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Finish Your Dissertation by Managing Your Mood, Not Your Time | Issue 252

Summary: When you get stuck, your dissertation can become a source of stress and negative moods. Running away from it provides relief but doesn't solve the problem. Find out what does.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes (that you get back the next time you start to procrastinate)


By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC, ABD Survival Guide Editor

Have you ever put off doing your dissertation in any of these ways? Check all that apply. 

___ housekeeping, e.g., organizing desk or doing laundry 
___ whipping up some brownies or finding some munchies
___ hanging out on YouTube videos, Netflix, or Amazon 
___ reading emails, including promotions, forums, blogs, etc. 
___ getting distracted by socializing or by social media 
___ helping someone else with their agenda 
___ getting involved in your own favorite pastimes or hobbies 

What do all these diversions have in common? They all offer you a desirable benefit—an escape from suffering and a little jolt of dopamine. 

By avoiding dissertation work, you satisfy your brain's primitive urge to avoid lions, tigers, bears, and other scary things that provoke stress. And you enjoy momentary pleasure.

Even though it can't eat you alive, when you get stuck your dissertation can become a source of stress and negative moods. Running away from it provides relief, albeit temporary. Some of your delaying tactics also offer you an illusion of accomplishment. 

Yet at day's end, you are no closer to finishing your dissertation. Any pleasure from checking your Instagram feed or pride from having washed your jeans has long faded. You likely feel worse. Especially if you ate the whole pan of brownies or ordered stuff you really can't afford. 

The real irony is that despite the costly consequences, you don't stop procrastinating. 

Every day you reward yourself for procrastination further strengthens your bad habit and chances of remaining ABD for life. In fact, research shows that procrastination is a major reason for failure to complete a doctorate. 

It's time to commit to letting your aspirations rather than feelings guide your behavior. At high achievement levels, success depends more on perseverance than talent. If you got this far, you already have all the smarts needed to finish a doctorate. What you need now is better management of bad moods. 

Read on for evidence-based tools that will help you break the negative mood-procrastination link once and for all. 


"Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom." ~ Aristotle


Get control: Raise your self-awareness

When you fritter away time instead of doing what really matters, you are letting a bad mood rather than your intentions dictate your behavior. 

To understand why you don't stay engaged with your dissertation, you need to hone your self-awareness. 


Noticing your frustration is the first step toward getting control.

The next time you feel tempted to put off your dissertation, try this mindfulness exercise. 

1. Sit still while remaining comfortable yet alert. 

2. Read the following questions, then close your eyes and notice the following: 

What thoughts are arising? Are they trying to convince me to put aside my dissertation and do something easier or more fun? 

What emotions are arising? Do I feel anxious, frustrated, tense, bored, or other? Do these emotions feel intolerable? Where do I feel it in my body?

When pushed out of your comfort zone, you may find your mind spinning something like this: 

"I can't do this. I don't even know what I am supposed to do here. I can't stand this feeling. I should go do something easier or more fun." 

While feeling frustrated is normal when you hit a bump, letting it dictate your behavior is a recipe for failure. Moments of frustration come with the bargain we each make when we embark on any arduous challenge. 

Accept that the route to a doctorate or any worthy goals inevitably involves some uncomfortable feelings. The remedy is to acknowledge your frustration and allow yourself to experience it. 

Then choose to do what is in your long-term best interest. 


"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.

In our response lies our growth and our freedom." ~ Viktor Frankl

How to choose a healthier response to frustration

As tempting as it is to react to painful negative thinking by procrastinating, you know it is merely a band aid fix since later you end up feeling worse. 

The unfinished dissertation continues to generate feelings of overwhelm and dread, creating more emotional and productivity drag, and the cycle goes on and on. 

You cannot choose your feelings, but you are always free to choose your response. 

In the long run, the path to success and well-being comes from openly acknowledging your fears and frustrations—and then committing yourself to growth. 

The key to moving forward is to reframe each "stuck point" as a "choice point." Will you choose to take steps that move you closer to your goal—or further from it? 

Refuse to be ruled by your negative emotions by cultivating a growth mindset through practicing new responses such as these: 

Choose language that invites solutions. Eliminate negative self-talk, e.g., instead of "I am incompetent," say "I haven't learned how to do this yet." 

Get curious about the challenge. Experiment with possible solutions. Identify one small step forward. You don't need to figure the whole thing out before getting started. 

Identify and tap appropriate resources. Is there a book, video, course, or person that could help you clarify the way forward? 

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. 


"You do not have to believe everything you think." 

Zen proverb


Feel the frustration and dissertate anyway

Another simple yet powerful strategy comes from Acceptance Commitment Therapy: 

1. Write down the negative thoughts that break your work flow. 

2. Note your typical, unproductive response and how that affects you in the long run. 

3. Now note an alternative response that will lead to progress.

My dissertation coaching clients find the above strategy really works. Here's a typical example:


My inner critic says my writing sucks. That belief does not help me finish and makes me want to quit and go watch a movie—hardly a helpful thought. 

Instead, I will immediately focus on the current page and write the next paragraph, deferring judgment and editing until later. 

With just a little practice, you will notice that this strategy transforms angst into progress by leveraging disruptive negative thoughts to achieve your goal rather than thwart it. 

No longer a trigger for delay, your negative mood prompts to resume your dissertation. 

In other words, feel the frustration and dissertate anyway. You do not need to be in a good mood to get going. 


Moving forward will likely rev up your mood. "When you start to act on your intention as intended, you will see your attitude and motivation change," asserts procrastination researcher Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D. of Carleton University. 

The hard truth about writing a dissertation is that mistakes, rewrites, and failures are part of the package. No one turns in a masterpiece or even an acceptable thesis without going through that humbling process. 

In the end, the choice is yours: You can either tolerate the expected tension associated with difficult but valued goal—or you can succumb to frustration. 

Part of life's hidden curriculum involves learning that success is not a straight line. As you mature, you learn to accept setbacks and respond constructively. 

Cultivating this mindset and habit will convert your journey through academia and beyond from a discouraging obstacle course into a welcome challenge course. 


One More Thing

"If you are impacted by conditions that sap your executive functions, such as ADHD, anxiety, or depression, actively managing your tendencies to procrastinate becomes even more important," notes Melanie Sobocinski, PhD, a specialist in Professional Organizing and ADHD Coaching. 

If you think a neurological or psychological condition might be getting in the way of your dissertation, she recommends reaching out to a provider for evaluation and additional support. 


Tip: Post this and consult it when frustration tempts you to procrastinate. We bet you will get back on track and finish your dissertation sooner. If you need more help with procrastination, consult a coach or therapist. 

What are you waiting for?


"Procrastination is failing to get on with life itself." ~ Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D. 



Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Discover how to overcome your fixed mindset (including perfectionism) from this Stanford psychologist's best seller. 

Harris, Russ. At his website ACT Mindfully, this Acceptance and Commitment Therapy practitioner generously offers a variety of valuable handouts, worksheets, and book chapters. 

Pychyl, Timothy A. Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change. Find our own Ben Dean's fascinating free in-depth interview with Dr. Pychyl here.

Image credit: Above photo by Peter Alfred Hess is licensed under CC BY.


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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