Finish Your Dissertation: The Who, What, When, Where, Why, & How of Productivity

August 3, 2019

Finishing a dissertation requires that you complete thousands of tasks. While you only need to complete one task at a time, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of all the work that lies ahead. At The Dissertation Coach, we use the metaphor of crossing bridges as a way to help our clients think about the work they need to complete task by task. We frequently remind graduate students that they just need to cross one bridge at a time. For example, a bridge might consist of defining and developing a rough draft of your research questions or brainstorming your methodological approach.

You may need to read a series of articles on a specific topic, code an interview, integrate feedback from your advisor on a section of your literature review or a specific chapter, or complete a regression analysis. Each of these discrete tasks is another “bridge to cross” and if you keep crossing over them, one at a time, you will eventually cross that final bridge where your dissertation will be defended, filed, and officially completed. There won’t be any more “dissertation bridges” to cross. But until then, there are many, many bridges to cross, some short and some long, some simple and some complex.  A key intention of how we coach our clients is to help them become more effective at getting across each of these bridges, one at a time. So what can help you become better at bridge crossing?

One key way to improve your approach to your work is to be conscious of what we call the “Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of Productivity.” Basically, this is an approach where you ask yourself a series of questions to help you be more focused and productive on a given day. You ask yourself who it is who is doing the work (hint: You), what it is that you are specifically doing, and when, where, how and why you’re going to do the work. It may seem a bit strange, but asking yourself even a few of these questions can really help you define your working strategy and be better adept at crossing those dissertation bridges.


First, we find it is quite powerful to ask “Who is going to do the work?” Now, we know the answer to that question is pretty obvious. You are going to do the work! But there is a strange power in asking yourself (even asking out loud if you dare and if you’re not in a public place): Who is going to do the work? Then you  answer “I am!” Try saying it out loud right now if you can. Go ahead!

Who is going to do the work?

I am going to do the work! 

Now, say it like you mean it. Say it with your whole body. Say it with purpose.


There is a remarkable power that comes from making this declaration. You are communicating to yourself that you are the CEO of your dissertation and that you are in charge of directing your energy across the next bridge.


Once you are clear that YOU are the one doing the work, it’s important to be identify what specific tasks you will seek to accomplish. It can be helpful to take the time to create a list of concrete, specific tasks you plan to complete for the upcoming day. For example, if you are writing your literature review, it is probably not best to say “I’m writing my literature review,” even though it is true to some degree.

It is much better to break that big long bridge down into shorter, more easily crossed bridges, such as “read and take notes on three articles” or “Skim five articles and choose one to focus on.”  Or if you are in the drafting process, a task might be to “outline the chapter,” and then to go deeper and “choose one section and outline that section,” and then eventually go even smaller and say something like “draft one paragraph on Piaget’s approach” or “write what it means to flip the college classroom in a community college setting.” By defining your agenda, you are declaring what bridges you will cross.

When you create this list of “what” you will be doing that day, make sure that the plan is  realistic. When we feel anxious or pressured, there is a tendency to convince ourselves that we can do more work than is actually achievable in a given day. You want to be able to truly imagine yourself completing the “what” you declare you are going to do.


The environment where you work is likely to have a significant impact on your ability to be focused and productive. As part of the process of readying yourself to step over the next bridge, we highly recommend that you declare where you will work. Consider what environment is most conducive to you being able to concentrate and stay on task.

Is it better to work at home, a coffee shop, a library, or some other environment? Will you be likely to talk to others if you’re in a coffee shop? Will you be too distracted by the many things you need to do around the house? Declaring where you will “cross each bridge” can increase the odds that you make it to the other side. (You can read more about creating a positive work environment here.)


Knowing what time of day (or night) you plan to cross each bridge can also increase the odds that you will actually complete the specific work you proclaimed you would do. Take some time to really be honest with yourself about when you will tackle each “what” on your list. What time will you start working on each task? When will you take breaks? How long can you realistically work without being interrupted?

We encourage you to pad some extra time in your schedule as we all know that dissertation tasks often take longer than we imagine. It is often better to plan conservatively where you plan a little less work than you think you can do that day. A good rule of thumb is to think about what you want to accomplish and then divide it in half and plan to accomplish only half. Then, if you happen to finish early, you can always work ahead and complete tasks planned for a future day, or even reward yourself by stopping early and doing something fun. Having a realistic and clear sense of when you will cross each bridge can set you up for a truly productive day.


It’s very easy in graduate school to get so caught up in doing the work itself that we forget why we are doing the work. Taking even a brief moment to get in touch with the reason we got into the field in the first place can help propel us across the next bridge, especially when we resist working and have a tendency to procrastinate. Reconnecting with our “why” is about being in touch with the deeper intentions we have within ourselves. This way we are in touch with why this work matters to us. Knowing your why allows you to have clarity and push through and take bold action even when the next bridge ahead is challenging.


Finally, as you contemplate how you can support yourself to be effective at crossing the day’s dissertation bridges, it can make a difference to consider “how” you will do the work. When we say “how” we mean it is important to think about the approach, attitude, mindset, or version of yourself that is needed to cross the next bridge. How do you need to operate and move through your day so you can stay focused, concentrate, and make real progress? One simple way we support our clients is to encourage them to choose a word for the day as an aspiration for who they want to be. For example, do you want to be focused, committed, courageous, disciplined, loyal, or devoted? Do you want to be original? Thorough? What word is the most helpful for your current stage of the research and writing process? Maybe when you’re writing your first draft, you want to be inventive or creative, but when you’re revising, you may want to be attentive and decisive. Different words may fit different writing tasks or different moments in your research process. As the owner of The Dissertation Coach, Alison loves to invoke the word loyal or devoted, because being loyal is creating a consistent and supportive alliance with another person or institution. Being devoted is to give all or a large part of one’s time or resources to a person, activity, or cause. She finds she is much better able to cross each new bridge and meet each new challenge when she aspires to be loyal and devoted to herself and her work.

Each day when you seek to cross new dissertation bridges, it can make a significant difference if you take the time to ask and answer the questions listed above. You don’t need to answer all of them everyday. Choose the questions that feel most relevant given the bridges ahead of you. Even answering a few can make a big difference and support you to get to work, focus and make tangible progress on your dissertation one day, one bridge at a time.