Is losing weight similar to writing a thesis?

This post was written by Dr Emma Kimberley, research forum facilitator and Keeper of the Graduate School Media Zoo in the David Wilson Library at the University of Leicester. In this post Emma tells us some of the lessons she learned from losing weight and how they helped her with her PhD.

In the writing-up phase of my PhD, at the same time as my word count was going steadily upwards I was trying to decrease another important life-statistic. I joined Weightwatchers in my final year, hoping to lose weight gained over 7 years of undergraduate and postgraduate study. As it turned out, I lost 4 stones and learned a lot about writing a thesis in the process. I was aware of the bad habits that contributed to excess weight but firmly in denial about how the same thinking errors might be damaging my ability to write productively.

I was struggling with an idealistic, all-or-nothing mentality in both areas, becoming increasingly demoralised by the gap between my ideals and what I was actually achieving. WW helped me to change my writing habits and bring in my thesis on time! Here is what I learned:

Track what you’re doing. A big part of WW was tracking everything I ate (with no exceptions – chocolate you don’t buy yourself still counts!). This ruthless process left no room for denial, making me face facts about where I was going wrong. Applying the same approach to my thesis was startling but informative: I found out how many words I had left to go, and how long that would take me at my fastest writing-speed of 700 words per day over a 5 day week. The reality was not as bad as I had feared, and ticking off small successes on the calendar was very motivating. Most of all, tracking helped me to gain a sense of control over my writing process.

Find a routine. I started to plan my thesis work for each day in the same way as I planned my meals. A thesis-tracking diary helped identify a routine that worked. Contrary to expectations, I found that I worked best in the mornings – 700 words straight after breakfast left me free to use my afternoons for research that still needed doing, and my evenings for guilt-free relaxation or socialising.

There were quite a few days when I fell behind schedule and failed to stick to my routine. Instead of berating myself for these, WW taught me an important lesson: don’t let small failures hold you back. Feelings of guilt about a failure make it worse, not better!: “This week’s already gone to pot so there’s no point sticking to my plan”. Thinking about setbacks differently gave them a whole new meaning: “I must have needed a day off… now I’ll get back on track”.

In a similar vein, start each day with a clean slate. Instead of compounding a bad day with a miserable week, I was often surprised how little difference it made when I just let my failures go and moved on. A rogue chocolate bar here and there didn’t stop me losing weight, as long as I didn’t turn it into an excuse to throw in the towel. In the same way, 700 words missed every once in a while wasn’t a disaster. And the next day I got back on track.

Watch out for saboteurs, and know how to deal with them. The first time my WW leader came out with this tip, I thought it was slightly paranoid – no-one was force-feeding me cake, after all! – but as I changed my habits it became clear that some people were less supportive than others. Thesis writers are often put under pressure in the same way; regular persistence and sacrifice are needed for both endeavours, and it’s likely that some of those around you – the people who counted on you as a late-night snack buddy or afternoon-of-skiving pub companion – won’t like it. They have reasonable expectations of involving you in some of the activities or commitments you now want to pass up on. If people are supportive, then a few words is usually all it takes to make them understand your goals. If not, there’s some hard thinking to be done about the reasons you spend your time with them.

Move more. This tip might seem more relevant to managing your weight than to managing a thesis, but time out to do exercise increased my focus during time spent at my desk. I took up dancing, and my weekly salsa, jive and ballroom classes turned out to be welcome respite from a day of sitting at my books. I worked harder, motivated by the promise of an evening’s dancing. It also meant that the occasional cake and ale binge with my thesis buddies was no longer a worry.

Think about how you’re going to maintain when you reach your goal. Reaching goal can be hard. You’ve made it to the finish line, but you still don’t feel like a fully-fledged thin person or academic. As someone who completed my PhD in 3 years and 3 months, I never stopped to think about the void waiting on the other side of my focus on the goal. A maintenance plan similar to the one I had for my weight – perhaps a few conferences, or a publication schedule – would have helped me through the post-viva motivational dip.

Weight management clubs won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the point I’m trying to make is that you can learn a lot about your thesis by doing something else, and especially by doing it with other people. Any shared goal –word count or weight loss – is an opportunity to gain motivation and learn things from the people around you. Where else do you think you can learn lessons about PhD study?

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18 thoughts on “Is losing weight similar to writing a thesis?

  1. Dear Emma, thank you for this post. I’ve just lost 35 kgs (not sure how that converts to stone) with weight watchers and am about to complete my 6 weeks maintenance. I also started a phd last month and what you’re saying makes a huge amount of sense. I very much want to be a working academic at the end of this process and am constantly on the lookout for ways to work as efficiently as I can (2 small children makes this a necessity). I’ve been feeling the need to set up some kind of schedule and am yet to work out exactly how to do that. I LOVE the ww app – wish there was a thesis tracker app too.

    • I didn’t mean that comment to be anonymous! Well done (again) on the weight loss. Have you thought about using something like Evernote as a thesis tracker? That way you can do it from your phone or online.

  2. Good and timely articles. I am not a sports person but lately I am going to swimming. I noticed that the day I go Swimming, I feel good and motivated to work hard and the freshness stays till in the evening-no head ache or body pain even after spending long time staring at computer. I am slowly accepting the truth that body do need some workout for its better performance.

    To sum up exercise for the body and PhD (or any intelectual activity) for the mind:)

  3. Great article. There are good number of literatures which support the facts:). Thank you, Dr Emma for the lovely article

  4. Great article. I identify with the all or nothing approach. Missing a writing goal tended to mean the wheels came off the entire writing process and I would be unproductive for days. The trick is like you say to not let set backs bother you and carry on. I found that if I couldn’t achieve my goals and was unproductive, the fact that I could still do a little bit to get me closer to the end contributed a lot to increasing my motivation again. If you can write the even a small amount when you’re feeling unproductive, I really think it will add up in the end.

  5. Thank you for the useful article – I am just about to embark on my PhD and need to lose a bit of weight – and will use the tips you have given.

  6. You can MAKE a thesis tracker – just set up a spreadsheet to log (a) words or pages written per day, backed up by a schedule of where you want to be and by when. Eg,, By the end of the 2nd week in September, I need to have written chapter 1. By the end of September, I need to have met with my supervisor for follow-up (ok, that’s perhaps an unrealistic target, but you get my drift).

    Keep your home-made tracking devices on file, but print out updates regularly and put them where you (and the rest of the family) can see them!

  7. I’m loving that other people do a day-by-day schedule, my office-mates (and most of my non-PhD friends) think I’m crazy for doing it. I’m a bit of a list-making nerd and started a month-by-month, then later week-by-week plan within the first month of starting my PhD. (Maybe I should write something about it…) When things got (get) hard, I break it down into day-by-day chunks. I’m currently in the middle of one of those bits and your article, especially the bit about not letting a bad day make a bad week, is really helpful. Especially as I had quite a bad day yesterday.

  8. I had been thinking too that there are similarities between doing a PhD and losing weight. I can particularly relate to the not beating yourself up over slip ups/each day is a clean slate approach. Thanks!

  9. Great post. I have been tracking my hours and words written for a while, and have found it to be immensely helpful for writing.

    I have always been resistant to the idea of calorie-tracking, but recently decided that, as I am approaching 40, it might just be necessary…. I downloaded an app – fitness pal – that allows me to easily track my calories and exercise. I am finding it to be very motivational and similar to tracking my writing.

  10. Pingback: Reflections on writing up (a chapter) | Not a PhD Thesis

  11. Pingback: Is losing weight similar to writing a thesis? (via The Thesis Whisperer) | Not a PhD Thesis

  12. Great linking of writing and living a healthy lifestyle. usually, these are the common excuses of people tight on their deadlines. thanks for the inspiration.

  13. Pingback: The piece of dissertation wisdom that made me want to scream « The Thesis Whisperer

  14. The very next time I read a blog, Hopefully it doesn’t disappoint me just as much as this particular one. After all, Yes, it was my choice to read, but I actually believed you’d have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of complaining about something that you could possibly fix if you were not too busy seeking attention.

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