How to Beat the Panic of Independent Work

Last fall, in a cubicle on the B-floor of Firestone, you might have seen me scrolling through my unfinished JP. It would have looked unremarkable. I had been working on my JP in the same cubicle for weeks. Except this time, my JP was due to my department in two hours and I was realizing I had about 25 pages of footnotes to complete. I was panicking: crying and shaking while typing faster than I’ve ever typed before.

Luckily, I was able to complete the citations and submit my JP with three minutes to spare! But it took me the rest of the night to recover from the experience (and, to be honest, I still get a rush of anxiety every time I think about it). I promised myself I would never allow myself to end up in the same situation again.

A selfie I took just minutes after submitting my first JP last fall…

Whether it’s a final paper, a JP, or a thesis, here are some tools I’ve been using to help me beat the panic of independent work:

Start now. Even if it’s early in the semester or you still haven’t selected your topic or adviser, start your project now. Your professors may not expect you to begin your final projects until later in the semester, but they’re also not the ones who have to write them. Browse the library catalog. Email a librarian for guidance. Even just fifteen minutes on Google can jumpstart your project. It really is never too early to take the first step; the sooner you start, the less you’ll have to do each day.

Set both short-term and long-term goals. A complex project like a thesis isn’t simply one task on a larger to-do list: “Do thesis.” It requires a to-do list of its own: planning, locating sources, reading, organizing material, writing, editing, scheduling meetings, and more. Setting both shorter-term and longer-term goals can make this complex project so much more manageable. For my thesis, the skeleton of my goal-setting is my weekly deliverables to my adviser. Each week, my adviser and I discuss what might be the most useful deliverable for our meeting the following week: a chapter outline, an annotated bibliography, five pages of writing, etc. Oftentimes, these deliverables are ancillary to what I’m actually focusing on that week. Writing my chapter outline, for example, took about thirty minutes and felt like a short break from my primary source research. It helps to have someone to keep me accountable, and it helps to focus on actual deliverables, rather than less concrete tasks, like reading and reflecting. However, in addition to these weekly deliverables, I also set myself shorter-term personal goals: finish reading this source, schedule a meeting with this professor—as well as longer term goals: thirty pages by fall break, sixty by winter break.

Schedule it into your day. Last semester, my JP adviser warned me that I needed to work on my thesis for at least an hour a day. At first, that sounded daunting. But it’s actually been a super helpful approach. First of all, an hour a day is so much more manageable than sporadic longer stretches of work. Plus, it doesn’t require catching up on the things you forgot since the last session. Additionally, with a long-term project like a thesis, working for a certain amount of time—rather than only focusing on specific goals—can actually be liberating. Depending on my mood, I can read, I can write, I can get organized. Some days, I treat the hour as a maximum, rather than a minimum—which has actually pushed me to be much more efficient. It’s easy to get lost in a research rabbit hole and neglect my other responsibilities (both internal and external to my thesis), so having a time limit forces me to stay on track.

Organize actively. Getting and staying organized takes time, thought, and energy. It’s a pain to keep all my citations in order, to add keywords to every single note in Zotero, to update my primary source spreadsheet. But even though it can feel like a tedious waste of time, getting organized is one of the central tasks of a long-term research project. In a sense, a long-term research project is really just a creative reorganization of data. Getting organized is an active and continuous process. Regularly revisit your organizational strategy. At first, for example, I was using Zotero only for my thesis’s secondary sources. But when I saw that my primary source document was becoming unmanageable, I took the time to import each source and each note into Zotero. It was such a pain, but I thank myself every day for doing it.

Write everything down. With a long-term project like a thesis, I am going to forget just about everything I read and think—even if it feels obvious or memorable in the moment. To make this easy for myself, I keep a document called “Thesis Thoughts,” where I write just about every idea and thought that might be helpful later on. I write an idea for an argument, a note about a source, a phrase I like, anything. It’s a messy notepad, but at least it’s recorded. Additionally, for sources I have in PDF form, I like to write key words on each page, and to mark particularly interesting sections so the documents will be easier to navigate when I return to them in a few months, having forgotten nearly everything about them.

So far, these tools have helped me avoid any independent work panic. I hope that, if I maintain them, I will have a calm, cool, and collected senior year.

–Rafi Lehmann, Humanities Correspondent