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Ditch Dissertation Guilt—How Holiday Fun Can Rev Up Your Progress | Issue 247

Summary: How to leverage holiday fun to zoom ahead on your dissertation.

Estimated time: 5 minutes


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

Does your unfinished dissertation threaten to dampen your holiday spirit?

If you feel trapped between the Dissertation Imperative and festive temptations, there's good news from positive psychology research:


Taking a break from work for socializing and fun is essential for flourishing. Doing so will enhance not just your well-being but also your dissertation progress.


As too many doctoral students know, driving yourself relentlessly leads to burnout. New research shows that PhD students are six times more likely than the typical person to develop depression or anxiety.

The antidote? Create better work-life balance, say the study's authors.

Positive psychologists agree. They recommend happiness-boosting interventions that build your resilience and improve your performance.

What more evidence do you need to take a break?

"Every man who possibly can should force himself to a holiday of a full month in a year, whether

he feels like taking it or not." ~ William James


Positive emotions serve as "tiny engines of flourishing."

Positive emotions—e.g., pleasure, amusement, gratitude, inspiration, awe, joy, love, contentment, pride, etc.—provide more than passing pleasant feelings.


For your own health and success, give yourself permission to enjoy a little skiing, take in a movie, adorn a tree, light candles, ice a gingerbread house, play silly games, or just hang out with friends.


These positive experiences become your "little engines of flourishing," explains emotions expert Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina.


When your positive emotional experiences outweigh your negative ones, you broaden your perspective while building your cognitive, social, and physical resources.


To benefit from your merrymaking, experiment with these four proven strategies to balance your fun and work.


1. Honor both work and fun—but not at the same time.

Has your Inner Dissertation Nag ("Why aren't you revising Chapter 2?!") ever tagged along uninvited on recreational outings? You can mute this inner critic by creating a written dissertation schedule—and then sticking to it.


When your Inner Child pesters you ("I wanna go play!") while writing, remind it that you have also blocked out some play time and resume your work.


The key is to be mindful when having fun. . . and mindful when dissertating. Don't let preoccupation about work poison your fun or vice versa.


When the occasional conflicting thought pops up, simply acknowledge it ("Ah, there's that thought again!"), and then contemplate three ways that work and play complement and support—rather than undermine—each other. Think yin/yang rather than tug-o'-war.


As you practice shifting gears, observe and pat yourself on the back for your growing mastery in switching between priorities with equanimity and grace.


"More men are killed by overwork than the importance of the world justifies." ~ Rudyard Kipling


2. Create a realistic plan—then stick to it.


Create a plan from today through the beginning of the New Year—and don't kid yourself.


You'll just beat yourself up afterward if you schedule work when you know you will really want to celebrate. Get the "musts" on your calendar first, e.g., teaching duties, advisor conferences, can't-miss social events, and so on.


Be sure to specify your work start time (e.g., "9 a.m.") rather than leaving it vague ("by the end of the day"). When you commit yourself to a schedule, you are twice as likely to follow through, studies show by creating an open loop that your mind will strive to close.


Also, beware the "planning fallacy," i.e., the common tendency to assume best-case scenarios rather than likely scenarios. According to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, humans tend to grossly underestimate time and costs—even for familiar activities. Leave some slack in your calendar for the unexpected crisis or opportunity.


Now review the empty spaces. Reserve the best ones (e.g., weekday mornings and/or afternoons) for dissertation work. The remaining calendar spaces can now be assigned to recreation and less critical tasks.


3. Short circuit rumination by pivoting to positivity.

Holidays and vacation time arrive loaded with high expectations that can set you up for disappointment. The magic of the season may elude you, or your productivity might fall short of your hopes.

Fretting and ruminating are especially harmful, Fredrickson asserts, leading you into downward spirals of negativity. Dwelling on the downside not only drags you down but also strengthens your brain's natural negative default thinking mode.

As research and experience attest, unless you reinforce the downer drama, negative emotions tend to be short-lived. According to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, when you are emotionally triggered, the chemical surge gets flushed out in less than 90 seconds, and the negative emotion dissipates—unless you do something to re-trigger it.

You can choose instead to transition to something positive, a strategy which over time becomes your new default mode. "As you create new habits of thought, you literally rewire your brain," Fredrickson observes. She recommends creating your own positivity portfolio—a list of "go-to" activities you know will short-circuit your bad moods.

What options does the holiday season offer for pivoting to positivity? You could make snow angels, sing seasonal songs, meditate by candlelight, or even watch Miracle on 34th Street again. . . whatever lights you up.


4. Practice savoring the good times before, during and after they occur.


Once you find yourself in a positive moment, triple your benefits by savoring the experience. The opposite of rumination, savoring intensifies and prolongs good experiences through anticipation, mindfulness, and memory, generating neural connections that can make positivity your new default mode.


In his blog, Dr. Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist, outlines the steps for leveraging positive experiences to rewire your brain:


For survival purposes, the brain is good at learning from the bad, but bad at learning from the good. So help it by enriching an experience through making it last a 10-20 seconds or longer, fill your body and mind, and become more intense. Also absorb it by intending and sensing that it is sinking into you as you sink into it. Do this half a dozen times a day, maybe half a minute at a time. It's less than five minutes a day. But you'll be gradually weaving a profound sense of being already fundamentally peaceful, happy, loved, and loving into the fabric of your brain and your life.

This simple practice develops inner calm and resilience, enabling you to stay centered during the ups and downs of the holiday season and into the new year.

Now Go Play!

True flourishing results from integrating work and play, transforming them from competing priorities into mutually reinforcing activities.


With thought and care, spiced by social support, you can develop a habit of maintaining a work-life balance that will serve you now—and for many holidays after you earn the title "doctor."


NOTE: Are you struggling to create habits of positivity and productivity? Apply for a free consultation with a positive psychology dissertation coach by clicking here. Let it be the gift you give yourself so you can finish your dissertation while you enjoy the holidays and your future successes.



Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life by Barbara Fredrickson. Learn from the world's expert why positivity matters for success and well-being as well as how to create more of it.

Positive Emotions Transform Us by Barbara Fredrickson. In this video, Fredrickson shares the research-based benefits of positive emotions for beneficial changes in individuals.

Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time by Rick Hanson. Neuropsychologist and therapist shares 52 practices to cultivate lasting inner peace and contentment. Subscribe here to his free e-newsletter for weekly inspiration.


Heart-Mind 2018 by Rick Hanson. In this video at the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, Hanson provides a science-based way to benefit from our good experiences.


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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