Here are some helpful guidelines for establishing a writing habit from several authors who have written books on long-term academic writing projects (such as theses, dissertations, book projects). 

  1. Set a consistent day and time for writing. Choose a day, time, and frequency that works with your lifestyle and work style. Choose a duration when 1) you feel the most alert, productive, and/or creative; 2) you feel less resistance to writing (say, first thing in the morning instead of late in the afternoon; or after working out); and 3) you can replicate and sustain. The more consistent you are at sticking to a schedule, the more likely you will develop the habit of writing during a certain period of time.
  2. Stick to your start and end times. Another important component of sticking to a writing habit is to make sure that you hold yourself accountable by sticking to start and end times. This means that no matter how you feel the writing session went, try your best to “cap” the work that you’re doing at the time you set to end. This helps to establish time boundaries that help protect you and your productivity as well as prevents resentment (and therefore procrastination) from building. 
  3. Set manageable goals and tasks. Focus on giving yourself small, easily achievable goals. Don’t plan on writing 8 hours a day or writing 4-5 pages. Focus on slow and steady goals you can achieve. In short, become a goal-meeting person. This also means rewarding yourself for meeting your goals. “Focus on building habits, not on defeating or overmastering them” (Hayot, p. 24). If you fail to meet a goal for one day, don’t add it to tomorrow’s task. Adjust your goals accordingly. 
  4. Be accountable to others. Consider starting or joining a writing group to keep yourself accountable to other people. You can choose to join or form a writing group with a peer review component or you can simply make an accountability group to get you in the habit of working at certain times. (Got questions about writing groups? Talk to the Graduate Writing Coach for advice on best practices!)
  5. Be patient and prepare to adjust. Habits take time to form, so it is possible that a given practice or system might take a month or two to feel settled into a writing practice. 


Set up a “reverse schedule.” Consider setting up a “reverse day planner” for a week where you record what you devote your time to. Record what you did and how much time you spent doing something. Include all the tasks you do each day that have to do with academic work–checking email, teaching, grading, office hours, researching, reading–and also personal, everyday work–driving, laundry, food prep, eating, walking the dog, going for a walk. 

The goal is to see how you spend your days and how you break them up. By recording instead what you have done, the reverse schedule can help you see that, most of the time, it’s not laziness or lack of focus that stops us from writing. It is often that we expend an enormous amount of time on things (that may be necessary) other than writing. The reverse schedule makes it easier for you to see what and how you prioritize and gives you an opportunity to find ways to prioritize writing. When we feel like academic writing is something we just need to cram into a busy schedule, we resent and feel obligated to do it, which often results in avoidance or procrastination. (See Jensen, 2017)

Secure your energy. Joli Jensen, author of Write No Matter What, writes, “Protecting writing energy is key to academic productivity, but very few of us have learned how to work with–rather than just use up–our creative powers.” Sometimes, academic writers feel that they need to exhaust all their energy to write and to feel productive. However, this can often lead to burnout and even create an even bigger gap in achieving work-life balance that works for you. Jensen recommends noting when you feel most energetic (whether in the morning, midday, or the brief window between 3pm – 6pm, or late night) to identify the best and most productive times to write. Most of us have a natural ebb and flow to our energy levels (think of times when you still need coffee, but motivation and focus might be higher than other times), and paying attention to your energy patterns will help you maintain a regular and sustainable writing schedule. 

“Protecting writing energy is key to academic productivity, but very few of us have learned how to work with–rather than just use up–our creative powers.”

Jensen (2017) suggests rating and breaking up your energy hours as A, B, and C time. A time is dedicated to your writing. The goal is to protect your A time from all the B and C tasks that tend to fill it up. B and C times are for tasks that require alertness and focus, but not necessarily your best creative energy. C tasks are ones that are mostly routine and don’t require as much insight or creativity as writing does. Keep in mind that this is not an evaluation of essential worth. Rather, it’s a way to let different elements of our life and schedule to “feed” our energy levels in different ways. 

Here’s an example from Jensen:

  • A energy: scholarly work. Writing and revising tasks, research, planning grant proposals, designing new projects.
  • B energy: routine coursework like prep for a class you’ve taught before.
  • C energy: email, grading, advising, reports–”these can be done responsibly even when we aren’t at our creative best.” 

Plan to write “daily.” Eric Hayot suggests, “Write daily. This is the oldest trick in the book: accomplish psychologically difficult tasks by making them habitual. … Writing every day is difficult because everyone has any number of other things to do, most of which frighten them much less than writing. The key is to carve out a very small period of time for writing each day, putting it in both your physical and mental calendars, and convincing yourself that having that time is a way of taking care of yourself” (p. 18-19). Like Jensen, Hayot recommends “protecting your writing time vigorously, both from others and from yourself” (p. 19). 

“The key is to carve out a very small period of time for writing each day, putting it in both your physical and mental calendars, and convincing yourself that having that time is a way of taking care of yourself”

Of course, not everyone can manage to write 7 days a week. That’s why you can also decide what “daily” means to you: perhaps it means 3 days out of 7, or on weekends, or 4 evenings out of the weekdays. The point is to be consistent and to not abandon the schedule when you don’t feel like writing. How long should you write for? Suggestions vary (15 minutes according to Bolker and Jensen; 30 minutes according to Hayot) but the goal is to write in manageable chunks of time that you can sustain and replicate regularly. 

Stuck doesn’t (always) mean STOP. Of course you will get stuck. It’s part of the very complex writing process that is the dissertation. Sometimes you get stuck on a macro-level, when you lose faith in your chapter and fear that you have to start over; other times you get stuck on a micro-level, when you feel like you can’t write at all or you just simply feel like you’re not moving forward. Hayot recommends that the solution to both is to keep writing

Getting stuck is often an indication that we’ve come to a problem we need to untangle or work around, a choice in terms of direction, focus, or elaboration, or that we need to (re)read or have a conversation about our progress (or lack thereof). Getting stuck is often a signal that you need to revisit what you’ve been doing and identify what’s causing this stall. Jensen (2017) outlines three different kinds of “stalls”:

    • Writing Lull: We sometimes experience this especially after completing a deadline, receiving revisions, or ending a writing stint and we experience an ebb in our energies. Jensen recommends taking a writing vacation instead of forcing yourself to write.
    • If the feelings of being stuck remains after a writing vacation, you might be experiencing Resistance, which Jensen suggests remedying by talking to a peer or writing in your “ventilation file” (a document that just lets you vent about your writing frustrations and feelings).
    • Structural Stall: Jensen describes this as “…you know there is something intrinsically wrong with the project. You need to fix what has gone wrong in order to get moving again. … Something is off, but it’s not you, it’s the project.” With structural stalls, you will have to do some work (maybe not necessarily writing) towards your chapter or project to determine how the structure can be modified or changed.

Try to figure out what kind of “stall” you might be experiencing so you can identify the next steps to move forward.

Find your “through-line.” A “through-line” orients us (and readers) through our particular set of questions, arguments or evidence. It gives us direction and keeps us from wandering onto other (many) possible paths in our projects. Reminding yourself of your through-line (whether as stated in your proposal or as you keep track of how it may be slightly changing as you complete your chapters) can help you re-orient yourself to your work in both macro and micro levels (Jensen, 2017). 

Ask diagnostic questions when you feel uncertain about your direction (Singh & Lukkarila, 2017):

  • Reorganization Questions
    • Would a conversation with a peer or professor help me?
    • Will a new dive into the literature help me?
    • Can I use a mind map, Venn diagram, or other brainstorming tool?
  • Deletion Questions
    • Where are the leaps in my writing?
    • Where does my writing lack specificity? 
  • Keep Questions
    • Does my writing support my overall argument?
    • Is there a logical flow to my writing?

However you choose to approach your writing, make sure that you’re attentive to how you work best (or not), that you touch base with your work through frequent but low-stakes work and that you’re adjusting your practices as your needs change (as they most likely will from semester to semester, or even month to month).


  • Joan Bolker. (1998). Write Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. Holt Paperbacks.
  • Eric Hayot. (2014). The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities. Columbia UP.
  • Joli Jensen. (2017). Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics. U of Chicago Press.
  • Anneliese A. Singh and Lauren Lukkarila. (2017). Successful Academic Writing: A Complete Guide for Social and Behavioral Scientists. The Guilford Press.

Recommended Reading

  • Eviatar Zerubavel. (1999). The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations and Books. Harvard UP.