To Write Your Dissertation or Not During the Holidays?

Closeup of a mug of hot chocolate next to an open notebook with a ballpoint pen resting on top, a fireplace burning brightly in the background


Every December, many of my clients have the same dilemma. Those who are teaching submit their final grades and then face a few weeks where they supposedly have more time to write. Those who work full-time jobs in the corporate sector are “off” for a few days and have the rare weekday where they are not working.

This sudden change in schedule creates a quandary for many of these dissertation writers, because while on the one hand, they look forward to a less structured set of days, on the other, they feel guilty about taking time off. Additionally, they may have family vacations lined up or trips to see in-laws. They may be taking part in religious ceremonies that demand a great deal of their time, or doing significantly more emotional labor (buying presents, entertaining, writing holiday cards, decorating) than usual.

Yet still there is the nagging voice. Write . . Write . . . Your dissertation wants to be written. So what are these writers to do?


First of all, it’s important to make a conscious decision whether or not to write or engage in research at all, and if so, how much of it you will do. Keep in mind that any time you spend on your research or writing will certainly be beneficial, even if it’s only a half an hour or fifteen minutes a day. It’s also perfectly acceptable, however, to decide not to write. I realize this may seem counterintuitive because here I am, a dissertation coach, telling you not to work on your dissertation, but I really think it’s better to decide not to and then enjoy yourself than to want to and not do it. So if you realistically think it just isn’t going to happen, accept that, and make a date in your calendar for when you will return. No fanfare, no accolades, just a “I’ll get back to it Wednesday, January 3” or “I’ll write between December 26 and 30th, but I’ll take the rest of the time completely off and resume again after the New Year.” That way, you make a promise to yourself not only about when you are going to work, but when you are not, which is almost the more important one, because it will prevent you from feeling guilty for not working.


If you do decide to write or work on your research during the holidays, it’s important to let your family and friends in on this decision, particularly if it directly impacts their lives. If you’re planning to stay with family or friends, for instance, and you decide to take some time each morning to write, it’s makes a difference to give your hosts a heads up. In fact, I think it’s especially important when you are either hosting or being hosted that you consider the routines and plans of the other members of the household and how your dissertation writing may affect them. You can also communicate clear but reasonable boundaries to them in the kindest way possible. You might try saying to a spouse for instance, “I’ll be writing for the first hour (or half hour or 90 minutes, etc) of the day, but then I’ll be yours the rest of the time.” Or you might ask your partner to watch the children for a certain amount of time each day. Some upfront communication has a couple of important benefits. One, you are less likely to have conflict since others know your plans and what to expect. Second, you are likely to feel more accountable to work because your told others you would.


One of the most productive periods in my life was when I was studying for my Master’s exam at the University of Cincinnati, and one of the reasons for that was the time I spent on Amtrak. I used to take the Amtrak to meet my parents in another state, and it was at least a ten hour trip each way. Some of that time I slept, but quite a bit of it, I used studying for the exam and writing my thesis. It is similarly rare now for me to be in an airport or hotel room alone and not get work done. In fact, I’d almost venture to say those are the times I get a much larger percentage of work done, because I can’t do anything else. So be prepared to take advantage of unexpected windows of time, even if it for only a brief writing engagement. Even if you’re not planning to do much, you can still take a couple of articles with you or a few pages to edit for those moments when you have unexpected available time. Those moments do happen!


I talk about this quite a bit with my clients in general, but it’s really important that we don’t think that suddenly because we have two or three weeks with a different schedule that we have endless amounts of uninterrupted time. If you are like most of us, you’re also catching up on other things in your life, and you’ll want to take advantage of that time to spend with family and to decompress as much as you can. The holidays have their own stress, so it’s important to recognize that and think about what you can realistically achieve during this time. This, above all times, is a time to be careful not to engage in magical thinking (i.e. “I’m going to write a whole dissertation chapter during my three week winter break!).


Keep in mind that the holiday season is not a very long time period in the span of your whole dissertation or thesis life. So if you end up not working during this break, it is not terrible. But if you can work, remember that you don’t have to work much each day to add up to a decent chunk of progress that will set you up for a productive new year.

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