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{PhD} 10 ways to beat writer’s block in the PhD

If you’re up against a wall right now, sticking fingers down your throat to make yourself vomit up some words, you’re definitely not alone.

Everyone meets a slump at one point or another in the PhD.

Some people get lots of mini slumps all the way through it; others trot along fine for a number of years before hitting a monster block that’s six-foot thick.

I want to start by reiterating that this is completely normal.

And also, that it doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Sometimes, other things can happen because of, or alongside the writer’s block.

So instead of sitting there reading the same sentence eleventy times, or staring at your cursor blink mockingly at you from a blank page, here are some things to try instead:

1) First, don’t sit there forcing yourself to get the motivation back. Nobody in the history of ever got motivated by telling themselves to feel motivated. Instead, acknowledge you’re not feeling it & shift focus instead, perhaps to one of these other suggestions. Keep reading!

2) Try reading something that usually gives you the academic equivalent of fanny flutters (!). Your favourite journo article, your fave writer, a section of your research journal, an interesting joy-giving bit of data.

That might spark some ideas to bring back into your writing

3) Go talk to someone about why or where you’re stuck – your supervisor, a colleague, friend or partner – and brainstorm it out. You never know what fresh ideas and inspo come pouring out when you’re in a relaxed conversation about your research, and not forcing the writing

4) Do something that’s still academic-ish but not directly related to the PhD. Things like:

  • Prep a conference or journal paper
  • Join or create a departmental workshops, lecture or talk series
  • Participate in some researcher training
  • Do some public engagement activity
  • Look for and join online forums or social media groups in your topic/field

That way, you’re still engaging in ideas around research without getting bogged down by the thesis itself

While you’re doing this other academic stuff, your brain cogs are still turning; and ideas and thoughts are still processing. You’ll end up with lots of fresh new perspectives, ideas and an extra boost of motivation to eventually bring back to your writing.

5) I can’t say this enough: MOVE YOUR BODY. Run, weightlift, gym, walk, have sex, dance, crossfit, yoga. ANYTHING that feels good.

There are so many tremendous benefits of physical movement and exercise. It’ll literally physically shake you out of your stuckness. You’ll raise those endorphine and dopamine levels, which will boost motivation and working flow, uplift your mood, and ultimately clear the thinking and writing cobwebs.

You’ll feel so much more energised – physically, mentally, emotionally – to get back to the writing.

6) REST – lots of it

Physical rest: make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Sometimes you feel blocked, or unfocused, or just can’t write because you’re literally tired, and in need of sleep and rest.

And this isn’t just about fitting in your daily 8-hours of sleep but giving yourself regular substantial chunks of time away. E.g. full weekends away from your writing; a full 1-2 week vacation involving no work whatsoever

Mental/emotional rest: do other things that you love. Hobbies, social life, family are not indulgences or luxuries. They’re so necessary to give your head+heart a break. Play is so important for getting the creativity, motivation and inspo back for your writing/work.

7) CHASE JOY, not motivation.

This is your permission slip to go have some fun – really!

Do all the non-PhD things that light you up and make you feel good. Spend time on your hobbies, go see some friends, read the latest Harlan Coben novel.

Then when you’re feeling better and more uplifted, bring those good feelings, motivation, energy back into your work

8) if you absolutely need to write+can’t afford to take time off, try this: Scale your writing goals down to tiny portions.

Write for only 20 mins. Aim for only a 200-word chunk.

Taking small but consistent action (and yes, I do mean small), will generate motivation in the long term (not other way around).

9) Above all: be kind to yourself and find the work groove that works best for you.

Remember that productivity looks different for everyone and motivation isn’t meant to be 100% switched on 24/7. It ebbs & flows. Allow that and move with the flow instead of resisting it

{Bonus: I’ve found that human design has helped me massively for figuring out my best writing flow. E.g. Generators and Manifesting Generators will likely write better when you find something to respond to and that feels joyful. Projectors will probably work better when you shape work around 4-hour days and incorporating lots of rest}

10) Finally, reframe writers block from something bad to something useful. If you’re blocked, procrastinating, feeling discomfort with your writing – get curious about that. Be a researcher around your writer’s block and probe:

  • What is really beneath the writers block?
  • What is it telling you?
  • What are you avoiding?
  • Is there something that the writer’s block is trying to protect/keep you safe from?
  • What are you scared/anxious about on the other side of the writer’s block?

E.g. maybe you’re not feeling very confident about the literature you’re worried that writing about it will show up what you don’t know.

Once you identify what’s really informing the writer’s block and what’s lurking beneath the discomfort, you can then address it head on to clear that block and move forward.

(In this case, reading some more and getting your confidence up around the literature; discussing reading recommendations with your supervisor; or asking colleagues for journal suggestions).

***

Remember again that motivation isn’t meant to be at 100% all of the time.

It’ll come and go, and that’s perfectly normal.

Instead of seeing it as a definitive, permanent blockade that you’ll never get around, try to see it as a little speed bump or a pothole in the road. It’s a little annoying and it’s in the way, but it’s not going to stop you completely from going forward.

Don’t resist it. Ride through it (just as you’d go over a speed bump or a pothole!). Use the block as a way of getting a little more intel on what may be going on beneath the surface (see point #10 again) or use that ‘blocked’ time to fuel up on your energy, creativity and motivation in other ways (see points #2-7!).

As paradoxical as it seems, working with writer’s block in the PhD (rather than against it) can sometimes end up generating lots more in the long run.

Let me know in the comments if you try any of these suggestions, and how they work for you!

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