It is far easier to be motivated and productive to work on your dissertation (or thesis) if you can keep more reasonable expectations of your academic performance for a given work session. I often witness students attempting to motivate themselves with unrealistic demands for academic performance (in the quality and/or quantity of work produced in a specific time period). They tell themselves, for example, that they must write a lengthy section of their dissertation in an unreasonable time frame or expect it to be easy to identify a dissertation topic or recruit study participants. It is usually difficult to feel inspired or motivated to work under the pressure of excessive demands. If you are telling yourself what you must accomplish or how well you must perform in order to consider yourself a good, intelligent, productive student or a worthy person, you are setting yourself up to feel bad if you fail to meet these excessive standards. Feeling bad is rarely a good source of motivation.

So be mindful of maintaining reasonable expectations about what you can accomplish. You can prefer to be productive and perform well but watch out for excessive demands that can actually diminish your motivation and productivity. Remind yourself that you can have high standards for your work; you just cannot have them all at once. Letting yourself work with lower standards especially in the early stages of research and writing can be a very useful strategy to help you be more motivated and productive. There is less pressure and the work usually seems easier to approach. I am not suggesting that you have no standards for you work but I am saying that lower standards may lead to more productive work sessions. You can raise your standards over time as you revise, clarify, and improve your work so that it is of a quality you can feel good about. I have seen time and time again that graduate students who are able to work with lower standards are actually more productive (and even produce better quality work in the end) than students who work with very high standards. High standards often lead to procrastination and paralysis whereas more reasonable and flexible standards allow people to write rough drafts, play around with ideas, ask for help, and persist in the face of difficulties. If you fear letting go of your high standards, ask yourself how well trying to live up to your standards is working. Are you productive? Motivated? Feeling good about your dissertation or thesis? If not, it is time to reevaluate your standards.

This article was written by Alison Miller, PhD, owner of The Dissertation Coach, a business dedicated to helping doctoral and master's students successfully earn their graduate degrees.

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Copyright August 2007 by Alison Miller, Ph.D., The Dissertation Coach