Four Surprising Rules to Get Unstuck and Finish Your Dissertation Faster| Issue 221

By Melanie Sobocinski, Ph.D., and Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D.

What you do not know about how to chunk your dissertation writing is holding you back. Read our expert tips in less than five minutes... and save hours of slaving over your work.

Are you working on your dissertation in fits and starts? Does just thinking about it send you into avoidance mode?

Getting an entire dissertation done and out the door can loom as large as scaling the huge Pyramid of the Moon above. There you are, stuck at the base, futilely clawing at steep slopes because you haven't stumbled upon the staircase. "How does anyone ever get to the top?" you wonder.

Occasional dissertation overwhelm is normal. In those stressful moments, your self-protective brain wants to help. It searches for something—anything—easier than writing. It may nudge you to search for references, to check social media, or even bake a batch of brownies. But chronic overwhelm needs an intervention or you may never finish.

The key is convincing your brain that the dissertation is doable, if not easy. We will show you how to create the right-sized steps that will take you all the way to the top where you can claim your title of "Doctor."


Rule 1: Don't scare yourself by looking up at the top—just look down at a single step.

Imagine your calendar appointment reads simply "write dissertation." Your brain starts to panic and quickly converts the message into an open invitation to procrastinate.

That's because a dissertation is an outcome—and a huge one at that. Outcomes and deliverables are not actions, so your brain is suddenly forced to burn extra energy trying to compute what to do next. This provokes anxiety and queasiness—which in turn incites a desire to flee. . . that is, unless you pause and reframe this stress as your brain's desperate plea to break the giant outcome into smaller, feasible tasks.

As David Allen's productivity classic Getting Things Done explains, breaking up projects (any outcome with multiple steps) into discrete tasks is necessary for clarity and momentum--a technique you probably know as "chunking." You can chunk your dissertation by asking yourself, "What do I actually have to do to produce it?"

Some ABD's unthinkingly create their agenda around the dissertation milestones listed on the university's dissertation timeline template, e.g., Finalize Thesis Statement, Write Chapter One, Write Chapter Two (Lit Review), and so on. Those who are a little more savvy might fill a To Do list with smaller chunks, e.g., Read for Literature Review, Write conclusion to Chapter 2, or Revise Chapter 4.

Alas, even with this popular strategy, many students still flounder, disheartened by their lack of dissertation progress. They can't check off anything for weeks or months, as with the most frequently mentioned chunk, "Write Literature Review"—a ginormous undertaking. That's enough to send shivers through even the most well-trained academic brain.

If looking up at the whole mountain (or pyramid) makes you quake, just look down at your feet and take the next step. What's the next step? Figuring that out is also crucial.


Rule 2: Identify key preliminary steps before you start writing.

If you find yourself staring at a blank page, you probably overlooked the "invisible chunks" that should precede writing. Avoid this paralysis by completing these preliminary steps: (a) gather the necessary materials, (b) formulate your thoughts about the content you will write, and (c) devise work plan that includes multiple drafts.

Many ABDs get stuck trying to perform all three tasks simultaneously when they sit down to write—a sure-fire recipe for writer's block and procrastination. We've noticed that few graduate students explicitly think about their research and writing process, but those who do start blasting their way through.

When you get stuck, get some traction by asking yourself a few probing questions:

  • "Would mind mapping or brainstorming help me identify the relevant concepts?"

  • "Would writing an outline of major points help me create the necessary flow?" 

  • "Would my time be better spent writing up summaries and notes of my reading?" 

  • "Do I need to consult with a statistics expert to understand something here?"

  • "Is it time to talk to my advisor about the direction this is taking?"

Sequencing your chunks in the right order matters. Ask yourself what you need to do before you start to write. This is not wasted effort, for as Aristotle wrote, "Well begun is half done."

List all preliminary steps—including consultations and resourcing—on your agenda. Now you can settle into drafting your chapter and develop flow. Don't forget to note your post-draft steps, e.g., editing, on your list as well. Warning: Do not try to draft and edit at the same time.

Positive Psychology Tip: Savor Every Step


Take time to savor the satisfaction that comes with completing every step—including the necessary preliminary tasks. Give yourself permission to pat yourself on the back to acknowledge your growing ability to plan and your progress. Positivity fuels the momentum you need to ascend the doctoral pyramid.

Rule 3: Include "plan my work" as an action step.


Do you fail to credit yourself for the time you spend planning? This can lead one to skimp on planning. But high-performing professionals and academics understand that carving out a regular "executive planning session" is the bedrock of success.

Planning your work guarantees that you are focusing on the right task at the right time with the right tools. Conversely, proceeding haphazardly leads to dead ends and wasted effort. Here's what one academic coaching client discovered:

"I get it now—planning isn't something that's slowing me down from getting to my work; it's what makes my work go smoothly."


Rule 4: Right-size your tasks for peak performance.


If you suffer from dissertation anxiety, you are probably creating chunks that are too big, confusing actions with milestones and outcomes that take weeks or months to complete. Break things up into much smaller chunks—but not too small.

Aim to identify tasks doable in a single work session or at most a week.

Smaller items can offer unexpected benefits since crossing items off your To Do list sends your brain a jolt of dopamine—a reward that helps establish your new positive dissertation habit.

On the other hand, when paralysis creeps in, create even tinier tasks that take two minutes or less, e.g.:

1. Turn on computer. 
2. Open current file. 
3. Read first paragraph. 
4. Respond to advisor's first comment.

[Yes, Melanie used a checklist exactly like this during her darkest dissertation writing days.]

What's the right size for a dissertation chunk? It depends on the individual. You will know you've got it when your underlying sense of uneasiness or befuddlement gives way to enthusiasm (or at least improved self-confidence) about getting started. You will know exactly what you need to do, and you will have all the resources in place to do it. The work has now lost its ability to scare or confuse you. You are good to go.

When you have identified a right-sized task, your motivation to complete the task outweighs your impulse to flee it.

One last caveat: While chunking keeps you from losing time to paralysis, also avoid losing time to perfectionism in chunking. (See Melanie's article in last month's ABDSG issue about the trade-off between chaos and perfectionism). There's no need to break your work into crumbs—simply work with the largest chunks that allow you consistent progress.

As you gain traction and confidence, you can gradually increase the size of your action steps.


Bonus Rule: Apply Chunking When You Get Stuck Anywhere, Anytime

Paying attention to process has its rewards. Once you master the nuances of chunking projects, you will reap extra benefits by applying it to any aspect of your life and work, such as these:

  • Grading papers more efficiently and effectively 

  • Planning your first conference panel as moderator 

  • Revving up your job search 

  • Tackling your personal budget and income taxes 

  • Planning a move or a wedding


You are now armed to conquer dissertation anxiety and procrastination. Use these chunking rules to build your own stairway to the top where you can proudly claim your doctoral degree. The only question remaining will be what pyramid will you scale next?



"What Really Makes You Procrastinate—and Proven Ways to Get Back on Track," ABDSG #209, by Karen Forbes, Ph.D.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.

Planning resources from Dr. Melanie Sobocinski at

Image Credit: Stairs of the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico. Image Source: This image was originally posted to Flickr by Jorge Lascar at This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


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

Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C. This year marks Gayle's fifth year at the helm of the All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide. Find her bio and links below.




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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