top of page

Sleep Your Way to Your Doctorate | Issue 223

Dissertating while sleepless leads to procrastination, moodiness, and other undesirable effects. You are probably sleep deprived—learn the symptoms and the best proven strategies for getting more zzzz's. (Hint: Coffee is not on the list.)

Estimated reading time: Under 5 minutes if you are wide awake.

Want to Finish Your Dissertation? Then Go to Bed!

By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC

"Sleep less, achieve less." ~ Tom Rath

Do you go to bed when you want to—but get up when you have to? Then keep reading.


Okay, you are like most people. However, it also suggests you are less likely to finish your dissertation when you hope to.


The reason? Sleep deprivation.

Over the last generation, cultural factors have provoked a major shift in sleep patterns. Nearly everyone fails to get enough sleep. The average adult gets about six hours of sleep instead of the seven to nine hours needed for optimal functioning. Some people claim not to need much sleep, but most of these "are just used to being sleep deprived," says Professor Steven Shaw at McGill University. "Cognitive inefficiency is normal for them." They don't know what they are missing, he adds.

Sleeplessness Can Lead to Death, Destruction, and Delays

Sleep scientists have been sounding the alarm. For example, investigators concluded that sleep deprivation played a significant role in the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, in the Exxon Valdez oil tanker grounding, and in the space shuttle Challenger explosion. Furthermore, over one million injuries and between 50,000 and 100,000 deaths each year result from preventable medical errors—many caused by interns whose schedules prevent adequate sleep. Drowsy drivers cause approximately 1 million crashes, 500,000 injuries, and 8,000 deaths each year in the U.S., making driving while sleepless as dangerous as drunk driving.

If you don't finish your dissertation on time, no one will die and nothing will explode—but you will be jeopardizing your own health and future. The evidence is clear: Performance deteriorates if you short yourself on sleep. It also leads to weight gain, lethargy, high blood pressure, poor response to stress, and uneven blood sugar regulation. Shaw gets blunt: "Sleep deprivation is bad."


7 Signs that You Need More Sleep

With inadequate sleep, cognitive performance and self-management worsen. Being mildly but chronically sleep deprived makes you more susceptible to stress, cravings, and temptation, writes Gallup strengths expert Tom Rath.

How many of these symptoms of sleep deprivation have you experienced lately?

• Poor attention 
• Diminished ability to think effectively
• Impaired working memory and short-term memory
• Easily distracted by irrelevant stimuli 
• Procrastination 
• Weak resistance against temptations
• Greater difficulty in regulating your moods

Conclusion: Don't expect to do your best work if tired. You'll be challenged to do even "good enough" work.


How To Get More Zzz's

Now that you understand the importance of getting those seven-plus hours of sleep, how can you make it a habit?

1. Consider your sleep time sacred. Don't cut into it when you find yourself getting busy. Eliminate or shorten something else—say, television or social media. I'm surprised by how many doctoral students tell me they switch on the TV to relax after a long day—but admit that it only makes them groggy. You'd be better off skipping TV and getting to bed on time if you really want to re-energize yourself.

2. Figure out your bedtime. Find out what time you need to hit the hay in order to get up on time and then plan backward from your designated bedtime to create your unique bedtime routine. Allow yourself an hour or more to wind down. Avoid digital devices and televisions during this time—except to set an alarm to remind you to start getting ready for bed.

3. Create a personal bedtime routine that promotes sleepiness. Some things you may want to do to promote sleep: taking a warm bath or shower, meditating or quiet reading, turning down the heat, darkening the room. Some things to avoid: eating, exercising, TVs, digital devices. Download a screen darkening app, e.g., Twilight, if you are going to work on your computer or tablet—and then turn the device off at least an hour before bedtime. Keep in mind that yellow lights will stimulate wakefulness while blue lights do not. Did you know that caffeine has a half-life of six to nine hours and interferes with sensors that detect sleep need? Enjoy your morning joe and then abstain. Alternatives: Warm milk, which contains tryptophan, a sleep-inducing amino acid, and specially formulated herbal teas, e.g., Celestial Seasoning's Sleepytime Extra, or my personal favorite, Yogi BedtimeTea. [Both teas contain valerian and are for adults only.]  

Note: If you wake up in the middle of the night, do not turn on your PC or TV—repeat your bedtime routine and get back in bed. This will train your brain to go to sleep.

4. Keep your bed and bedroom just for sleeping. Never use your bed for TV or studying. That way your bedroom and bed become conditioned stimuli that trigger sleepiness. Listen to a guided relaxation or nighttime meditation if desired, but no watching YouTube or Netflix or anything else. Avoid falling asleep on the sofa—get yourself into that bed.

5. Allow yourself to wake up naturally. Hitting the snooze button is counterproductive, Rath notes, as any further sleep is of poor quality at best. One complete sleep cycle is about 90 minutes—and interrupting it with an alarm can make you groggy for hours. Keep moving your bedtime back until you can walk up naturally, ready for your day. Then stick to those times as two bookends to your sleep module.

6. Consider what you are saying "yes" to instead of sleep. Ask yourself if this activity is worth delaying your dissertation. Then see if you can cut back on whatever is keeping you up or move it to another time slot in your day.

Taking your sleep seriously is part of taking your health and success seriously. How much do you want that doctorate? Then go to bed and wake up ready to be awesome!




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.



Subscribe to our other free e-mail Newsletter: The Coaching Toward Happiness News



bottom of page