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Getting Bogged Down with Your Dissertation? How to Stop Sabotaging Yourself | Issue 249

Summary: Working hard on your dissertation but getting bogged down? You could be sabotaging yourself by overusing your strengths.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


By Diane Dreher, Ph.D., A.C.C., C.M.C.

"Our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses" – Gordon Livingston

Have you been working really hard on your dissertation but feeling frustrated with the results? 

You could be getting in your own way. 

Although using our top character strengths can make us healthier, happier, and more successful, strengths expert Ryan Niemiec, Ph.D., has found that overuse of these strengths can sabotage us. This could be happening with your dissertation.

In a major international study, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., and Christopher Peterson, Ph.D.—two of the founders of positive psychology—discovered 24 character strengths common to humankind: creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective, bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest, love, kindness, social intelligence, teamwork, fairness, leadership, forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation, appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality. 

We all possess these strengths in varying degrees. Your top five strengths, or "signature strengths," influence the way you think, feel, and relate to the world, including working on your dissertation. 


Know Your Signature Strengths

Do you know your signature strengths? You can discover them by taking the short VIA Survey, a free online self-assessment. Review your VIA results to identify your top 5 strengths. 

These strengths could be supporting your dissertation progress, but they could also be hindering you. If one of your top strengths is "love of learning," this strength may be helping you discover new insights while doing your literature review. But if "love of learning" is diverting you into reading articles unrelated to your dissertation, then your overuse of this strength is sabotaging your progress. 


Watch Out for Self-Sabotage

Now it's time for some personal detective work. Do any of these strengths overuse examples sound familiar? 

  • Prudence: being planful, responsible, and conscientious. 
    Overuse: overthinking, obsessive planning that keeps us from taking action. 
    Has obsessive planning kept you from beginning the next stage of your dissertation? Have you designed the experiment and double-checked your plan but are still not ready to begin? What can you do to move forward? 

  • Curiosity: openness to experience, fascination, novelty seeking. 
    Overuse: nosiness, distraction, digression. 
    Has your curiosity led to distraction? When working in the lab or library, do you waste time with idle gossip? When doing research online, are you distracted by news and social media? What can you do to stay focused? 

  • Perseverance: persistence, industriousness. 
    Overuse: imbalance, perseveration, not knowing when to stop working as you reach a point of diminishing returns. 
    Do you think about your dissertation all the time, neglecting adequate time for meals, exercise, companionship, and sleep? Overuse of perseverance can undermine your work/life balance and exhaust your brain. Research by Dutch psychologist Ap Dijkterhuis has shown that taking breaks may actually lead to creative insights. 

  • Zest: vitality, energy, aliveness. 
    Overuse: hyperactive, can't sit still. 
    Is it hard to sit down to write up your research? Do you find all kinds of excuses? What can you do to let your energies work for you instead of against you? Can you make time for regular exercise or get up and walk around to think about your project? 

  • Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence: esthetic sensitivity, wonder, awe. 
    Overuse: perfectionism, getting stuck writing the first draft of your dissertation, afraid it's not good enough. 
    What can you do to remind yourself that writing your dissertation is a learning process, affirming what psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D., calls a "growth mindset"? 


Get Back on Track

If you've been overusing one of your strengths, you can begin breaking this habit by using the "if—then" plan developed by psychologist Gabrielle Oettingen, Ph.D.. First choose a positive alternative behavior to get back on track, and then if you find yourself overusing this strength, then shift to the alternative behavior. 

For example, if you've been overusing-- 

  • PrudenceIf I've been overplanning, afraid to take the next step with my dissertation, then I will check in with my dissertation advisor to make sure I'm ready. 

  • CuriosityIf I've been getting distracted while doing my work, then I will tell myself, "I need to focus now." 

  • PerseveranceIf I've been pushing myself too hard, then I will give myself a break to restore my balance. 

  • ZestIf I've found it hard to sit still, then I will get up and walk around to think about my project before returning to my desk. 

  • Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence: If I've been afraid my first draft is not good enough, then I will tell myself, "It's just a first draft—I'm learning and growing in the process." 

Now it's your turn. Where have you been overusing a top strength and what's your "if—then" plan? 

"To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom." – Socrates 



References and Resources

Dweck, Carol. Mindset : The New Psychology of Success 


Niemiec, Ryan M. Character Strengths Interventions: A Field Guide for Practitioners 


Oettingen, Gabrielle. Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation 


Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 


Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421. 


For further information about strengths, including assessments, reports, resources, and courses, see


About the Author

Diane Dreher, Ph.D. is a positive psychology coach, college professor, and author of the best-selling Tao of Inner Peace.Drawing upon insights from Eastern philosophy and strategies from positive psychology, Diane's coaching helps people find greater balance in challenging times, discover their strengths, and chart a successful path to achieve their goals. Visit her Psychology Today blog and her web sites, and


Contact Diane online at

Top Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC


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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