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Why You Need Self-Reflection to Finish Your Dissertation  | Issue 270

Summary: A few minutes of the right self-reflection questions will save you hours of dissertation agony and help you get your life back sooner.

Estimated reading time: Six minutes that will jump start your new healthy self-reflection habit.


By Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C., Editor & Coach

"We don't learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience." ~ John Dewey*  |  Tweet this

How much time did you devote this week to reflecting on your life and your work, including your dissertation? 

If you are like most ABDs who are struggling to make progress, you may spend more hours ruminating on setbacks and obstacles than reflecting on potential solutions. Such a habit will only make things worse. 

Know the critical difference: Ruminating holds you back, reflecting propels you forward. 

One Harvard study asked call center employees to spend just 15 minutes at the end of the workday reflecting about what they learned from the day's work. After ten days, these employees performed 23% better that those who did not. Designating time for reflective learning also proved more effective than additional practice. 

Reflection can take place at other times, in other venues—even during one's daily commute. Studies of UK and US commuters found that people experienced more productivity and happiness at work by engaging in "prospective planning" during their travel time. All they did was ask themselves simple questions: What steps can I take today and during this week to accomplish my work and career goals? How can I be more productive? 

It seems sometimes we need to stop doing and instead reflect on how we are doing it. That is the most effective way to improve our performance. 

Despite its proven value, self-reflection has yet to become commonplace. Why do people resist it? For some, their built-in bias toward action gets in the way. Others are not clear about how to do it. I've found that to be true of doctoral students I've worked with, so let's examine these obstacles. 


Do You Suffer from a Bias Toward Action?

"I need to get this chapter done right away! I can't afford to waste time just sitting around!" 

Does your inner voice sound like that? If so, check your assumptions. Were you taught to equate productivity with busy-ness? Do you feel guilty unless you have something tangible to show for your time, that anything else is "not really working"? 

Successful people do not equate busy-ness with effectiveness.

If your inner voice pressures you to "just sit down and dissertate" without regularly pausing to self-reflect, you've got a bias toward action. Call it a sprint mentality. But a dissertation is not a sprint—it is a marathon. For lengthy, complex projects, experts agree the most effective practice involves a feedback loop of doing, reviewing, and adjusting one's approach. This results in better outcomes and better mental health. 

Trying to sprint over long distances leads to burnout. A sustainable pace allows time for thoughtful reflection. 

When you intentionally disengage from your work to reflect on the process, you create the learning that leads to continuous improvement. Your reflection habit will also save you from needless errors, wasted efforts, frustration, and even burnout. At its best, it allows you to pinpoint what is working so that you can repeat it and ramp it up—and when you need to be flexible. It lets you identify current and future obstacles so that you can assemble the critical resources in a timely fashion. 

In over fifteen years of coaching, I have noticed that my dissertation clients who take time for weekly self-reflection finish faster because they spin their wheels less. They also feel happier because they can clearly see they are getting a good return on the time they invest in their brief but regular self-reflection practice. Given the value of reflection, finding a few minutes for it is not an issue for them. As the commuter study showed, you can even use small pockets of time, e.g., while stuck in traffic or waiting at the dentist. 

"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always be where you've always been." ~ T. D. Jakes  |  Tweet this


Positive Tips for Self-Reflection for ABDs

If you are ready to experiment with self-reflection to enhance your dissertation momentum, here are some guidelines. When you reflect, imagine yourself in both first and third person, as though you are observing yourself. 


Think of self-reflection as checking your personal dashboard for your dissertation process. What "dials" should you check to optimize your momentum and well-being? Below are possible self-reflection questions informed by positive psychology and appreciative inquiry—where the most focus is on what is strong, not what is wrong. 


Block time in your schedule to do this at least once a week for best results. 


How is your positivity level?

"Positive emotions are the tiny engines of flourishing," asserts renowned researcher Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. Maintaining a high ratio of positive to negative emotional experiences keeps you moving forward, broadening your perspective and building your resources. Notice what adds to your good moods while working and at other times. 


Feeling draggy? What can you do to make your work experience more positive? How might you experiment with environmental tweaks (your chair, sound, temperature, surroundings, etc.)? Would you benefit from more social support? If you tend to worry and ruminate while working, consider a mindfulness practice to help you let go of those thoughts and pivot toward more helpful ones. 


a) How was my energy level? How did that affect my productivity?
b) How might I tweak the process to make the experience more positive and less negative? 
c) How will I reenergize myself during non-work time?

Tip: Be sure to schedule breaks throughout the day and regular vacation days to reenergize yourself. Notice which activities truly refresh you. (Note: Social media and TV bingeing usually serve as "time outs" but not as energizers.) 

"Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it." ~ Maya Angelou  |  Tweet this



How well are you optimizing your personal strengths?

Most people are not fully aware of some of their most valuable personal assets, namely their character strengths. These are qualities that help you stay focused, get you unstuck, and boost your momentum. When you use your character strengths well, you will feel and do your best. . . and vice versa when you are misusing them. 

To identify your own strengths profile, take the free survey at Be sure to print your ranked character strengths list and post it where you can refer to it easily. The key is to match a personal top strength or two to the situation at hand. For example, using your curiosity strength might help you persevere with data analyses, keeping you intrigued with your discoveries. 

On the other hand, while you are doing your literature review, overusing curiosity could lead you down rabbit holes filled with excess articles you really don't need. If that happens, you can temporarily turn off curiosity and counter it with the strength of perspective ("I've read enough, no need to read everything") or self-regulation ("this is scheduled editing time") or another one that makes sense to you. Get familiar with your strengths so you can make the most of them. (A positive psychology dissertation coach can help with this.) 


a) When was I using a character strength? How did that impact my work? 
b) What strengths do I need to dampen/engage to work more effectively? 

Tip: Keep your strengths list handy for your self-reflection time. I have found keeping my "strengths cards" handy allows me to remember to build them into the challenges on my daily agenda. 


What will you celebrate? And what's next?

I've noticed many dissertation writers do not pause to pat themselves on the back for a job well done. Instead they scurry ahead to their "still not done" list. However, taking a few minutes to acknowledge your wins will raise your positivity ratio and consequent motivation. 

Celebrate your wins and identify how you achieved them. Thoughtfully considering what elements of your process contribute to your success goes a long way to refining your process for more successes. In the end, no one is a better judge of your process than you are. 


a) What did I accomplish? What made it go well? What allowed me to see solutions? 
b) What still needs my attention? What do I need to finish these tasks? 
c) What task am I avoiding? What reframe or resources or rewards would make it doable? 
d) What tweaks or changes would make my process even more effective?

Tip: Experiment with a daily planner with enough white space for notes. The Best Self Journal, my favorite, includes daily and weekly reflection questions with journaling space. 

Success and well-being are not happy accidents; they result from intentional behavior. By taking time to reflect on what you are doing and how you are doing it, you will create your very own process that is sustainable, effective, and enjoyable. You will earn your doctorate faster—and be well on your way to a lifetime of success and well-being. 


"Self-reflection is the school of wisdom." ~ Baltasar Gracian   Tweet this



Sword, Helen. Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write

An ideal book to jumpstart your reflections for developing your unique writing process, Dr. Sword's interviewees reveal their secrets for getting writing done.


Image credit: Photo by Janis Wallin, featuring Bootsy. You can follow Bootsy's adventures here.

Want more help? Just ask us. 

A dissertation coach will partner with you to facilitate your self-reflection and get your dissertation out the door.
Click here to request a no-obligation complimentary session with one of our experienced coaches to determine if coaching is right for you.


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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*This quotation gets attributed to John Dewey, whose writings it reflects; however no one seems to be able find

the exact reference despite several diligent searches. 

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