Writers: Don’t get caught in the ‘downward spiral’

Getting the Best of Your Dissertation

A good writing practice is the foundation of good writing. A good practice is built on regular action, and depends on the ideas or perspectives that lead to effective action. When faced with a large writing project, it is important to look at the relationship between your work practice and your emotions. Today’s actions influence tomorrow’s approach to the project, and work today can make it easier to work tomorrow.

The following is a slightly edited excerpt from my book, Getting the Best of Your Dissertation: Practical Perspectives for Effective Research:

The Downward Spiral and the Upward Spiral

The projects upon which we work have emotional impact: when things go well, we feel good; when things go poorly, we feel bad. In working on an extended project, this emotional dynamic can be crucial, especially with respect to self-reinforcing patterns of feedback.

It’s pretty easy to get stuck in a downward emotional spiral. If something goes wrong and we miss a goal, then we feel bad. And, feeling bad, it can be hard to get started on work, which impedes progress. Each day that passes without making good progress contributes to the sense that we are stuck and to doubts as to whether have what it takes to finish. Further, each day that we don’t make progress is another day that we return to the same ideas—and so instead of facing fresh ideas and fresh problems, we keep coming back to the same thing, which contributes to a sense of drudgery and frustration. And with each passing day of frustration, the emotional distress and sense of difficulty can increase.

On the other hand, it’s possible to initiate an upward spiral. If we get a piece of work done, we often feel good at having made progress, and this progress boosts our confidence to take the next step, which makes that next step easier, thus boosting our progress further, thereby reinforcing our confidence. The more momentum we have on an upward spiral, the easier it is to keep moving past some non-research interruption, or past some research-related difficulty. And, the more progress we make, the more we are working with fresh ideas. If we have been making progress and feeling good about it, and if our interest is high because we are engaged with fresh ideas, then we are more likely to want to get back to work after being interrupted. And if we’ve been working regularly and making progress, when we discover some error in our previous work, it feels less important, because of our general experience of making progress.

It’s easy to get into the downward spiral—after all, it doesn’t take much energy to do no work. There are, however, costs to not making progress. The most immediate cost is the emotional burden of not making progress. But in the long run, financial costs and interpersonal costs also become significant. Financially there are fees to paid, as well as loss of potential income. Interpersonally, lack of progress can strain relationships with professors, colleagues, family, and friends. The downward spiral is easy to start, but the long-term costs are high. The upward spiral is harder to start and keep going. It requires constant effort to keep making progress. But progress has its rewards, so although the upward spiral has a high cost of entry, the return on the investment is high enough that the benefits outweigh the costs.


Dave Harris, Ph.D. seeks clarity in thought and expression. As a coach, he helps writers develop a good relationship with their research writing and a successful writing practice. As an editor, he helps writers develop, focus, and finish the written presentation of research. He is author of Getting the Best of Your Dissertation (Thought Clearing, 2015) and second author with Jean-Pierre Protzen of The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning (Routledge, 2010). Dave can be found on the web at www.thoughtclearing.com


The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.