Why you should create your own thesis writing retreat (or reasons to travel)

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Ever considered the idea of taking yourself away for a self-imposed thesis writing retreat? Would it be helpful? No doubt, like me, you’ve harboured fantasies of doing just this. Taking yourself out of your usual environment and the usual distractions so you can put your head down and tail up to finish a big chunk of writing.

Well now there’s research to back up your fantasy thesis-writing-retreat idea. @jasondowns tossed me this little piece of scientific evidence gold from Scientific American via twitter recently. Take a long hard look at that fellow thesis retreat writing fantasizers. It’s indeed evidence to support your argument to go off somewhere (overseas, another town in your own country, anywhere that is substantially away from your usual environment) and do some substantial writing.

The article by Shapira and Liberman, explains recent research by Jia, Hirt & Karpen (2009) about the way spatial distance plays a role in creative cognition. If we dig into Shapira and Liberman’s article a little more it’s possible to see that taking ourselves away is an effective strategy to increase creativity because situation and context play a part in generating this for us humans. There’s some well-argued theory in there too about the role of distance in the psychology of creativity. The article’s authors add fuel to your thesis-retreat-argument by saying:

“… there are several simple steps we can all take to increase creativity, such as traveling to faraway places (or even just thinking about such places), thinking about the distant future, communicating with people who are dissimilar to us, and considering unlikely alternatives to reality.”

Several steps, yes indeed. Well as it happens, I’m taking one of those aforementioned steps to write some of my thesis. I’d already planned my particular approach before reading about this research on distance and creative cognition. However, I must say, I am rather pleased that I now have evidence to support my need/desire to go to New York for a whole month later this year to do a chunk of thesis writing for my PhD.

That’s right, New York.

Not some quiet little country town in Australia surrounded by the peace and serenity of gum trees and the silence of red earth, but New York – a noisy, densely packed part of the world. And I’ll be based in Manhattan, no less. I’ve had a range of interesting reactions from my partner, friends, family and colleagues (not looking at you @teachingruth). Most have been quite astonished (and disbelieving) that going to NY would help me accomplish my aim (to write a big section of my thesis). Instead most assume my NY thesis writing retreat idea is just an art/museum/shopping-fuelled holiday in disguise.

I will not lie. There will be some art. In fact, as much art and museum-hopping as I can fit in. But in all seriousness, my month in NY will be focused around a daily thesis word target that will keep me locked and bound to my laptop until it is met. It is a firm contract to myself. Once the daily word target is met I have my own permission to flee my writing quarters (it might be the apartment, might be a local café, might be the NY Public Library – each day shall dictate where) to do whatever it is my NY abode-ing heart desires. Or if exhaustion is the flavor of the day, take a walk along the Hudson River or around Central Park or, indeed, have a nap.

New York is a city that buzzes with energy. It’s a city I love for exactly that reason. I’m anticipating that this energy will help create energy and keep me fired up throughout my thesis retreat month. Recently I had lunch with @rellypops and shared my retreat plan with her. To my delight she told me of her own thesis-writing trip in Manhattan several years ago and how it enabled her to do a serious amount of writing. She claims she was invigorated by the surrounding energy of the city and it kept her thesis word count up.

I’ve no doubt this strategy would not work for everyone. Some folk will prefer quieter places to write. Each to their own. And for those who cannot take themselves away to another country or even to another town or place within their own due to practical reasons (work, family obligations, finances etc) take heart in what Shapira and Liberman say about the creative cognitive benefits of merely thinking about far away places.

So what will you do to help you get the words down? Will you take some advice from Jia et al’s research and go somewhere away to write? Or is your imaginative capacity (read daydreaming) strong enough to give you the creative boost you need?

Author Bio: Kylie Budge is a PhD student at the University of Melbourne and academic at RMIT.

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