I went for a run today. Ten miles. I run usually three times a week, usually about 6 miles. Today I let a friend talk me into running in a ten-mile race. I wasn't really sure what running 10 miles was like. He warned me that the route was hard and harder on the return than on the way out.
I took it easy, keeping my pace steady. I finished the race feeling fine. Most of the racers finished before me but I was happy to finish feeling fine and with energy left for the day.
The race is a decent metaphor for a dissertation: you don't necessarily finish by being very fast at any point. You finish by sticking with it. Step after step after step. This idea of persistence leading to successful dissertation writing is nothing new. I've said it many times, and I don't think I've ever seen a book on writing that didn't suggest the primacy of developing a repetitive routine.
But I was thinking about feeling good. I felt good running today because I paced myself well. In the last few miles I passed several people who didn't look so happy. They were working hard and not looking like they felt very good. I didn't set any records for finishing quickly, but I finished. I don't know about "leaving it all on the field". That would have led to a different kind of accomplishment--running as hard as I could, and running faster, but feeling bad after, because I had pushed myself to the limits of what I could do.
We get to make choices about this kind of stuff. There's no doubt that there's a lot to be said for striving for your limits. On the other hand, it's not like you can't work hard and push yourself without hitting burnout. The dissertation can take a long time; if you burn yourself out, or work to the point of exhaustion before the race is over, you have to drag yourself to the finish line in a state of exhaustion. And that is no fun.
Good pacing is important. It helps you maintain your health, your energy, your positive attitude, and, if you're steady, it helps you finish, perhaps more quickly than you anticipate. If the dissertation race stretches out over years, then maintaining your health--especially your emotional health--is crucial. A steady pace is conducive to supporting your mood because you continue to make progress (which helps, for obvious reasons), and yet it doesn't create the negative reinforcement that working to the point of exhaustion does. A steady pace with room for a whole life doesn't create the sense that the dissertation is some sort of cruel punishment because you're not creating the painful part of it.
I worked hard enough today that I was pushing my limits. I ran farther than I normally do. I don't normally time myself running, so I don't know if I ran faster, but I know that I ran faster than I expected. It was a challenge and a growth experience, and it left me feeling like the process is something worth doing. A good pace made it possible.
Would that every dissertation writer could say that. You may only want to write one dissertation, but if your career choice is to be an academic, that dissertation is only one race to be run. It may be a relatively long race--a marathon of academic projects--but you'll have other equally long projects if you hope to publish any books. If you learn to set a good pace and to work steadily, each project can be completed without making writing into a sort of purgatory.