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Dissertate with Pleasure: 5 Proven Tips | Issue 297

Summary: Five strategies to add positivity and productivity to your dissertation writing routine.


Estimated read time: Five minutes that will stop your mood-based dissertation procrastination and revive your initial enthusiasm.


By Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D.

With any goal, there is usually a phase of deciding to set the goal, getting excited about the pursuit, and the fun of those early successes; completing a dissertation is no exception. But a dissertation is a huge undertaking, and somewhere along the way, motivation wanes and progress slows. Then the thoughts creep in—usually in the voice of your inner critic or personal saboteur—questioning whether you're up to the task and bringing a strong urge to put things off. 

If this sounds familiar, you're not alone. Research shows that about 60% of graduate students tend to procrastinate. Compared to undergrads, their delaying habits tend to be linked more to fear of failure and lack of assertiveness. We also know that procrastination and rumination go hand-in-hand, so strategies that minimize rumination and fear may be a key to progress. In cases like these, your thoughts become your own worst enemies. 

Fortunately, you can turn the tables on these saboteurs and put your thoughts to work for you. 

Positive psychology research shows that engaging in mood-lifting activities causes us to take a broader view of our circumstances. You can do it with meditation, visualization, or any experience that elicits positive emotion, including but not limited to happiness. 

This enlarged perspective enables us to notice and leverage more resources in our environment, explains Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., widely known for her broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. As she observes, "Positivity doesn't just change the contents of your mind—it widens the span of possibilities that you see." 

Those positivity-building actions then lead to more lifts in mood and more opportunities coming our way. Such "upward spirals of positivity" have been linked to enhanced well-being and mood regulation as well as decreased depressive symptoms. An upward spiral can be triggered by mood-boosting activities in as few as ten minutes. 

You can stop defeating thought patterns in their tracks and simultaneously spark an upward spiral by leveraging positive visualizations, brief meditations, simple writing exercises, and other quick strategies. Experiment with some of these strategies to boost your productivity and create writing sessions that you look forward to. 

Here's how: 

1. Use Positive Visualizations.

Visualizations can be a great tool for success. Athletes and chess champions have been shown to perform better if they vividly visualize themselves successfully practicing the activities that bring them success, whether it's making a perfect basket or navigating the chess board confidently and expertly. 

While some research has suggested that visualizing failure can help you motivate yourself to work harder, it might boomerang for the many doctoral students already quite aware of the negative consequences of not finishing that dissertation. For them, a focus on potential failure may lead to anxiety and avoidance-based coping. 

We can relax and vividly imagine successfully working a paper, enjoying the week's reading, or imagine the feeling of pride and relief that will come when the next assignment is completed. Beware, however, fantasizing too much about success as it can backfire. As researcher Gabrielle Oettingen explains, such intense daydreaming tricks your brain into thinking you've already achieved your goal and thus dampens any urge to act. A better motivational strategy, she explains, is to visualize the path to the goal, including obstacles. 


2. Try Self-Compassionate Writing.

Your own inner critic can really tear you down by magnifying your fears and failures to the point that you feel less motivated, less capable, and less hopeful. Many people find themselves responding to this through distraction, but this can lead to procrastination and a vicious cycle of self-criticism. A simple antidote to this is self-compassionate writing. 

Research shows that this is more effective for dealing with rumination than using distraction, and it can help you avoid the slippery slope of losing track of time in your distraction-based coping. One effective technique is to set a timer for eight minutes and write about something that feels like a failure. You can try any negative thing your inner critic or personal saboteur may be whispering in your ear. 

Then express caring and kindness to yourself about this situation the same way you would if a close friend came to you saying these things about themself. As researcher Kristen Neff, Ph.D., has found, "Self-compassion is a better motivator than self-criticism because its driving force is love, not fear." 

Finally, get back to the task at hand with increased self-confidence and pat yourself on the back. 


3. Surround Yourself with Mantras.

You can use your environment to build your confidence and maintain a success-inducing attitude by leveraging your unconscious mind. One simple way to do this is to choose a few powerful mantras and add them to your environment in creative ways. 

You may leave a post-it on your bathroom mirror saying, "You've got this!" Or you could write in your daily planner, "Today you're making progress toward finishing your dissertation!" 


I recommend that you write these messages to yourself a few days ahead of time and not every day, so the encouragement feels fresh. Think of the kind of encouragement that resonates with you. Some people love being told "Just do it!" while others prefer a gentler, "Keep on going—you're doing great!" Find creative ways to put these messages in your path. They can redirect your thinking away from avoidance and anxiety to building confidence and motivation. 


4. Create a List of Wins.

This one is simple and effective. Working toward a doctorate often means having to-do lists a mile long. It can be disheartening to see items that aren't completed at the end of the day, and this can hurt your motivation the next day—and the next. A useful alternative is to have a "wins column" that you list at the end of each day. 

The mornings can have their to-do lists, but a nighttime wins column can help you to see everything you accomplished on that day and be proud of yourself. This shifts the focus away from what you feel you didn't do well enough and reminds you of how much you get done in a day. 

An added bonus is that you may find yourself more motivated to do small tasks that bring greater benefits before quitting for the day, just for the pleasure of seeing them on the list and feeling that added bit of accomplishment. And these small wins add up! 

"Every action you take is a vote for the person you will become." ~ James Clear | Tweet this


5. If You Need a Break, Make it Count.

Sometimes we all just need a break—a few minutes or a few days off. When you take a break, it's important to be sure that you make the break work for you. One effective way to do this is to engage in mood-lifting activities like exercise, spending time with a loved one, or even watching videos of cute animals. Avoid draining activities that feel like more work. 


Engaging in mood-lifting activities can spur an upward spiral. Moreover, by creating a break from stress, it can build motivation to complete those daunting but important dissertation tasks. Don't wait for graduation day to welcome positive moments into your life. Do it now—and you'll finish faster. 



"The Happy Secret to Better Work," viral TED talk by Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage

Positive Emotions Open Our Mind video by Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity, from the Greater Good Science Center 

Guided Meditation for Success video by Declutter the Mind




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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