Dissertation spreadsheet

Using a dissertation progress tracking spreadsheet

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In my last post, in which I talked about the different methods I am using to keep myself accountable in my dissertation writing, I briefly touched on the progress tracking spreadsheet that Ashley and I are collectively using.

What it is

Our tracking spreadsheet is a Google Docs spreadsheet that we created to share our progress and to help keep each other on track. Each of us has our own sheet to keep track of our individual efforts toward our dissertations. My spreadsheet is divided up into weeks and days. The rows represent all of the weeks between January 1 and August 31, and the first seven columns are one for each day of the week (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc.). At the end of each day, in the cell that corresponds with that day, I input the number of words I wrote toward my dissertation. I count only words that make it into the dissertation document and no brainstorming, outlining, or references. While these items all count toward dissertation progress — and indeed are important steps toward completing! — I want to keep honest track of much writing toward the final product I am doing. I can read, browse, and crunch data all week, but when it comes down to it, I also need to be putting words on paper (well, on the screen) if I am going to finish in a year. In the columns after the days of the week, I total the number of words I have written for that week in one column and have another that has the total number of words I set for my goal to write that week.

Dissertation spreadsheet
The first portion of my dissertation spreadsheet with rows for each week and columns for each day of the week. See the “Chapter 2 done” date? I’ve actually beat that deadline!

Thoughts so far

Overall: I love the spreadsheet. People who know me know that I am by nature highly-organized and goal-oriented. This spreadsheet allows me to be both in dissertation writing: it forces a daily attention to the spreadsheet, constant tracking of my progress, and allows me to celebrate little victories when I meet the weekly goal that I set. I am eternally grateful to my colleague Ashley for introducing this to me and for coming up with the idea for us to use this to track our progress and keep each other motivated.

I realize this might not be a good idea for everyone. This spreadsheet works particularly well for me and my working personality: I look forward to the end of the day (or my writing session) when I can eagerly input my total word count for the day and watch the numbers add up for the week. It’s like a little shot of confidence that I can do this big, HUGE project because I’m doing so one small chunk at a time.

Trouble spots: The spreadsheet has highlighted for me the days and/or times that I struggle to write. You’ll notice that I have a big fat “0” for three of the four Thursdays in January. Well, that’s because those days I teach and have meetings about the conference that are hosting this spring. These two things end up taking up most of my day, and by the end, I don’t have the brain energy to tackle my dissertation in any meaningful way. I’ve identified that. But I have an entire semester’s worth of Thursdays, and I can’t afford to not write at all on those days if I’m going to finish this year. So I have decided now to make Thursday my “clean up” days: Any new references that I need to put into my bibliography, I note them all week, and on Thursdays, I format them properly into that document. Bam – I can APA format articles in my sleep, so that’s perfect for Thursday. Most importantly, I’m not losing an entire day: I’m making it work for my schedule.

I also made an effort to insert comments into the spreadsheet when I had particular thoughts about the day that I wanted to remember, such as a day with a low total word count in my document but during which I had completed the entire IRB application for my dissertation — a big, important step. Perhaps by the end of the diss I’ll have enough data to write an article on dissertation writing, or to give a workshop to other grad students at this stage of their degree … who knows!

Timeline: After using this spreadsheet for the first month of the year, I have done a little thinking about the timeline that I am on for writing and how well I’ve been able to meet my daily and weekly writing goals. It has even given me the confidence to up my daily writing goal by 82 words, taking my weekly word count goal from 1946 to 2450. This will result in an entirely complete first draft of my dissertation by August and will give me the entire fall semester for revisions, which I think is a reasonable and achievable goal. I’ll write another update post (maybe end of next month?) to report back on how my new elevated word count goal is going.

Do other folks use a system for keeping track of progress on big projects, like a dissertation? If so, what do you use? How does that work for you?

14 thoughts on “Using a dissertation progress tracking spreadsheet

  1. This is great! I am actually probably right around the same time frame as you, and am definitely trying to complete this December. were your goals arbitrary? I might try to emulate this sheet because this past week would have been a 0 everyday!! 🙁

  2. Best wishes from Canada! This tracking method would have helped me when I wrote my research essay in Applied Language Studies at Carleton University. I relate to celebrating the little victories along the way. I did do a lot of blocking of writing time on the calendar. It was an incentive to work towards making them productive. My old school motto comes to mind “Spem successus alit” (success nourishes hope). Works every time!

  3. Thank you for this idea.
    Trying to get myself to do actual writing of the content of the disseration (as opposed to research, translation, foot notes etc etc) has been a real challenge.

    I had one question. How did you estimate how many words you had to do per day to finish at a certain time? Did you estimate how many total words your dissertation proper (i.e. excluding biblio and footnotes) would be and then use that to set your goals? Any advice about figuring out how to get it done within a certain time frame will be very helpful. Thanks

    1. Hi Sarah,

      Initially I tried to set what were reasonable word count goals for the day to boost my confidence and start “training” my writing muscle, so to speak. As I got better at writing daily/almost daily, I upped the word count goals. Then, as my deadline changed (I had to defend my dissertation 8 months sooner than planned!), I worked backward from my first draft deadline and used that to calculate how many words.

      Overall I’d definitely say your goals should be flexible — start smaller, build up, and then give yourself something that’s challenging but doable. Good luck!

      1. Hi, Thanks so much for your reply.
        I like your idea of just making a manageable word count goal in the beginning so you can build your confidence. I can tell this is already motivating me. At the very least each day I try to be able to record that I’ve come up with SOME words. It pushes me to write even on days when I’ve procrastinated or spent too much time on other aspects of the diss. Once I see more of a pattern, I can take steps to figure out how much I have to do to get done when I want to get done, but for now, I’m taking your advice and just trying to make doable goals. To be told you have to have it done 8 months sooner than you expected. That is a challenge.

  4. Thanks for the blog and idea. This is very helpful, but I’m wondering about the periods where you’re editing. My word count would be nil or sometimes even negative. How do you incorporate workdays that are not specifically word-productive?

    1. Hi Aline,

      Thanks for the comment. During the editing phase, I recommend switching to tracking tasks in lieu of word counts. I’ve done that by creating a second tab in the spreadsheet and outlining highly specific tasks (think tasks that take 15 minutes or less, not “edit chapter 3” or “do advisor’s revisions”) and checking them off as you go. I’d also prioritize them from higher priority to lower priority to help you move through them efficiently. A bit of time in the set up, but good project management definitely pays off in the long run. Good luck!


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