top of page

Top Insider Tips for Finishing Your Dissertation Faster | Issue 236 

Avoiding your dissertation while you hope for hard deadlines for your advisor or inspiration from your muse? You could wait forever. Get going today with proven strategies for getting unstuck and on track to finishing your doctorate from someone who knows. (Reading time: about 5 minutes.)

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

One author likens dissertation writing to baptism by fire.

Does that phrase ring true for you?

If you've ever experienced doubts, anxiety, or paralysis on dissertation street, you may find it an apt metaphor. Chances are that no one warned you about rampant dissertation overwhelm—or offered a clue about how to combat it.

If you are struggling to finish your dissertation, the hidden curriculum in doctoral programs most likely caught you by surprise.

What curriculum is that? It's one that deals with the principles of self-management.

It's a tough course, but in the long run, you will find it mastering yourself to be worth at least as much as your academic learning. Managing a mammoth endeavor such as a dissertation is as much about managing yourself as about managing theories and data.

The real secret to finishing a dissertation cannot be found in a library or a laboratory. Instead it reveals itself as you become more adept at managing your time and your energy. In short, it's about honing self-discipline to a level you didn't need in high school or college because you got by on your smarts.

Careful observation reveals that truly successful scholars don't just finish their dissertation. Along the way they also establish powerful, healthy habits that convert goals into achievements. The most effective way to do this involves intentionally practicing strategies that work, i.e., the ones that allow you to turn away from distress and pivot toward productivity.

Fortunately, you don't need to reinvent the wheel. Prolific writers and productivity researchers tend to agree on the best practices. These practices also resonate with what I've learned from fourteen years of coaching ABD students to success.


In this post and the following one, I'll share the top 10 proven strategies that will get you unstuck and propel you to the finish line. If you are faltering or in danger of burning out, experiment with these to steady yourself, keep your cool, and keep writing until you earn that sheepskin.

1. Don't wait for your muse. Successful writers don't wait for inspiration. You finish a writing project by honoring your goal. That means calendarizing D-time just as you would appointments with your advisor or dentist. For extra punch, label your writing appointments with compelling, inspiring phrases, such as "For my success" or "Be kind to future me!" or whatever calls to you. Don't wait for your muse or "the right mood." Get started, keep at it, and your mind will eventually follow suit. When you become present to the writing, the words will come.

"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, chomping his cigar and making his magic." 

~ Stephen King

2. Lower the barrier to starting. Make it easier to start writing than to fritter away your valuable time. Skip the temptation to clean off your desk by getting everything ready the night before. Keep your sequenced task list posted to avoid the merry-go-round of indecision: "Should I edit the Intro? Or write Chapter 5?" Does a blank page induce terror? Then leave your word document open with the last sentence of the day or a note about where to start. Reducing uncertainty about where to start lowers the risk that seeds of doubt will germinate.

"The secret of getting ahead is getting started." ~ Mark Twain

3. Commit yourself to a fixed start time. Don't focus on the deadline—focus on the start time. That creates an open loop that your brain works to close by reminding you to follow through. Research shows you are twice as likely to do it if you've said when you'll get going. Remember how your "inner nag" kept reminding you that you had an impending call to your advisor? And it stopped after you made the call? That's how it works.

"Don't wait. The time will never be just right." ~ Napoleon Hill

4. Minimize all distractions. Turning off your smart phone or web connection does not go nearly far enough. Mindfully assess other distractions in your environs. Every time you toggle your attention, you lose. (Family photos, dirty dishes, and the latest New Yorker are among my nemeses, which is why I am writing this from St. Michael's Blue Crab coffee shop.)

"There's no such thing as multitasking, just multifailing." ~ Peter Brookman

5. Maximize "nudgers." The opposite of a distractor, a nudger can be anything that helps keep you on track. Make your writing space attractive. Put your most inspiring book on it. Post a calendar and put a star each day that you meet your quota. Get a writing buddy or ask a friend or coach to expect your latest page at day's end. (You could pin up a photo of the exotic beach or city you will visit after graduation—but take it down if you start daydreaming about being there). What works for you?

"When you feel like quitting, think about what got you started." ~ Anonymous

Following these recommendations will reap you two important benefits—your sought-after doctoral degree and the deep satisfaction of enhanced self-management. Over time, the return on your investment will continue to compound. Plus, your self-confidence will soar because you know you can trust yourself to follow through on your commitments.

In the end, it is up to you to choose to master this implicit doctoral curriculum. Don't expect your professors to impose it. That's not their job. If you sense that you would benefit from professional help as you cultivate your writing and self-management habits, don't hesitate to call a dissertation coach. That's what we are here for.





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.



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



bottom of page