Breaking Not Bad

Students often feel their concentration should be focused on how to manage their work, how to meet deadlines, how to navigate their ways through massive amounts of reading… However, it is also important to think carefully about the question ‘how do I manage rest?’ At the WDC we frequently hear from students who find it hard to take breaks because they feel guilty if they do – the statement ‘I should be working’ is uttered very frequently. But the truth is taking a break is not a bad thing and can actually enhance your overall productivity.

Why is it important to take breaks? There are many reasons, all of them generally answered by the comment ‘because they enhance your learning’. Some explanations are as follows:

  1. This one is very important – NO-ONE can physically study all the time. EVERYONE needs to battle exhaustion at some point, to recharge their battery, so that they are fit to continue their work productively.
  2. Many students come to the WDC because they can no longer really see what they are trying to say; they have lost sight of their focus and feel out of control of their material/reading. They no longer have their own academic voice and are allowing others to speak for them. They can’t, as the saying goes, see the wood for the trees. It is at this point that a break could really help to refresh sight of the work, to allow a view of the topic from a different angle, to encourage approaching the same material in a different way, so that, ultimately, clarification of ‘what is my overall point anyway?!’ can be achieved.
  3. This one is also important – when charged with a task to do, we often focus on the writing part (well, obviously…) but what we often forget is that whatever words are on a page must also, eventually, be read. This therefore means that we should at least give some time to think about how a reader might look at, indeed interpret, our work. A break allows us to change shoes, to step into those of the reader and approach the text as them. This can sometimes be a real eye-opener, and lead you spot things you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.
  4. Lastly, just as a little aside, breaks allow us to enjoy eating (and see food as more than just a necessity of the day!) and to get some exercise, even if that just constitutes a little walk round the library floor. A healthy body is a healthy mind and all that….

So here are some reasons as to why stops in study are good. But how do you kick guilt to the curb and set in place a breakin’ routine? Here are some strategies you could try:

  1. Schedule a break and stick to it. That means break at the time you intended to break AND return to work at the intended end time. Breaks do work better if you neither skip nor lengthen them….
  2. Here we must reference Monty Python: ‘And now for something completely different’. Plan something to do in your break that makes you think about something else. Something that allows creativity, movement, relaxation, a change of scenery, maybe…. For me, a dance class was great for this – you have to stop thinking about your work to make sure you put your feet in the right place to avoid falling on your face. Dance doesn’t work for everyone, but the idea is that a break should be a real shift for you, taking you away from the work to allow you to come back refreshed. What would do that for you?
  3. If you are really worried about how a break might affect your work, there are a number of ways to manage your concerns. For example, you could identify where to pick up from in your work before you take a break, so that you know exactly where you are coming back to. You could even try taking a break mid-way through a sentence, so that the transition back into your work is easier – you will have to finish that sentence!

There is no set length for a break time and there is no prescription as to what you should do in one – it’s up to you to think about how break might work best for you. The important thing is to try and take them and, ultimately, give yourself a break for breaking…

posted by Heather

Dissertation toolkit: Small targets, big progress

Timed writing blocks are more productive than a whole afternoon’s procrastination…

At university you’re supposed to take charge of yourself, organise your own time and study habits, in order to meet the deadlines calmly. Many of us can find this hard though, preferring to do things that seem quick and doable, that can be ticked off a to-do list in a matter of seconds, rather than tackling the (often important or crucial) things that may at first glance make us feel apprehensive. But ultimately, the fact is the assignment deadlines do not move and at some point we’ve got to get our heads down to the in-depth stuff. Dissertations can be even more of a challenge- they are a long piece of work, but the deadline can also seem a long way away… and putting it off can be too tempting!

There are a number of strategies you can use to help build up the confidence to squash this procrastinator in you, but I’m going to focus on one in particular: sometimes it can help to think of a dissertation as a process, not an end product. Breaking a writing task (however small) into chunks can really change how manageable an assignment feels. Viewing a dissertation as a compilation of little pieces, little pieces that can all be completed at different times, not all in one go, and which are then put together to make the whole, can make the process of putting together your submission remarkably less stressful if not, dare I say it, enjoyable.

The first time I tried this out, I sat in a writing group with other students where we were given space to write continuously for 30 minutes – we were timed. Having never broken my writing sessions down into timed blocks, I found the whole experience a total revelation, going from feeling really sceptical at the start, to seeing that I was able to produce just over 400 usable words in 30 minutes. What I learned from the session was that:

1) It is possible to make time for writing.

2) Half-an-hour can be lot more productive that we generally give the time credit for.

3) Using time blocks of 30 minutes, 45 minutes or 1 hour are so much more appealing than saying ‘This shall be my writing day’. This means that every day there is guaranteed other time for non-work time. Block out the distraction and focus for a just a little bit; then go enjoy.

4) Asking yourself questions like, ‘when do I start shifting in my seat?’ or ‘when do I notice my mind starting to wander?’ can really help identify how long your writing-time blocks should be. For some an hour is great; for others, 40mins might be the max time – it’s an individual thing. For me, after one hour I move into restlessness and lose focus, so that’s the time to break, rather than forcing myself to carry on trying to write brilliance that won’t come (please remember, breaks are important!).

Using your preferred timer-tool on a daily basis, set at whatever time fits your concentration span, can help you:

  • Produce work that is structured;
  • Reach your individual writing targets;
  • Allocate procrastination to specific time slots in the day, where it doesn’t intrude on the important studies you have to handle.

Giving short writing goals a go will not only help you identify how long it takes for your focus to drop away, but it will help you organise and shape your time much more productively in order to meet that deadline. Try a timer and you may be surprised at how much you don’t miss procrastinating…

Posted by Heather

Write here, write now!

NOTE: these sessions ran in the summer of 2015 – we’d be happy to run another series if there’s demand!

Now that the semester has ended, and the long summer vacation has begun, the library has really started to quieten down. For those of you who are Masters students working on your dissertations or PhD students looking forward to getting some concentrated writing done over the summer, it’s a great opportunity to find some quiet study space now library seats are no longer in demand from undergraduates revising for their exams.

And yet… many of us find that lots of unstructured time is harder to work with, with no other commitments to break up the day or week, and little reason to do today what can be put off til tomorrow. It can be a struggle to find the motivation to work productively over the summer, and to develop a routine which will help you keep going. Writing can also be a solitary practice, and if there are no peers around to support us, cheer us on and keep us on track, we can start to flag. Those of us who encounter issues like writer’s block, perfectionism, procrastination or loss of focus or motivation in the course of our writing can feel particularly isolated during the summer.

If this is your experience, you might be interested in the initiatives offered by the Writing Development Centre and by Student Wellbeing.

The WDC will be running regular Write Here, Write Now! sessions over the summer. There aren’t formally taught workshops – they are simply a space during the day in which to sit down with others and create a productive and encouraging environment in which to get some focussed work done. The sessions are facilitated by the WDC tutors, but our role is simply to get you writing with a few quick warm-up exercises, and then to give you the space to write, together with others who are similarly focussed. This approach is based on the work of Rowena Murray, a researcher who has written a great deal on graduate student work, and similar sessions have been very popular at other universities. The WDC tutors will also be hosting writing clinics following these sessions, for quick queries and consultations alongside our usual tutorials which are still available over the summer.

Update! Write Here, Write Now sessions will run:

  • Tuesdays 2-4, Tees Cluster

  • Thursdays 10-12, Tees Cluster

  • between 21st July – 27th August

No need to book, just come along with something to work on! Of course, there’s no reason why you can’t set up your own writers’ groups with your peers – if you’d like to explore this, then here are our slides so you can see how we do it!

Student Wellbeing will be offering its ‘Want to Work group’ over the summer. This group is aimed at students who are struggling to move forward with their studies, for whatever reasons. These may include procrastination, difficulties concentrating/focussing or lack of motivation or/and interest. The group welcomes students who are stuck with part or all of their work. Rather than looking at study skills, the group will take a Solution Focused approach – exploring possible ways forward by identifying what works as opposed to what does not. Please contact Rob at rob.bedford@ncl.ac.uk if you’re interested – the group will run as soon as there are enough students signed up.

 Update! Want to Work group will run:

  • beginning 27th July, 2pm

  • running for 4 weeks

    See Wellbeing for more information including booking