Start-up and Shut-down Rituals for Writing Dissertations & Theses

Posting about start-up and shut-down rituals for grad students has been on my list of blog topics for a while. However, I’m focusing on it this week because a lot of people have suddenly been thrown into working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, and I think this post could be helpful for them, too. Transitioning to remote work is challenging. I really struggled last fall when faced with a semester of exclusively writing my dissertation–I had a teaching release, so I had no real reason to go to campus most weeks and spent the majority of my time working from my home office.

I was first exposed to the idea of creating start-up and shut-down rituals (or routines, if you’d like) for my dissertation writing time through Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. While writing routines have existed pretty much forever, what I found useful about Newport’s use of these rituals was that they’re as much about helping you disconnect from your “deep work” (i.e. intense, focused work, which certainly includes writing) as getting into it, helping you to establish boundaries.

I found that by establishing start-up and shut-down rituals for my dissertation writing time, I was better able to follow Joan Bolker’s advice in Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day to write a little every day rather than in a cycle of procrastinating-and-binging. (If you haven’t read Bolker’s book yet, I recommend doing so.) Start-up rituals help get me in the mindset for writing, while shut-down rituals help me disconnect from it after I’ve completed the tasks or amount of writing time I have set for myself that day. As Newport argues, I found that having a clear shut-down ritual gave me a sense of closure about the day’s work and prevented me from anxiously thinking about my dissertation in every moment that I wasn’t actively working on it. In other words, my shut-down ritual reduces my dissertation-related anxiety because I know I have “wrapped things up” for the current day and allows me to enjoy the non-dissertation aspects of my life without feeling guilty that I’m not constantly working.

If you find that you’re in the procrastinating-and-binging cycle that Bolker warns against, or if you struggle to disconnect from your work at the end of the day, you might give start-up and shut-down rituals a try. You can customize them, of course, but I’ll provide mine below as an example.

My Start-up Ritual

I use my start-up ritual whenever I’m going to sit down and actually write part of my dissertation (which I try to do at least a little bit of every weekday once I’m past the data-gathering and analysis stages. As much as possible, I keep my weekends dissertation-free). I find that my most productive writing time is during the morning, so I protect my mornings from meetings and teaching prep. (I also have a larger morning routine that includes shower/breakfast/yoga/goal-setting journal that I complete every weekday, whether I’m writing or not.) Here’s my ritual:

  1. I brew a fresh cup of tea and sit down at my computer. If it’s a Friday, I print a copy of my “Dissertations Goals and Accomplishments” table to use for the following week (more on that in a bit).
  2. I look at my “Dissertation Goals and Accomplishments” table and remind myself of the writing time or task I’ve set for myself that day. (Sometimes I set time-based goals, like “Write for 45 min” and sometimes I set task-based goals, like “Incorporate sources x, y, and z into Lit Review, but more often it’s both: “Work on introduction for 30 min”.) I adjust these goals if needed, to account for any changes to my schedule that might have cropped up since I shut down the previous day.
  3. I’m part of a writing accountability group, so next I open up the group’s shared Google Spreadsheet and record my goals for the day on my tab (I plan to write about accountability groups in a future post!). I also write a note of encouragement or comment on my groupmates’ progress on their tabs.
  4. I turn on some classical music (I can’t focus when there’s lyrics).
  5. I open up yesterday’s draft of whichever dissertation chapter I’m currently working on. Following Peg Boyle Single’s advice in Demystifying Dissertation Writing (another book to check out if you haven’t already), I re-save the draft with the current day’s date. (I create a new document every time I write, which is useful in case I decide to return to a previous iteration of my chapter for some reason.) So all of my dissertation-draft files look something like this: “Chapter 2 draft 3-20”.
  6. I update the sticky note on my desk where I record my running word count for the current chapter, using the word count of my current document as the starting point. (e.g. “Started at xxxx words.”)
  7. I dive in.

Maybe this is an excessive number of steps, but it’s what works for me (and the whole process generally takes less than 10 min). The word-count sticky note is weirdly motivating, as I also record the word count at the end of my writing time for the day. I like seeing the total grow slowly over time; it’s a visual way to measure my progress.

My Shut-down Ritual

When I’ve worked for my allotted time or completed my assigned task, I use my shut-down ritual to wrap up for the day (again, find what works for you):

  1. I note the ending word count on the day’s draft and record it on my sticky note: “Ended at xxxx words”.
  2. I pull up my computer calculator app and subtract the start-of-day total from the end-of-day total, to see how many words I actually wrote that day. Sometimes, it’s 500+, other days it might only be 50. I don’t let myself worry too much about that though, because even a little is still progress.
  3. I return to my accountability group spreadsheet and record the number of words I wrote that day in the relevant cell. I also record the number of minutes I wrote (it should match the time goal I set for myself that day, but it doesn’t always. That’s life). If I experienced any struggles and want support or commiseration from my groupmates, I record them in the “Struggles/Comments” cell.
  4. I check my groupmates’ tabs to see if anything has changed for them that I want to respond to.
  5. I go back to my draft and save it. Then, I upload a copy to Google Drive (my preferred way of backing up my dissertation-related work).
  6. Finally, I record the day’s progress in my “Dissertation Goals and Accomplishments” table. If I met my goals for the day, I draw a smiley face. If I didn’t, I draw a frowny-face. (Childish? Perhaps. But I get motivated when I see a string of smiley-faces, and I’m not going to fight it if it works!)
  7. If it’s a Friday, I add up the total number of minutes I spent writing that week and divide by 60 (to get the number of hours I wrote). I record this total on the top of my table and put the sheet in the folder designated for this purpose. I also print next week’s “Dissertation Goals and Accomplishments” table.
  8. I check my Google calendar to see what I have scheduled the next day and then record my writing goal for tomorrow (or Monday, if it’s a Friday) in my “Dissertation Goals and Accomplishments” table.
  9. I check off “Work on Dissertation” from the day’s to-do list in my goal-setting journal.
  10. I move on to whatever else I need to do that day.

You might be wondering why I set the following day’s goal in advance. This is another idea I got from Newport: he claims that documenting what you will do the next day (or, the next time you’re scheduled to return to your project) gives your brain a sense of closure, so it’s not constantly “pinging” you to remember what you have to work on. I have found that this is true for me: my brain trusts that I will come back to the task when I’ve off-loaded it from my working memory by writing it down. Setting your goal the day before also takes the decision of what you’re going to do off your plate the next day, which can be a source of procrastination in itself and contribute to decision fatigue. I find if I don’t know what I’m going to do on a given writing day, I waste a lot of time trying to decide; it’s easier for me to make a decision on next-steps when I’m still in the flow of the previous day’s writing.

Final thoughts: I really advocate that start-up and shut-down rituals be used regularly, in order for them to become rituals. This means that I think they work best when used as part of a regular writing routine, not a procrastinate-and-binge cycle of writing. To make writing-a-little-every-day work, however, you also need to commit to stopping when you’ve reach the day’s goal, trusting that you will continue the next day. It might not feel like you’re making a huge amount of progress each day, but that’s okay: when you look back over the week (or the month, or the semester), you’ll find that little bit a day really adds up. That’s the reason I use a physical table to record my goals and accomplishments in addition to the writing accountability group spreadsheet: I like being able to flip back through my progress in physical form. It’s important to be able to shut down each day and enjoy other things: your life is more than your dissertation!

If you develop some start-up and shut-down rituals for yourself, I’d love to hear about them–please share in the comments!

One thought on “Start-up and Shut-down Rituals for Writing Dissertations & Theses

  1. I love the goal-setting chart. It can be used for a lot of things and isn’t too complicated but holds you accountable to yourself. I always found it makes a difference in what I accomplish if I write it down.


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