 8-week courses instead of 16. For me, no matter how long a course is, the work involved is all-consuming. So instead of trying to find dissertation hours around my teaching schedule, I decided to rearrange my teaching hours to fit around a block of dissertation time. The extra time "off" really helps; I plan to continue being more selective about the course assignments I take. Perhaps you can adjust your employment in creative ways too, no matter where you work.
The main point I’d like to leave you with is to keep trying different approaches—different time increments, various work locations, and creative schedules—until something frees up the time you need.
I believe we are all busy and must make our own way towards finding time.