Overcoming Parkinson's Law

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Devoted to practical steps for completing your doctoral

"Work expands to fill the time available."  This short
statement of Parkinson's Law has application in many
facets of life.  But, for ABDs who are struggling to
complete their dissertation, it is especially painful.

How does Parkinson's Law apply to doing a dissertation? 

1) The dissertation often seems like an enormous task
with no real deadlines.  And since there are no
deadlines (at least intermediate ones), you don't
easily get to the finish line.  

You think at some level "Why make the commitment to
this 2000 hour exercise when I already know most of
what I wanted to learn and I have nine other
short-term things calling for my attention that are
more immediately rewarding and simply more fun?"  The
combination of a massive task + extended amounts of
unstructured time is one in which Parkinson's Law can
run unfettered.

2) It's all too easy to leave no time for the 
dissertation, letting your other work fill 
all the available time.  When you set no boundaries on
your day job, you can end up devoting all your time to
your job with none left over to work on your

And there are some related consequences...

3) The longer you delay, the more embarrassing it is
and the higher quality product you feel you have to
produce.  So, you're not just getting behind.  It's
worse than that.  You're getting *geometrically*

4) The amount of work that needs to be done seems HUGE.
It's not like a seminar paper, not like a Master's
thesis.  No, it's a multi-year intellectual activity
that must be written down in black and white for the
whole world to see.  And every day when there's no
progress on it, the burden seems heavier and heavier.

So, what do you do to overcome the grim reality of
Parkinson's Law when you're writing your dissertation?  

The rest of this issue focuses on one way that worked
for me.  It's not necessarily the only way, but I can
honestly say it got me over that towering hurdle.

First, let me confess that I know every trick in the
book used by procrastinators -- mainly because I've
used them all at one time or another.  At times while
working on my dissertation, I raised procrastination to
an exquisite art form.  Without delving too deeply into
my bag of tricks, let me just mention one.  

While I was working on my dissertation and at a time
when I had no responsibilities other than to be
working on it, I made it a habit to go through a
glorious exercise in procrastination.  

Every time I came across a word I didn't know, I would
look it up in an unabridged dictionary, photocopy its
definition and tape it into a notebook so I could build 
my vocabulary.  Then I would type the entire paragraph
in which I'd found the word, carefully cut out the paragraph,
and meticulously tape it in the notebook as well.  (You
see, it helps to see the word in context.)

You can imagine how much time this took and how
little it contributed to my dissertation's progress.
But I did it with near-religious fervor for quite some
time.  And as you can also imagine, I was feeling
terrible about where things stood -- feeling
incompetent and afraid that my committee would shoot me
down when I finally had a draft to submit.  

The truth of the matter was that I had ground to a
halt midway through my data analysis.  I was sick
of working on it. I was so stuck that ultimately I 
felt compelled to take drastic, creative action.  
I had gotten to the point where finally I was willing to 
do whatever I had to do to complete my dissertation.  

Here's what I came up with that helped me complete 
my dissertation and get on with my life.  You can use 
it too.

One of the graduates of my program had gotten out a
year earlier and had just moved to my area.  I
proposed to her that I hire her as my coach.  

She had never heard of the idea and was none too sure
about it.

But I told her I would pay her.  I was serious about it,
and I convinced her to do it.  This novel idea, born
of desperation, turned out for me to be the answer
to my problem.

She was an organized person.  We set it up so that I'd
regularly meet with her for an hour.  I'd show up with
a to-do list of 97 items that I planned to accomplish over
the next few weeks.  She'd look at it, listen to
what I had to say, and help me pare it down to the six
most essential things I needed to do to make progress.  

I'd go off and do those six things in a very focused
way.  Often I'd complete the six items in half the time
I expected, and I'd have such momentum I would do
another six.  Then I'd meet with her again at our
scheduled time -- showing up with a new list of 97
items -- and we'd repeat the process.

Invariably, she'd listen sympathetically, help me pare
down my long list to the most essential tasks, reassure
me that they were the right things to be working on,
help me think through the various strategies I was
considering and get me focused on what I was going to
be doing during the days until our next meeting.

The long and short of it was that she saw me all the
way through the dissertation process -- up to the day
when I dropped off my draft at Fed Ex on its way to
the chairman.

So, here's the big question... WHAT CHANGED?  
On the surface, all that happened was that I talked 
to somebody for an hour on a regularly scheduled 
basis.  Why would this get me moving?

Here's what was really going on....

1) She gave me confidence.  She told me I was doing
well and she gave me regular feedback on what I was

2) She kept me accountable.  I knew I'd have to report
to her how things went, and I didn't want to disappoint

3) She helped me do the work in bite-sized pieces.  

4) She kept me focused on the tasks at hand.  No longer
was I daydreaming or brainstorming about endless
possibilities.  I knew I had six things to do with a
fixed, short-term deadline.  She got Parkinson's law
working for me and the deadline made me very focused.

5) It got me out of my isolation. No longer was I
sitting in my apartment just reading and writing all by
myself in a little isolated world.  I had interactive
help to get me started and keep me moving.

6) She provided objectivity.  She was able to cut
through the emotional investment I had in every little

7) She acted more like a peer than an authority figure.
I didn't have to worry about feeling shame or fear if I
wasn't perfect -- as I might have if I were working
with my Chairman.

8) She provided me with a regular routine.  My time was
now divided into clearly defined periods between our
meetings and I had a new work rhythm.

9) She helped me prioritize.  When we came up with the
list of six things to do, I had confidence that they
really were the most important things to do.  Feeling
that confidence, I could plunge into the work knowing
that the energy I invested would bring me the biggest
possible dividends.

10) She gave me a place to let off steam in a healthy
way -- to be honest about this process in a way
that I couldn't be with others close to me.  (Imagine 
saying to your spouse, "Honey, I don't think I'm 
going to go through with this dissertation.  I'm just 
going to quit and throw away the last 10 years 
and the $200,000 we spent on this.  I'm going to 
the Himalayas.")

So, in essence, my solution to the gloom and doom of
Parkinson's Law was to hire myself a coach.  It worked.
It got me through.  

The key was getting outside support and setting up a
structure within which to work.  Having an external,
uninvolved person in an affirming, positive,
task-specific relationship -- and meeting with her on a
regularly scheduled basis -- made all the difference in
the world for me.

Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University 
of Texas at Austin and is a psychologist in private 
practice in Bethesda, Maryland.  

In addition to his clinical practice, Ben regularly helps
doctoral candidates and academic writers "virtually" 
(by phone with fax and email backup) complete their 
dissertations and books.  He lives in suburban 
Maryland with his wife and two children.

"The All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide"(tm) focuses
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roadblocks that often seem to stand in the way of 
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Past issues of The All-But-Dissertation Survival

Guide(tm) are archived at:

Three Ways to Start Writing When You're Totally

Three MORE Ways to Start Writing When You're Totally

The Seventh Way . . .

Mastering the Form

How to Organize Complex Ideas

An Invitation to a Free Virtual Workshop

Ben J. Dean, Ph.D 
Voice: 301-986-5688  
Fax: 301-913-9447 
E-mail: ben@mentorcoach.com 

(c) Copyright 1998 Ben J. Dean. All rights reserved.

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