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Matt DeStefano

This is a really neat project - I'm going to keep my own data this semester on my MA thesis project. I'm curious as to whether or not your productivity varied depending on where you worked. Did you always work in the same location (weekend vs. weekdays, or even day to day)?


Very interesting post. A follow-up: How exactly did you collect your data? Was it just putting numbers in a spreadsheet, or something more complicated?

I ask because I've tried to do a similar project before. About a year ago I tried to keep track of how many hours I was putting in per week on all my school-related work. This was during one of the flair-ups of the 'professors only work 20 hours a week' debates. Turns out I was putting in 50+ hours almost every week (though to be fair I was taking two really intense Classics courses at the time, and in my experience classicists have to put in much more work time than philosophers do).

Anyway, I just used a spreadsheet, and it wasn't very user-friendly. The document got unwieldy pretty quickly, and it was difficult to see any patterns in the data. Moreover, I had to guess how much work I was doing each day, and its easy to fool yourself. I'm sure this is partly because I didn't think very much about how to set up the spreadsheet. I wonder if you or other readers has suggestions on how to approach this. I'm writing an MA in classics in the spring, and I'll probably try to keep track again.

Marcus Arvan

*Really* interesting post, Matt - and glad to see you've found a recipe that works for you. You're probably right. People are different, and so it's likely that different things work for different people. Quick question, though, just for the sake of curiosity: when you tried the daily page requirement (which you said didn't work), did you try it with the "no editing" rule? I say this because I can well imagine failing to meet a 3-5 page daily goal if one edits along the way, but I'd be surprised if one had trouble meeting such a goal if one adopts the no-editig rule. Anyway, just curious - and congrats with finishing the thesis!

Trevor Hedberg

Thanks for the comments. Here are a few quick responses.

Writing location was essentially identical each semester: I estimate that about 90% of the work on thesis was done in the area of my apartment that I've designated as office space. The exceptions were usually occasions when I met with committee members to discuss things. I did rearrange a few items in my apartment during the summer, but the changes were pretty minor.

As far as recording the data goes, I never used anything more complicated than the Google spreadsheet that I linked to. I just noted when I started working on the thesis and when I stopped. I counted any work related to the thesis -- writing, editing, research, discussions with faculty members, etc. -- in the overall tally, but I made an effort not to accidentally count any break that was longer than a few minutes. The numbers are still just an approximation, but I don't think a tally that's accurate down to the minute is necessary for this sort of task.

Going back to the spring 2013, when I noticed my initial struggles, I tried to refrain from doing any initial editing. It made a slight difference, but I still wasn't meeting the daily goals with much frequency. I suspect the main problem is that there never seemed to be a tight link between the amount of time spent on the thesis and the number of pages produced. In particular, I recall one weekend where I put in more than 10 hours to the thesis (pretty sure it was 9/21-9/22) but produced less than 2 pages of written content. Most of that time was spent thinking through two objections that had been raised by my committee chair and figuring out how to respond to them without undermining other arguments in the thesis. At other times during the writing process, 11 hours of work translated to more than 15 pages. An additional complication to using a daily page goal is that some days allow for larger chunks of thesis-related work than others: when a slow day of progress is coupled with a small number of available work hours, the results generally aren't too good.

Marcus Arvan

Oops, I meant "Trevor"! ;)

Marcus Arvan

Trevor: okay, but maybe I should have been clearer about the 3-5 page a day + "no editing" advice. The advice is to *just write* without editing. The point is *not* to sit around and think through objections (on the advice I was suggesting, you should *never* be spending 10 hours to get out two pages). Rather, the advice was to force stuff out of your head as quickly as possible without editing (and then go back later to clean up the "written throw-up").

It's cool if you didn't find the 3-5 page thing helpful, but from what you say it's not clear to me that you quite tried the approach I've suggested. I'd still suggest giving it a try in the future if you ever have trouble.

Trevor Hedberg

Hi, Marcus. I think I may have misled you a bit with my comment. I wasn't trying to imply that I was abiding by the "no editing" rule (or anything similar) when I was working on the thesis that weekend where I put in 11 hours and only produced 2 pages of writing. My point was that according to a strict 3-page goal, that weekend would be regarded as significant failure even though I worked for 11 hours on the thesis: after all, I would have fallen 4 pages short of the goal of 6 pages. The downside of a page-based goal is that the amount of time it takes to produce a given number of pages is bound to vary day to day; that fact, coupled with the variance in the number of hours that one has available to work on any given day (a consequence of the varied weekly commitments that we have as teachers and scholars), made it extremely difficult for me to meet any sort of strict daily goal. The fundamental problem was not that too much time was being lost in editing a draft in progress; the problem was that trying to meet a daily goal (as opposed to the weekly one I later adopted) proved to be only rarely achievable. When I finally got into a flow of working on the thesis consistently, I was still only working on it roughly 3 days per week. It's obvious that the daily writing regiment works well for some -- including the chair of my thesis committee, who follows and recommends that method -- but it didn't work well for me.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Trevor: I think I understand. But the whole point of the no-editing rule is that it is supposed to make the task ridiculously easy -- so easy that you never fall short of your goal (if you don't edit at all, it shouldn't take more than 2 hours to get 3-5 pages done). For instance, I teach 6 hours a day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I've never failed to meet my daily even once in over seven years of following the rule. Anyway, I'm glad you've found something that works for you. I guess I would just say that if you ever run into trouble with your strategy, it still might be worth trying the daily page + no editing rule. :)


In one of my PhD program's publishing workshops, four of the professors in my department discussed their writing procedure. What struck me about the advice they shared was that each had an entirely different procedure, and yet, each has been very successful at publishing (for instance: one outlines everything in advance, and then works 4 hours every morning, 6 days a week, but usually only writes one page per day because he can't move on until that page is perfect, while another vomits everything into a document, and then figures out what he has). The lesson I learned was that there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution, and that I should experiment to discover what process works best for me.

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