I’ve been thinking a lot lately about time and work; specifically how there never seems to be enough of the former to do all of the latter.

The reason for all this angst is that I’ve been negotiating to do a book with Dr Sarah Quinell, of “Networked Researcher” fame. It’s a very exciting project, which I hope to talk more about in the coming months, but as the negotiations went on I noticed that I was getting increasingly anxious. How was I going to get this thing done? Life is full of family, work and side hobby projects as it is.

Luckily I recognised this feeling straight away because for years I felt it as a constant, background hum to my life. Thesis Panic.

Thesis panic is caused by what seems like an impossibly large and difficult project coupled with a fast approaching deadline. Reactions to Thesis Panic vary. Some people are good at calm acceptance, while others, like me, walk around with stomach churning anxiety which makes us distracted, irritable and hard to live with.

As soon as I diagnosed my problem I implemented my tried and tested “1000 words a day” method. I get up a little earlier in the morning, have breakfast and then write a subsection of the book. One of the many wonderful things about Scrivener is that it displays a bar with the word count I have set for the session. When the little bar goes  green I stop. Then I have a coffee, relax and start nagging at Thesiswhisperer Jnr to get ready for school. I’m pleased to report that the sense of panic has all but disappeared. I feel in control because I know, if I keep it up, I will have a draft of my 25,000 by the middle of next month.

So is the “1000 words a day” method some kind of a cure for Thesis Panic? Unfortunately, I don’t think so.

Certainly it does help to adopt structured work habits when you are doing a thesis. When I was studying friends and colleagues with PhDs advised me to treat the whole process like a job. “Keep regular hours” one person said to me at a party – “and write everyday”. “Treat your supervisor like a boss” recommended another over a cup of coffee, “think about what makes them look good and do it”. I took this advice to heart, put it into practice and found it worked: I finished in three years, while working part time for most of it.

But treating the thesis like a job didn’t minimise my anxiety very much, if at all. While I was going through these ‘job like’ motions at no time did doing the thesis really feel like a job – at least not a job as I understood it. For one thing I thought about my thesis all the time, even in my off hours – and the thinking made me either excited to get an idea on paper Right Now, or anxious. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between the two feelings, but towards the end the anxiety took over and didn’t lift until the day I got my examiner reports back.

It is hard – very hard – to talk yourself out of Thesis Panic, but it can help to talk to other people about it. While you might think the best people to talk to are those who are the calm types, I’m not so sure. They say the worst students make the best teachers because they really know what it is like to struggle. I found it far more comforting to talk to other sufferers – at least I felt less alone with the feeling.

Of course in my work I see lots of cases of Thesis Panic, but only in a professional setting. At the moment I’m lucky enough to have three people very close to me, including my sister, who are doing research degrees, which has given me the opportunity to observe the phenomenon close up and personal. I’ve murmured a lot of soothing words in phone calls, had many therapeutic cups of tea and proof read many paragraphs which the writer was too anxious to show their supervisor. Along the way I’ve been able to talk to each of them about what they are feeling and why. This has helped me to understand the phenomenon a bit better.

For instance, I was telling my sister how implementing my 1000 words strategy instantly calmed me, whereas when I was doing thesis, it didn’t have the same soothing effect. She pointed out some fundamental differences between work – which the book is – and doing a thesis.

Firstly the book wont be examined by my peers – although they may write reviews about it, they are only offering an opinion, not making a summary judgement about whether or not I get a PhD. Secondly the agreement between me and the publisher sets out the nature of the book I will write, how many chapters are in it and so on. In other words, the boundaries of a book are known and agreed on in advance.

Most thesis writers don’t have the luxury of certainty: experiments may fail, data may be useless, theories may not hold together and so on. It’s possible to find yourself staring down the barrel of the deadline with no thesis, multiple possible theses or a very tenuous thesis. The anxiety is not something you can necessarily get rid of because most of the reasons for it are external and, to some extent at least, out of your control.

Treating problem of doing a thesis as just a matter of ‘work’ explains why productivity techniques only go so far in helping people overcome Thesis Panic. Time management is a concept invented in the industrial age and designed to help people run factories, not intellectual work. Although I am a big fan of productivity literature and the tools it describes, such as the pomodoro technique, they don’t necessarily hold all the answers.

Time will tell if I can write my half of the book in within the next 5 weeks. I will be pleasantly surprised if I can, but if I learned anything while doing a PhD it is not to over estimate the impact of any one technique of time management. What do you think? Is it possible to treat a thesis as ‘just work’? Have you suffered from thesis panic? What did you do about it?

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