Dragging your dissertation feet?

ProcrastinationIs your dissertation dragging you down? Are you dragging your feet, your manuscript in sorry tow behind you like an annoying younger brother? Are you doing the impossible already—on campus or online, like many other graduate students juggling family, work, and school? Your academic struggles are intensified by the stresses of such multiple responsibilities and, possibly, loss of your long-range picture.

From what I’ve learned and observed as a longtime coach of graduate students and writer of creative projects, here I address some issues that can trip you up. And I share some steadying remedies so you handle your dissertation and other creative projects with less dragging and more speed and even enthusiasm.

1) Perspective: How Is This Degree or Project Part of My Life Dream?

You’ll work on your manuscript with greater consistency and less fading fervor if you answer this question in writing, as fully as you can. No fear, no shame, no self-deprecating disclaimers (“I know this dream of my doctorate [academic article, collection of essays, novel, cookbook, painting, tree house, symphony . . . ] is ridiculous!”). Keep returning to your answer, and add and change it until you’re satisfied that it reflects how you really feel.

Read your statement over once or twice a day, preferably at the same times. The more you repeat your goal and intention, the more fuel and strength you’ll have to keep going.

2) Befuddled About What to Do Next? Use Your Inner Mentor

Your Inner Mentor (IM), also called your Inner Guide, Self, Voice, Spirit, Higher Power, Soul, Guidance System, intuition, even your heart or gut, has more power than your chair, the dean of your school, an editor, curator, conductor, and even the guy who issues your parking pass.

If you think you don’t have your IM, you’ve already experienced it: when “something” doesn’t feel right about a certain person or event, when “a little voice” tells you to turn right instead of left, when the “right words” suddenly trumpet in your brain as you greet your mother for the first time in six months.

As you learn to use your IM more consciously, as in meditation or just sitting and asking, you’ll see that it guides you to right decisions and actions. In your dissertation, your IM will help you arrive at your perfect topic, the one that excites you even when you feel buried in other scholars’ previous research. In your creative project, your IM will help you decide on the approach, the material to include, the next (scary) steps. With practice and results, you’ll use your IM for your dissertation and creative quandaries and for everything else in your life.

3) Resisting Temptation: Sticking With It

Listening to your IM, as you continue your writing and creating, and wrestling into submission all that information you’ve collected, and (barely) managing your countless other duties and responsibilities, you may be tempted to suspend your project. Of course, you’ve got unassailable reasons, like these classics I’ve heard from students:

  • My family needs my attention.
  • A break of a few months will clear my head.
  • I’m going on that cruise ship six-week dissertation/how to write-draw-compose seminar. Then I’ll really know how to continue.
  • I’ll just clean out my study, the spare room, the garage, attic, basement, and storage shed. Then I’ll find anything I need right away.
  • Geez, I’ve got to live and watch a little television too . . . .

Whatever your excuse, I mean reason, my advice is this: Don’t stop. Use your IM to crawl along. Do what’s in front of you. Start with the easy stuff, like transferring chapter titles and subheads from your university dissertation manual or setting up files for the chapters of your novel. It’s all gotta get done anyway. Just keep going. Even fifteen minutes a day will help. I repeat: DON’T STOP!

4) Family Rebellions: Orient the Important Others in Your Life

With the dissertation, as you may have noticed, your life changes mightily. You hole up in the library after work, eat on the run, retreat to your study all day Sunday, always look distracted, and never really listen when a family member talks. With other projects, if you’re really serious, your life changes too: you hole up in your study or studio or disappear to your favorite haunt for as many hours as you can get away. You always look distracted, scribble notes constantly on the pad or iPad fastened to your hip to capture all the gems of brilliant inspiration, and never really listen when a family member talks.

Your family may pretend not to notice, not to be bothered, or ignore your lack of attention. But if you don’t do something, it will catch up with all of you and may get ugly, volcanic eruptions out of nowhere. And they‘ll distract you even more from your project.

The best strategy, I’ve found and counseled, is a two-pronged early intervention, and in person.

  • Strategy One: Educate Them
    Sit your important family members down and tell them (nicely) they’re not the only ones who will be sacrificing time together, money, moments of satisfaction, and the luxury of trivial arguments. If they have academic degrees themselves, rouse their memories of their own travails. Then pounce: inform them the dissertation is at least five times worse. For your other creative projects, the strategy is similar. Your clincher, though, is your absolute soul need to complete your project. If they care about you and are at all creative or have had similar aspirations, they will understand.Tell them what you want. For all projects, sketch out, vividly, and with specifics, the kind of time (alone) and attention (undisturbed) you need, especially with your many other duties. Ask them not to hold it against you.
  • Strategy Two: Bribe Them
    If you’re writing a dissertation, tell them that something good awaits after all the sacrifices: your better job, promotions, prestige, more business, new business, their resumed degree program, more family time, and mo’ money. If you’re working on another project, tell them you can’t promise total success in the world’s terms. But you can promise that you’ll be easier to live with, that you’ll have more vitality and enthusiasm for life, and that you may even volunteer to take the dog to the vet or put up the storm windows.Make promises for the future, AD (After Degree) or AOP (After Other Project): special dates, extended visits, vacations together, your helping them with their own special projects. Now watch them smile—and cooperate.

5) Employer Suspicions: Make Peace and Time

Apply the same principles as with your family, especially if your employer too notices your distraction and constant note-scribbling. Orient early, educate, and bribe (in a good way):

  • Arrange an in-person meeting (no phone, emails, texts, Skype, video conferences).
  • Express gratitude for the meeting.
  • Describe your dissertation or other creative project (briefly).
  • Explain (briefly) how your degree or project will benefit the institution/company.
  • Ask for what you need (released time, compact schedule, understanding).
  • Assure your boss you will not neglect your job.
  • Negotiate and compromise.
  • Promise you will share you progress.
  • Thank thank thank.
  • Optional: As you exit, walk backwards and bow.

Now, to get going in earnest, make a realistic schedule for working on your project. Commit to it and forgive yourself for small lapses. Remember that this dissertation-project is part of your life dream and you deserve it. With the fam and your employer on board, schedule your creative time like you would for the new season of “Dancing With the Stars.” Your feet will stop dragging, your mind will spring into action, and you’ll put in good sessions. And then, without guilt, watch the show.

© 2020 Noelle Sterne


Noelle Sterne

Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her second novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com