Four Ways You Are Sabotaging Your Dissertation

Issue 215

Four Ways You Are Sabotaging Your Dissertation—and What You Can Do about It


By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC

Read in less than 5 minutes to regain control of your life and your dissertation

Ever felt too embarrassed to contact your advisor due to your insufficient dissertation progress? Ever pushed your intended graduation date back for the same reason?

You may have fallen into one or more unconscious but dangerous habits that you need to change immediately. 

Sadly, academic and social pressures conspire to facilitate self-sabotaging behaviors that need to be rooted out for sustainable success.

How many of these top four common bad habits are you guilty of?

  1. Do you regularly short yourself on sleep because you think it's a luxury you can't afford?

  2. Does your inner critic hijack your focus, e.g., attacking you for not writing often enough or fast enough or good enough?

  3. Do you skip healthy meals—and then gulp coffee and down energy bars to keep yourself going during the day?

  4. Have you been skipping the gym or other regular exercise in the hopes of making academic progress?

Did you answer "yes" to any of the above?

If so, then you have unwittingly been setting yourself up to fail in the long haul. Despite their ubiquity, the above behaviors have been found to be startlingly counterproductive by numerous researchers. When you engage in them, you are undermining the key resource you need in order to finish a complex, challenging project.

What is that resource?

It's your willpower, also known as self-regulation and self-control. This is the asset you need most to be at your best when facing challenges.

Willpower works like a muscle, explain Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Over the course of a day, you deplete your daily reservoir of willpower energy each time you resist temptation, monitor your behavior, or make decisions. Guess what? The mental energy for analyzing and careful writing comes from the same tank.

Becoming a good steward of your limited willpower energy is just the first step. Next you need to develop your willpower capacity as it is not fixed by genes.

Willpower replenishes itself with rest, just as your muscles do, and it benefits from training. The big news is that, just as regular workouts can strengthen your muscles, specific practices have been identified that augment your willpower reserves.


Ready to beef up your willpower muscle?

What would an evidence-based training program for your self-regulation bicep look like?

You can boost your willpower by improving your self-care on four critical measures for which I created the handy acronym "SANE": Sleep, Attitude, Nutrition, and Exercise.

This oddly apt acronym covers the four major self-care measures that will allow you to flourish amidst the potential craziness of academic life.

How would you score yourself on the above four dimensions? Shorting yourself on any of them can lead you astray despite your best intentions, so let's examine each one as well as the best remedies to get you back in control of your life and your dissertation.



We are a sleep deprived nation. If you are like the typical U.S. American, you get far less than the 7.5 or 8 hours of sleep you need to do your best work.

Did you know that being mildly but chronically sleep deprived makes you more susceptible to stress, cravings, and temptations?

Research shows that driving while sleepless can be as dangerous as drunk driving.

What are the implications for the quality of your work if you dissertate while sleepless?


While not deadly, the outcome is likely to be less than desirable.

If you have trouble falling asleep, a totally dark, cool room should help, asserts expert Tom Rath in Eat, Move, Sleep. If you feel drowsy when your morning alarm sounds, do not hit the snooze button! You probably will not benefit from the extra zzz's as you likely interrupted a sleep cycle that cannot be resumed, explains Rath.

Additional counsel comes from Stanford health educator Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., in The Willpower Instinct. If you are staying up late, consider what you are saying "yes" to instead of sleep, and then see if you can cut back on whatever is keeping you up.

Your challenge: Go to bed early enough that you do not need an alarm to wake you—you'll be amazed at how much more energy you have for the work you need to do.



Negative attitudes and moods, including brooding, worrying, and general stressing out, will also drain your willpower account.

Develop practices such as reframing, gratitude, and mindfulness to steer you away from the paralysis of negative thinking.

You can also add to your self-control by learning to calm yourself and to cultivate positive attitudes and emotions. You do not need to meditate for hours to achieve such serenity. Surprisingly, just slowing your breath to about four to six breaths per minute while calmly observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations for a three-minute refresher can do wonders.


QUICK TIP: Simply notice your negative thoughts without trying to suppress or challenge them. Write down the self-critical thought. Then write it again but with the prefix "I'm having the thought."

Try this example aloud:

My advisor will think this is crap. 

I'm having the thought that my advisor will think this is crap.

Notice how a simple prefix puts a healthier distance between you and your inner critic. [Find more such strategies in Russ Harris's ACT Made Simple.]



You need to eat well.

Your brain needs a steady level of glucose rather than drastic fluctuations in order to function well, e.g., direct your writing, exercise self-control, and more.

Alas, notes Rath, most of us overdo the refined carbs, especially when we think we need a quick boost. We grab a sugary drink, chips, cookies, and other empty calories—causing blood sugar to spike and crash, causing you to literally droop.

On the other hand, protein stimulates the cells that keep us thin and alert, he observes. He agrees with countless experts who advise eating more plant-based foods while limiting the intake of red and processed meats.

In short, running on caffeine or sugar or on empty is just not sustainable for long-term success or health. By the way, Rath adds, sitting down to eat slowly with others can also improve your waistline, your longevity, and your social relationships.

EASY TIP: Choose colorful foods since the refined, carb-laden junk is often white. Miss a meal? Avoid shockingly calorie-laden granola bars in favor of packets of mixed nuts.


For superior mental and physical health, nothing beats exercise.

It's the "miracle drug," quips health educator McGonigal. She shares research showing that exercising three times a week leads to better nutrition, less TV time, fewer impulsive purchases, increased punctuality, less procrastination, better focus, and more emotional control.

The more you move your body, the more benefits you gain, including a bigger and faster brain.

Exercise relieves cravings and stress while growing brain areas associated with planning and control. Several studies concur that the biggest mood-boosting, stress-busting effects come from five-minute doses of exercise, she observes. That's right—just five minutes. So take a walk, play with the dog, garden, or dance for just five or ten minutes. Then get back to dissertating. You'll also benefit from shorter stretches of sitting.



Pick one area above to start making changes in the desired direction, then watch the benefits accrue. Keep in mind that your long-term success hinges on making the right choices on a daily basis.

Seek support from family, friends, and colleagues. If necessary, hire a good coach who is an expert in nurturing habit change.

As you develop good self-care habits for sleep, attitude, nutrition, and exercise, you will discover the willpower to finish your dissertation and flourish.


Recommended Resources




An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resource 

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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