Daily Archives: January 26, 2017

Balancing on the point of a pin…

By Dr. Janet Sheppard

Balancing on the point of a pin. . . . Does that phrase make you wince or squirm a little as it does me? I’ve been reading a lot lately about productivity (we’ll get back to the pin later), a new buzz word for people who have a desire to achieve their goals and accomplish as much as they can, with as little pain, frustration, and procrastination as possible. Graduate students, academics, and professionals all want to maximize their ability to get things done. For those of you reading this blog, that means mostly writing, editing, and/or revising.

One of the places grad students sometimes stumble when it comes to writing is that they believe it should flow out of them. They do not see themselves as writers and, as Rachel Cayley, author of the blog post “Explorations of Style” says, here and here, grad students often hold a dichotomy between their “writing” and their “work”.  Because academic writing is different from other types of writing, it’s easy to form beliefs about what it ‘should’ be like.  One of the factors that has a large impact on these erroneous beliefs is that many grad students are so isolated in their academic work once their courses end.

I am a huge fan of communities of support for the writing process (please check out the Thesis Writing Starter Kit if you haven’t yet).  Not everyone needs a writing group, but in my experience, almost everyone needs a place to talk about their writing process, their stuck spots, and their successes! Sometimes other work gets privileged over writing because grad students feel more confident and competent doing it, and there are natural social rewards from tasks that have us engage with others.  I want to be clear that doing other things as part of your graduate work is important (attending a conference, TA-ing, acting as a research assistant), but if you find yourself with a long ‘to-do’ list of non-thesis writing tasks, chances are you are helping yourself feel more productive in the short term but making yourself vulnerable to criticism and imposter syndrome in the long term.

One of the most important foundations of productive writing is probably what Charles Duhigg (2016) describes as a sense of control. Have you thought about that lately? How ‘in control’ do you feel of this massive project called your thesis or dissertation? Particularly in the early stages, having no idea exactly what your thesis should or could be, means that for many grad students a sense of control is hard to come by.

One thing that can help to increase a sense of control (also known as agency, or an internal locus of control) is to form two different types of goals for yourself – what Duhigg calls an ‘aspirational goal’, the big ‘why’ of your decision to be in graduate school, how you see it contributing to your life/career goals, and SMART goals. (remember those? Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Action-oriented, Realistic, Time-bound) SMART goals are the ‘how’ of our productive work.  When I was working with Thesis Completion Groups, I frequently asked participants to break their weekly goals into smaller, more concrete elements…

“I’m going to finish Chapter 2”…hmmm. Okay, that is often the literature review chapter, how far along are you with reading and outlining your review? How much time can you give to the task of working on this each day? When during the day do you plan do this writing? Where will you work?

This may seem like an insane level of detail to include in your goal setting, but research shows that the smaller and more concrete our goals, and the more we anchor those goals into our physical environment, the more likely we are to achieve them. (Pychyl, 2013)

Here are some other writing tips you may already know about and integrate into your routine:

  • Disconnect from social media, limit your distractions during writing periods. We are often tempted to navigate away to search for something, check our email or Facebook, when we feel lost. If you use an app to limit access to certain sites while you’re working, you will become more productive!
  • Working with a timer helps to maintain a deeper focus! Cal Newport (2016) has called deep work the superpower of the 21st century, because it is so important to making progress in learning and business, but people are more and more distractible and managing only surface thinking!
  • If you are struggling with ‘writing your way into your topic’, ‘writing undressed’, or clarifying your thinking…try moving away from your computer and picking up a pen and paper. There is evidence emerging that suggests handwriting (a form of disfluency) forces you to slow down and facilitates deeper processing.

Okay, back to that pointy pin…the metaphor came to me as I was reflecting on the many graduate students with whom I have worked over the last six or seven years. While every student is different and the range and complexity of graduate student lives, interests, abilities, and research topics are phenomenal, one thing I believe shuts down productivity faster and more thoroughly than almost anything else, is the belief that there is a ‘right way’ to do this academic writing thing. The critical external gaze of instructors and your supervisor can compound the struggle to get it right, but if you feel that you must focus very hard on balancing all those competing demands, expectations and beliefs before you can start to write, you will ultimately end up in an impossible situation: trying to balance on the point of a pin. Here’s what I want for you: leap off. Surround yourself with people who believe in you as you (re)learn how to believe in yourself. Ask for help if you need it. Go to the Centre for Academic Communication, or to Counselling Services if your quality of life has been severely impacted. If you’ve made it this far, you can learn how to navigate without paralysis and endless pain. Stay tuned for another blog post that will touch on some other health and well-being ‘hacks’ that can help you soar.


Duhigg, C. (2016). Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.

Pychyl, T. (2013) Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.

Dr. Janet Sheppard worked in Counselling Services for more than 25 years. While she retired last summer, in the last part of her UVic career Janet coordinated a series of Thesis Completion Support groups, helped to organize and facilitate Thesis Boot Camps, developed and co-facilitated a graduate student career exploration group with Career Services, and generally loved working with graduate students. Janet is currently completing a graduate certificate program in executive coaching.