The writing habit, and how to guarantee you’ll never take up smoking

Three cigarettes on an orange background with copy spaceA lot of teenagers take up smoking at school and try as they might, they can’t kick the habit.

When I read a lot of the advice about writing productively and developing a writing habit I want to scream. I’m sure that if we applied this advice to these kids in school, they would never take up smoking in the first place.

So if we translate this advice for these school kids what would they do?

Well, they should think about the bigger picture right? They should think about how much they want to smoke and what they expect their smoking achieve.

Then they should make a schedule. Little and often is fine but make sure that you plan it out. They say that you must repeat an activity 6 times to make it a habit so make sure that you get these 6 cigarettes in very early on (preferably within one week). Once you’ve done it 6 times it doesn’t mean that it won’t be easy to stop so you should keep planning your cigarette time on a regular basis.

As well as planning you should take time out each week to make an overview of what you have achieved with respect to your goal (i.e. becoming a chain smoker) as well as thinking about what you want to achieve over the next week. This should feed directly into your scheduling.

So, are you ready to take up smoking?

You can’t be bothered?

Of course you can’t. Nobody starts smoking like this so that begs the question, how does the smoking habit start?

One cigarette.

One harmless, easy cigarette.

There is no fighting to get up early in taking this cigarette.

There is no staring at a blank screen and there is no planning. There is just one cigarette.

Being an effective writer and developing a writing habit are totally different. Becoming effective may very involve a lot of planning and strategy but this is not the same as developing a habit.

If we want to develop a writing habit, we should look other habits and take inspiration from them.

But Ben – nicotine is highly addictive, smoking isn’t a fair example.

OK, good point. But there are plenty of habits that aren’t addictive. I remember doing my high school work experience in a supermarket. Every day I would walk up and down the isles, pulling all the tins of beans and jars of hotdogs to the front of the shelf. Then I would turn them all around so that the labels would all face the front.

I did this every day for two weeks and without knowing – I formed an incredibly strong habit.

I found this out when a few weeks later I was talking with a friend in another supermarket and without thinking or breaking eye contact, my hand shot out and started turning the tins on the shelf around so that the labels faced the front. It was only after a confused look crept across my friends face that I even realised what I was doing. This did not just happen once and when I noticed, I had to fight the urge to do it every time I went into a supermarket.

There is nothing addictive about “facing up” as it is called in the supermarket industry, but it became a habit.

Ok, so I really want to talk about writing habits in this article but there is a reason for a long introduction.

It is important that you can believe that starting a habit begins with one simple action, and it’s important to believe that this action can quickly snowball into a strong habit.

It’s important to believe this because if you don’t like I didn’t, there will be a huge temptation to overload yourself at the beginning when you’re trying to start your habit forming which will kill your results almost immediately.

So apart from this belief and understanding, what else do you need?

The keys to building an unstoppable writing habit

1. Make it easy
Most people when they try to form a habit focus all their energy on completing the habit itself. Instead, try focussing your energy on making the habit easy to perform by removing all the obstacles you possibly can. For example, if you wan’t to go to the gym before work you would lay out your gym kit the night before and put it by the door. If you want to write then maybe you could leave a document open and unfinished on your computer so you can just jump in where you left off.

2. Plan opportunities, not the activity itself
Don’t plan to perform the activity itself, plan events and scenarios that give you an opportunity to complete that activity you wish to make into a habit. A great idea for writing is Inger’s Shut up and Write sessions. Plan to meet up with your friends and write as opposed to just planning to write.

3. Give yourself instant gratification
The activity must give you some satisfaction. For many habits like my “facing up” in the supermarket, the satisfaction may be as simple as completing a task. As you get started though, it may be a good idea to treat yourself after you’ve completing a short writing session to get the ball rolling.

4. Always perform writing after another routine task
This is really great and if you get good, you could form a habit chain. The example that I’ve heard is that you should start your habit activity after doing the dishes at night. This is because you always do the dishes and eventually you will associate it with the transition into writing mode. If not dishes then be inventive. Maybe you could do it after your coffee break or after you put the kids to bed.

These 4 tips are just to get you started. I think the most important thing is to understand the power of doing a single “insignificant” thing. While it may seem insignificant it starts to build a strong chain in your brain that will ultimately be your new writing habit.

Reference = Authority?

Man hand is holding police badgeDo more references make a better lit review?

This is a psychological principle that you really have to be careful about.

I know it exists because in academia, everyone is obsessed with the number of references. People ask how many references they should use. People say that their lit review has been judged as having too few references.


Do more references make a better lit review?

Uh Oh…

To utter this sentence puts you at the start of a very dangerous path. It’s a diversion that can lead you to totally missing what the literature is actually saying.

Some fallacies

A lit review is finished when you have xx articles
More references means a better lit review
Fewer articles means that the literature review lacks depth
Every statement needs to be referenced

Not all references are created equal, in fact, no reference is created equal so by simply counting them, we gain no information whatsoever. The danger is that it is easy to think that we have relevant information when we don’t and this can lead us to wrongly judge the quality of an article.

Big problem right?

To hammer this message home I’ll ask you, which is better,

An article with 100 references, all of which are poor quality and are irrelevant


An article with 1, high quality, highly relevant reference.

The article with 1 reference should win hands down.

So what does this mean for you?

Well, to start with, when writing your own lit review:

Pick high quality references. Choose references that have been cited a lot and/or are highly relevant to what you are saying. 

Don’t be lazy. Make sure that you understand the article and that you don’t infer things in your text that aren’t true. 

Stop counting references.

When reading other people’s articles, check a few of their references to make sure that they are accurate and high quality. 

When are the number of references important?

Ok, so while I think that counting references is bad, there is one very important instance when you cannot ignore it. This is when the journal or your supervisor explicitly asks for a certain number of references. Obviously then you must adhere to the guidelines but, be careful! While a certain number of references is a requirement, it still should not be the focus of your reading. It is quite common under these circumstances to simply stop your lit review when you have acquired the right number of references. If you do this though, there is a good chance that your literature review will be biased and not fairly represent the literature.

If you have to count the number of references, be sure that you cover ALL of the appropriate literature in your reading, and then select references that most fairly represent what is being said.

Time Management during your literature review

time management supply demand-01Time management is a big deal when it comes to the literature review. Getting the most out of the time we have is essential, especially when we are busy with 1001 things.


Time management is also complicated. It can often seem like it’s the answer to all our problems. If only we had more time, right? The thing is, there are only every going to be 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. Nothing we do can change this so when we think about time management, we also have to think about our priorities when deciding what we want to do. Perhaps more importantly, we should think about our own priorities when accepting things that other people want us to do. I’m going to talk about time management now, but I feel it’s important to mention priorities first. We can only make so much time for ourselves before it runs out, but when we start focussing on our priorities, we have a lot of flexibility.

So, with that said let’s get stuck into time management. As alluded to in the first picture, time management is not just an issue of time (supply), it’s also an issue of what we want to do with that time (demand). The tasks that we have require different amounts of time and other resources… let’s explore

Time and Task Management for the literature review

need time management -01So, let’s consider the tasks that we have to do. They typically require at least one or a combination of the 4 parameters in the above figure. Time is obviously very important, but we should never consider it in isolation. Devoting time to the literature review is never usually enough. Think about it, when have you assigned time to do some writing, only to sit down at the computer and nothing happen? The other three things we need to consider are: Attention, Material and Feedback.


This is how alert and focussed you are. Can you sit down and concentrate? Are you in an environment that allows you to focus? Then you can devote attention to your writing. Are you exhausted? Are you watching TV? Then you have a very limited attention budget.


Material is anything that you need to have access to in order to do your literature review. This is normally papers, our notes and previous drafts of the literature review. Sometimes we have time but we lack the resources to make the best use of it.


This comes towards the end. Sometimes we have time, material and attention but we lack feedback to give us direction. Never be afraid to ask for feedback. If you don’t, you may not be able to get the most out of your time.

So the idea is this: Not all time is equal. Depending on how you combine it with the other 3 elements, you can achieve vastly different outcomes.

time management-01


Let’s have a look at some examples.

The first one is you’re waiting for a bus. You have some time, but you lack the materials you need. You are alone and so you don’t have many distractions.

The second is that you are watching a TV show that you’ve seen a thousand times because you’re exhausted after work. You feel too tired to concentrate.

Thirdly, you’ve just woken up and you’ve had a cup of coffee. You feel awake and alert.

These are 3 very different scenarios which represent 3 different opportunities when it comes to writing. Sadly when we think about the time we need to write, we think about the third example. We think that we need to have long stretch with a very focused attention span. This type of time is obviously important but it is incredibly finite and we shouldn’t waste it when we don’t need to use it. We can often use other times during the day better if we plan. For example, when we are waiting at the bus stop, if we had planned we could be doing some reading or some note taking. When we are watching TV, we could be organising some references or typing up some handwritten notes.

time management match task-01


Planning and Preparation are essential

To make the best use of our time, we need to plan. This is really a simple process. It involves dividing up the tasks that we need to do over the coming days and weeks. Then we can assign those tasks to blocks of time when we can realistically achieve them AND we make the most efficient use of our time.

Some examples:


To Do: Re-read papers by Smith et al. check that they do not contradict my 5th paragraph and that I have interpreted them correctly.

Requires: Access to papers (maybe I need to print them out).

When to do: Could do this while waiting for the bus or on a lunch break from work.

When not to do: Should not do this while watching TV as I need to pay some attention. At the same time, I probably should not do this when I am at my most alert as it would be a waste of my attention span.


To Do: Add new branches to my literature review mind map and plan my work for the rest of the week.

Requires: Access to my notes and plans. Access to literature. At least 1.5 hours.

When to do: If I have 1.5 hours of focused time to spare during the day – this is how I should spend it.

When not to do: This is critical to the rest of my week, I need to be on top of my game to do this properly. This type of activity should only be done when I’m fully alert.


To Do: Check through draft for style and correct synthesis.

Requires: Access to literature. Feedback.

When to do: This will require deep focus at some points and less at others. This task could be split.

When not to do: This should not be done prematurely. If you need feedback and you don’t have it, it’s probably worth trying to secure some feedback instead of continuing.



Time management is a tricky business, especially when it comes to writing the literature review. I hope I’ve shown you that not all time is created equal and that there are creative ways to get more out of the time we have, HOWEVER,

There are two main caveats to this:

1 – You have to plan to get the most out of your time. You have to be aware and work out when you have free time, attention, material or feedback to work with.

2 – Time management is a tool to help give you margin. It can help give you a boost and push you over the edge. However, if you try to use it to solve a deeper problem of taking too much on and not having a strong handle on your priorities, you will come unstuck. Take time to work on your prioritisation skills as well as your time management.

Another skill you can learn in a weekend (and it’s totally contradictory)

literature revie In the last post I talked about touch typing. This is an invaluable skill that has changed the way I write. The ability to get your thoughts onto the page as you think them gives you a lot of flexibility when it comes to writing your lit review.

However, now I want to share with you something that is apparently contradictory but is actually quite complementary.

The Hand Written Literature Review

About a month ago, I chatted with Raul Pacheco and Eva Lantsoght on Twitter and they were very positive about the merits of taking hand written notes. This is something that I completely rejected in an article when I first started this blog (for reasons which I still believe are true). However, I can say that I have come around to taking hand written notes and there are a lot of merits to it which I’ll discuss another time.

Then, this week I was watching a TV series. It showed a journalist sat alone on a bench in an empty corridor after a meeting. She had a traditional, reporters notepad was she was writing her latest nes story.

That’s interesting, I thought to myself. It looks kind of fun. So I quickly gave it a try and I can say that it works incredibly well.

No, I’m not joking. Hand writing is seriously fun, and as I’ve been trying it recently I’ve been very productive in my writing.

But why is it effective? Here are my thoughts

Real, distraction free writing

Nevermind blocking the internet or using specialised writing programs that give you a distraction-free workspace. Take a pen and paper and head out of your office for an authentic distraction free experience.


I’m a big fan of novelty. While it obviously doesn’t work in the long term, the novelty wears off as it were, novelty can provide a much-needed boost when we find ourselves in a creative rut. When we think of how we normally write using a keyboard, writing on paper has huge novelty value and for that reason is incredibly stimulating.

Higher quality writing?

I’m not sure if writing on paper gives better quality results, but it certainly could do. Writing on paper feels very permanent. You can’t just edit a sentence with the click of a button. This forces you to think a little more about what you write. Is that a good think? I’m really not sure. Overthinking could cause writers block but thinking about what you write is obviously important. It’s certainly worth having a play around and experimenting with the technique.

Being a total keyboard BOSS

When you come back to the keyboard after handwriting to type up your work you feel like a boss. It feels great to sit down and tap away at the keyboard and see the blank page quickly fill with words. It’s very inspiring.

So, I’m not saying you should hand write you entire lit review. However, I think it is worth the time to learn how to write by hand again. It’s a free and useful tool to have in your arsenal when you are stuck with your writing. Give it a go and let me know what you think.

Literature Review Transformation: One skill that you can learn this weekend

touch typing literature reviewI can’t believe I’ve never written about this before. It’s related to last week’s post about writing 10,000 words per day, I got a lot of questions via email about it which prompted me to put this out.

If you want to learn something this weekend that is going to dramatically change the way you write then this is the place for you.

First let me ask you, do you type as quickly as you can? Or do you rely on the “hunt and peck” method. Well, you probably realise that you’re not the fastest typer in the world but maybe you don’t know, it’s actually quite easy to improve your typing speed.

The technique you need to learn is touch typing. This is the ability to write without looking at the keyboard.

There are several benefits when it comes to writing the literature review

The first (and this will become evident after 1 weekend of learning) is that you can write while you are reading an article. This is great for note taking as you can be reading an article and typing your notes at the same time.

The second major benefit is your typing speed will increase – a lot. It may increase after the weekend but the greatest benefits will happen with about a month of practice and will continue to increase over time. This happens because touch typing is the most efficient way to type. It means that as you improve, there is no resistance to you increasing your speed.

The final major benefit is as your speed increases you arrive at this crazy place where you can actually type as fast as thoughts come into your head. This means that if you have never been able to do stream of thought typing for idea generation then touch typing is the skill you need to get there. If you are able to type this fast then typing becomes a completely different tool for you and it can be used in many more creative ways than just transferring information to the page.

I learned to touch type over 10 years ago and I take it for granted most of the time. Sometimes though, I see people hunched over their keyboard spending laboured seconds to hunt out each precious key.

I always feel very grateful that I learned how to touch type as early as I did.

If you would like to increase your speed then you can do what I did and get a book from Amazon. The one I used is out of print now but find a book with some good reviews.

Or you could check out one of these free online resources:



Typing Club

If you have a few hours to spare over this weekend then I would spend it learning to touch type. Once you’ve mastered the basics, every time you sit down to write is then a practices session where you can work on increasing your speed and getting more work out of your precious time.

Give it a try and let me know what you think in the comments.

How to win 16 times per day

winning literature reviewThat’s 112 times per week, around 496 times per month and 5840 times per year.

Not bad right?

Winning is really important when we’re writing. When we feel like we’re achieving and getting somewhere, we always feel motivated to do more. It also prevents us from falling into a depression of procrastination when we don’t achieve anything or when we “fail”.

So winning every day is a great strategy for staying motivated but obviously it can be difficult, especially doing it on a regular basis.

What’s the best way to “win” on a regular basis?

Well, it’s back to my favourite time boxing method, the Pomodoro technique.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, there’s a post here but I’ll give you the brief idea:

You set a timer for 25 minutes and work on something uninterrupted until the timer goes off.

Then you rest for 5 minutes before beginning another 25 work session. If you work 8 hours per day then you can complete 16 Pomodoro’s – that’s 16 wins.


Completing tasks is the best way to feel like we’ve accomplished something. However, with the literature review it can be difficult to segment our work into small enough chunks to give us regular, easy wins. Time boxing using the Pomodoro technique gives is a cheat way to segment our work and accomplish something every 25 minutes.

Now, by this stage if you were not convinced I would go into a detailed argument of why it works but you know what..

…screw it.

It’s going to take 25 minutes to see if I’m right or not. Go to Google or get out your phone and find a timer. Set it for 25 minutes and get going.

Afterwards, you will feel like you have achieved something. You will feel proud and motivated as well as having more energy to continue.

And guess what? This works even better when you are energy sapped and struggling to get motivated.

So give it a try, and you’ll be winning every 25 minutes in no time.

The benefits of writing 10,000 words per day

can you write 10000 words per day literature review hqAs quite often happens, I was moved and inspired by a recent post by Inger on The Thesis Whisperer blog entitled “How to write 10,000 words per day“.

Now to start with, this is quite a controversial idea so I want to clarify how I interpret this title. It doesn’t mean, “how to produce a complete 10,000-word literature review in 1 day”. Nobody is saying that you can start thinking about your literature review in the morning and by the evening on the same day – you will have completed your best possible version of the literature review.

What the post is saying is that you can produce 10,000 words per day if you follow some specific guidelines which are:

1) Know what you are going to write before you write it
2) Set aside a protected time to write, and
3) Feel enthusiastic about what you are writing
– from Rachel Aaron‘s blog

All three of these are important but perhaps one of the most overlooked is:

“know what you are going to write before you write it”

This has been demonstrated to great effect by Inger in a Thesis Bootcamp where students regularly complete 20,000 words in two days. Apart from being at a bootcamp and having a lot of time set aside as well as enthusiasm, the key to writing 10,000 words per day is this:

“An important step in this process is for the student to spend at least a week making a ‘Thesis map’ before they come to Bootcamp” – Inger Mewburn.

This is incredibly important and relates very closely to something that I teach all my students.

Completing a written draft of the literature review involves 2 separate parts

1) Working out WHAT you are going to say
This is making the ‘Thesis Map’ as Inger calls it. This is deciding the points you want to make, the themes that are involved and the literature you want to cite. This can be done anywhere. It can be done with a notepad in a field, in a cafe, at home, you name it.

This is an extremely creative endeavor and for me, it requires that I spend the vast majority of my time just thinking and scribbling notes.

By the time that you have worked out what you want to say you should have a pretty detailed outline of the structure of your writing. I encourage all my students to even plan out the structure of individual paragraphs.

2) Working out HOW you are going to say it
Now this is where the writing 10,000 words come in. During this stage, it is important that you are not creating too much new material, instead, you are translating what is in your plan into words. Your main problem here is to really get inside the head of your reader and try to make sure that they understand exactly what you are trying to say.

If you make a detailed plan, then the only real limit to how much we can write in one day is how fast you can type!

Seriously. Imagine that you are transcribing something. You write exactly what you are told to write. Well, if you have a really good and detailed plan, writing up your literature review can be a bit like this. You know exactly what you have to say, you’ve already planned it. Now you just have to get the words onto the page.

Now, for all the controversy and the defense of writing 10,000 words per day, I don’t think I’ve even touched upon the major benefits of this yet.

This is your 4-minute mile

In the early 50’s, running 1 mile in under 4 minutes was thought to be impossible. All, it took, was one man to do it on the 6th of May 1954 and suddenly, the world changed. It was clearly no longer impossible and people started running sub 4-minute miles all over the place.

Now, 10,000 words is your 4-minute mile. It’s been shown that it is possible so what are you going to do about it?

Are you going to use it all the time?
Equivalent of running everywhere – inappropriate and dangerous.

Are you going to accept that it is possible but of no use to you?
Equivalent of saying that sometimes running fast is not going to be useful – also potentially dangerous.

Or are you going to do the sensible thing?
Are you going to sit back and smile smugly to yourself knowing that you have a brand new tool at your disposal? Are you going know that now you have a powerful new way of jump-starting your writing if it is needed?

A new tool is exactly what this is

Now you know that it’s possible, it is at your disposal. It’s like getting a new piece of kitchen equipment, it’s going to affect the way you cook especially at the start, but it’s not going to change the other important elements that you already use in your cooking.

The final question is: if this is now possible, what other areas of you life are you holding back on? Maybe it’s time to break a few more 4-minute miles while you are at it.

Have you failed before you started?

literature review fail catI’m talking about goal setting. In January, the vast majority of us set off on life changing journeys. We make decisions and set hopes of achieving big things for the year ahead. On the first day of January, we run out of the proverbial gate, our hearts and minds full of inspiration and motivation. We are ready to climb the mountain that we have set for ourselves.

By the first day of February, most of these goals are already ruined.

Are you going to be one of these people? I’m pretty sure I will be, but why?

Now, conventional wisdom will say that this is because people often set unrealistic goals. When we are fully relaxed, motivated and ready to go, it’s easy to say that we will stick to a very demanding routine in order to achieve our goals, whatever they may be. Then, when inevitably we lose some momentum, our regime quickly falls in on us to the point where the only way to escape is to abandon the goal altogether.

So the logical answer is to set realistic goals right?

Not for me.
If I were a different person, I might well advise you to set more realistic goals. It really does work very well and I’ve even done it myself.

The problem is that setting realistic goals is hard. It’s very difficult to know what we will be capable of when it comes to setting a new routine. As such, if we get it wrong, we still run the risk of failing even modest goals that we set ourselves.

If I’m being honest, it’s also a bit boring. Think of the difference between setting a goal to lose a few pounds and setting a goal to become a muscle bound beach god. One is realistic, but the other is incredible desirable and likely to instil a strong sense of motivation. Most people feel the same way, and the result is a 4 stage tragedy:

Stage 1
You set crazy goals.

Stage 2
You set out sprinting down a path to achieve those goals.

Stage 3
You lose interest and become demotivated when things don’t go as expected.

Stage 4
You completely give up.

This is a very common story and we’ve all been there, and we all know it completely sucks.

It’s also a self perpetuating cycle. When we completely give up and feel so terrible about ourselves we are very unlikely to set ambitious goals in the future. As the cycles continue and progress, we even become unlikely to set realistic goals which ultimately reduces our chances of success.

So what is the answer?

Well if we look back at the 4 stages the critical point is when we inevitably reach stage 3. I say inevitably because unless you can predict the future, things aren’t going to go exactly to plan.

When things don’t go to plan and we fall behind our goals, we can do one of two things:

We can give up


We can re-evaluate our goal and correct our course

I think you know which is better, right?

Re-evaluating and course correcting means looking back at your goals and what you have achieved so far. Then you adjust your plan to either modify your goal or your time scale based on the new information you have. This can be as simple or as complicated as you like but it’s not really the subject of this article because…

most people never make it there. Most people never realise there is a very powerful alternative to giving up when they run out of steam.

So when you set your goals, whenever that may be or whatever they are, you have to anticipate “failure” or change. You have to think that things aren’t going to go to plan and that you will have to change your goals.

Does this mean that it is better to set more realistic goals? No, it means that you should set more realistic expectations. This doesn’t mean that you set a goal expecting not to achieve it, you set goals expecting not to achieve them in a smooth, painless and trouble free way. If you anticipate that you will have problems you can prepare yourself to overcome them.

And here’s how…

Set your goal. Let your dreams run wild with this one.

Set a timescale for achieving it.

Within your timescale, set points to re-evaluate your goal and check on progress. For example, if you want to achieve a goal within a year, set a re-evaluation point for at least every month.

Set a mental alarm to automatically re-evaluate your goal when you feel yourself slip.

What happens when you re-evaluate

What happens is that instead of feeling understandably dejected when you slip up, you can work out why and create a new course of action. You can ask was your goal not achievable or was it just not important enough? Could you achieve you goal if you spent a little bit longer to do it? Do you need help from a friend or an accountability partner? Should you split your goal into smaller goals?

The tragedy is that setting goals and “failing” is both inevitable and causes you to miss out on what you want to achieve.

When I talk about “failing” in this article I’m talking about reaching a point in your goal timeline when you realise that things aren’t working optimally and need to change. This is why I AM going to fail. I’m not going to give up though, and neither should you.

Good luck with your goal setting!

Sidestep procrastination as well as enjoying your holiday

The human brain

This is a big one. It’s an idea, a choice and in many ways a lifestyle that I guarantee will make you more productive.


I wanted to say that right at the start because I have a confession to make. I found out about this idea over 5 years ago and I didn’t implement it. I didn’t think it would work and to be honest, I thought it was a load of rubbish.


I thought it was one of these new age or spiritual ideas that while could be great, in the throws of a PhD I was not receptive to someone telling me about it.


I was completely wrong. This is not a spiritual or a new age idea. In many ways it’s just a mindset shift that is quite easy to implement (maybe not so easy to maintain though).


Simple as it is, the power it will give you is incredible.

Here are a few of the ways in which it has helped me:


I became more productive
I produced better quality work
I was able to multitask effectively
I worried less
I socialised more with friends
I worked out more
I lived in a cleaner apartment
I ate nicer food
I enjoyed my day a lot more


Notice all the additional benefits. This will not just impact your work. It will influence your family and social life as well.


Ok, so what is this revolutionary idea that is going to help you be more productive and enjoy your time with your family and friends?


Be present.


That’s it.


Now remember what I said. When I first heard this I wasn’t even sceptical. I just dismissed it as a useless piece of new age advice that had no real application.


That was wrong and I missed out on one of my most productive mindset shifts for 4 years.


So, I’m going to ask you to bear with me as I explain what this means and how to implement the idea because it is worth it.


Being present means focus and engagement. It means that when you agree to do something, you make a mental contract committing to do it AND to do it well.


This does 2 important things. Firstly it gives you a filter for tasks. You have to commit to tasks before you do them so you can filter out things that aren’t important. It also means that you can produce your best work.


If you think that being present isn’t really a revolutionary idea I would challenge you to think of the last time you were really “present” in a task, or how often are you really “present”.


How often to you sit down to write but are thinking about Facebook or what you are going to cook for dinner?


How often do you go out with friends only to be worrying about the upcoming deadline?


How often do you take on too many projects and never really spend good quality time on any of them?


In a modern world so full of distractions, this really is the norm.


It is also the story of my PhD. I don’t know if I was really present at all. When I was doing writing I was thinking about or trying to do other things at the same time. When I was taking holidays, I would try and use the time to catch up on my work and neglect my family and friends. I got by and did ok. But if I’d have understood this earlier, it could have been great.


It could have been really great.


When I think how I did considering I always tried to focus on several things at once.


When you are being present what is happening to you at the moment is all there is.


When you write, you are a writer.
When you give a talk, you are a professional speaker.
When you are in a meeting, you are engaged, you listen and you contribute like it is the most interesting and important thing on earth.
When you are with your friends, you are a best friend.
When you go for a coffee, you enjoy the taste, smell and surrounds and immerse yourself in what you are doing.


How to be present

Realise you can do multiple tasks, just not at the same time. This will help to alleviate the worry that you won’t be able to get every thing done.


Realise that if you focus 100% of your energy on one thing, you will do it better and see results faster.


Realise that you will come across better to other people including your supervisor, collaborators and peers.


Before you start a new task, remind yourself of these three things and flick a mental switch. Tell yourself that you are going to be present and fully engaged with the next task.


Think to yourself:
I am here now. I am doing a specific job. I’m going to take pride in it. I’m going to do the best job I can and I’m going to be an inspiration to others.

The big and scary D-word

Ballet dancer shoes - goldAn issue that I’ve been going through with some of my students recently is discipline. For all the productivity and writing help I give – it won’t amount to anything if we aren’t disciplined enough to apply it.

It’s also true that without any help or guidance, if you are disciplined enough to continually face your writing problem, you will probably make progress. Now it might be a little slow and frustrating, but discipline alone will work and is very very powerful.

This of course isn’t new but it bears mentioning in the light of all the writing tips and productivity boosters that are featured on Literature Review HQ and other similar sites. Productivity tips are great but they fade very quickly without the discipline to keep them going. Writing tips are totally theoretical unless you have the discipline to implement them and practice.

So, we need to be more disciplined. The holy grail that we talk about a lot is developing a habit. An unconscious devotion to carrying out a task in a very disciplined way. Even getting started forming a habit can be difficult but it is an incredibly worthy pursuit.

At the start of a project, we have all the newness and the buzz of beginning something. At the end we have the race to the finish. But these are relatively short parts of the journey – what do we have to get us through the middle?

Well, typically, the mediocre people have absolutely nothing – and they don’t go through the middle. They start out full of energy, then they do nothing until the deadline is in sight.

Does that sound familiar? It’s more than a little familiar to me. It’s also difficult to identify myself with a clearly mediocre course of action. It’s hard to think that I might be mediocre… am I mediocre?

I don’t believe that you or I are mediocre – not at all. I believe that we have a lot of potential. Yet, it’s easy to see how in the past we may have performed as a mediocre version of ourselves, by not having the discipline to properly follow through on projects.

But we’ve done ok right? Yea we could have done a bit better but we managed – sometimes we even did really well.

Sure we did – but what if…

What if we got this discipline thing down? What if we were able to not only start and finish, but go all the way through? Well if we were doing ok before – then if we mastered discipline we would be unstoppable forces of nature.

No question!

I hope you’re convinced that discipline is very important and may be the missing ingredient to developing from an average to an extremely high standard. So how do we become more disciplined?

Well, it’s not easy and I don’t have concrete answers. If you do or have anything to share I’d love to see it in the comments. What I think is important to develop discipline is essentially to care a lot. I think to be disciplined we must have a focus on something far greater than the monotony of everyday tasks. I think to be disciplined we must have a strong vision of our future that is significantly better than it is now.

The athlete waking at 4 am to go and train doesn’t see the cold and the dark. They don’t see the gruelling training. They just see the medal around their neck.

Concert pianist doesn’t see hours of boring lessons and drills. They just hear the beautiful music coming from their fingertips to rapturous applause from the crowd.

The nobel prize winning scientist doesn’t see a decade of difficult experiments and grant writing. They just see themselves at the end of the rabbit hole having learned as much as they can about something that truly fascinates them.

The soldier doesn’t see 100 pushups. They see only duty to their platoon and their country.

Discipline is easy, when there is something bigger.

So, what does it really mean to you to write this literature review? Is it just a necessary evil that you need to get out of the way or is it more?

Is it a chance of dream career?

Is it a chance to show the world how you deal with a challenge?

Is it a chance to become an expert in your field?

Is it a way to make your loved ones proud?

Do you get the idea? If you have a bigger picture like this, discipline comes naturally and though you will go through some tough and boring times with your writing, you will always have a higher purpose to help push you through.

I think it’s a really good idea that at the start of a project when you are enthusiastic and full of energy, you spend some time to develop a strong “big picture”. Really work our why you are doing what you do. Think about it every day so that the idea becomes well established and will be there when you run out of motivation.

I wan’t to cover more about discipline in the future because in my experience it really is the difference between acceptable and unstoppable. Please let me know your thoughts below.