Before and After: Work on a Ph.D. Thesis from 6:00-9:00 a.m.

I’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here.

This week’s story comes from Annelie Drakman.

I’m a Ph.D.-student, and I’ve always thought that it seemed dreadful to let finishing your dissertation drag out for years and years – just get it over with, I thought. And still I’d let weeks go by where I went to meetings, and read lots of books relating to my topic, and took courses, but did not spend one minute actually writing my text.

So I started getting up at 6 am. Now, whenever I have a free morning or a whole free day, I try to make sure to always get up this early. I think the reason it works is that I hate it. You see, if I get up at 6 am and don’t write on my dissertation, I got up early for nothing. I have to give up the comfort of my bed without the satisfaction of getting things done, and I can’t bear that. So I write. The hours between 6 am and 9 am just fly by and afterwards I’m always surprised at how much I got done. So it works! And, if I can’t get any useful work done during the afternoon, I know I’ve at least put in three or so hours towards my most important goal, and I can give myself a break about being obsessive about emails.

Excellent. I’ve identified sixteen strategies for habit-formation, and this is a great example of the Strategy of Scheduling. Just putting something on the schedule helps us to do it — and scheduling it first thing in the morning usually works best.

Also, although it doesn’t work for everyone, getting up earlier can be a great way to find more time for something you value. Mornings tend to unfold in the same way, so there’s more consistency and control, and less opportunity for conflicts — real or invented — to arise.  (For tips about how and why to schedule a habit for the morning, read here and here.)

I write about the Strategy of Scheduling in Chapter Two of Before and After. If you’d like to know when the book is available for pre-order (not for a while, I must confess!), sign up here.

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here.

  • joannesardini

    Scheduling activities is the ONLY way I get things done – if it doesn’t make it on my calendar, whether it be a Dr appointment or a walk at the beach, it is unlikely to happen. I find scheduling new activities that I really want to make habits is tough to start but ultimately the only way I have found to stick to it. With me, I think it is a bit about the accountability of checking it off the schedule as ‘done’ or having it haunt me on there as a skipped task.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great point, yes, one of the benefits of Scheduling is that it allows for another important strategy, the STrategyof Accountability. You know when something is supposed to happen, so you know if it DOESN’T happen.

  • Usha

    Scheduling does not seem to work for me at all because I usually never stick with one. And I do work well under pressure. I am in the last leg of my PhD. I have to submit on or before 12 April 2014 and that is NOT a lot of time. Any suggestions on how to STICK with a schedule? BTW – I lve both your books, Gretchen. Great work1

  • terry cottle

    Thank you and looking forward to more! I will be starting my doctorate program in January, if I start scheduling study time from the start it can become a habit before the final writing! I enjoy your posts, thank you!

    • Ramona

      I HIGHLY recommend “Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning an M.A. or a Ph.D” by Robert Peters. It’s an old book, but it is a fantastic reference for anyone starting in grad school on how to get through with the minimum of angst and delay. I know several people who found it incredibly useful, but even more who wished they had read it before they started. (As for me, I had gotten a master’s degree in France, and was back in the US, not knowing what to do and considering getting a PhD. I picked up this book and read the chapter “Do You Need to Go?” I concluded that in my case, the answer was no.)

  • Israel

    Thank you. It is a very good tip. Your tip help me to have a good habit.

  • Lee Davy

    First of all good luck with your Ph.D Annelie, it seems like you are on the right track.

    Gretchen, another vitally important scheduling tip that I have found with my own work on habit change is to plan your most difficult and horrible tasks at the beginning of the week. These will probably be the most important tasks and whether we like it or not, we all tend to suffer from the weekend syndrome. This means our effort and enthusiasm for work related tasks winds down as we approach ‘fun’ time and then after the weekend has cleared we start Monday full of verve and vigour once more.

    Lee Davy

  • Ella

    I love this post! Gretchen your books have helped me get through law school. Thanks so much! I have been studying for my final exams and would get cranky with myself for procrastinating after lunchtime. Like this post I had to establish at what hours of the day my brain would work. Now I do 8:30am -12pm and then 4pm- 8 or 9pm with a short dinner break. I no longer feel guilty for having a 4 hour break in the middle of the day because I know that my next study set will be good.

  • Karen

    I am also one who doesn’t have the habit of looking at the calendar to see what to do next. Maybe the key is to start with the habit of looking at the calendar ( and making it a habit to put things on the calendar) before trying to make the habit of scheduling work. I’m really looking forward to your next book!

  • Now I wish I’d read this 10 years ago when I was struggling to write my own PhD up! I ended up following adage of ‘write with wine, edit with coffee’ … it worked, but doubt it was as efficient as getting up at 6am!!! Good luck Annelie – I always says its easier to get accepted INTO graduate school than make your way out.

  • Laurette

    When I was working on my dissertation, I used to go to the reading room of the library every day Monday through Friday. Even if all I did was sit in the chair, that’s what I did. Of course, I never did sit two hours in a chair!

    My mantra was it couldn’t be good unless it was done. Done is good.

  • Another great scheduling tactic is figuring out how to avoid commuting during rush hour. In the average week, it frees up about 7 hours of time for me.

  • peninith1

    This post is making me feel like there’s something I really need to learn to do. I have managed my time in retirement mostly by establishing rituals for doing things that need to be done to keep the house and myself in order. But I am still at the ‘make a list of absolutely everything you can think of and cross off what you can’ method of managing other things. I often forget appointments and meetings, and am also often unprepared for things that I planned to do. Tomorrow I planned to participate in a charity sew–and then let the exterminator and a wireless internet upgrade service person get on the same day’s schedule. This is sure something for me to think about. I have a great calendar utility right on my computer’s home page. Why am I not using it????

  • Natacha

    I can’t wait to be able to read this book on habits!!

  • BKF

    Annelie, good-luck with your dissertation and thanks for sharing this tip. One more advantage of getting the most dreaded thing done early in the day is that you probably feel good for most of the rest of the day? When I feel good about myself, I can also get other (difficult) things done more easily. On the other hand, if I put things off to the end of the day, I have this nagging feeling all day and then go to bed feeling like a “failure” because I ended up being too tired to do that one thing.

  • jb

    Fantastic book on writing habits (for academic writers) by an actual academic/psychologist:

    • gretchenrubin

      My favorite book on the habit of writing, for writers, is a very hard-to-get book called “How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency.” I’ve read it three times.

      This one is really good too.

  • lady brett

    the point about getting up early to make time for things you love is an interesting one for me, because i have done that, but not in the way you describe here. i kind of hate mornings, but i’ve been getting up at 6 so i can get to work early so i can come home early. it has not improved my mornings or my work (neither of which i am very fond of anyway), but it has greatly improved my afternoons/evenings by giving me an extra hour between daycare and the kids’ bedtime, which has reduced the stress of all the things that have to happen in that fairly short time.

  • Rachel

    This post and a couple of incidents with my son recently resulted in a “light-bulb moment” for me. I wrote about it in my own blog.

  • Lexie Wolf

    I can really relate to this. I wrote most of my masters thesis on weekends between 6 and 9 am. I was a single mom at the time and working full time so that’s the best time I could carve out. And, I am a morning person. There’s no way I could have done the same between 9 and 12 at night, say. I’ve always been a scheduler. But the thing that underlies all of this is the unsexy term, “self-discipline.” It sounds old-fashioned, and I don’t know how you cultivate it. I know I got mine from my Dad, who has it in spades. But you have to have it.