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8 Bad Habits Holding You Back from Finishing Your Dissertation | Issue 240

Summary: Conquer your bad habits that stop you from finishing your doctoral dissertation now

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

By Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C.

Making scant or slow progress on your dissertation?

Chances are high that your typical routine is tripping you up. Review these eight bad habits to identify your counterproductive practices.

Then turn things around using our expert tips and you'll get that thesis to your dissertation chair in no time.

1. Waiting for your muse or the right mood.

"Don't wait for the muse," advises Stephen King, one of the most prolific of contemporary writers. "Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon. or seven 'til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up."

Procrastination researcher Tim Pychyl, Ph.D warns not to give in to feeling good by putting your work off; stick to your plan (and plan time off). Don't fall into the trap of rewarding your inner monkey for leading you astray or it will never stop pestering you.


2. Failing to calendarize and then prioritize your dissertation time.

Your dissertation should show up on your daily agenda (see #1 above). Big blank spaces on your calendar (where you think you might write) trick you and others into thinking you have ample free time. Honor your academic goal as you would any obligation by blocking off time for it every day. Perhaps enter it as "Dr. Me" time or some other motivating term.

Now protect that time by fitting less important tasks around your success-generating schedule, including meetings (except with your advisor). Bonus: Simply having a specific start time each day makes it twice as likely that you will get going—and once you get started, you are more likely to hang in there.


3. Editing while writing.

Writing and editing are two completely different thinking modes; one is creative, the other critical. As successful authors attest, the writing muse gets shy when the judge shows up. Furthermore, switching back and forth keeps you from building writing momentum. You would not keep hitting the brakes while trying to accelerate, would you?

Those eager to develop a habit of writing fast and frequently should check out www.750words.comfor a gamified approach to overcoming premature editing tendencies.


4. Saying "yes" to activities that do not contribute to your long-term goals.

As Steve Jobs observed, "It's only by saying 'no' that you can concentrate on the things that are really important." Before you accede to an impulse or to someone else's request, ask yourself how you'll feel a year from now when your status remains ABD because you've been busy helping other people complete their agendas.

How can you handle requests gracefully? Try these options: Say you are honored to be asked but too booked to give it your best; then refer the requester to someone else. Ask them to send you a detailed email so you can give it due consideration. Or indicate that it is not your area of expertise and refer them on. Offer sympathy for their predicament, smile sympathetically, and move on. Practice these responses until you lose your reputation as a doormat.

Finally, forestall even short interruptions by help seekers (e.g., "Can I just ask you a quick question?") by making yourself unavailable—either with a closed door or by working from somewhere they won't bother you.


5. Forgetting to take time for fun and friends.

No one is advocating all work and no play. Your "down time" can be critical in maintaining the needed zest for persevering in your dissertation marathon. Spend it creating positive experiences, e.g., doing something fun, spending time with friends, enjoying a hobby. Savor them in moderation without guilt since research shows positivity fuels performance. The happy ABD is a productive ABD!


6. Shorting yourself on sleep.

Inadequate sleep dumbs you down and shortens your life. Limiting yourself to a mere six hours of sleep per night for two weeks reduces academic performance as much as going without sleep for 48 hours. In the short run, sleep deprivation raises your craving for junk food while reducing your sex drive. In the long term, it increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, memory loss, heart damage, and mortality.

Enhance your performance, relationships, and longevity by getting at least six and a half hours of Zzz's every night. Find your own sleep sweet spot by sleeping enough to wake up rested without an alarm.


7. Not making time for exercise or vigorous activity.

Stop making excuses about your lack of time. You already know that you need to be active for your physical health. Now studies confirm that your brain benefits from regular exercise as it leads to improved cognitive skills and reduced stress.

Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity—whether at the gym, dancing, playing tennis, or doing house or yard chores. Remember that your current habits are building your future self, body, and mind. How healthy and smart would you like to remain or become?


8. Mistaking your dissertation for your magnum opus.

If you think your dissertation must be a "Masterpiece of Staggering Genius," you have fallen victim to the magnum opus myth, writes Dr. Joli Jensen, media studies professor and academic writing guru. She advises you to read dissertations by your advisor and other faculty to disabuse you of the notion that they were brilliant from the get-go. Aim high, she encourages, but get perspective: Your dissertation is just your very first small step toward the overall contribution you will make.

Were you planning to turn it into a book? If so, that will become a completely different project, one with a different editor, different audience, and different goal, observe the authors of It's Just a Dissertation. To make it a book, first finish your dissertation—and then seek a publisher who will guide you in the book process.


You can cultivate habits for sustainable success

By now you have probably concluded that managing your dissertation involves learning to manage yourself better. Surprisingly, cultivating habits for sustainable success is the hidden curriculum in a doctoral program. That's one reason the doctorate is highly valued even outside your specialty. The effort you put into developing healthy practices results in a tremendous ROI (return on investment), with compounding interest, for your career success. Go for it!

Keep in mind that you can't change too many habits at once—just start with one that will give you the biggest bang for your efforts. Be sure to monitor your progress daily and celebrate even small successes with your support network.

P.S. If you need an extra support boost, ask for a free consultation with a positive psychology dissertation coach by going to We have decades of proven success in helping doctoral students get to graduation faster and in great shape by nurturing sustainable habits for success and well-being.



Davis, Josh. Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done

Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Sword, Helen. Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write.


Photo credit: Unknown, licensed under CC BY-SA


If you are considering whether to get your own coach to help you reach your academic goals, fill out this brief application for a free consultation with a dissertation coach.

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 resources

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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