A conversation with my sister on the tram tonight got me thinking about the similarity between doing a thesis and an exercise program.

I was trying (as I usually do) to convince said sister that she should do a PhD. During my rant she just sat there with that patient look that she gets when I start in on the topic. When I finished she told me I was selling it well, but she remembered me doing it. All she saw was how  stressed out I was during the ordeal and looked terrible I looked when it was over. She pointed out it had taken me well over a year to recover.

I acknowledged this was probably true, but that I had bounced back better than ever. What had that year given me? Recovery time.

Apparently when we exercise we need to build in recovery time for the body to repair the damage done during the training session. After intense exercise it is actually the recovery time which enables our bodies to do the work which makes us fitter. In fact recovery time is so important that Lance Armstrong’s trainer, Chris Carmichael, became quite famous by designing a maximum efficiency training schedule which featured clever use of recovery time.

I have reworked 4 key points of Carmichael’s training scheme for the Lance, thesis style:

1) Motivation. We all know you have to have plenty of it to finish a PhD. We can think about motivation being intrinsic (coming from within us) and extrinsic (coming from those around us). Which one is more important to you? How might you use this insight to increase your motivation? If you are extrinsically motivated you might tell others you are going to finish a chapter by a certain date to keep you honest. If you are intrinsically motivated, promise yourself some reward for finishing a certain amount of work – but make the amount achievable and the reward small so that you don’t give up before completing it, i.e. “When I have written this 1000 words I will take a break for coffee with a friend”.

2) Singularity of focus. Not all of us have the luxury of full time study, but even for those who do it can be hard to stay focused. One big problem is ‘yak shaving’ – doing lots of other seemingly useful tasks to avoid the big difficult one. This often manifests in obsessive compulsive article collecting . There are so many interesting, but tangential,  papers out there and they can be a great way to avoid reading the boring but necessary ones. A  practical solution one student shared with me was to sort papers into 2 piles: those which are directly on topic and those which are interesting for other reasons. Simply read two from the ‘on topic’ pile before you think about reading one from the interesting pile. This way you are not denying yourself the pleasure and potential benefit of diversion, while keeping it under control.

3) Efficiency. Lance Armstrong didn’t spend the whole day training. By training hard, but allowing time to recover he built his stamina and strength. Sitting and staring at the screen when you are having a bad thesis day can be tempting because it provides you with a comfortable illusion of work. But it isn’t efficient – there are always library books to return and laundry to be done and it is probably a better use of your time right now. But the key to efficiency, Lance Armstrong style, is to go hard before you rest. Free writing can be a good exercise to do before leaving the desk for a break. Try writing for 10 straight minutes about what is bothering you about your work – without stopping. Let the writing be sloppy – even work by hand if that helps. Don’t worry about sentence construction and elegant words. Let your hand lead your brain for awhile and see what happens. You might find this is enough to get you over the mini slump – if not, go and do the laundry.

4. Periodical task setting: Writing a thesis happens in fits and starts. It cannot roll out of you in a steady stream because you are not a power station. Doing a thesis is more like cooking or child raising: ongoing, creative and not entirely predictable. There are times when other things are happening in your life which affect your ability to work. A big week of marking undergraduate work would always throw me off. I learnt that there was no point to even try to write – or even read – while the crunch was on. But I still made sure I had a stock of routine tasks – filing, image cleaning, copy editing – which could be done without too much thinking during this period.

There you have it – a thesis work out program fit for the tour de France 🙂

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