Thesis writing: A multitaskers’ nightmare

I love the summer “term” – June, July, Aug and a few weeks in Sept (at least here in the UK) where I get some glorious weeks to myself to work on my PhD.  It’s a fantastic time of year where I don’t have any other commitments other than writing my thesis.

And that’s the problem! I can’t seem to concentrate on writing over long stretches of time.  I find it difficult to focus.  At the moment I’m trying to write a detailed outline for my first chapter and it’s just not happening! I end up doing other things: reading, working with my data, referencing.  Several hours later I’m no closer to achieving my writing goals of the day.  During term time I’ve got to-do list that I juggle around.  I’m used to having different deadlines and working off multiple schedules.  I suppose I’m a natural multitasker and, from my own point of view, it works very well for me.  I do meet my deadlines but more importantly, I’m able to focus very clearly on different things.  Now that I have time and space to ‘just’ write my thesis I’m discovering that I have to re-learn how to focus!

I’m at the beginning stages of putting together the actual structure of my thesis in the sense that I’ve got different sections that are roughly written out and am in the process of finding the coherence between the sections.  To do this I write detailed outlines for each chapter. This approach works for me.  I’m a linear kind of writer who needs an overview in place before I write.  It serves as a map for me to refer to and allows me to see where I’m going, so to speak.  It’s a long and messy process and I like taking the time to get organised, both in my thinking and in my writing.  So having this one (massive) task to do, I’ve had to change the way I work in the following ways:

1) Focus on one task in a set amount of time: I find the Pomodoro technique of doing tasks in 25 minute time slots very effective.  I’m more focussed on what I’m doing and, since I know it’s for set time (i.e. “only 25 minutes”) I try to get as much as I can done in that time frame.  This sometime spurs me on to continue working after the timer has gone off.  Other times I’m satisfied with what I’ve accomplished and move on to the next item on my to do list.  I don’t use this technique for everything but it’s a nice change of pace.

2) For short amount of time, I turn off the internet.  No social media, no emails – nothing.  Don’t get wrong, I’m a bonafide internet junkie.  I get twitchy if I’m offline for more than an hour (even on flights, that is how sad I am).  So being connected is something that I struggle with the most when writing.  My email notification goes off and I feel the irresistible urge to read the message.  Then I must check Facebook for updates and I should retweet that tweet.  Oh, another email just came in.  Suddenly an hour is gone and I feel annoyed with myself about doing any writing and get rather frustrated in the process.  So, when I’m writing in 25 minute slots, I turn off the wifi on my laptop and hide my phone.  Extreme? Perhaps.  Effective? Very.  It practically stops my multi-tasking urges by taking away distractions and enables me to focus on writing.

So are some of the things I do, what do you do to get writing? Please feel free to share below!

4 thoughts on “Thesis writing: A multitaskers’ nightmare

  1. Hi Eljee,

    Thank you for the post. The two strategies you mention here are very useful. I have tried them both, especially the Internet one.

    In response to your question: “What do you do to get writing?” I would like to remind you of the following posts on the Doctoral Community blog: (

    All the best with your writing. Reaching this stage is an accomplishment in itself 🙂


  2. Hi Eljee,

    I read your article this morning as I was struggling with elaborating on a section in my ‘Presentations of Findings Chapter’. Hours passed, and I started doing all kinds of distraction activities – other work that needed doing – non thesis related. But then whilst I was eating a late lunch (and pondering on whether I would ever finish my thesis) I realised that I simply was not sure how to progress with the section I was trying to write, and hey – I have a supervisor who I can talk this through with. So I moved onto a another section which I am writing loads again – and all inspired and interested in….


    1. Hi Adele! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s funny how the obvious (i.e. going to your supervisor for advice) doesn’t stand out immediately. I react in a similar way when I’m struggling with writing – find a non-thesis related distraction to give myself a ‘break’ rather than finding a way forward. Admittedly sometimes a break is needed, as long as you go back to writing but sometimes it’s not that easy, hence, getting external help (supervisor or a critical friend).


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