It’s a marathon & you’re a sprinter? Here’s help.

Make that effort count . . .

Grad students are always hearing that the dissertation is a marathon and not a sprint – pace yourself too quickly and you risk running out of steam right? That’s all well and good but what about those with natural sprinting tendencies? Read on for some ideas ….

(This was published originally at The Thesis Whisperer but I thought it was worth passing along)
“It’s a marathon not a sprint…”
*Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrh*

I have been told this so many times, as I’m sure you have too. In fact I’ve even said it to other people. The fact is, as an analogy, it’s pretty accurate. Writing a dissertation is a lot like a marathon – and not a lot like a sprint. So what’s my problem you ask… well I’m no marathon runner, I’m a sprinter.
Sprinter? Marathon runner? Dissertation? What are you talking about?
So writing a dissertation is a lot like running a marathon. They are both endurance events, they last a long time and they require a consistent and carefully calculated amount of effort to complete them and not burn out.
Some people are naturally good at this. You know if you are and you recognise it in other people. They tend to be super-organised, and always concentrating. They also tend to be able to get all of their work done in a very rigid time frame. Most people however, myself included are not like that.

Does this sound familiar?
The mere thought of completing a large writing task often makes you freeze into inaction.
You can easily procrastinate if the deadline is far away, “I’ll do it tomorrow”.
You occasionally panic and have a spurt of writing activity before needing a week off to recover.
You are more than familiar with the concept of an all-nighter.
You don’t work consistent hours. The hours you do productive work tend to revolve around feelings of guilt or panic and/or a looming deadline.
You can actually write pretty fast when you want to / have to.
Are you a sprinter too?

Did you answer yes to any of those questions? Chance are you have sprinter tendencies. If you answered yes to most of them, there’s no doubt – you’re a sprinter.

So you see my problem with the advice “it’s a marathon not a sprint”. I was not built to “run a marathon” in the traditional sense, it’s just not the way I work. I used to think this meant I could never write a dissertation. The truth is, as a sprinter, it is a bit of a struggle. I always used to feel like I was having a much harder time of it than the natural marathon runners I knew. However, it is possible for a sprinter to run a marathon – in fact, I even think there are some advantages.

Marathon Running – the Sprinters Guide
Make a plan – NOW! One of your fist bouts of sprinting activity should be spent on making a good plan. Get the plan checked over with a supervisor. The most important thing is that there are clearly marked and SHORT sections. By short I mean a “sprintable” length. Something that you could complete in one sitting if you’re focused.

Make a timeline. This goes hand in hand with the plan. Make a timeline of when you want to achieve writing goals. It is important to be detailed and to make yourself aware of the deadlines. I always find that as a deadline passes, even if it’s self imposed I feel a bit guilty which strongly motivates me to work.
Make lots of self-imposed deadlines and make yourself accountable for them – in any way you can. Be creative on this one. Is your supervisor a bit of a slave driver? Tell them you plan to submit a section of work by the end of the week. Tell your friends, put it on facebook, blog about it – whatever. You need to feel that people are going to hold you to account if you don’t do what you said you would.

Sprint and then slow right down.
This is golden. Most sprinters have a burst of activity and then stop completely – this can be crippling. You don’t have to stop, and you shouldn’t. It doesn’t matter if you go at a snails pace. If you write one sentence a day for a few days. You need to keep the work ticking over, so that as each day passes, you get a little bit closer to your goal. This is a huge mental boost for when you have your next burst of activity as you’ve been working a little but resting at the same time.

Beat the “I’ll do it tomorrow” attitude. Well you don’t have to completely. You can still do it tomorrow – as long as you start it today. Whenever you feel yourself putting off the work, make a simple compromise. You can put it off until tomorrow, as long as you make a start on it today. The start might only be 30 minutes but it makes a difference. Firstly, you will often feel that you want to spend longer than 30 minutes on the work once you get started. Secondly, you will be able to hit the ground running when you do get round to doing the work “tomorrow”.

The sprinters advantage…
Multitasking. I think it is easier for a sprinter to do more than one project at once. However, you need to make sure you have made a thorough plan of all the different things you want to achieve. Changing writing projects can actually be quite stimulating and allow you to sustain high intensity periods of work for longer.

So there you have it. If you’re a natural marathon runner – congratulations and carry on. If you’re a sprinter, you can use your natural abilities to successfully sprint your way to dissertation success. Are you a sprinter or a marathon runner? What do you do to help you last the distance?

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