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How to complete your PhD (or any large project): Hard and soft deadlines, and the Martini Method

January 7th, 2008 by

Having recently completed a PhD, I will share with you three indispensable nuggets of advice for how to get the monster vanquished: use hard deadlines, soft deadlines, and the Martini Method. With a small amount of imagination these can be applied to any large project.

Perhaps the most important determiner when a PhD gets finished is the HARD DEADLINE. While hard deadlines are supremely important, giving advice to have one is somewhat pointless, since they are also a factor that you have little or no control over. The main hard deadline is that which your institution has determined your maximum amount of time allowable for completion of your PhD. At my institution, this was four years. And without fail, graduate students would be frantically printing their thesis the day before this deadline for binding and submission. Other frequent constraining deadlines are when your money runs out, or the start of a new job. While these aren’t quite as constraining as the ultimate deadline, life can be made considerably difficult if you are left with writing your PhD when starting a new job, or when you cannot afford to pay your rent. As any normal human being knows, deadlines are important for many reasons. One of which is Parkinson’s law: which stipulates that the time you take to complete a task is strongly determined by the time you have to complete that task.

Deadlines which you have more control over are SOFT DEADLINES. These are those deadlines which you determine yourself. One advantage over hard deadlines is that you can choose how many of them and when they occur. The disadvantage is that the consequences of failing to meet them are usually not severe, and can be safely ignored. One solution to their softness is to create real consequences from deadlines. The method of doing this will depend on your personality, and whether you are best driven by the carrot or the stick. Perhaps the most common method in a PhD is externalisation of the deadlines by forming a contract with your supervisor. Many supervisors will set deadlines to their students, but if you do not have a supervisor that does this I would urge you to engage your supervisor in the process of setting soft deadlines. I had an arrangement in the later stages of writing up my thesis to have a piece of work for him to read every week or second week (depending on the size of the work), which helped immensely. You may not like these deadlines, but I believe they are essential, following Parkinson’s law, amongst other reasons.

What I call the Martini Method is named after an anecdote I once read about the novelist Anthony Burgess (of Clockwork Orange fame). Burgess was a very productive writer, which is attributed to a system where he would force himself to write a 1000 words a day, 365 days a year. When he had completed his word count, he would relax with a dry martini, and enjoy the rest of the day with an easy conscience, and normally in bar. A friend of mine’s version of the Martini Method was to come into the office everyday, and not allow herself to leave until her word target had been reached. Most days she left before 5pm, though on occasion she would stay as late as 6 or 7. She would also set herself mini Martinis, such as allowing herself an ice cream in the summer once she had hit half her daily word count. Though we started at the same time, she finished her PhD a lot earlier than me!

A PhD is a huge project, which has to be largely self managed, and its size can lead to anxiety which leads to procrastination as a coping mechanism. If you spend a few days without working on your PhD, anxiety or guilt can build up, which consequently make it even harder to get started, and days can easily turn into weeks without meaningful work being undertaken. The Martini method also encapsulates the well known idea that a large project needs to be split up into small chunks, and quantifies those chunks into specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time bound goals (what management books call a SMART objective).

The Martini Method works by the carrot, which personality psychologists have generally have found to be more effective than the stick. 1000 words is an arbitrary number, and you might find it too much or two little, but I think that somewhere between 500-1000 to be optimal. Writing a 1000 words a day doesn’t take into reviewing and editing time. What I used to do was to start the day with the editing of the text written on the previous day. This makes for an easier way to get started, as editing existing text is less cognitively daunting than starting afresh, and warms up the mind for the writing to come.

The new version of MS word makes word counting much easier – when you select text it shows you the word count at the bottom. One tool that can be used to stick to a daily habit is the chain method. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld marks a cross on his calendar every day, and aims to create an unbroken chain of crosses. Online daily goal tracker and habit maker Joes Goals now implements the chain method, which could be used instead of a paper calendar if you are that way inclined.


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