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Time Block Your Way to a Done Dissertation | Issue 269

Summary: Ready to ramp up your dissertation progress by 50% without working overtime? Discover the whys and hows of time blocking your day and week. 

Estimated time: 5 minutes (which you will recoup the first day you try this)


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


The loss of a fixed schedule already topped the list of challenges for doctoral students trying to stay on track writing their dissertations when the pandemic hit. Now more than ever creating a structure for your days can make all the difference in your morale and your progress.

Once you've finished your coursework, it is entirely up to you to manage your time. But how? Who ever got lessons in time management along the way? Waiting until "you feel like it" or for the arrival of the panic monster won't work as long-term motivational strategies. 

One of the most effective ways to forge ahead productively is known as "time blocking." 

If you haven't started time blocking, you are missing the simplest way to boost your productivity by 50%. We'll show you why it matters and how to get started quickly so you can ramp up your dissertation progress and get your life back. 


Think about time blocking as making appointments with your future self on a daily basis. You are committing on your calendar to do what is in your own long-term best interest. 


What is time blocking?

To time block, you set aside chunks of time, just as you would for external meetings. But instead of meeting with others, you invest the time in yourself, i.e., in attending to your own priorities. For the ABD, that means setting aside time blocks for dissertating—and then protecting those hours the way you would an appointment with your advisor. 


Ideally, you block every hour of the day for each day or week, leaving no white space on your calendar. This approach has become popular with highly productive academics, writers, and executives because it works. 


Open space on a calendar invites you to think that there is "nothing important going on" at that time. . . and you are more likely to give into taking too much time on a task, or worse, give in to whims, distractions, and interruptions. Filling in those spaces with your most important activities honors the person you wish to become. 


Before you object, let me emphasize that this does not mean slaving away on your dissertation or other work every minute of the day. It simply means getting intentional about what you will do when. You have complete freedom to specify when you will engage with your dissertation, domestic, family, leisure, and other activities. 


"A 40-hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+-hour work week pursued without structure." ~ Cal Newport  |  Tweet this


Do you need time blocking?

Are you beset by any of these common challenges? 

  1. I dither away too much of my time deciding what to do. 

  2. Others constantly interrupt me while I am trying to write. 

  3. Much of my day gets spent reacting to others' wishes and demands rather than honoring my own agenda. 

  4. I find myself often switching between my dissertation and email, social media, or other distractions. 

  5. I struggle with the dissertation sections requiring deep thought due to lack of time. 


If you answered yes to one or more, you will be astounded at how time blocking can rev up your productivity. Imagine being able to hit the pillow at night feeling satisfied by hitting your writing goals and still enjoying free time. 

Here's a snippet of a time blocked calendar for dissertation writers that I created in less than 10 minutes using Google calendar. Let's look at why this works—and how you can create your very own time blocked calendar that will ramp up your productivity. 


"You don't need a plan for next year. You need a commitment." ~ Seth Godin  |  Tweet this


Why does time blocking work?


Time blocking allows you to live your values. Your time is the currency—and you commit yourself to spending it wisely. You get the right stuff done. 


Alas, our more primitive brain nudges us to focus on the urgent rather than the important. When the phone rings or someone asks for help, it is all too easy to forget we had planned to edit chapter two today. 


When it comes to goal attainment, planning always beats spontaneity. The key is to harness our executive functions to compensate for our primitive brain by making it easier to choose our long-term best interest rather than the immediate pleasure. 


The time and energy you invest in planning pays off because we work better under constraints, asserts Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable. Without a framework, we are "tyrannized by choice" when faced with an open calendar and no clear idea of our next task. 


Time blocking forces you to precommit to an action rather than deciding in the moment—when you are most vulnerable to impulsive, immediate gains. When you plan ahead, research shows, you are twice as likely to follow through. 


Furthermore, your calendar serves as a highly visible prompt for action that just might help dissertating beat out social media for your attention. It becomes your private accountability buddy that beckons you to your next task. 


Time blocking cuts down wasted time and enhances goal attainment. Switching mental gears has its costs, as it can take up to twenty minutes to get back on track. One of the biggest benefits of reserving chunks of time gives you the chance to focus and really get into fifth gear in your thinking and writing. Newport calls this doing "deep work." 

"People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time, they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy." ~ Seneca  |  Tweet this


Start time blocking in five minutes

Begin your time blocking experiment quickly in just three steps: 


Weekly Option: If your activities are pretty much the same from week to week, create a reusable template. You can always upgrade or tweak your calendar template as you experiment with it. Free templates can be found online, and Microsoft Office has great templates. 

The Daily Option: If your activities fluctuate from day to day, skip the template and simply outline your blocks for each day. Keep these for review. 

For either option, find a planner or calendar app that allows you to schedule each waking hour. For three years I have relied on the five-star rated Self Journal for its positive psychology-based features that enhance motivation and gratitude. 


For those who prefer to go digital, use your favorite calendar or scheduling app. Or go low tech, as does Newport, and simply outline your day on a piece of notebook paper (see his example here). 


Don't sweat this—just start where you can do it most easily. 




If you are creating a weekly template, identify your major responsibilities or "projects": dissertation, teaching & teaching prep, email and messages, meetings/appointments, personal/family time; review & prep for tomorrow, social media. Pencil in your top priorities first, then work your way down to the least important. Don't forget breaks and mealtime! 


This also requires keeping a list of "next tasks" for each project so that you don't waste time deciding what you need to do. For example, the Google calendar snippet shows a block from 9:30 to 11:30 am, "Dissertation, see task list." At 9:30, you turn to your dissertation task list and start working on the top task. If you don't have such a list, spend the first half hour making one which you will update regularly. 


If you are blocking one day at a time, the process is similar: Identify the day's top priorities—the metaphorical "big rocks"—and enter them first. Then fit the less critical tasks around those. You may wish to do this at day's end for the following day, and then update it the next morning, as necessary. 


Don't list minutiae—save time by batching them under a catch-all heading. "Admin tasks," e.g., might include checking email, phone calls, filing papers, etc. The buffer zone gives you time to wrap up stuff you underestimated. 




Use a few minutes of the buffer time to review daily. Did you stick with your plan? Did you underestimate or overestimate time needed? What did not get done that mattered? Does it deserve its own block this week? 


Day and week did not go as planned? Don't beat yourself up—you were probably twice as productive than with no plan at all. Don't demand perfection; just aim for improvement. 


Once you begin time blocking, your current priorities show up right on your calendar. Color coding each kind of activity reveals at a glance how well your schedule reflects how you have balanced your priorities. By time blocking an entire week rather than a single day, you can easily see how you are spending your life, hour by hour. 


You are not locked in to your first go at time blocking. You can continue to revise it until you are being productive where it really matters. But you can't improve something you are not monitoring. 


"The backbone of success is hard work, determination, good planning, and perseverance." ~ Mia Hamm  |  Tweet this 


Final Tips and Thoughts


Most of us fall prey to the "planning fallacy," asserts Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. We vastly underestimate how much time projects need because we imagine best-case scenarios instead of worst- or likely-case scenarios. 


One academic consultant recommends multiplying your writing estimates by 2.5. In other words, if you think it will take one hour, schedule two and a half! Don't eliminate the buffer—it will help stave off feelings of overwhelm. As my friend's mother used to say, "Don't try to stuff 25 pounds of flour in a ten-pound sack!" 


Your schedule symbolizes your commitment to the well-being of your future self. Becoming more fully aware of the cost of violating your promise to yourself, you will find it easier to ignore distractions and temptations. Planning well constantly reminds you to say "no" to things that seem urgent but are not important. 

Honoring your commitment can be challenging. Ben Dean, Ph.D., founder of Mentor Coach and this newsletter, shared his secret for success: "If I time blocked two hours to write, I gave myself three choices: (1) I could write, (2) I could sit on my thumbs (but do nothing fun or interesting), or (3) I could read a book on time management—which in 10 minutes would motivate me to write." 

Which reasons for time blocking resonate most with you? What do you predict will be the most valuable outcomes of creating a predictable, productive schedule? What will happen if you don't change the way you are working? 


When you harness the power of time blocking, you are not just managing your time—you are also managing yourself. And that is the real secret to creating your desired future. 


P.S. Personal dissertation coaches excel at helping clients develop new habits and improve productivity. If you want someone in your corner, request a free consultation here .


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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