Smile Your Way through Your Dissertation—Finding the Sweet Spot between Chaos and Perfection | Issue 219

By Melanie Sobocinski, Ph.D., C.M.C.

Happy New Year!

If you have not finished your dissertation, you might be contemplating making one of the most common New Year's Resolutions: Get more organized and manage time better.

But how do you determine if you even need to work on your productivity? And how can you evaluate all the advice swirling around this time of year?

Over many years of coaching academics, I have developed a useful framework that I share with my clients. I call it "The Productivity Smile." 

Notice that the middle of the Productivity Smile is called The Zone. This is exactly where you want to be most of the time.

You know you're in The Zone when you're taking great care of yourself, making excellent progress on your dissertation, meeting your other commitments, and have enough support, tools, and routines in place to make it all happen.

When you are not in The Zone, you are probably losing time without making reasonable progress by leaning toward chaos or perfection.

Beware the Pitfalls of Chaos and Coasting


To the extreme left of The Zone is Time Lost to Chaos, which never feels good.


Have you experienced any of the following, which we can call Time Lost to Chaos?

  • time spent searching for that reference you know you read last summer, but don't have any notes about 

  • work sessions that don't happen because you didn't make a specific plan

  • missed meetings with your advisor because the appointment didn't make it into your calendar 

  • last-minute or missed deadlines for grant applications, conference paper abstracts, and job applications

In the rest of your life, time lost to chaos might look like

  • searching for misplaced keys, wallet, or phone 

  • your car breaking down from lack of maintenance 

  • scrambling for a new apartment when your lease is up 

  • always saying, "I'm sorry I'm late..."


To the immediate left of The Zone lies Coasting—which is okay in the short-run only.

Coasting is when, at the end of the semester, you neglect the dishes and laundry to finish a conference paper that you're giving in January. Or when you're too tired to floss or look at your calendar after an all-day writing binge. Or when you tell yourself you'll look up that reference for the footnote later.

Coasting can be okay for short periods, but usually ends up creating backlogs that must be dealt with by your future self, who might not appreciate being dumped on by past self. Too much coasting and you end up losing time and money to chaos. Ouch.


Hone Your Process but Forget Perfection

To the immediate right of The Zone is Working on Process.

Working on process can often serve as a necessary ingredient to meet your goals. This includes occasions when you are moving beyond your comfort zone to learn a new software program, to try a different time management technique, to organize your desk, to refine your routines, and so on.

It's time to invest in process improvements under these circumstances:

  • Your schedule changes at the beginning of the semester 

  • You face new responsibilities or higher expectations 

  • You want to get more efficient 

  • You're trying to exit chaos or coasting

In some areas, improvement efforts can yield a tremendous return on investment. Your writing and research processes might be an apt area to apply such a growth mindset. In 10 years (a typical minimum time span between starting graduate school and earning tenure), your work capacity can become exponentially higher even while maintaining excellent self-care. But only if you work on it.

Tread with caution, however, because it's way too easy to let working on your process become Time Lost to Perfection, as in these cases:

  • Spending hours hunting for the perfect to-do list app or electronic calendar 

  • Putting a whole day into crafting a plan for the week that you don't use 

  • A never-ending quest for "Inbox Zero" 

  • Making your apartment look ready for a magazine cover photo

For the dissertation, Time Lost to Perfection shows up in various ways:

  • Endlessly editing the first two or three sentences of a draft, resulting in a terrific opening paragraph followed by text that is barely developed 

  • Circular revisions, i.e., when the final revision puts everything back the way you had things before you started 

  • Waiting to write because there's still more to read 

  • Avoiding your advisor because you worry about the quantity or quality of your work


Rule of thumb: Always start with low-hanging fruit when improving process.

Make one deliberate change at a time. Predict what the effect of your change will be. Then observe what you do. Reflect on the outcome. Then use the results of your experiment to design your next work process experiment. [Check this chart to figure out whether working on a habit change is worth your time.]


How to Brighten Your Smile and Graduate

What's your current position on the Productivity Smile?

Are you coasting on footnoting while learning Scrivener? That would count as working on process. Does your dissertating tap into The Zone, but maintaining your living space has fallen into chaos?

To get your smile back, reflect on these four questions:

1. Think about a time when you were in The Zone. What supports and tools made that possible? 
2. What in your life could be an indicator that you're sliding towards chaos? 
3. How can you tell that you're chasing perfection? 
4. How much time do you want to spend working on process each month?

Checking in with yourself on these questions will help you keep your smile bright—and ready for that photograph of you beaming in your velvet-striped gown in the doctoral hooding ceremony!



ABDSG Issue 217: Conquer procrastination by meeting your future self.

Belcher, Wendy. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success.


Brown, Brene. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.


Carter, Christine. The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work.


Dweck, Carol.Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.


Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.


Thomson, Pat and Barbara Kamler. Detox Your Writing: Strategies for Doctoral Researchers.

About the Author: Melanie Sobocinski, Ph.D., C.M.C.

Trained in archaeology (which she calls "the art of interpreting broken buildings and 2000-year old clutter"), former professor and Certified MentorCoach Melanie Sobocinski now leads academic workshops on writing and time management. She also works with individual graduate students and faculty who want to find their desks and get more published. Contact Melanie and discover more resources at




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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