15 Things you should give up NOW to improve your literature review

15 things to give up poster

Putting it off

Don’t delay any more. You’ll find it so much easier to write once you’ve actually started. Even if this is a token, 25 minute Pomodoro, it will get you’ll in the mood and you’ll face less mental resistance.


Come on now. We all like a bit of a moan and sometimes it helps to vent… but has anything constructive really come out of complaining?

Reading everything

You can’t do it and you shouldn’t try. If you do you’ll end up buried (literally) under a pile of papers and you won’t really have grasped any of them properly. Be strategic with your reading.

Being a slave to your RSS reader

Please don’t put too much stuff in your RSS reader. You might think at the time it will help you to keep up to date but it can quickly become a real pain in the backside to keep on top of. Use RSS and email to keep on top of CURRENT information only. Don’t be afraid to clear the whole lot and start again.


Well I should be more specific here. Give up messing around on the internet when you should be working! This is a tough one, but luckly there are programs that can help us block those websites that lead us astray.
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Suffering in silence

Don’t be a hero and try to carry the burden alone. Writing is an inherently lonely endeavour but it doesn’t have to be. Connect with others going through the same thing on-line (Twitter #PhDchat is a great place to start) or in your department.

blaming other people

You cannot blame other people. Sh**t happens and sometimes people are sh**t. But it’s outside of your control and blaming them only serves to deflect responsibility onto someone else which CANNOT happen. YOU are always going to be responsible for your own actions and your own writing. Once you realise that you’d be amazed at what you can do to rectify seemingly world ending problems.

Being disorganised

This is not an option – I know, I am naturally very disorganised. I have to work hard to stay organised but you know what, it’s totally worth it. Sometimes my schedule and work descends into chaos and I’m reminded of how I used to work and how stressful it was. If you feel overwhelmed and stressed and you are disorganised try getting organised and see what happens.

Not planning

In general we don’t plan enough. And by plan I don’t mean just shuffling papers around and making totally random to-do lists that make us feel better about not working. When I say planning I mean the difference between having a detailed roadmap of where you are going. I’m talking about the difference between setting off on a journey without thinking about it, and setting off on a journey with your map in hand and everything down to to toilet break thoroughly planned out. When doing a literature review you need to be confident in the direction you are taking your writing. A lot of this confidence comes from good planning.

Kidding yourself – thinking you’re working when you’re not

Are you doing busy work? Are you doing tasks that are unimportant or irrelevant to procrastinate and feel like you’re working at the same time? If so you need to stop. This is dangerous. It’s far better to be honest about procrastination and enjoy your time away from the computer. This way you build up some guilt and some urgency that can help you when you get back to it. If you feel like you’re working even when you’re not, you will always feel tired and like you need a break – even though you haven’t done anything. Kill the busy work – now.

Being a workaholic

Don’t risk burning yourself out. It’s very similar to sports. You can do short bursts of almost any activity time and time again. That is until you go over a threshold that you push your muscles too far and you get fatigued. After this point your body is totally useless. You feel like jelly and you can’t perform the simplest movement without feeling dizzy or in pain. The recovery from this kind of fatigue takes time, during which you can’t do anything else. If you push yourself too much when you’re writing, you will quickly get fatigued. Even if you feel like you can push on, the quality and the volume of your work output will be severely reduced.

Writing without a purpose

Don’t just write for the sake of it. You need to have a reason for every keystroke. If you don’t the chances are you’ll have to severely edit or even delete what you’re writing. If you don’t have a reason for writing now, take the time to find it.

Your favourite reference manager

Your reference manager is your best friend until it goes wrong – then it quickly becomes your captor holding you hostage. Learn how to handle your references independent of software, and take a little time to familiarise yourself with a few different pieces of software. This way you’ll have a backup should anything go wrong.

Being unrealistic – setting unrealistic targets

What I mean here is don’t make a rod for your own back. Goals have to be achievable – otherwise you would never achieve anything and that would be quite depressing. You should take your unrealistic targets and break them down. This way the unrealistic targets exist as a series of smaller, achievable targets. This way even if you don’t succeed at something that is unrealistic, at least you can make good progress towards achieving it that you can build on in the future.

Being an amateur – you’re not

You’re a professional writer. As an academic (PhD student, Post-Doc, Lecturer, whatever) one of the most important parts of your job is to communicate your work through your writing. If you can’t do this then you can’t be an academic. However, you are an academic and you are a writer, you can write well and you will write better in the future.


  1. Milly says

    I agree! (to all points) Hahaha yes, people are sometimes sh*t! And I do tend to overwork my brain, and then suffer the consequences after. Not ideal. Good tips as usual Ben :)

  2. says

    Best advice esp. for a procrastinator ME! I totally agree that planning is very important. With some planning, we wouldn’t write without a purpose. Thanks again for sharing such a great post.

  3. Emna says

    Hello Ben!

    Thanks for this post!

    as far as am concerned I have a problem with “reading everything” especially -now -while am looking for a thesis topic… Would you tell me please whether should I review all old phd topics in all departments (in my discipline of course) all around the world, just to make sure that my topic has not already been done??

    • says

      Hey Emna,

      Review – yes you do. Read – definitely not! There are ways to review the work that has been done without reading them all. It’s also not possible to access some of the PhD theses that you will need. Your best hope is to stick to published literature.

      You must develop a strategy for how you want to review without reading everything. One of the best ways to do this is to talk you your supervisor because they will ultimately have a much better idea of what has been done and what hasn’t. Also if you want to discuss your strategy with me I’ll be holding a Drop-In tomorrow


        • Bob says

          This thought might be stale now, but I doubt it’d be useless. Personally I don’t think I’m necessarily very bothered by the often moaned ‘my topic has been researched before’, well, moan. Maybe its my discipline (Law) which really bores down to the proper advancement of ‘self expression’ as against ‘objectively answering-as right or wrong- a research question’- what I believe is the norm in the natural sciences (I might be very wrong here). As a socio-legal researcher I’m a firm believer in the ‘singularity’ of ‘identity’ and this translates and transcend into a lot of things: The way we think, talk, write and express our selves. No two people are constituted in the same way. I fail to place a name to the quote, ”No two people can have the same understanding to a word”; how much more the conveyance of a whole research thesis? There is a realistic delineation to the definition of ‘originality’ (I hope!). Outside straight out plagiarising, I think the independent communication of a researched question would always produce new insights, unless of course the question itself is bland in which case it would hardly be ‘a research question’.

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