Hello and welcome to Hacking the Thesis.

My name is Gabe Tippery. In August 2012 I successfully complete my MFA thesis entitled “Learning to Be in the Digital Era: A Holistic Learning Framework for Design Education” (13mb PDF). My path to a completed thesis was not a smooth journey by any stretch of the imagination, and if you are interested in that story I welcome you to read all about it. Now I am pretty proud of it, but that is not what this site is about. Ultimately, a large factor in what made my thesis successful is that that I am also a person who possibly spends WAY TOO MUCH time thinking about HOW I work.

Personally I think that thinking about how you work is nearly as important as the work you do.

You see, HOW you work is not at all the same as the WORK YOU DO. What I want to share with you is an insight into HOW I worked on my thesis… not what my thesis was about. During my thesis journey, I developed what I think is a pretty good workflow and system that can be repeated by others to make their journeys a little smoother and that is what this site is about. The HOW is a methodology that can be repeated to achieve the end goals of YOUR thesis, whatever it is about.

But first we need to get a few things on the table.


There is no question in my mind about this. YOU NEED A SYSTEM. It does not have to be mine, but I think mine is pretty good.

You need a system because a thesis is an incredibly complex thing to think about and complete. There is absolutely no way to write a thesis if your focus everyday is solely framed in the context of “WRITE MY THESIS.”

So what is a system? The best, most concise definition I have found is this:

“A set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole”

Systems help you make decisions. They provide structure and clarity in situations that would otherwise not have it. They allow you to spend less energy keeping track of the whole, allowing you more energy to devote to the individual parts, knowing that the system itself will yield the desired output. Systems allow you to break complex things into manageable chunks. Systems allow you to do what you need to do, when you need to do them, while maintaining your sanity.

In David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”, he talks about a state of mind called “mind like water”. This is how he describes it:

In karate there is an image that is used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond?

The answer is, totally appropriate to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t over-react or under-react. The pond water does not care if you threw a pebble or a boulder into it; it always reacts appropriate to the input. Pebbles create small splashes and ripples… boulders create larger splashes and ripples… but the water always returns to calm.

Your system needs to help you achieve this state of mind. When your system is working for you, you can focus on the task at hand… trusting that you are having the appropriate reaction and that the things you are NOT working on in this very moment will get their moments soon enough. So mind like water is the goal of the system.

The system definition above states that a system is “a set of connected things” and the system I will present here is just that. It is a set of tools and methodologies that each have specific functions in the system and they depend on each other for the overall success of the system. In order to understand the various ways that the tools and methodologies work together, it is helpful to first understand the three dominant broad activity categories that come together to complete your thesis work.

Thesis Activity Map

This is obviously a highly scientific chart of the thesis process.

Along the X axis, we have TIME.  Along the Y axis, we have ACTIVITY LEVEL.

There are three dominant activities at play here.

In Grey, “Managing Time & Stuff”. You see there is ideally a semi high level of this at the beginning. This is the thinking about and setting up your system. This will be a little intense at the beginning, but then taper to a general homeostatic level for the rest of the process. It never goes away though. This keeps the system working for you and frees up your energy for the other activities. After the initial set-up of your system and the building trust in your system, then this is largely just your weekly planning time that will be discussed further under the “Managing Time” tab in the calendar sections. This is your time where you will be clearing Inboxes in Evernote (Discussed under “Managing Stuff”), scheduling things on your calendar, making your to-do lists for the week, and tracking your progress toward your goals.

In Green, we have your “Non-Writing DOING”. This is what you are spending your 2-3 focused hours per day doing. This is all killing tasks on your weekly to-do list. The tasks here are things such as Reading and Summarizing Literature, Preparing IRB Proposal, Doing whatever your Primary Research Activity is, Analyzing Data from research, etc… In my experience, this was the most chaotic time of the whole process, because it involves a lot of switching the specifics of what you are doing on any given day. Some days its reading, others drafting questions for interviews, others lining up participants for research, creating research materials, and anything else but writing your thesis document. Most of the writing that you are doing during this time will be the notes and fragments of ideas that will become your thesis.

Finally, in Blue we have the “Writing DOING”. This is a different type of doing than the Green space of this chart. It is not necessarily easier, but I found it to be FAR less chaotic. Once I got into it, I actually really looked forward to my focused writing time because it was pretty easy to really feel like I was making progress and working towards the realization of the thesis. Much of this zone will be covered under the “Managing Writing” tab of this site.

With that, lets get into it. I have organized this site to be read in a very linear fashion and thus will provide a link at the bottom of every page to take you to the next page that I feel you should read. That stated, feel free to poke around and discover what is most useful to you depending on where you are in the process.

Cheers and thanks for reading!

-Gabe Tippery