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How I Write and Learn

Daily Work Logs

By a UNC Ph.D. Candidate

Even in the Before Times, I struggled to hold myself accountable for getting work done. Big term paper for a class? No problem. I’d write it the night before. Final project with classmates? My motivation to contribute to the group kept me going. I found that even my master’s thesis could be knocked out with a few weeks of intense effort, as long as the pressure of an impending, high-stakes deadline was there. But unfortunately for me, the same strategy isn’t exactly feasible for a 100-plus-page dissertation where I’m fully responsible for motivating myself for years at a time. As I progressed in graduate school, I eventually realized that something had to change.

Throughout my quest for internal accountability, I’ve found that the simplest solutions tend to work best for me, and the simplest solution I’ve found is to keep a daily log of the work I’ve done. For me, this solution involves taking a couple minutes to write a few sentences in a Google doc about what I’ve accomplished at the end of each dissertation work session. Especially right now, when time can seem to lose all meaning, I find it helps to reflect on what I’ve done each day to provide structure and a timeline. Here’s what this method looks like in action:

Today I finished reading the Bowen et al. review article about the current state of water isotope research. I then downloaded some of the related articles cited by Bowen et al. and began reading the Minder paper about the Cascades and the Lundquist paper about the Sierra Nevada.

Today I sent my weekly update to my advisor. I also emailed a collaborator to ask a few questions about lab techniques that we’re using to make sure we’re on the same page. I outlined the reorganization strategy I want to use for the results and discussion section of the journal article I’m revising, and I incorporated some of the revisions I wanted to make from the articles I’ve been reading into the discussion. These revisions mostly focused on the impact of topography and orographic uplift on the isotopic signature of precipitation, both in my study area and around the world. I added about 300 words to the discussion.

As my notes show, I stick to the facts of what I did or didn’t accomplish (such as the number of words I wrote) and include details to remind myself about exactly what I did, but I don’t expand on what happened. Like with freewriting, I emphasize getting ideas on the page over putting pressure on myself to make things “perfect.” If I don’t make any dissertation progress, I write that down and move on. Tomorrow is a new day, and I find that owning up to my lack of progress, while still being kind to myself, helps conserve my energy for the next day when I’m likely to get more done. On weekends, I like to shift from work to small personal wins like cooking a healthy meal, taking a walk, or calling my grandma:

Today I made homemade bagels for the first time ever. I also took an evening walk with my husband and caught up on laundry.

Although an individual work day may sometimes feel like a wash, and it can take me days to complete a single complex task on my to-do list, looking back through my daily log over the course of days or weeks helps me see how each individual work session contributes to the whole. Combining this log with some other strategies that I’ve gleaned over time from self-help books and the Learning Center (such as setting specific goals and creating a semester plan) has helped me think even more about the big picture.

As a natural scientist, I can’t help but think of punctuated equilibrium, a phenomenon where a species accumulates small changes over long periods before suddenly becoming something new, as I reflect on my path. Like in nature writ large, my changes don’t happen in a single day. They don’t follow a neat, linear path (though, unlike nature, I definitely do have a goal in mind as I move forward!). There are often periods of stasis where seemingly nothing changes for long periods, but these periods are followed by breakthroughs––sudden bursts of progress––that change everything. By reflecting on my log, I see how the work of previous days laid the foundation for that moment of change, and I use that recognition to build momentum to work toward my goals, even in amorphous times.

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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