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Cultivate Your Dissertation Flow

By Noelle Sterne

In your dissertation writing, you’ve probably experienced the all-too-common range of emotions from initial elation to paralyzing fear to plunging despair, and between many starts, stops, and freezes. Here I suggest how to at least cut down on those maddening swings and invite, coax, and, toward more consistent and actually enjoyable writing, entice . . . the Flow.

What’s the Flow?

The Flow is that sublime state of feeling completely immersed in what you’re doing—writing your dissertation—and being wholly in the present moment. All else fades from your vision; you feel no needs or sense of time, and you’re totally absorbed and, yes, joyful.

The Flow has been known for centuries and with many names—the Zone, the Place, the Muse, the Divine Visitation. In the 1970s, Hungarian psychologist Mihali Csikszentmihalyi first publicized the concept in the West and published many articles and books (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). In an interview based on descriptions from athletes to artists to rock climbers, he described the Flow: “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost” (Geirland, 1996, para. 2).
With more description, Csikszentmihalyi  elucidated (Oppland, 2021). The Flow is

    1. Complete concentration on the task;
    2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
    3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
    4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
    5. Effortlessness and ease;
    6. There is a balance between challenge and skills;
    7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
    8. There is a feeling of control over the task. (para. 18)

Many people have written about and reported experiencing the Flow—in the arts, sports, mathematics, learning, gaming, science, spiritual practices, and any kind of work. When I experience the Flow in writing, I feel powerful, fully creative, alive. Words and ideas come easily and effortlessly; insights pop up clear as winter air. Externals and time fade, and I no longer obsess about the moldering salad in the refrigerator. The work is its own reward, and I’m rarin’ to keep going.

What Often Holds Us Back

In dissertation writing, we become blocked and cut off the Flow because we often hang onto erroneous and misguided notions about our dissertation writing. For example, one of my dissertation coaching clients, Gretchen, was studying the rates of higher education among Native Americans. She couldn’t seem to get past Chapter 1 and confessed, “I feel that in this work I must champion the underserved and show how unfairly they are treated. Compared to other ethnicities, the higher education rates are appalling!”

In my (unofficial) capacity as dissertation trauma therapist, I told Gretchen, “I admire your dedication and passion. But your dissertation is not a manifesto or a polemic. Its purpose isn’t to push an agenda. Make some notes and save them for an op ed piece or a TED talk.”

I could hear her sigh of relief. Four days later Gretchen sent me a draft of Chapter 2.
Another common misconception relates to your dissertation quality. When I hadn’t heard from Cameron in three weeks, I called him. He apologized vigorously. “I think I have to produce this grand, ground-breaking, earth-shattering document. And I can’t get beyond the first subtitle.” I assured him that, although such a work would be commendable, genius-like brilliance wasn’t a requirement for graduation. So he could relax. He finally did and continued to produce his chapters.

A third mistaken belief is how your dissertation should read. In a check-in call, my client Scott admitted, “I type a sentence and it looks so simplistic so I delete it. Shouldn’t I be writing higher scholarly prose?” I told Scott that to emerge from dissertation wilderness you don’t need to write like a nineteenth-century Cambridge professor. In fact, as I’m sure you have discovered, many journal articles and books written in “higher scholarly prose” are almost incomprehensible.

Today, that kind of writing is not only not required but frowned on. Pinker et al. (2014) published an enlightening, comforting, guiding, and very funny collection of essays, Why Academic Writing Stinks and How to Fix It. A sample: “Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?” (p. 2).

I read this passage to Scott and he burst out laughing. “Okay,“ he said, very relieved, “simple it is!” And he steadily produce intelligible chapters.

To saddle ourselves with unrealistic expectations and standards only hampers us. Simple is best. And keep reminding yourself of your purpose(s) in writing and you will get closer to the Flow.

Get Into the Flow

Writers have many rituals, physical and mental. Some must have tea at their elbow in their favorite mug. Some get to the desk at a specific time. Others precisely lay out their materials. Others clamp on their headphones and flick on their favorite mix.

Some writers reread what they wrote in the previous session. Some do a journal entry. Some walk or dance. Some eat. Some tiptoe around the edges and do the easier stuff—a paragraph of description, a little research, an outline. Some give themselves pep talks. Some freewrite.

Most of us stall too. When I sit down for a writing session, I click through the celebrity junk first, just to make sure I’m up to date. Then I jump up, because those two pieces of paper in the wastebasket must be emptied. Then I turn on a favorite classical music station. That, finally, calms me down and I nudge the Flow awake.

After these stalls, I also find meditation especially effective.


With almost daily Internet articles on mediation, they are worth considering for your dissertation production. If you don’t like the term meditation, call it My quiet time or Resting without snoring. Whatever you call it, I encourage you to consider it. Dominique Chlup (2016) in her excellent article on stress-free writing practices and highly recommends it. If you need convincing, you can read about the origins, benefits, and growing popularity of meditation in many articles.

You can practice it at home, in the library, at the faculty meeting, the bus stop, and even in a chapel. Here’s what I do: Away from everything, I sit in a quiet place, my tech appendages out of thumbs’ reach. I close my eyes, inhale deeply, and exhale slowly.

Then silently I say a word, phrase, or sentence that means something to me (“Peace,” “Ah,” “All is in order,” “Chocolate”). Or I repeat a positive statement, an affirmation (“I have all the answers for the Discussion section now”). I just keep repeating my chosen words.

A warning as you practice: If thoughts come in, and we all are plagued by them, you may find yourself veering off into last night’s junk-television plot, your sweetie’s sudden text-messaging silence, the car tires that need air, or a thousand other things. As soon as you catch any of these thoughts, don’t condemn yourself as a failed meditator. Just come back to your chosen words and keep repeating them.

Gradually (very), those intruders will quiet down and may even cease for long periods. Be patient with yourself. There’s no right or wrong way to meditate, and twenty minutes is no holier than two. The important thing is to keep at it.

Quieter now, I give myself some positive suggestions:

I know exactly what to do. I am giving. I am allowing my best to come through. I am not concerned about the rightness or grandness of the words. I express clearly. I am imbued with my purpose. I am now in the Flow.

The Paradox

The Flow won’t be forced. The Flow refuses to appear when we try to reach it, or to grind out, churn out, or squeeze out the words. We need to forget all that trying, those grandiose desires, and ourselves, and instead allow, let, listen, obey.

If you doubt your ability to summon the Flow, read these reassuring words by Bill Kenower (2017), editor-in-chief of Author magazine, essayist, workshop leader, and writing visionary.

The Flow is always there, always waiting for us, always available. It doesn’t matter if you doubt its existence . . . . It’s still there because it’s you, and the moment you believe again in that flow, you also restore faith in yourself. (p. 25)

So, take a few deep breaths and quiet down. The ideas will bubble up, your words will stream, insights will blossom, and you’ll start writing. And won’t notice that two hours have passed. You’ll feel powerful, creative, alive, and will want to keep going. You are in your Dissertation Flow.


Chlup, D. T. (2016, August 23). Featured Member Dominique Chlup – From blocked to
breakthrough: The art of stress-free creating. TAA Abstract.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. Harper Perennial.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (Eds.). (1988). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge University Press.

Geirland, J. (1996, September) 1. Go with the flow. Wired.

Kenower, W. (2017). Fearless writing: How to create boldly and write with confidence. Writers Digest Books.

Oppland, M. (2021, February 21). 8 ways to create flow according to Miihali Czikszentmihalyi.

Pinker, S., Munger, M. C., Sword, H., Toor, R., & MacPhail, T. (2014, September 26). Why academic writing stinks and how to fix it. Chronicle of Higher Education.

© 2024 Noelle Sterne

Noelle SterneDissertation 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 many 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 third novel. Visit Noelle at