Motivation and Encouragement for Dissertation Writers Across Disciplines

Guest Post: Zombie Dissertation

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2011 at 10:04 am

Ben is a final year PhD student from the UK.  He started his blog to document a steep learning curve on how to write an effective literature review, which he’s always found the hardest part of dissertation writing.  Check out Ben’s blog: Literature Review HQ

Zombie Dissertation: productivity on autopilot?

Some aspects of writing a dissertation are mentally very tough. If you spent half an hour thinking about some of the finer details you would need to lie down in a darkened room for a day to recover. Other aspects of writing are not mentally challenging in the slightest. In fact, far from being mentally challenging, they are so mentally un-taxing that a chimp could do them. Things like looking for journal articles to read, formatting references and doing corrections are really time consuming but are not mentally engaging. You can normally spot the poor souls who have spent their day doing these tasks due to their zombie like appearance.

So what am I getting at? Well I reckon more than half of dissertation writing is made up of this mindless stuff which is actually very handy to know. It means that a chimp could actually do half of your dissertation for you, or you could do half of your dissertation in a zombie like state, you choose.

I have only really started taking advantage of this recently and it pays dividends. Basically, as you get into writing you can identify periods during the day when you are mentally very alert. One of the most productive things you can do during this “alert” time is to set up and plan for things to do in your “zombie” time. Give yourself specific, but boring tasks to do, when you don’t have the mental faculties to cope with any high level pondering.

Some examples of “zombie” activities are:

  • Formatting your references to make sure they are all up to standard
  • Proofreading your drafts to look for spelling mistakes (not for comprehension)
  • Downloading and naming pdf’s of important articles.
  • Inserting references into your text with a citation manager
  • Even doing searching through key words in a database becomes a zombie activity after you have done it many times
  • Most corrections also constitute zombie activities (not re-writes but easy to change words and sentences)

Remember though that zombie activities are personal and can change throughout the course of your writing. It’s important to identify what these are so you know you can save them for a time when you are technically a zombie.

The best thing about zombie activities is that normally you can have a bit of fun while you do them. You can have the T.V. on in the background, listen to some music (Zombie Nation maybe?), or curl up on the sofa with your laptop and relax – whatever you like!

This works! You get absolutely loads done. Firstly, your productive time is focused on doing productive things. Secondly, you spend your unproductive time doing productive things! You don’t even do them slower because normally they are so boring the pace is dictated by something mechanical like typing – in fact, if you had some fast music on you may even do these tasks faster. Another great benefit that I noticed is that you actually have more productive time. Have you ever noticed that if you feel really alert and ready to go, doing a zombie task rapidly begets a zombie frame of mind, which is very difficult to get over. If you forget the zombie tasks until later, this doesn’t happen. What is even more amazing is that because you are being productive on autopilot during your zombie state you become energized as a result! Crazy right, you actually spend less time being zombiefied as a result.

Give it a go, embrace your zombie time.


  1. Hi there,

    Nice article, but I do not see why you would consider downloading and renaming pdf’s and formatting references as zombie activities. I use Zotero and it is far from that.
    All the pdf’s get dumped in the same folder > add to zotero > Get info from meta data > rename attachment according to meta data > done. Takes less then 15 secs per file and can be done in bulk.
    Also I’ve written my own Zotero Style Sheet and I get all my formatting done as I insert the citations in the text and out comes the bibliography. 🙂

    It’s not that hard 🙂


  2. Good tips Ben. I like the description of these tasks as zombie tasks. Sadly, I seem to have more zombie hours than zombie tasks in my day so things don’t always match up. 😉

  3. Hi acecs_g, those were just personal examples but everyone’s zombie activities will be different, especially given the vastly different software tools people use.

    melovell, Thanks! I totally identify with that, but you don’t need many productive hours to give yourself plenty to do in your zombie time, this zombie time productivity will also decrease the amount of zombie time you have 🙂 give it a try

  4. * sorry alecs_g, I got your name wrong :s

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