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Want a Quicker, Better Dissertation?  Do These Three Things Now | Issue 232

Dissertating goes faster, smoother, and better when you do "deep work." Learn how to create a ritual to help you hone this indispensable skill for doing work that matters. [5-minute read]

Want someone in your corner to help you do deep work? Get a dissertation buddy or contact us for your very own coach.

Want a Quicker, Better Dissertation? Do These Three Things Now


By Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D.
Positive Psychology Dissertation Coach & ABD Survival Guide Editor

"Focus is the new I.Q." ~ Cal Newport

The skill you most need to finish your dissertation is one you were never taught.

Don't worry—it is not too late. You will find it to be the most effective way to rev up your dissertation pace and quality at the same time.

This amazing skill is known as deep work. It is the "ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task," explains Cal Newport, Ph.D., who popularized the concept in Deep Work, an award-winning bestseller.

The capacity for deep work divides the mediocre from the extraordinary in business, academia, and other endeavors, argues Newport, an associate professor computer science at Georgetown.He further emphasizes that deep work is a skill that can be developed. He contends—and I've experienced—that honing this skill leads to a very fulfilling career and life.

You absolutely need to do deep work as a doctoral candidate and scholar. It's imperative for learning challenging material and for producing high-level work—two activities central to academic success. Below I've sketched out Newport's basics to guide you in designing your own deep work ritual, adding my own tips gleaned from over a decade of coaching dissertation clients.

What facilitates deep work?

Newport spells out just what you need for the peak performance that deep work facilitates: your full concentration, a single task, and a distraction-free environment.

Have you noticed a significant uptick in the quality and quantity of your work when those three conditions prevail? Have you wondered how to create those conditions on a regular basis?

If so, it's time to cultivate your own deep work practices to get that dissertation out the door sooner. Moreover, you will create a better product that will give you a deserved sense of fulfillment as you graduate. Finally, you will have developed a skill whose value compounds over time. That's because deep work will lift you from mere busyness to accomplishing what matters, no matter what career you choose.

As deep work becomes rarer, its value rises, observes Newport. In a crowd lost to distraction and overwhelm, your superior work will stand out. By completing meaningful projects, deep workers reap more satisfaction and greater rewards than those who equate hyperactivity with productivity. When did a multi-tasker or juggler ever create a lasting monument?

To develop a deep work practice, you must first commit yourself to uprooting some ingrained habits that block your way. Going deep means going against the social currents, where most people get caught in a frenzy of email, social media, and pointless meetings.

It means saying "no" to umpteen distractions and shallow work in order to say "yes" to what really matters. For example, Newport strongly recommends quitting social media. Developing your own deep work ritual creates a new normal for you. In doing so, you are retraining your brain, so with practice, you will find it gets easier.

Create your own deep work ritual in 3 steps

The deep work ritual contains three chief ingredients: time, structure, and support. My experience shows that you will also need some explicit strategies for handling inevitable interruptions and obstacles along the way.

1) Block out time on your calendar.

On your calendar, schedule your deep work sessions in blocks as you would important meetings. Newport recommends blocks of no less than 90 minutes, although you may break it up into Pomodoro-style chunks, e.g., 25 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break. [The Productivity Challenge Timer, a Pomodoro-style app with tracking capabilities and quirky humor really keeps me on track.]

If someone attempts to intrude, aim to reschedule the intruder rather than your deep work. It's helpful to hone some handy phrases for this, e.g., "I'd love to meet with you, but I'm booked at that time—when else would work for you?" Some of my dissertation clients struggle to turn a student or family member away—until they actually try it and discover that the other person is usually more than willing to accommodate their request.

Temptations more often arise from within—and you need to say "no" to those too, I've found. For example, if your inner monkey begs you to check email or Facebook, calm it down by assuring it that you will do that in your free time—but that right now you are going to finish the sentence you were writing. Then ignore it as you would a spam caller.

Some go further—disabling their internet connection or dedicating a separate computer for dissertation-only work for fuller concentration. It seems deep down there is a consensus on Newport's observation: "Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging."

Choose where you will work and note that as well. Over time, experiment as necessary to which surroundings best promote focusing on your work. I've had dissertation clients choose the university library, a coffee shop (often with earphones), a convent, and even a hotel lobby! The dining table rarely works well. Staving off distractions and interruptions eats at your cognitive power, so choose carefully. Pre-committing yourself to a time and place also conserves your willpower energy.

2) Define your structure.

How will you measure your progress? Will you track words or pages produced? Time spent researching a particular topic? Make it something measurable.

Decide in advance, then stick with it so that you know when you can stop. Newport suggests aiming high, e.g., by giving yourself 20% less time than you think it will take, to produce the intense focus that accompanies impending deadlines.

That might work for you, although it has not for me. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman found most people drastically underestimate the time needed to complete a project because they tend to assume the best-case scenario—which almost never happens. I block out extra time for each project to prevent overbooking or last-minute panic. Until you are more experienced with a task, allow at least twice the time you predict you will need.

Some of my ABD clients have devised clever ways to monitor their output or time spent to boost motivation. One literature grad student paid herself $10 Monopoly dollars per hour, redeemable after graduation for a dream trip. Another creatively added Legos to a fanciful structure that served as a visual reminder of her continuing progress.

Yet another advanced her token over mountains and through swamps on her very personal Dissertation Journey Map. You can keep it simple: just drop a marble in a canning jar for each deep work session you complete. Marking your progress gives your brain an energizing jolt of dopamine that will keep you going. Keep it in view to serve as a prompt to get working.

3) Organize your support system.

What materials will you need while you work? Keep any needed dissertation materials handy, either electronically or in portable files. Nothing feels more frustrating than to sit down to write only to realize you left the key reference in your study.

What kicks your brain into gear? Some swear by a cup of coffee. Others find a short walk, especially in nature, puts them in a deep work frame of mind, says Newport. Your brain doesn't run well on mere caffeine or on empty, I might add, so remember to feed it as needed, e.g., with healthy snacks or a nutritious lunch. Getting a good night's sleep will also contribute to your ability to focus.

As you experiment with deep work, keep notes on what you discover works. As his blog excerpt in the box asserts, dissertating may be hard but it is not hard to do, i.e., painful or unsustainable.




"Hard" vs. "Hard to Do"


I found writing my thesis to be similar to writing my books. It's an exercise in grit: You have to apply hard focus, almost every day, over a long period time.

To me, this is the definition of what I call hard work. The important point, however, is that the regular blocks of hard focus that comprise hard work do not have to be excessively long. That is, there's nothing painful or unsustainable about hard work. With only a few exceptions, for example, I was easily able to maintainmy fixed 9 to 5:30 schedule while writing my thesis.

Add a dose of freedom

Paradoxically, adding a little freedom helps, observes Newport. Down time can promote insights and allow for recharging your batteries. Spending time with family, friends, nature, and favorite pastimes will revitalize you—so make time for them.

When you do deep work during the day, any evening work will probably not be up to snuff, so skip it in favor of shallow tasks, he advises. Willpower research supports his contention, as does the experience of many of my ABD clients.

ABDs who try to dissertate after a long workday—e.g., after dinner, after putting kids to bed, after a little TV to relax—usually report that they cannot focus, I've noticed. Worse, despite good intentions, many fall prey to binge Netflixing. If your dissertation matters, you must make it a priority—not the last thing on your list.

When you start practicing your very own deep work ritual, you will witness a boost in productivity that will make it easier for you to say "yes" to the other things that matter. You will be able to complete your assignment during the day—and wrap it up before dinner.

Sound impossible? Consider highly productive academics such as U Penn's Adam Grant, an uber-productive academic and social media contributor. The youngest-ever tenured professor at the prestigious Wharton School, Grant departs his office at 5:30 to devote himself to a thriving family and social life. Notice the successful academics and other professionals around you who have mastered keeping boundaries around their work day—they are the ones who have mastered deep work.

If you find that tempting, sketch out your own ritual and experiment with it this week. Tweak it until it works for you. Remind yourself why this matters to you. For more inspiration and details, read the book.

You will spend much of your life working. Why not choose to do the deep work that will create a life of success and meaning?




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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