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Procrastinating on Your Dissertation? 10 Hacks to Tame Your Inner Saboteur | Issue 281

Summary: The inner saboteur will berate you and tempt you into procrastinating writing your dissertation. These hacks will let you blast through the inner chatter and finish faster.

Estimated read time: Six minutes that you might otherwise waste on social media or Netflix.


2021 by Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C., Editor

"Emotions are data—not directives." ~ Susan David, Ph.D.

Are you struggling to get that dissertation out the door? Do you get stuck endlessly editing the same sentence or wondering where to start? Are you waiting for the right mood to strike? Do you wander off task to check email or socialize or bake brownies?

If so, your inner saboteur has taken control. And it's time to fight back.


What's an inner saboteur? It's an inner voice that shows up automatically when you face a challenge and uses various tactics to convince you to surrender.

Sometimes the inner saboteur adopts the bully voice (aka "inner critic") that belittles you and your efforts. It will insist you are not good enough, you're not smart enough, you'll never finish, etc., so you might as well quit. At other times it becomes the inner tempter that slyly invites you to stop working so hard and do something more fun.

Regardless of tactic, the inner saboteur invariably leads to procrastination, leaving you further from your goal and vulnerable to a downward spiral of hopelessness.

But there are other inner voices present. Don't overlook your inner ally, even if quiet, as it believes in you and your dreams. At times it may be no more than a whisper, but it is always there, advocating for your best life.

Which will you listen to? Finishing involves mastering not only your subject but also yourself, including your inner saboteur. That means becoming more selective about which inner voices you choose to let guide you—or you risk floundering in ABD land until you time out. While it is easy for the saboteur to drown out the ally, with practice, you can dial up the volume on the empowering voice and stay on track.

"Procrastination: Hard work often pays off after time, but laziness always pays off now" ~ Larry Kersten, Ph.D.



Developing emotional mastery takes intentional practice. Aim for gradual improvement without expecting overnight success. You can start by start noticing any thoughts or feelings that accompany the urge to procrastinate. Write them down and identify which tactic—belittling or tempting—they are using.

Remember you always have the right to ignore inner (and outer) voices that lead you astray. The dangerous saboteurs tend to show up when your guard is down, so be ready to practice some discernment.

To help you hone your awareness, read the common scenarios collected over years of coaching dissertation students. I call them "pivot points" because this marks the crossroads where your next step really matters: Will you choose the path of permanent ABD or the road to your PhD?

"Don't believe everything you think. " ~ Zen saying



Which of these sound most familiar to you? When you hit a pivot point, experiment with swapping out the voice of the inner saboteur with that of the inner ally for a quick reboot.



Inner Saboteur: I'm not sure where to start, so first I'll check my email and social media.

Inner Ally: First, I will honor my goal by doing my "Single Daily Action" around writing. I will pick one small easy-to-do thing that will move me one step forward on my project every day for 20 minutes, first thing in the morning if possible. (Just 20 minutes per day for 300 days would be 100 hours—which would really get me somewhere!) I can start simply listing tasks or ideas, arrange my resources on the desk, open the document and read the first paragraph, etc.


Inner Saboteur: I am not in the mood to write just yet. I will wait until inspiration strikes me.

Inner Ally: Even though I am not in the mood now, I can get there if I sit down and start writing. I will keep inspirational books, photos, or other objects that prompt me to think about my topic. I will be mindful of what facilitates concentration and motivation (be it coffee or loud music or a window with a view) and leverage them. Inspiration will come as I write. I have had moments of creativity and I will have more. I can use my top strengths to get me started, inviting my muse to visit and my inner critic to take a hike.


Inner Saboteur: I don't work well with schedules. I prefer spontaneity.

Inner Ally: I am choosing to write this because it matters to me. No one is making me do this but me. When I prioritize my own goals, I am realizing My Best Self. The hard truth is that writing projects take considerable time; spontaneity is not a strategy. I am willing to make time for the things to which I am committed.


Inner Saboteur: I need to do more research. I don't know enough.

Inner Ally: I will write out what I already have in my head and at hand. Then I will review it to see where I may need to do research to fill in the gaps. I will aim for "good enough" rather than perfect. I will remind my inner saboteur that I'm writing a dissertation, not my magnum opus. I am writing about what I know.


Inner Saboteur: I need to relax (or energize myself) first.

Inner Ally: When I sit down and allow myself to write long enough, I can eventually get into the zone, especially if I am leveraging my own personal strengths. I may start anywhere ("It seems to me that"), and soon ideas will stream out in an effortless way. Putting them down on paper or screen renews my energy. At the end of the day, I feel more peaceful and satisfied than if I had just whiled away the time watching TV, surfing the net, and all those things my inner critic would like me to do instead of writing.


Inner Saboteur: I don't have enough time now, so I should wait for a better opportunity.

Inner Ally: I will use the time I have now even if it is just 15 minutes. I can do some small task now (e.g. read two pages, write down three ideas, check a book out of the library). This will help keep me incubating my ideas so that when I have more time, I will be ready to write.

I can also invest the time wisely now in planning how to carve out larger chunks of time. From now on, I will make a point of saying "no" to some things that come up that matter less so that I can say "yes" to this project more. When I do that, I experience more satisfaction in my day.


Inner Saboteur: I don't have a good place to work. I need to have [whatever I don't have].

Inner Ally: I can work wherever I can sit down with a pen and paper or my computer. I can create a small nook in my home or find a table at a café or a library or even a convent. There are many published authors who wrote under more difficult conditions than these. (Poet Wendell Berry would use the back of an envelope.) I will be grateful that I have the time and means without waiting for the perfect writer's studio.


Inner Saboteur: I don't know where to start writing so I might as well do something else.

Inner Ally: I can start anywhere, even writing about how I do not know what I want to write. I do not need to start with a clear idea. I can start with "It seems to me that. . . ," and my ideas will take shape as I work with them. I will write for 30 minutes and then see where I am. I will give myself permission to not know, to be curious, to incubate, as ideas begin to form. If nothing comes, I will just sit there and not get up and do other things.


Inner Saboteur: My writing stinks! I might as well give up.

Inner Ally: I can give myself permission to write badly, to play around with words without evaluating my work. The important thing is to keep writing. Some days my writing will be better than others. I am honoring my best self when I spend time doing what matters to me. Even in baseball, the home run kings are often the strikeout kings. I can only make a run if I get up to bat. My writing project will only be finished if I spend time doing it.


Inner Saboteur: I tried everything above and still can't get going. I'm a total failure as a writer.

Inner Ally: Sometimes a "positivity break" is in order. I will put the project away just for today and build my resilience by creating positivity and meaning in my day in other ways. I will take care of my body, mind, and spirit, knowing that ideas are quietly incubating. I will not fritter away the time but do things that really re-energize me. I will spend time only with people who write and who encourage me to write. Tomorrow at 9 a.m., I will sit down and follow through, renewed and eager to start writing.



Positive psychologist Chris Peterson, Ph.D., known for his prolific academic writing, was once asked by an amazed interviewer, "Don't you have any inner critics?" "Of course I do—I just don't listen to them," he replied. That's wisdom!


When you let go of self-sabotaging thoughts and instead listen to your inner ally, you'll not only finish—you'll enjoy the journey a thousandfold more. Imagine the deep confidence that comes from trusting that you will be at your best even under challenges. Would you enjoy a life with less drama, less delay, less disappointment. . . and a finished dissertation? Your inner ally is waiting to lead you there.


Get help taming your inner saboteur. Partner with a positive psychology dissertation coach to leverage your strengths, create a realistic plan, and finish faster. Click here for a free consultation.


Above photo is licensed under CC BY-SA



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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