This is one of those posts where I think aloud. No need to come along for the ride, but you are welcome to if you might be interested! I wrote the first draft of this while Melbourne was in lockdown. My hips get tight when I spend a lot of time sitting and standing rather than moving, so I was doing some yoga (using this video) and thinking about discomfort and writing.
In physical movement, we talk about your ‘range of motion‘, your ability to move a joint and thus achieve an outcome like lifting your leg (the motion is in the hips here). For example, if you stand on one leg (maybe using a wall or chair for balance), and then bend the knee of your other leg towards your chest, you’ll be able to lift up your knee quite a bit. (This lift achieved by your muscles is your ‘active’ range.) Now using a hand, pull the knee towards your chest. You might get quite a bit more lift! (This lift achieved with external force is called ‘passive’ range.) The ‘end range’ is the point where you can’t move any more.
Yoga asana (movement practice) often works at the end ranges of people’s flexibility. Yoga teachers, or guides like Light on Yoga, may encourage you to find your end range and work to extend it. Teachers may use manual assists or props to help you ‘go deeper’. While safely challenging your ‘edge‘ range can be informative and useful, recklessly pushing through it can cause injuries, and we don’t want that!
On the other hand, restorative yoga asana encourages people to go more slowly and gently. We can benefit in body and mind by seeking ease while still moving. Exploring, playing, resting in one shape and a now another, can also achieve your goal. I wanted to counteract all that sitting and typing, and I did feel much much better afterwards!
I also find restorative yoga is good for thinking. And, being me, I spend a lot of time thinking about writing. So this post is about those two threads, movement and words. It’s an exploration not a manifesto. I’m not even sure if it’s advice or just pondering. Still, you are here reading a blog about research tips, and so an imaginary audience is also part of this written conversation. In my head, I was thinking about what I was learning and how it might help others–this post is a process of taking what I learned and now teaching someone else. I hope in time some of you might take these ideas and incorporate them into your own teaching.
So, say you want to get more flexible or write faster. It’s not necessary to be more flexible or a faster writer, but it’s often something that people say they would like!
Should you got to your end range, and then push further? Is that the best strategy?
So a safe experiment to see how far you can go can be useful information. If you felt a bit of discomfort but no pain, and felt okay the next day… maybe you can already do that thing!
When we encourage people to aim for 20,000 in a weekend at a Thesis Boot Camp, that’s what we are doing. Many people find they write much faster than they thought they could. Almost everyone writes 5,000 words and many people write 10-15,000 (and a few always get to 20,000 or more!) We set up a safe environment, and ensure you are in the right place before you start. We also only recommend doing a Boot Camp once, right near the end of your candidature. We have experts on hand to help you if it isn’t working well. But with all of those safety rails and balances in place, lots of people are much faster writers than they knew.
Please always honour what you already know about your mind and body from previous experience and expert advice. When I say ‘safely’ I mean it!
Working inside your range doesn’t mean being stuck there, though, because as you develop inside your range, often your range gets bigger, or you can achieve the same range with more ease. So you always stay inside your envelope, but hopefully the envelope slowly moves from being a DL to a C4, or from wove paper to speciality.(This is drawing on a chronic fatigue metaphor.)
There are two ways to develop inside your range. One involves strength, and the other involves time.
Increasing your strength
Staying inside your range, slowly, gently increase the pressure you can exert. Physically, this might mean adding a resistance band or weights; in writing this might mean, say, writing quickly for one pomodoro.
You might build up accessory strengths—if what is making you a slow writer is your typing speed or lack of vocabulary, then 10 minutes a day of typing practice or flash cards will make a huge difference.
You might practice overcoming resistance: if you find it hard to tune out background conversations (at home or work), try writing with a podcast on for 10 minutes. Keep persisting for 10 minutes. Then try again tomorrow.
Persisting in time
Restorative yoga practices (like yin yoga) encourage you to find a shape and stay there for up to 5 minutes. Rather than cranking yourself into your deepest stretch, you are encouraged to back off from your end range. As you breathe and settle in, you often find that muscles loosen and joints give you more space. Then it’s comfortable to go deeper.
With poses I need to approach gradually, I know it’s time to back off if I start gritting my teeth or clenching my muscles. If I can’t relax my face, then I’m pushing too hard.
In writing, this can mean a ‘minimum viable action’ approach, where you promise yourself just to open your thesis document and sit in front of it for 25 minutes. You don’t have to read it, or write in it, just sit with it for a short while.
Another approach can be the ‘shitty first draft’—you don’t have to get all the way from a blank page to good writing in one go. It’s okay to do a rubbish draft today, and leave improving it to tomorrow. By taking your time and reducing the effort, you can actually get some words written and then edited.
A thesis is supposed to take you 3-4 years full-time-equivalent study (what counts as your enrolment ). That’s days, weeks, months, yes years of having time to try things out, get incrementally stronger and more flexible as a researcher and writer. It’s necessary to create your thesis bit by bit, so taking it one sentence or pomodoro or day at a time is an essential skill. And sometimes you might want to safely see what you are capable of, with a writing intensive.
In all of these, respect your health, energy and safety. Have a safety net, whether that’s a trusted writing buddy, a good friend or a qualified academic writing coach.
This is about your own progress, not anyone else’s. A PhD is not a race against other candidates, it’s about your candidature clock and your research journey. So if you are growing towards your goals, you are on track.
It’s therefore important to check that your goals are right for you. Fast writing can be a liability in disciplines like pure maths and analytic philosophy. Long flexible hamstrings (which is what you need to touch your toes) are less powerful for fast running and jumping. While I was lying on my back gently mobilising my hips, my partner was on his bike pedalling around Melbourne.
You may or may not become a ‘fast’ writer, or manage to touch your toes. Slow, reflective writers also get theses written!
A research higher degree is a wonderful opportunity to gain skills and capacity in research and academic writing, so take the time to explore where you might want to develop. Get to know where your end range is, and then explore how much progress you can develop by backing off and building more capacity within your range.