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I am reblogging a post that I wrote in 2010 based on the advice to a would-be writer in Muriel Spark’s novel “A Far Cry from Kensington”: “To focus, get a cat.” I love cats, but sadly have none at the moment. On occasion, our adult daughter has brought her magnificent, marvelous cat with her for a weekend visit. A cat can transform for the better the mood, and even the level of thought, within a house. Here is my blog from 2010: “To focus on your writing, get a cat.”

Successful Writing Tips

Cat mosaic on house façade, Brussels, Belgium,...

Can’t concentrate?  Having trouble getting into flow with your writing?  Get a cat!

Advice to writers can come from the most interesting places.  An unexpected, but most entertaining source of advice is A Far Cry from Kensington, a novel by British writer Muriel Spark

A Far Cry takes place in 1954 London.  Mrs. Hawkins, the narrator, has a job in publishing.  And yes, it is she who offers the acutely insightful advice that if you can’t concentrate, get a cat.

In a hilarious dinner party scene, Mrs. Hawkins is seated by a red-faced, watery-eyed Brigadier, who, in response to her question about his having had an interesting life, replies, “Could write a book.”  He hasn’t because he hasn’t been able to concentrate.  

Mrs. Hawkins tells him that to concentrate, “you need a cat”:

Alone with a cat in the room where you work . . . the cat will invariably get up on your desk…

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I’m grateful to have a wise and funny husband.  Occasionally when I’m indecisive or anxious about my writing, he’ll say, “Do something, even if it’s wrong.”

On a recent, blisteringly hot Saturday when I was feeling prickly because I couldn’t write worth a darn, he said, “Let’s go to a museum.” What? The afternoon had already gotten a good start, and we would have only an hour or so to walk around once we went through the heat and trouble of getting downtown. Was it really worth it?

We went, and you can bet that I wasn’t the best company for the first part of that hot trip down to the museum.

But lucky us—as we walked into Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art‘s East Building, we were met with an electric atmosphere. We had happened upon a free, intimate performance given by stars of Russian ballet: two ballerinas from the Bolshoi Theatre and two dancers from the Mariinsky Theatre.

Dancers from Russia performing excerpts from ballets

Anna Antonicheva

There on the East Building’s mezzanine, we joined a relatively small group of people in summer garb, surprised at their good fortune as they were visiting the Smithsonian.

We sat within yards of these amazing artists, closer than one could ever hope to be, as they danced for an hour in honor of the special exhibit, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music. They performed excerpts from the repertoire of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

So let me give credit to my husband for his good advice, applicable to all sorts of situations—especially to difficult moments often encountered in writing a dissertation.

Ease the pressure. Awaken your creative side and aesthetic sensibilities, or whatever your strengths are, and see what happens.  Oddly enough, doing something that at first might seem as if you are procrastinating and merely fleeing the hard work of writing can yield unexpected benefits, such as increasing your mental toughness.

Breaking open a tired writing project

When you return to your writing, you most likely will note greater mental clarity, quickness, and toughness, as well as an increased patience for your writing process. An improved mental and emotional state will help your writing come more easily.

If the perfect word, the right beginning of a paragraph, or the heart of the matter isn’t coming to you and you are twisting yourself into knots, just do something, even if it’s wrong. Doing something could even mean going to a museum. You might be surprised at what can invigorate an exhausted mind and break open a tired project.

When you have felt stymied by your writing, what breaks did you take that were particularly helpful?  I’d love to hear from you.

All good wishes,

Nancy

Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach
http://www.smarttipsforwriters.com
http://www.dissertationbootcamp.net
http://www.nancywhichard.com
nancy @ nancywhichard.com

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A dissertation client said recently that he has been dealing with a lack of focus and low motivation.

In addition to writing a dissertation, he also teaches.

Sensing fatigue, I asked what the last few months had been like for him.

He paused and said, “There have been a lot of outside influences.”

He has had to travel a bit, but that wasn’t what was coming to mind for him.

Like many of his friends and family, he had been in the path of Hurricane Sandy.  For some, their homes had been damaged, and for others, including himself, there was a long period of no power and no heat.

And what else in addition to Sandy?  The Presidential campaign and election

The Presidential campaign that came before Sandy but ended soon after Sandy struck was raw and exhausting for many Americans. After months, even years, of the presidential campaign, my client was thrilled when the campaigning ended, but the campaign stopped with an abruptness, a suddenness that at first was disconcerting.

My client felt he personally had been in a battle during the fierce, ugly campaign.

But once the election was over, the silence was almost as unsettling as the campaign itself.

My client said that even though he had lost valuable time during the aftermath of the hurricane and also during the election, he had started to recover his footing.  He was tired, but he had started to produce some writing.

And now another calamity has upturned the lives of some of my dissertation clients, as well as many other people.

The unthinkable has occurred

This morning my client told me that midday this past Friday he registered news about a shooting but because of a deadline at work, he chose to put off getting the details.  At day’s end, he listened in earnest to the news reports and realized that once again there had been a shooting in a school, but this time the dead included beautiful little first-graders.

Since then, he said, he has been emotionally overwhelmed even though he has been listening to or reading only a few news reports.

The horrific shooting of the young schoolchildren and their teachers has been difficult to process for most of us. My client articulated the feelings of horror and helplessness that may sound familiar to you.  But he says he thinks his ongoing exhaustion and isolation may further complicate for him the emotional impact of the killings.

Over the last couple of months several clients have voiced concerns not only over their heavy work load, but also over the emotional stress and isolation they are feeling.

Time for yourself

The upcoming holidays and, for some, the end of the semester give many the opportunity to reflect on how to deal with this latest disaster.

And how you can deal with the loneliness and emotional stress you feel as you shoulder the difficult job of writing a dissertation.

More of what matters

Please give some time over the next few weeks to reflect on what really matters to you, not only in your work or dissertation, but also in your emotional life.  What is it that you need?  How can you have more of what matters to you?

All good wishes to you,

Nancy

Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach
www.smarttipsforwriters.com
www.dissertationbootcamp.net
www.nancywhichard.com

nancy @ nancywhichard.com

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I find it interesting how determined most of us are to derail ourselves in big and small ways. We can put a lot of effort into avoiding focusing on a dissertation.

How about you? Perhaps you have developed a terrific plan and writing routine, just as has one of my dissertation clients.   If not, there’s hope. Take some cues from my client who credits his plan for his increased productivity.

My client’s plan works because it is both basic and elegant.  The plan centers on a “twice –a-day schedule.”

Butternut Cottage

Butternut Cottage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As he rides the bus to his day job, he plans what work he’ll do on his dissertation in his first session of the day. Once he’s close to his office, he finds a quiet place to work, and for about 45 minutes, he follows his plan and either writes or edits a section of his dissertation. Then he goes on to his usual place of work and puts in a full day. At day’s end, after he’s returned home and has had dinner, he puts in about 90 minutes in his second writing session.

He says that the twice-a-day schedule allows him to be more productive than if he worked a longer session once a day. The writing is never far from his mind.  He finds that he looks forward to returning to the work at the next session. And even over holidays, he tries to adhere somewhat to his plan just to keep his head in the material.

If you haven’t put a plan into action, first turn off the internet, television, and whatever else is distracting you.  Believe me, I know that finding the will to write is not easy, but you can do it. It starts with taking control and laying down the basics for yourself.

1. When will you write?  What day and what time?

2. Where will you write?

3. What will you write in that first session?

4. And when does the first session end?

5.  Rinse and repeat.

Nothing much will happen until you have a given yourself specific directions.  What is your plan?  What’s your own twist that makes the plan work for you?

Happy end of November to you.  December looks like a good month for writing, don’t you think?

Nancy

Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach
www.smarttipsforwriters.com
www.dissertationbootcamp.net
www.nancywhichard.com

nancy @ nancywhichard.com

 

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When my two kids were little, they loved the book Big Dog, Little Dog, A Bedtime Story. In the book, Fred and Ted, two friends, who are both dogs, deal with all sorts of small dilemmas.

Fred is tall, and Ted is short. Fred’s bed is too short for him. What to do?  Change beds with Ted. And so the book goes. The two friends problem-solve one problem after another.

What is the moral of the story? “Why make big problems out of little problems?”

One of my dissertation coaching clients has been resisting line-editing a chapter. Line editing is tedious, no doubt about it.

My client has this going for him—he has a morning routine. He’s set aside time for working on his dissertation before he does anything else. He has his morning coffee, but he doesn’t open his email. And so it would seem that he’s not suffering from what Roy Baumeister and John Tierney in the book Willpower call “decision fatigue.” He isn’t worn down by his day. Yet, instead of diving into the line-editing, the task he set for himself, he addresses easier tasks and never gets to the hard work of editing.

My client can point to other work he’s taken care of during the morning time he has set aside for his dissertation, but not what he had planned to do.

He says he’s stubborn. He may be, but what I know for sure is that he’s a stickler. In both his day job and in his after-work activities, he is detail-oriented. He’s a stickler for doing things right because he has to be.

I know he can do the work. What is holding him back? What is he afraid of?  That he might make a mistake? That’s a given, right? Editing is like sweeping sand. It’s unlikely he will catch every grain, but it is time to stop the delay.

To build up willpower to do those things you dislike or find difficult, Baumeister and Tierney say that you should “set a firm time limit for tedious tasks.”

And you know what? That approach has worked for my coaching client in the past. On occasion, he has told me that when he strenuously resisted work, he used a timer to help him stick with a task for a short, designated amount of time. That strategy will work for him again.

Similarly, he can once again monitor himself. He can be accountable to himself. And I’ll be sure to hold him accountable, too.

Just as the moral for Big Dog, Little Dog, A Bedtime Story asks the question “Why make big problems out of little problems?” the same question can be asked of my client about his resistance to line-editing his dissertation chapter.

If you hate to edit, edit a little bit at a time. Do what you can bear to do, but do something!

Slowly, but surely you’ll get it done.

Why make big problems out of little problems?

I would love to hear from you. How do you deal with tedious writing tasks?

All good wishes to you,

Nancy

Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach
www.smarttipsforwriters.com
www.dissertationbootcamp.net
www.nancywhichard.com

nancy @ nancywhichard.com

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No matter how serious your intention is to write, you need a plan.  And you need a plan that is automatic, clear-cut, and smooth.

You need a way to swiftly move into your work without the hesitation and resistance that can throw you off track.

You need a plan that works like the starting block works for an Olympian runner. You don’t want to slip and slide about in loose dirt. You want to move automatically into action at the given time. 

One of the world’s leading authorities on goal attainment, psychologist Peter Gollwitzer, Ph.D., has devised an amazingly effective plan for implementing a person’s intention to take action toward a goal.

Gollwitzer’s “if-then” plan or “implementation intention” requires you to decide ahead of time the time, location, and action you will take and to put the plan into the simplest, yet most logical, of forms. Your plan would be something as simple as this: IF it is 2 pm, THEN I will go to the 3rd floor of the library with my computer to write for two hours.

Gollwitzer’s research shows that such planning produces “automatic action,” because you “delegate control” to the “situational cues.” The situation or the when and the where are your cues—the situation triggers your taking action. Without your consciously thinking about it, your brain starts to work on making sure you will be aware and ready at the right time to take action.  Gollwitzer terms this “strategic automaticity” or “instant habits.” 

Without an if-then plan, competing projects or goals or other distractions can derail you from starting or taking action on any given day.

The if-then plan can change the way you approach your work.

It’s an amazingly effective cue to trigger your writing.

I would love to hear how you have  used the if-then plan to trigger your writing.

Happy writing,

Nancy

Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach
www.smarttipsforwriters.com
www.dissertationbootcamp.net
www.nancywhichard.com

nancy @ nancywhichard.com

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When an Olympian athlete wins a gold medal, there’s little doubt that the athlete was driven by a big dream and bold action.

Gabby Douglas

To win a gold medal in the women’s gymnastics all-around,  Gabby Douglas, as a fourteen-year-old,  bravely left Virginia Beach, VA and traveled about 1,200 miles to West Des Moines, IA to live with a family she didn’t know in a town far different from her home town in order to train with the gymnastics coach of her dreams.

Katie Ledecky

Fifteen-year-old Katie Ledecky won gold in the Olympics women’s 800-meter freestyle.  The youngest member of the U.S. Olympian team came within half a second of breaking the world’s record.  Even though several reporters talked as if Katie won almost by a fluke, Katie came well-prepared to the race with passion and a plan.  Not only was she a bold athlete with a clear vision, but to help her with her dream, her father also took the big step of taking last year off from his work as an attorney to give his time to his daughter’s swimming.

 

Your Bold Summer Goals

Did you prioritize writing with the expectation that by summer’s end you would have made great progress on the writing front?

Having big goals is not unrealistic. And you need to frequently remind yourself of your big goals and of how important it will be to you to reach those goals.

And Add to that, the Daily Routine

Just as importantly as having the bold dream, you need to pull that big picture down to what you can do each day with your daily writing routine.

As each future Olympian dreamed her big dreams of making the team and winning gold, she also spent hours training each day.

Take heart from the Olympic athletes who didn’t get to where they are by doing everything all at once.

Micro goals are good.

For Successful Writing, Continue with Bold Goals and Hard Work 

Most of my dissertation writers and academic writing clients had big goals for the summer. Those writers who seem to be having the most success are those who held a long view and also a short-term view, the big and bold goals as well as the hard work of daily action and routine.

How are you doing with meeting your writing goals this summer?  I would love to hear from you.

Happy writing,

Nancy

Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach
www.smarttipsforwriters.com
www.dissertationbootcamp.net
www.nancywhichard.com
nancy @ nancywhichard.com

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