An important strategy to be productive is to learn to make your dissertation a priority. I realize that this seems like an obvious strategy and you may think that your dissertation is a highly important priority in your life. Yet the actual behavior you engage in on a daily basis might tell another story. If I were to videotape you for a few days and observe your behavior, would I see that you make your dissertation a priority? While it may be a priority in your mind, your behavior may indicate otherwise. Often graduate students are thinking on a regular basis about their dissertations but when it comes to actually doing the work, other activities seem to take precedence. There is one category of activities that most typically upstages your dissertation. That category of activities is tasks you perceive as being urgent that take priority over your dissertation work.

In life, there are tasks that are urgent such as grading exams before final grades are due, turning in a paper for a class you are taking, and paying your bills on time. Most dissertation activities are tasks that are important to complete but they are not urgent. Usually there is no immediate consequence if you do not complete a given dissertation task. Tasks that are important in life but not urgent often get pushed aside by people in favor of completing the more seemingly urgent tasks such as returning email, doing laundry, or completing work for a research or teaching job. The urgent tasks seem to scream out, complete me first, I am a priority. Certainly, it is important to complete urgent tasks. Your bills do need to get paid, you do need to fulfill work and household responsibilities, and you do need to respond to your email. Yet it is also important to balance the need to complete urgent and nonurgent tasks if you want to make consistent progress on your dissertation. Think about your behavior. Do you focus on completing urgent tasks to the exclusion of the nonurgent but important tasks in your life? Do you tend to maintain an “as soon as I” attitude telling yourself that you will get to your dissertation tasks “as soon as” you complete something that seems more pressing?

Even beyond completing your dissertation, it is important to make the nonurgent, important tasks in your life a priority. These types of tasks are usually the most important for meeting long-term goals. Completing important and nonurgent tasks usually gives people the greatest sense of satisfaction and accomplishment (Ditzler, 1994). Creating an action plan is a way to help you more clearly identify and focus on the nonurgent but important dissertation tasks you seek to complete. If you do not make your dissertation a priority, eventually it will no longer be a nonurgent project. Instead, you may be up against a department or university deadline with a great deal of pressure to finish on time. I doubt you want to be in a situation where you have to complete your dissertation in such a time-pressured situation.

I encourage you to use your action plan as a way to balance the need to complete both urgent and nonurgent tasks. As much as possible, plan time each day to work on dissertation tasks. Completing these tasks is not only important for you to make consistent progress toward earning your PhD, it is also important to help you experience a sense of fulfillment during the process and build your sense of motivation and momentum to continue your work the next day. There are times when you may need to devote more energy to urgent tasks such as pressing family issues or a grant deadline. Once those more urgent tasks or issues are handled, aim to quickly rebalance the amount of time you dedicate to urgent and nonurgent tasks. In general, when you make your dissertation a priority, you will naturally complete the urgent tasks as well, because they are by definition urgent.

One way to make your dissertation more of a priority is to follow the suggestion of Bolker (1989) to “write first.” By “write first” Bolker was suggesting dissertation writers make writing their highest priority. This is wise advice. I encourage my clients to write first whenever possible. Write first before you check your email, do your laundry, pay your bills, or do other academic work. A “write first” habit can be difficult to develop at first but it is important nonetheless. Writing first is about arranging your life so that you can make writing a main focus and concern. If you choose an academic or research career after graduate school, developing this habit now will serve you well the rest of your life.


Bolker. J. (1998). Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. NY: Henry Holt

Ditzler, J. (1994). Your Best Year Yet. New York, NY: Warner Books

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.

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