Like many others, I hated the process of completing my dissertation. Initially, I would have considered myself a very inefficient researcher. I was basically the master of finding anything to distract me. I would work on anything else in order to avoid my thesis and dissertation. Friends would always know when I was feeling the pressure to work because my house was immaculately clean, and I had food in the fridge.

However, after getting married and having a baby, something had to change. I no longer had the time available to waste a full day only to produce minimal product. I wouldn’t say that following these steps made writing enjoyable for me. But, these things significantly helped me to increase productivity and led me to be the first in my cohort to propose and defend my dissertation.

1. Get Over Your Imposter Syndrome.

Writing a dissertation is scary. I can’t think of a single colleague who just thought: Hey, I’ve got this! But as we know, anxiety leads to avoidance, and this can become a vicious cycle. The great thing is, we’re mental health professionals, so we know how to address this! Remember the sources of self-efficacy in order to increase your confidence in your ability to succeed. 

A. Physiological Feedback. I noticed that before I would sit down to work, I’d experience physical manifestations of my anxiety. I incorporated mindfulness into my routine by following a Headspace guided meditation before each work session.

B. Vicarious Experiences. Remind yourself of the students ahead of you who already defended their dissertations, who you know personally, and to whom you can relate. Attend other students’ defenses too, if you can. We were required to do this in my program, and this gave me confidence that if they could do it, then so could I.

C. Performance Outcomes. These are the past experiences that we have had. If you’re working on a dissertation, then you’ve successfully completed a smaller project or a master’s thesis before. Remember how similar they can be.

D. Verbal Persuasion. You likely have a support system providing you with words of encouragement. I found it extremely helpful to use self-talk to coach myself, as well.

2. Have a Dedicated Workspace.

Having an isolated space where I worked solely on my dissertation was incredibly helpful. Developing this habit helped me to avoid distractions; I knew I was seated there to work and I became used to this. Your workspace can be anywhere that you are (a) comfortable and (b) distraction-free. It could be a place within or outside of your home.

Initially, I dedicated a desk in my living room to work on my dissertation. I completed all other work at my kitchen table. I lived alone, so this worked. However, after getting married and having a baby, I used an empty space in a family member’s home nearby.

Public spaces, like a particular library or a coffee shop, are fine as long as you are able to focus. If you can work while listening to music, listen to the same station each work session. Instrumental Folk on Pandora was my go-to.

3. Make Yourself Comfortable.

Plan ahead for potential things that could stifle your progress. Before sitting down, I would always use the restroom, make coffee, and place a snack on my desk just in case I got hungry. This really helped me to avoid having reasons, or excuses, to stop working.

Also, you’re going to work better if you’re comfortable. Make sure you’re physically comfortable in your seat, or use a stand-up desk if that works better for you. I’ve also seen coworkers use large boxes as stand-up desks if you want to work at home but save some cash.

4. Plan Your Work Session.

Each time I sat down to write, I spent the first few minutes planning my work session. I basically created a personal behavior plan, just like I would do for a child I was treating.

I’d break down what I wanted to accomplish into small, achievable steps and make a checklist. It’s so gratifying to check off “60-minutes deep work” on a checklist. I’d also decide how long I’d “chunk” my work session into.

I often worked around 60 minutes uninterrupted with 10-minute breaks built into my schedule. Longer is, of course, better, and you will likely be able to increase these chunks gradually.

5. Avoid Interruptions.

I can’t stress this enough. A simple check of the email or Facebook is incredibly negative for productivity. I used the free app called Forest to block out periods of time where I did not pick up my phone. The app grows a “tree” for the time you spend off of your phone. I also turned off all notifications on my laptop and notifications other than calls or texts on my phone.

I had a new baby, so I was unable to disconnect totally. That would have been preferable, though. I highly recommend the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. There’s also an episode on the Hidden Brain podcast that discusses the premise of the book if you just need some quick inspiration.

6. Reward Yourself.

As psychology practitioners, we know that the simplest behavioral principle is to reward the behavior you want to increase. Want to increase your work productivity? Reward it!

My guilty pleasure is reality television; Bravo shows to be specific. During my 10-minute planned breaks, I would watch ten minutes of an episode that I had not yet seen – Having that to look forward to really motivated me to work.

After my data was collected, I would work for six hours per day and, therefore, would get to finish a 60-minute TV show. It would have been difficult to push through those last couple of work sessions if I did not have the reward motivating my behavior. Food works well, too!

7. Ask for Help.

This is something that I did not do enough of until the end of the process. I spent way too much time researching what statistical method to run or trying to find research within my committee’s expertise.

But you have a dissertation committee for a reason. You are not the expert (yet). I spent so many hours on things that I could have solved by simply meeting with a committee member to discuss. They will not give you all the answers, but they will provide resources needed for you to find them. Plan a Zoom or Skype meeting if you’re having difficulty coordinating a time to meet in person.

Follow these seven tips, and your productivity will increase, especially if you are a procrastinator, like I was. Having a work/life balance is tricky in graduate school, but it doesn’t get any easier down the road. These strategies will carry you far, and they can be generalized to almost any work project.

Best of luck, you’ve got this!

Hannah Samaha, PhD

Hannah Samaha is a practicing school psychologist in New Orleans, LA, where she lives with her husband and 18-month old daughter. She obtained her PhD in school psychology at the University of Houston this past summer. Hannah is currently earning supervised post-doctoral hours in order to obtain her license in Louisiana.

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