The people I coach are terrific, bright, accomplished. Each is writing a book, a dissertation, or a thesis. Many are published writers. Many have won awards for their college-level teaching.
Their intellect and accomplishments amaze me.
But . . . (yes, there’s a “but” here) . . . they are struggling with their dissertation. With dismay, they say that they are procrastinating. They are sabotaging themselves. And often, they aren’t fully aware at the time that they’re setting themselves up for failure.
One client, whose story echoes many others that I hear, told me that she can tick off accomplishments that she is proud of, but she resists and procrastinates on working on her dissertation. Each day she means to write, but she spends the day thinking about how she should be writing, even as she does less important work, spending time on whatever crosses her desk or her mind.
She wonders if she’s addicted to avoiding the writing. She wants to do the right thing, and that would be to write, but she indulges in procrastination, feeling almost as if the dissertation repulses her.
Repelled by your dissertation?
Even approaching the dissertation can start to seem impossible. I’ve had the diss described to me in various ways, but all of the metaphors used to describe it seem to be along the lines of a lumbering, disgusting beast that sits in the corner, watching TV and smoking, and it grimaces and growls whenever anyone approaches.
Do you catastrophize?
Do you see yourself as totally inept, not good enough, someone who doesn’t know enough and who will never be able to pull out of this hole? Do you see your dissertation as something so beastly that you avoid it at all costs? Catastrophizing can make you so anxious that it is nearly impossible to push past those feelings and approach that seeming beast of a project.
Time to re-engage with your work ethic.
You’ve had a strong work ethic in the past or you wouldn’t have arrived at this place in your academic career. That work ethic was one you honed over the years, starting from the first time you faced up to a task that seemed bigger than you. That was when you discovered what it would take to be mentally tough.
What would it take to be mentally tough … again?
To be tough, mentally tough, takes more than a one-time flare of courage. It takes discipline—doing something hard again and yet again. It also takes a plan. A plan will remove the uncertainty of when you are going to work.
Use your past successes as a touchstone.
The client who says she is proud of past accomplishments needs to pull up those accomplishments and keep them visibly in front of her. They can be a touchstone. In fact, she said that at one point in her life she had totally landscaped a rocky, hilly lot and turned it into a lovely yard and garden. She told me how she had removed rocks and hauled dirt in a wheelbarrow, and pushed and pulled, and conquered that beast of a lot. As I listened, I saw in my mind’s eye how that lot must have looked originally and how, step by step, with no allowances for an aching back and no going back, she transformed the land.
My client surely had taken pictures of the way that rocky, hilly lot looked originally and during the process as she transformed it. I challenged her to tape pictures to her computer of that lot at various stages of change. If she had hauled rocks, she could surely write a paragraph or a page.
Looking at those pictures and thinking what she was like during that time would halt the catastrophizing and ward off anxiety. She would remember the hard work that produced such amazing results.
Then, because she was putting in place a plan that would help her stay mentally tough and disciplined, she would have the pictures in view to help her start her next writing session.
Mental toughness will change the way you approach your dissertation.
Just as is true with my client, your past successes aren’t flukes—you earned each and every one through hard work. Some may have come more easily than others, but each success built on the past.
To move forward on your dissertation, you need to pull on what you know that you are capable of doing because you’ve done it before. This will take mental toughness, but with courage, discipline, and planning, you will change your mental landscape.
And you will be writing!
All the best,
P.S. A great step toward being mentally tough is to put your dissertation as your priority. Need any help in figuring out how to do that? I’d love to hear from you.
Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach