Want to Write More? Learn to Make Transitions to and from Your Dissertation

Closeup of a hand writing in a notebook with a pen

It’s 11am, and you promised yourself you would transition to your dissertation two hours ago. You have checked your email half a dozen times, had another cup of coffee, scrolled through Facebook, and read a few articles online. How many minutes did you work on your dissertation? Zero!

What’s going on?

Many things can be interfering with your ability to work. For one thing, you just may be having a hard time transitioning into dissertation work. All day long, we are making transitions from one endeavor to another and usually without much self-awareness. When it comes to the dissertation or other challenging tasks, we need to learn how to more deliberately make transitions.

In writing, transitions signal relationships between ideas and help the reader think about, organize and react to what they are reading. In life, transitions between tasks signal to us that we need to change course and shift our energy, thoughts, and actions in a different direction.

Just as deliberate transitions strengthen our academic writing, we benefit from bringing a deliberate energy to the act of transitioning from one endeavor in life to another. It can be helpful to make a conscious transition into and out of dissertation work. You can think of the act of making transitions as a “muscle” that you can develop over time. With practice, this “transition muscle” can get stronger. Here are some approaches that will likely help:

  1. Recognize you are actually making a transition. The first step to be better at making transitions is to acknowledge that you’re making one in the first place. Actually say to yourself, “I am making a transition now” and tune in to your thoughts and feelings right at that moment. Are you telling yourself that you don’t feel like working? Or are you telling yourself that you are ready to get in there and make some progress? Are you feeling resistant, excited, burdened, interested, overwhelmed, or fearful? All of the above? Observe what’s present and note that it’s not true or false. It’s just what you’re experiencing in the moment. It’s temporary. If what you’re feeling is negative, push through and focus on making the transition. You have the ability to transition even when you don’t feel like it. Your resistance does not need to dictate your behavior.
  2. Encourage yourself: When we make transitions, we could often use some encouragement. This is where you can actually be your own cheerleader, and you can tell yourself to “get in there” and “get started.”  I work out almost every morning. There is always a pre-workout voice in my head that says, “you could just go back to sleep and workout tomorrow.” When we make transitions, we are vulnerable to thoughts and feelings that convince us we can take action later. So, be prepared with a voice of encouragement that invites you just to begin. “Just do five minutes of exercise” I tell myself, knowing that once I am five minutes in, I can choose whether or not to continue. Encourage yourself to begin with one small task. Tell yourself that you can get in there despite what you are thinking or feeling. Make that transition!
  3. Leave a trail of breadcrumbs. It’s a lot easier to make a transition if you know where to pick up from your last work session. If you’re in the midst of writing part of chapter when your work day is winding down, leave a note or instructions to yourself that tell you where to pick up again the next day.  If you make it easier to know where you to begin, you will make it easier to transition.  I personally like to give myself a short, doable assignment to start my day and commit to having that first task complete by a certain time of day.
  4. Create accountability.  Sometimes we need some form of accountability to help us make transitions when our “transition muscle” is weak. See if you can find others who can work alongside you (even virtually) where you declare publicly the next task you will complete. Agree to check-in with each other 30 minutes or so later to make sure you are working and making progress. Make a new work commitment at the next check-in point. Knowing someone is going to ask you about your progress at the end of the day or week can make a difference making transitions and getting to work.
  5. Celebrate each success. You might not feel like it is necessary or that you deserve it, but we see that our clients who celebrate each success are able to transition with greater ease and build real momentum. Every task you do complete is a victory and a success even though there are many more to cross of the list. The finish line can feel a long way away so it is important to celebrate each success and acknowledge our efforts to transition into our dissertation work and our each accomplishment along the way.

Remember that it is normal to struggle with making transitions into your dissertation work. Have compassion for yourself while at the same time make a commitment to develop your transition muscle. In time and with practice, it will get stronger.

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