How to Stop Procrastinating and Nail Your Dissertation

PaulJuly 5, 2017

This dissertation is the single most important piece of work that you've ever had to do....ever.   Your whole degree is riding on it.

It's also the biggest piece of work that you've ever had to do.  

All you can think about is that huge mountain of pages that you have to complete by the deadline. 

But no matter what you do, you can't seem to get yourself to sit down and write the bloody thing!​  

You keep telling yourself that you'll start tomorrow... But when tomorrow comes, the resistance overwhelms you, and you push it back once more.

What's Going On Here?   Why Can't You Make Yourself Write Your Dissertation?

It's really simple, and it's not what you might think...

The reason you keep procrastinating on this piece of work is because you keep focusing on the huge mountain of work that you have to do.  It intimidates you.  You can't see yourself ever completing it.  You're overwhelmed.

So your brain, in its infinite wisdom, decides that the best solution is to procrastinate.

"It's ok I'll just do it next week."​  

"I haven't got the sources that I need to start yet".  

"It's not the perfect environment right now so I'll start after the holiday"

Your brain is a master at creating excuses.

It's More than Just Overwhelm Though...

The most powerful part of your brain is animalistic.  

It wants to eat, it wants to have sex, it wants to sleep and it wants to move away from pain and towards pleasure.  One more thing - it wants all of the above immediately!​

This animal part of the brain has no ability to tie an action today to a reward next week. It wants the reward cycle to be instant.   It wants you to do something today and get rewarded today...

This was pretty useful when we were running around hunting for food, avoiding predators and trying to survive.  But this simplistic notion of immediate rewards doesn't lend itself to success in the modern day world.

How does this relate to your dissertation?

Well, your dissertation is due in 2 months time.  The animal part of your brain completely disengages. 

"I'm only going to be rewarded after two months?  Forget it, I want pleasures now!"​
Your Brain

But there is still one part of your brain that understands the complexities of the modern day world.  

This is the part of the brain the realizes that if you eat shitty food now, then you'll be fat and die of heart disease in the future.  

It's also the part of the brain that realizes that if you don't write your dissertation sufficiently ahead of the deadline, then you're going to fail your degree and three years of effort will be for nothing.

Enter the Prefrontal Cortex

This mass of grey matter that sits at the front of your head is pretty smart.  It's called the prefrontal cortex.

It has a much more useful understanding of the complexities of the modern day world and can understand the virtue of working hard today to success in a few months.

The main problem with this part of the brain is that it's commonly overpowered by the animal brain.  

Even though you know you should be writing your dissertation, it's so tempting to push it back one more day, sit down and play a video game.  You're rewarded immediately with enjoyment.  Another victory for the animal brain.

In short: You have a brain that is in conflict with itself.  How do you bring these two parts into alignment?

​I submit to you that if you can learn how to run your life such that your pre frontal cortex has more control over your life decisions, then you'll prosper handsomely.

Leo Gura from actualized.org calls this "making the emotionally hard decision".  

Jonathan Haidt, in his book "The Happiness Hypothesis" calls this "the rider taming the elephant".

Whatever you want to call it.  If you can learn how to get your animal brain to follow the instructions of your prefrontal cortex more often, then both parts of your brain will be in alignment and pointing towards success over the long term.

​You have to learn how to Manipulate
Your Animal Brain

While the animal brain is powerful, it's also pretty stupid and can be manipulated.

The million dollar question is how?

​In the context of dissertation writing, there are four main things you can do to force your animal brain to get writing:-

  1. ​Change the way you think about your dissertation
  2. Create a habit of writing
  3. Understand how to combat resistance
  4. Fail small and manipulate the environment

1. Change the Way You Think About Your Dissertation.

When you think about your dissertation, you're thinking about this huge pile of work that you'll never be able to complete.  It's like looking up at the summit of Everest or walking through a tunnel where there's no light at the end of the tunnel.

Simply put: the size of the task ahead puts you into a state of overwhelm and intimidates you. This causes you to procrastinate and keep putting it off.

​Instead of thinking about the result, simply think about the action of writing.  Better yet, think about a schedule of writing.

For example:- One hour per day of writing is not intimidating to most of us.  ​Most students can easily commit to doing one hour of writing per day.

​Massive results are achieved through consistently taking small steps.  Understand that writing for one hour each day for two months is likely enough to not only complete your dissertation, but do an amazing job of it.

But, more importantly, it's not overwhelming to think about your dissertation in this way. This will stop you from procrastinating.

When you sit down to do your one hour of writing per day, don't focus on what you produce in the hour, simply commit to the action, and let the result take care of itself.​  

Animal brain taming tip #1:  Create a non intimidating schedule that you can commit to rather than focusing on the massive amount of work that you have to do to finish your dissertation.

2. Make Dissertation Writing a Habit

Big results don't come from one off changes, they come from doing the same thing again and again consistently over a long period of time.   It's about consistency and stamina not about sprinting and speed.

The beautiful thing about consistency is that if you do something repeatedly on a regular basis, it becomes easier to do.   This is the beautiful benefit of creating a habit.

According to studies, the best way to create a habit is by having a trigger before the work and a reward after.  This is otherwise known as the three R's - reminder, routine and reward.

​The trigger tells the brain "Ok, now we're working" and the reward appeases the animal brain by giving it an instant benefit (what it thrives upon).

How to Create the Habit of Writing your Dissertation

Write a list of things down that you already do every day without fail.  Maybe you have a shower, drink a coffee, have breakfast...and so on.

Now you need to choose a suitable trigger for your dissertation writing.  Let's say, for instance, that your trigger is having a coffee.

Now, each morning when you make yourself a coffee, you sit down and get on with your dissertation writing. 

The key here is consistency - habits are instilled through regular repeated actions.  For the first week or so, you might find it quite hard to stick to... but as time goes on, it will get easier.

Once you've met your schedule for the day (let's say that you're schedule is one hour of dissertation writing per day) then you should reward yourself.

The reward could be playing a video game, eating a food that you enjoy, chatting to your friends on WhatsApp... it just needs to be something that you look forward to doing.

In short: Wrap the routine of writing your dissertation in a trigger, reward sandwich!

The Paperclip Strategy

Here's a great little trick I picked up from James Clear that you can follow to help yourself stay consistently on track with the schedule that you have. 

Go out and purchase a box of paperclips.  Then, in front of your desk where you write your dissertation, put two glasses.  One of the glasses is full of paperclips, and one is empty.  

For each and every hour that you spend writing your dissertation, move one paperclip from the full glass to the empty glass.​

For every hour that goes by, you'll have a visual reminder for all the work that you've done and see the stack slowly growing.  ​It's a psychological trick to help you focus on the action of doing the work, rather than the result, and helps encourage you to keep the momentum going.

Animal brain taming tip #2: Make your dissertation writing a daily habit​ 

3. Have a Plan for Overcoming Resistance​

There will be days where you really, really, really don't want to sit down and write your dissertation.  You'll ​come up with all manner of reasons why you don't want to get to work.  

These days don't make you a failure, they just make you human.

Firstly, expect that these days are going to occur and secondly have a plan for them.

There's a famous quote by ​Bill Wilson that goes like this:-

"You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking."

I've found this to be so true...

If you really don't want to do something, trying to rationalise and intellectually come up with reasons as to why it's important that you do it just simply doesn't work. 

A better strategy is to just get yourself to sit down and do the smallest possible thing that you can do at that moment in time.

So, in the context of writing a dissertation, this might be sitting down, opening up Microsoft Word and simply writing just one sentence.

Just by simply going through the motions of getting started, your brain moves from thinking about the task to "OK, we're actually doing this now"...

What tends to happen is that, even just by doing something as small as writing one sentence, the resistance starts to dissipate....and you'll end up doing the full hour of writing.

Sometimes, however the resistance is still there, so you need to trick your animal brain even more by coming up with another ridiculously small task - let's say writing a second sentence.

In the worst possible case scenario, you stop working after you've written two sentences because the resistance overpowers you.  But, even in this scenario, you've still reinforced the habit of sitting down and writing on a daily basis and you've contributed at least something to your dissertation.

Animal brain taming tip #3: Expect resistance and have a plan for overcoming it

4. Put in Place a System for Sticking to your Schedule and Minimizing Failure

Bouncing Back from Failure

Listen, sometimes life really does just get in the way.  It happens to even the most prolific artists and creators.  So if you miss a day, don't beat yourself up about it.

Even if you miss a few days on the trot...

The key is this, though:  Get back on the horse as soon as you possibly can.

Don't throw the whole schedule out of the water and give up because you had a bad few days.  You need to develop your bounce-back ability.

This is something that I've personally incorporated into my life with the book reading project (reading, taking notes from and making videos about 140 self development books) that I'm currently going through.  

There have been times where I've completely dropped the ball - at its worst I didn't read anything for around a month due to some particularly challenging personal times.  It was difficult to get the project going again - but I bounced back.

​It's really important you incorporate this too.  Put the few missed days behind you and get going again, even if you don't complete your full schedule on your first day back - just do something to start building that momentum again.

Accountability and Immediate Pain

If you go to the gym on your own then missing a day is no big deal.  

"No worries, I'll just go tomorrow".

But if it's already 7pm and you're due to meet your friend at the gym at 8pm, it's a different story.  Even if you don't feel like going, the additional cost of letting your friend down is usually enough to keep you going anyway.

You can use this psychological lever to your advantage.  

When creating your dissertation schedule - involve a friend.  Hold yourselves accountable.  

Design the system so that you can't cheat.  Agree to work in the same place, together.   If you really want to amp this up - add a "fine" of $100 USD each time either of you miss an hour.

What you're doing here is making the cost of not sticking to the schedule as large, painful and immediate as possible - something that your animal brain pays attention to.

Make it as Easy as Possible to Succeed

Finally, make your environment work for you.  

If you want to go to the gym tomorrow morning, then to increase your chances of success you should get your gym clothes readily folded by the side of your bed tonight.  Tomorrow morning, you can roll out of your bed and immediately jump into your gym attire without thinking about it.

Your dissertation writing should be equally as easy.  Have a dedicated workspace, remove all distractions, make sure that your word processing application is already open on your computer, have a bottle of water on your desk.

Simply: Make it as easy as possible to sit down and get on with your work.​

If you have a bunch of hoops that you need to jump through just in order to sit down and get writing, then you're making it that little bit harder to succeed.  

Design your environment on purpose.

Animal brain taming tip #4: Develop your ability to bounce back, make it as costly and hard as possible to fail and make it as easy as possible to succeed.

Some Final Thoughts

A lot of what I've written about in this article is designed to:-

  1. Make you feel less overwhelmed by the size of the work that you have to produce (overwhelm is one of the most common causes of procrastination)
  2. Make the pain of not writing your dissertation as immediate as possible, rather than two or three months into the future.  (Your animal brain respects immediacy)
  3. Make the benefits of writing your dissertation as immediate as possible
  4. Deliberately designing your environment to assist you, rather than hinder you.

This is really a great structure for anything big you want to achieve in your life.

Creating daily habits that you follow consistently are critical to results making. The hard part, however, is not understanding this fact, but executing on it.

This is where understanding how your brain works and how it can be manipulated can really make the difference between success and failure.

Good luck with your dissertation writing and get started right now!

p.s If you don't feel like doing it, just write a single sentence!  Go on, I'm waiting...

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