Five ways to start writing...

I love self directed learning. I like to have the freedom to explore ideas that I find interesting rather than learning facts just because they happen to be on the syllabus. I need to understand the point of a task in order to self-motivate. When starting my undergraduate degree I took to the independence that university offered me like a duck to water. However, in order to succeed at independent study, I had to learn HOW I learned. One of the key lessons for me was getting started with putting my ideas down on paper. In this post I’ll share some of those lesson in the chance that it may help others out there who struggle to get started with writing.

What stops you from starting?

Through my undergrad, masters and now into the third (fourth) year of my PhD (not to mention a good few years in the workplace which is a whole other kettle of fish) I realised that I am an ordered, systematic and thorough person with a tendency towards perfectionism. Anyone out there who is prone to perfectionism will know that this is sometimes an academic's biggest downfall - not because a desire for perfection is bad in itself, but because it stops you starting! I have found the fear of my work being wrong or imperfect to be my ugliest nemesis in the quest to get stuff done! With that in mind, here are a few handy tools that I use to break through the 'getting started' barrier so that you can get onto the stage of actually enjoying your work.

1. Pomodoro

When I need to get writing a new paper, the Pomodoro technique works for me every time. The principle is that you put on a timer for 25 minutes and get started with your writing. You then break for 5 minutes and then write for another 25 minutes, continuing in this cycle. For me, the wonder of this technique is not that 25 mins on and 5 mins off is some magical combination of work and rest balance, but rather because it actually gets me started.

Even the most focus-challenged people can convince themselves to write for just 25 minutes - it's only 25 teeny tiny minutes, how bad could it be?! Now, I try not to beat myself up with this, sometimes it’s more like 25 mins writing and 20 mins break while I go downstairs to make, yet another, cup of tea, water the plants, unload the washing machine, reheat my tea, return to my desk. However, eventually, the 25 minutes working turns into an hour as I get in the flow, and when you get to that point, you find you don't need Pomodoro any more. So in summary, it isn't sticking to the strict regime that has the biggest benefits for me with the Pomodoro technique, but it's the motivation to get started that makes this method a real winner.

There are many Pomodoro apps out there, but my fave is the Strict Workflow Chrome extension app because it blocks social media websites during the 25 mins work phase - you wouldn't believe how easy it is to just click on Twitter without thinking... or maybe you would!

2. Eat that frog

This is a new one for me, but it has made a significant difference in helping me to get the difficult and rubbish tasks out of the way that would normally be hanging over my head making me feel like a rubbish, unreliable and unproductive person! The principle of 'eat that frog' is that some tasks that we have are just like a rubbery, big-eyed and boggy frog sitting on our desk in the morning. No-one, I mean NO-ONE!, wants to eat that frog (unless he's sauted in garlic, like these little guys, but that's taking the metaphor too far). But eat him you must. Until you eat him, he's just going to be sitting there all day, staring at you, flicking his tongue around the place, messing up your papers and getting your computer screen all smeary. The absolute best thing to do is to eat the frog first thing so you can have a clear head for the rest of the day without old goggle-eyes reminding you of the inevitable. None of the remaining tasks are going to be anywhere near as bad as eating that frog, so once he's down the hatch, you can genuinely enjoy the rest of your working day.

It sounds odd, but believe me, it works! It's become my new mantra, I shout it to my housemates at every opportunity - "eat that frog!"

3. Planning and breaking down into small tasks

Often tasks seem huge because you haven't broken them down yet. Believe me, I'm a PhD student. No PhD student can get started on 100,000 words of undefined splurge. It needs planning. And this principle applies even to a 500 word blog or a 1,500 word essay (I'm looking at you, undergraduate tutees!) Even if you spend the whole of the morning writing out tentative plans - going to and fro from you data/literature, to your plan with endless tweaks. This is time worth spending if it makes the writing process easier because you already know where you're going with it.

Different planning styles work for different people. You may prefer a spider diagram working out from your title or topic area with themes, literature associated to those themes, ideas to be argued in those themes and ways in which themes may be connected. You might be more of a linear thinker with a title, three parts to the discussion and bullet points under each part detailing the literature, concepts and debates you will use. Another useful technique is using post-it notes or flashcards. Some people find that being able to move ideas around helps creativity to flow, since they are not confined to the limits and relative permanence of a single page of paper.

The fun thing about planning out your writing, is that you get to tick things off, or scrub sections out of your plan when they’re done. It sounds juvenile, but I find being able to give myself a tick a real boost as it provides me with some recognition of a job done. A large part of keeping going with a large writing project is keeping your spirits up. For me, a tick often does the job!

Try lots of different things with your planning, and don't be worried if this takes time. It is likely to pay off in the long run.

4. Important/urgent matrix (i.e. being proactive)

This technique is as old as the hills, well, older than me at least, probably, here's what Wikipedia says about the 'Eisenhower Technique' if you want to know more about it's origins.

Time Management Matrix, Covey, 1989: 151

Time Management Matrix, Covey, 1989: 151

Again, at first I found this technique a little too prescriptive. The idea is that you draw a matrix of important, not important on one axis and urgent, not urgent on the other axis. Once you have done this, you fill in the square with your task list - is the task important and urgent, important but not urgent, urgent but not important or not urgent and not important? All of these requires making some value judgments about your tasks, and it's all too easy to say that everything is important, but it's worth practicing making these decisions so you can think a bit more critically about what you're putting your time to.

The reason why I didn't like this technique initially is because I figured, if something is on my task list, it needs to be done, so why bother categorising things like this?! But then I realised that what this technique is really about is being pro-active and taking charge of your tasks, rather than letting your tasks take charge of you. You're meant to focus on the 'important' tasks first, whether they're urgent or not. This helps prevent distraction  by seemingly 'urgent' but not 'important' things such as emails, phone calls, explaining things to people that they can probably find out for themselves. A lot of these more bitty tasks can end up resolving themselves if you give them half a day to do so. Meanwhile you can focus on writing that FAQ document which will filter out many of the unnecessary emails, or finishing that blog post so that you don't have to keep explaining to your supervisor about why it isn't done yet.

I think it's important to try being bold about prioritising your task list. This may require taking some time out to think about what is important to you and what your mid- to long-term goals are. Once you have done this, you can start to be proactive about deciding which tasks are important and which are merely 'nice to do' or a distraction.

5. Evernote - no fear in starting to write

Evernote has transformed the way that I write. You can open a new note easily in the right folder and it saves itself instantly, you can access it on any device and edit it anywhere. You can even search through your notes for keywords or tag related articles. I have folders in Evernote for blogs, conferences, committees and management teams that I sit on, courses I've been on, Swahili language practice and, of course, my PhD with sub-folders for memos, training, ideas, notes and reading and teaching notes.

A screen dump of my Evernote interface. As you can see, I write about EVERYTHING!

A screen dump of my Evernote interface. As you can see, I write about EVERYTHING!

I don't know why, but opening up an Evernote to pop down some ideas, or plan out a blog seems so much easier than opening a Word document. I guess Evernote is like an old fashioned notebook, but MUCH more organised. When I start writing papers or documents, I always move over into Word, but everything else happens in Evernote due to the lower barrier to entry. To write in Evernote, I don't need to use the Pomodoro technique, because already my mind is programmed to know that what happens in Evernote doesn't need to be perfect. Ideas can grow and die, and I'm not left with file junk all over my computer, like electronic screwed up pieces of paper strewn across my desk.

These are five of my top self-directed learning productivity tips for academic life. There are many more, but I think five is enough for one blog. If you have any additional ideas or suggestions, please feel free to share them in the comments below!


Covey, S. R. (1989) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon & Schuster UK Ltd: London.

This blog is updated from an earlier post published on 21 April 2017