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Break the Dissertation Anxiety-Procrastination Cycle Forever | Issue 228

In this issue: Learn to conquer dissertation anxiety and procrastination forever. Need more support? Apply for your own coach. Finish faster with less angst. [Estimated reading time 5 minutes]

Excerpted from Breaking the Vicious Circle by Tomas Walter

Adapted with permission for the ABD Survival Guide by Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., Editor 

Procrastination has been called the number one problem in academia by researcher Tim Pychyl, Ph.D. Although it appears in various guises, many forms stem from just one common cause. Can you name it?

It's anxiety.

Have you ever felt a sense of doom cloud your dissertation quest? Or experienced fear, nerves, worry, concern, or doubt? Or perhaps, in imagining whatmight happen on the road to your hooding ceremony, you felt a sense of queasiness?

If so, you've suffered from dissertation anxiety.

In dissertators, as in others, anxiety symptoms get triggered by various things—fear of failure, fear of success, perfectionism, unrealistic standards, and so on.

The bad news is that some individuals are especially prone to anxiety—and thus to procrastination. Are you one of them? If so, read on to understand how it provokes suffering and delay and how you can overcome it.

Why You Procrastinate


Anxiety-prone individuals are more likely to be burdened by irrational assumptions—unfounded beliefs that instigate the pernicious anxiety-procrastination cycle. For example, a doctoral candidate may worry that his advisor will read his chapter drafts and conclude that he is totally unfit for the program (although the advisor has never communicated anything of the sort). So he finds excuses to put off writing or sending the advisor any drafts.

Another might be afraid of failing to live up to her own performance—and thus constantly invents shallow excuses to delay dissertating.

These and other procrastinating ABDs make the common mistake of attempting to cope with dissertation anxiety through procrastination. However, it turns out to be undeniably ineffective as the unfinished dissertation continues to generate feelings of dread and/or shame, creating yet more emotional and productivity drag.

An effective solution requires understanding three common mental habits that underlie anxiety-provoked procrastination behaviors: (1) low frustration tolerance, (2) catastrophizing, and (3) an excessive need for control.


Low Frustration Tolerance: "I can't take this anymore!"


Forced out of their comfort zone by the task at hand, anxiety-prone students may balk at putting in the necessary effort. By embracing the "I can't take it anymore" mentality, they suspend any activity related to their project, thereby finding relief, albeit temporary, from any dissertation-associated anxiety.

While this behavior may resemble a childish tantrum, we should not be too quick to judge ourselves or others. Called "low frustration tolerance" by experts, this tendency reflects an unwillingness to tolerate even the smallest amount of distress—which is as inevitable on the dissertation journey as it is on any path to meaningful success.

This hedonistic attitude explains why some people quit working the minute they encounter an obstacle, thinking, "I can't do this! It's too hard!" This mindset may also elicit angry outbursts, high distress levels, and considerable restlessness.


How can you overcome low frustration tolerance?

First, acknowledge that frustration is a normal reaction when one's programmed need for short-term rewards is not met. Remember you are now an adult. You can combat the urge to throw a hissy fit by committing to developing an increased frustration tolerance in return for the greater rewards of reaching your goal of becoming a doctor. Accept that the only route to a doctorate involves some uncomfortable feelings.

Next, pay close attention to how you talk to yourself, especially just as you are tempted to give up in frustration. Notice the negative self-talk that convinces you to stop dissertating (even if you've only been working for ten minutes).

Becoming mindful of the procrastination-inducing thoughts allows you to acknowledge them—and then let them go. 

You do not have to obey every thought that arises! Strive to talk to yourself as you would to a struggling friend, i.e., with gentleness and kindness.

You may wish to try this simple, proven strategy: (1) Write down the negative thoughts (e.g., "I hate this," "This is exhausting," "I'm not cut out for this") that break your work flow. (2) Challenge these irrational, self-sabotaging assumptions by asking: How does this belief help me? (3) Now write down constructive steps you can take in your own, long-term self-interest.

Notice how this transforms your angst into progress by leveraging disruptive negative thoughts. No longer a reason to delay, they serve as prompts to resume your dissertation. Here's an example: 

"My inner critic says my writing sucks. That belief does not help me finish and makes me want to quit—hardly a helpful thought. Instead, I will immediately focus on the current page and write three more paragraphs. I can defer editing until later."

In other words, feel the frustration and dissertate anyway.

The choice is yours: You can either tolerate the standard amount of tension associated with any unpleasant but necessary activity for your dissertation, or you can choose to "rage quit" whenever you find the frustration "unbearable."


The next time you feel tempted to procrastinate, stop and sit still while remaining comfortable yet alert.

Read the following questions, then close your eyes and answer them.

• What thoughts are going through your mind right now? Are they trying to convince you to put aside your dissertation and do something easier or more fun? Acknowledge them without criticism or trying to change them.

• What emotions are you experiencing? Do you feel anxious, frustrated, tense, bored, or other? Again, notice them without trying to change anything.

• What bodily sensations are there? As above, just notice.

Now open your eyes and decide what you will do in your own long-term best interest. Write down your intention.

Catastrophizing: Making Mountains out of Molehills

Anxious people catastrophize a lot. For such an ABD, even the smallest disruption (e.g., not having a needed reference on hand) can quickly erupt into crisis—and a justification to put off dissertating. They further exacerbate their anxiety by often saddling themselves impossible, self-imposed standards.

By making mountains out of molehills, these anxious folks convert even small hassles or obstacles into dramatic, even tragic, events that allow them to rationalize delays. As victims of some awful situation, they feel entitled to discontinue working.

Probably the saddest part here is that these procrastinators often fail to realize how ridiculous and exaggerated their excuses sound to others. They believe their self-fabricated catastrophic interpretations and refuse to take responsibility for their procrastination.

How can you stop catastrophizing?

One good way is to imagine the worst thing that could happen. . . and then something even worse than that. For Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Therapy, it was "to slowly die by being cut to pieces with a sharp blade." He then realized that the pain intensity would depend on a variety of factors. Thus any injury he imagined could be worse. Similarly, any harm you might imagine could be made more severe.

As you can see, the worst thing has not happened and will not happen. That missing so-called critical resource need not stymie you. When you realize that a situation is only as catastrophic as you interpret it, you'll be able to unmask procrastination tendencies and get back on track to your goal.


The Excessive Need for Control: A Hyper-Focus on the Negatives

Experts warn that an excessive desire to control every aspect of our life can lead to procrastination tendencies. Those who obsess over gaining full control develop a hyper-focus on the negatives. For them, apotential adverse outcome represents not merely an unpleasant possibility but a serious threat to their integrity, performance, status, or similar concept.

You could spend time and energy envisioning an infinite number of ways in which your dissertation proposal and research might fail—and waste undue effort attempting to devise a plan to forestall every catastrophic scenario. There's a downside to this: You'll lose your peace of mind and push back your graduation date.

How can you get over your obsession for control?

The hard truth about life is that none of us can always have full control over our behavior or our outcomes. There are simply too many other influencing factors.


This, however, is no reason to admit defeat and retreat from challenges that give life meaning. Sometimes being average and having less-than-perfect results is the best you can do under the given circumstances—and that is perfectly okay. Remind yourself that very few successful doctoral candidates turned in a masterpiece.

Whenever you find yourself dwelling on potential disaster, stop immediately. Invite your brain to get off its default negative neural pathways and start retraining it. Do this by intentionally searching for at least three potential positive outcomes from doing your work. You'll discover that not having 100% control over your life or work does not portend disaster. Everything will not fall apart.

Final tip: Print this and post it where you will see it the next time you are tempted to procrastinate. We bet you will get back on track and finish your dissertation sooner. If you need intensive help with procrastination, consult a coach or therapist.



Pychyl, Timothy A. Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change

Find Ben Dean's free in-depth interview with Dr. Pychyl here.

Urban, Tim. Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator (TED talk)

Walter, Tomas. Breaking the Vicious Circle: How to Beat Procrastination, Skyrocket Your Productivity, and Finally Get Things Done


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 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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