Get into your dissertation flow
If you’re writing your dissertation, you’ve probably experienced the all too common range of emotions, from initial elation to paralyzing fear to plunging despair, and in between many starts, stops, and freezes. Here I suggest how you can at least cut down on those maddening swings and coax, invite, and entice the Flow.
What’s the Flow?
The Flow is that sublime state of feeling completely immersed in what you are doing—writing your dissertation–and being wholly in the present moment. All else fades from your vision; you have no needs, no sense of time. You’re totally absorbed.
The Flow has been known for centuries and has been given many names—the Zone, the Place, the Muse, the Divine Visitation. Hungarian psychologist Mihali Csikszentmihalyi first publicized the concept in the West in the 1970s and has published many articles and books (see References). In an interview, based on descriptions from athletes to artists to rock climbers, he described the Flow: “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost” (Gierland, 1996, para. 2).
Csikszentmihalyi elaborated on what the Flow feels like (Oppland, 2021):
- Complete concentration on the task;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- Effortlessness and ease;
- There is a balance between challenge and skills;
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
- There is a feeling of control over the task. (para. 18)
Many people have written about and reported experiencing the Flow—in the arts, sports, mathematics, learning, gaming, science, spiritual practices, and any kind of work. When we experience the Flow in writing, we feel in control, powerful, fully creative, alive. Words and ideas come easily and effortlessly; insights pop up clear as winter air. Externals and time fade, and we no longer obsess about the moldering salad in the refrigerator. The work is its own reward, and we’re rarin’ to keep going.
What Often Holds Us Back
In dissertation writing, not only page fright stops us. We become blocked because we often have erroneous and misguided notions about what the dissertation is for. For example, one of my dissertation coaching clients was painfully stuck. Gretchen was studying Native Americans and their rates of higher education and couldn’t seem to get past Chapter 1. She finally confessed, “I feel that in this work I must champion the underserved and show how unfairly they are treated. Compared to other ethnicities, the higher education rates are appalling!”
In my (unofficial) capacity as dissertation trauma therapist, I counseled her: “I admire your dedication and passion, Gretchen. But your dissertation is not a manifesto or a polemic. Its purpose isn’t to push an agenda. Make some notes and save them for an op ed piece or a Ted talk.”
I could hear her sigh of relief. Four days later Gretchen sent me a draft of Chapter 2.
Another common misconception relates to your dissertation quality. When I hadn’t heard from Cameron in three weeks, I wrote him and we arranged a call. He apologized vigorously. “I think I have to produce this grand, ground-breaking, earth-shattering document. And I can’t get beyond the first subtitle.” I assured him that, although such a work would be commendable, it wasn’t a university requirement for graduation. So he could relax.
After a while, he did and continued to produce his chapters.
A third mistaken belief is what your dissertation should read like—the diction of your work. In a check-in call, my client Scott admitted, “I type a sentence and it looks so simplistic so I delete it. Shouldn’t I be writing higher scholarly prose?” I told Scott that to navigate the dissertation wilderness you don’t need to dog the language scout. In fact, as I’m sure you’ve encountered, many journal articles and books that are written in “higher scholarly prose” are almost incomprehensible.
Today, that kind of writing is not only not required but frowned on. Pinker et al. (2014) published an enlightening, comforting, guiding, and very funny collection of essays, Why Academic Writing Stinks and How to Fix It. A sample from Pinker: “Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?” (p. 2).
I read this passage to Scott and he burst out laughing. I could hear the relief in his voice. “Okay, “he said, “simple it is!”
When I was working on a short story, I was trying to write literary, elevated prose, prose whose brilliance people would gasp at. Prose that would soar with lyricism and the freshest metaphors, open readers’ minds, and astound them with its insights and truth. Prose that would single my story out in elite reviews, garner me kudos, awards, even money. And prose that would be assigned by teachers to their classes and envied by all the students.
You guessed it. When I started my writing sessions, all I could do was sit there and stare at the blank screen. Not only did I have misguided goals (to get rather than share) but, like my clients, I had gross misbeliefs about the purpose of my work. With this story, the purpose was to express, illuminate a situation, even offer a model. With your dissertation, the purpose is to explore a phenomenon you’re interested in and hopefully passionate about, show how your work extends the existing scholarship, offer new insights, and of course, please your committee.
So, to saddle ourselves with unrealistic expectations and standards only hampers us. Simple is best. And keep reminding yourself of your purpose(s) in writing.
We can’t force the Flow. As much as we may want to evoke it, we can’t command: “Now I’m going to get in the Flow! Do it!” The Flow refuses to appear when we try to grind out, churn out, squeeze out the words. Rather, we need to forget all that trying, those grandiose desires, and ourselves and instead allow, let, listen, obey.
How to Get Into the Flow
Writers have many rituals, physical and mental. Some must have tea at their elbow in their favorite mug. Some get to the desk at a specific time. Others precisely lay out their materials. Others clamp on their headphones and flick on their favorite mix.
When I sit down for a writing session, I click through the celebrity junk first, just to make sure I’m up to date. Then I jump up, because those two pieces of paper in the wastebasket must be emptied. Then I turn on a favorite Internet classical music station. That, finally, calms me down and I nudge the Flow awake.
After a writing friend took relaxation training, she got so good that she became quiet just approaching her desk chair. She told me, “That act of walking to my desk calms my mind, and I easily focus on the work.”
Some writers reread what they wrote in the previous session. Some do a journal entry. Some walk or dance. Some eat. Some tiptoe around the edges at the less hard stuff—a paragraph of description, a little research, an outline. Some give themselves pep talks. Some freewrite.
Some ask themselves what to do next—and listen (the answer does come). And some meditate and declare. I’ve found this an especially effective method:
I am now in the Flow. I know exactly what to do. I am giving. I am allowing my best to come through. I am not concerned about the rightness or grandness of the words. I express clearly. I am imbued with my purpose.
Experiment with different ways, physical and mental, and you’ll arrive at your special combination. If you doubt your ability to summon the Flow, read these reassuring words by editor-in-chief of Author magazine, writing workshop leader, and essayist Bill Kenower (2017).
The Flow is always there, always waiting for us, always available. It doesn’t matter if you doubt its existence . . . . It’s still there because it’s you, and the moment you believe again in that flow, you also restore faith in yourself. (p. 25)
You will become immersed. The ideas and words will bubble up, your words will be streaming, and you won’t notice an hour has passed. You are in your Dissertation Flow.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (Eds.). (1988). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge University Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. Harper Perennial.
Geirland, J. (1996, September) 1. Go with the flow. Wired. Retrieved from
Kenower, W. (2017). Fearless writing: How to create boldly and write with confidence. Writers Digest Books.
Oppland, M. (2021, February 21). 8 ways to create flow according to Miihali Czikszentmihalyi.
Pinker, S., Munger, M. C., Sword, H., Toor, R., & MacPhail, T. (2014, September 26). Why academic writing stinks and how to fix it. Chronicle of Higher Education.
© 2021 Noelle Sterne
Noelle is a contributor to TAA’s new book, Guide to Making Time to Write: 100+ Time & Productivity Management Tips for Textbook and Academic Authors. Now available as a print and eBook.
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com