Updated: Dec 21, 2020
by Luz Frias-Hernandez
Have you recently felt like no ideas come to your mind when writing a piece of work?
You may be experiencing writer’s block!
And honestly, in the midst of a global pandemic, I don't blame you. Things get a bit more complicated when you have a deadline to submit, let’s say, your dissertation, and pressure starts to increase. Even worse, if your first language isn’t English, and you may feel like there is an extra barrier.
If all these have happened to you and you are starting to feel distressed, here is my advice on what I did to overcome it by adopting a new routine. Before you read ahead, clear your mind and don’t think about anything in particular, as if you were going for a run. Ready, set, go…
1. How do I typically spend a day?
Try to remember what you usually do each day. In normal times, we tend to divide our days into 8-hour sections: we sleep for about 8 hours, work or study for another 8 hours on average, and we dedicate the remaining 8 hours to leisure activities such as hanging out with friends, watching Netflix, or going to the pub.
In the ‘new normal’, depending on where you are in the world, it might be a bit (or a lot) messed up, but it’s still important that you are conscious about how you spend your day so you can create a balanced routine to accommodate for studying and resting.
In her book on how to write a journal article in twelve weeks, Dr Wendy Belcher describes the importance of documenting the actual time one spends writing within a week. She suggests preparing a work plan prior to doing this in order to ascertain if goals have been achieved. I personally found it more insightful to start documenting my day before creating an efficient work schedule to avoid feeling guilty if I didn’t manage to achieve milestones – this way it was clear from the beginning what I needed to improve on.
You can do this exercise yourself: on a piece of paper draw a table with two columns and twenty-four rows. In the first column write down the times of the day. In the second column you will document all the activities you do in a typical weekday or did the day before, from waking up to sleeping, don’t skip any activity you remember having done, as simple as it was. Name this table ‘How I actually spend my time’ and count how many hours you dedicated to writing.
2. Create a detailed schedule
Have at hand the ‘How I actually spend my time’ table.
You now need to create a schedule. Planning can be time-consuming, but the results totally pay off.
You know how it goes, draw six columns and nine rows, adding in the first column the times at one-hour intervals, starting from the time you plan to begin studying. The remaining five columns will serve for the days of the week.
From the ‘How I actually spend my time’ table, identify all set tasks, these are activities that you ought to do at a specific time, for instance: attending online lectures, having breakfast, lunch and dinner, or maybe walking the dog. Write these down on the calendar, even if they sound obvious, it’s better to be meticulous. Then, think of other tasks that you aim to do, such as reading, sending emails, learning new software and, of course, writing. Allocate enough time in your calendar to complete each one of them depending on their complexity and priority. You may want to plan for writing at least three times a week for two hours, at the time of the day you tend to feel the most inspired.
Once you finish your schedule, compare it to the ‘How I actually spend my time’ table and reflect if you are happy with the changes to your routine, otherwise make the required adjustments to keep it realistic so you can compromise.
Put your schedule up in a visible place, believe me, it’s easy to forget!
3. Start early
Perhaps some of you are night owls and prefer working at night. Despite this, science proves that people tend to feel less sleepy and more energetic when exposed to higher light levels, particularly those provided by natural light.
Adequate lighting conditions also have a positive effect in a person’s mood, which in turn can affect feelings of health and wellbeing and motivation to do a certain task. Therefore, I strongly recommend you do most of your writing and reading in the morning, while there’s still plenty of ‘cool’ daylight to help you improve your performance.
4. Perseverance is the key
Ideally, set small writing goals to stay motivated - it is better to do short periods of writing than no writing at all. Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega recommends developing your practice by writing 125 words in 15-minute intervals. You can give this a try by using the Pomodoro method, it will also enhance your concentration and make studying time more enjoyable.
Writing on a daily basis is definitely much more efficient than aiming to finish an essay in 8 hours without resting. The less you practice writing, the more difficult it becomes over time; it is just a matter of discipline and being in the right mindset.
I know a big obstacle to writing can be finding the correct vocabulary if your first language isn’t English. I found it helped to spend some extra time reviewing relevant literature to learn new vocabulary and improve my academic writing.
5. Be kind to yourself and others
Writing can be overwhelming if you only focus on it. It is important to balance your routine by doing relaxing activities, for some people these can be baking, playing an instrument, doing yoga, or my new favourite: meditation. Try doing these outside your schedule as a reward for your great work. You can also find inspiration elsewhere, for example, by joining a society or becoming a volunteer. Doing something nice for others can be incredibly fulfilling and make you happier, it can also bring you new ideas that can fit into your studies and inspire future projects.
6. What about references? (Read more by Academia One)
When you start writing you should also take into consideration how you are going to organise your references - see Suria's top five tips for organising your references.
Luz Frias-Hernandez did her Architecture BSc at Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolas de Hidalgo, Mexico, before completing her MSc in Sustainable Heritage at University College London. She is currently enrolled on the doctoral programme for Environmental Design and Engineering at University College London. She has a deep interest in historic architecture and the museum environment. Her Ph.D. project focuses on heritage conservation with an emphasis on light and lighting.