How To Set Up a Low Stress PhD Writing Routine

Use these 10 suggestions to help de-stress the writing of your PhD.

How To Set Up a Low Stress PhD Writing Routine
Set up writing routines and the writing part of your PhD will come a lot easier.

Writing can be an incredibly stressful time, but it doesn't have to be if you set up regular focused times to write. I don't know about you but I actually get deeply engaged in my work once I get into a writing flow. But the hardest part, for me at least, is initiating that flow and the second hardest part is keeping my writing concise so that I don't end up going on tangents.

I can't emphasise enough how important it is to set up regular and consistent writing habits. They don't have to always involve academic-style writing; anything goes. In the example above, of keeping ideas concise, that can be practised with any type of writing; creative stories, blogs, emails... In fact it's what I am going to practise over the coming few months in my blog. After all no-one likes waffle, so without further ado, here's my ten suggestions to de-stress your PhD writing.

1️⃣ Start making good notes now (even if you are in the write-up stage)

By far one of the best things you can do is make regular clear notes and thoughts from this point forward in your PhD. Future you will thank previous you for your clarity. It is never too late to start and get your thoughts in order.

To be honest I feel as if I'm doing it on a constant basis. Constantly update your notes and spend time organising them. After all as a researcher, you are a knowledge worker and getting good at taking notes is key to work like writing further down the line.

I use a ReMarkable 2 which has really helped organise my notes and make them accessible anywhere I am. Scanning a manual notebook in is also a great option.

Writing notes in a notebook
Make good notes and take them regularly. Treat them as a living entity.

2️⃣ Build a knowledge bank to reduce Google use and distractions

I have what is widely regarded as a 'second brain'. It's basically an outside brain where I make all my notes and record all my thoughts in one application so my real brain doesn't have to worry about remembering them. It's a bit like a personalised Wikipedia.

Using such a system means if I need to remind myself of a definition, I don't need to leave my writing app. I can use a personalised AI plugin to help join everything together and keep on top of my chains of thought, which, during a PhD can be many.

3️⃣ Establish a daily writing habit

Aim to engage in at least one part of the above writing process every day. Consistency is key, even if it's just a small amount each day. If you want to go in the deep end, set yourself a monthly word challenge.

Academic Writing Month (‘AcWriMo’): Time to Focus on Writing
Academic Writing Month takes place across the world in November each year - will you take on the challenge and write 50,000 words for your PhD in a month?

For me I find it easier to have a good chunk of time available for the actual writing part because once I get started I don't want to stop! Other parts like editing and outlining I can dip in and out of easier. I find just setting myself up for a writing session to be really helpful

4️⃣ Identify your productive times

Recognising when you are most productive during the day (your "witching hours") is one of the most valuable time and energy-related - dare I say it - 'life hacks' you can do for your - dare I say it - 'productivity'.

If you can protect that time for writing then you'll have a much smoother journey to a written-up PhD.For example, if you write best in the morning, reserve that time for writing tasks.

As a general rule always try to work to your energy levels and own circadian (and biological, ladies) clock. Learn how to enter your flow state, where you are most relaxed and efficient, and practice getting into it.

I find it helps to establish a pre-writing routine to signal to my brain that it's time to write. For me this is grabbing a coffee, putting some music and a cosy jumper on, and setting the Forest app for between 30-90 mins.

Set yourself a time limit to help keep your focus on the job. Then reward yourself by doing something you enjoy afterwards.

5️⃣ Set time limits

Use time constraints to create a sense of urgency without causing stress. For instance, write in the time you have before a fixed commitment, like a meeting or for a parent, when your child wakes up or gets home from school.

As mentioned above, I use the Forest app very rarely, but I find it great for setting focus times for writing.

It might seem counterintuitive but try to work less rather than more; work smarter, not harder. Look up Parkinson's Law if you want to see what I mean.

Most importantly make sure to have down time to recover from your writing sessions. Hobbies, walks and other ways to switch off your brain will help to debrief yourself.

6️⃣ Understand there are different writing stages

Break down the writing process into distinct stages (ideating, researching, outlining, writing, editing, and publishing) and focus on one stage at a time to avoid multitasking and reduce any sense of overwhelm.

What Are The 6 Steps of the Writing Process?
There are 6 steps in the writing process; ideating, research, outlining, writing, editing and publishing. Here I look at them in detail to help you work out the different parts and some tools you could use.

7️⃣ Target and constrain focus by creating outlines for paragraphs

Before writing, outline your work to provide structure and direction. This can help prevent writer's block in the first instance and tangential writing in the later stages. Collating bullet points with key messages from relevant papers can help to provide more focus. This is my priority to work on in the coming months.

8️⃣ Write in different locations

Changing your environment can help stimulate creativity and flow. If you find yourself getting tense at your desk because your neighbour keeps sniffing - we've all been there - move to somewhere else. Writing in a coffee shop or library can not only provide fresh inspiration but also reduce some of what I like to call 'desk stress'.

9️⃣ Manage perfectionism

Practice writing with a focus on quantity over quality initially to bypass perfectionism. You can always refine and improve your writing during the editing stage.

Surprising Personal Takeaways From Writing 2000 Words a Day
I’m doing a March challenge to write 60,000 words in the month. I was surprised how many things I’ve learnt about writing in just 11 days.

I find this challenging for academic work but I've learnt to just insert '(REF)' rather than breaking my focus to find a reference I've read somewhere at some point...

🔟 Track your progress

Have writing goals and regularly review your progress towards these. Use tools like a one-line-a-day journal, bullet journal, planning apps, or weekly reviews to help stay on track and make adjustments as needed.

I have a word tracker plugin in Obsidian where I note the number of words I've written each day. On my dashboard page I set up clear trackers for each of my three goals (weight, words and money!).

Well done for making it to the end of these suggestions I have for de-stressing your writing routine. If you have any further suggestions feel free to reach out to me!