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The Secret to Overcoming Dissertation Delays | Issue 301

Summary: Learn to distinguish between procrastination and justifiable delay--and what to do about both.

Estimated read time: 5 minutes that will get you going and bring you peace


By Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., Editor

The year is almost over. How far behind are you on your dissertation or doctoral studies?


Before you start kicking yourself, pause for a moment of discernment: Have you been procrastinating or merely delaying? The differences go beyond mere semantics as the root causes and best strategies differ dramatically. Let's look at both.

"All procrastination is delay—but not all delay is procrastination," asserts Tim Pychyl, Ph.D., retired Carleton professor and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. In his delightful MentorCoach master class, he offered us an insider's view of the subject. 

Before we dive into one of his major procrastination-busting strategies, I encourage you to distinguish delay from procrastination. This seemingly small detail may clarify some of your own decisions and allow inner peace with delays. 


Procrastination, by definition, involves voluntarily putting off what you intend to do even though you know you'll be worse off, states Pychyl. It's irrational because you lose more than you gain. But purposeful delays may be entirely rational, as when you allow higher priorities take precedence over your academic goal. 

Are You Procrastinating—or Purposefully Delaying?


My own dissertation clients tell stories of both procrastination and purposeful delay. 


Many admit to being disappointed in themselves for doomscrolling, binge watching, "procrasti-baking," et cetera, when they should have been working on their research or studies. These forms of procrastination have no redeeming value. Furthermore, we often fail to fully enjoy these distractions because we know at some level that they are self-sabotage. 


Perhaps your monkey mind steers you to low-hanging fruit. Do you avoid critical tasks and instead dive into less important ones, e.g., cleaning out a closet or organizing your holiday card list? I confess I have. Such busyness, dubbed "procrastivity" by researcher Russell Ramsay, Ph.D., deludes you into thinking you are actually working. You check "C" level tasks off your To Do list—but afterward dissertation tasks loom even larger. 


When is delay justifiable? Some of my clients consciously chose to dial back doctoral progress to respond appropriately to changing circumstances. Some needed time to care for their own or a family member's health issues, from depression to Covid. Illness, accidents, and death of loved ones happen—and they never happen at convenient times. It makes sense to postpone academic work to manage and recover from such serious events. 


Occasional minor purposeful delays may also be a good idea. For example, you may intentionally postpone writing up results to pursue additional investigation. Or you might benefit from time to incubate an idea to allow for fuller development. And it is possible that temporary job or family demands might lead you to fall behind academically. None of these qualify as procrastination. 


Not sure if you are engaging in procrastination or purposeful delay? Ask yourself: In the long run, am I better or worse off for the delay? If you are better off, then asking for incompletes or extensions is not only justifiable but also prudent for your own well-being. 


Even so, high achievers may find that slowing down activates their inner critic. It lambastes them for not finishing as planned, for being the last in their cohort to defend. My best advice here is to acknowledge your disappointment, pat yourself on the back for living your values, and then move on to your action. To keep from being thrown off balance by challenges, you may also wish to consider mindfulness practices that develop self-compassion and equanimity. 


From Mood Repair to Next Actions

What if it is true procrastination? What should you do then? 

Procrastination typically reflects misguided attempts at mood repair, Pychyl observes. If you've been procrastinating, you've already discovered that later misery outweighs any temporary relief you may experience. Procrastination fuels anxiety, regret, and self-recrimination while damaging your success and well-being. Unfortunately, its immediate rewards make it a very sticky habit. 

"Identifying the next action is key to overcoming the inertia of procrastination." ~ Tim Pychyl, Ph.D. | Tweet this


In his "Don't Delay" blog, Pychyl elaborates: "When a task is conceptualized concretely as a next small step, the threshold for engagement is low." Visualizing the action step spurs more motivation than the vague injunction to "just get started." Moreover, as you begin to engage in the task, he adds, your mood shifts, and your motivation rises. Stop waiting until you "feel like it." Thinking you need to be in a certain mood is a mistake that holds you back as the reverse is often true: Taking action stimulates motivation.

How many times have you felt momentum kick in once you engage with a task you had been avoiding? I remember how I used to push start my old VW Beetle in college—a good shove and off we chugged! Apparently we humans can use this hack. 

While we humans cannot always choose our emotions, we can choose our actions. If negative moods threaten to control your agenda, consider this nugget of wisdom: 

"Emotions are data, not directives." ~ Susan David, Ph.D., Emotional Agility | Tweet this

In short, note your feelings—and then do what is in your best interest. 


Want to double the likelihood that you will take that identified next step? Create an "implementation intention" by calendarizing the task. Knowing what you will do, when you will do it, and where you will do it makes it twice as likely that you will follow through, as shown by ample research by Peter Gollwitzer, Ph.D., and colleagues. When you've made such a precommitment, you need less mental energy to make the right move when the time arrives. 


Keep Your Momentum Strong

As you progress on your doctoral path, credit yourself for devoting time to plan and review. My planner shows "executive planning" blocked off for Monday mornings, but I suspect you could invent a more inspirational label. As you make time to plan, you'll likely notice an improvement in your ability to "right-size" your various tasks for your available time slots. 


Alas, we humans are prone to grossly underestimate the time a task requires—the so-called "planning fallacy" described by Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman. Instead of assuming best case scenarios, leave yourself some slack. Finally, add in time to celebrate your small wins to keep the procrastination saboteur at bay. 


Sometimes your best next step is asking for the help you need. Social support makes it easier to hold yourself accountable. If you find yourself languishing, consider getting a writing buddy or a dissertation coach. Coaches are trained to help you clarify your priorities, identify your next steps, and build your motivation and equanimity. If you think you would benefit from having a dissertation coach in your corner, request a complimentary session here. A little planning now will make the new year your best year ever! 



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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