The All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide™ focuses on ways to help its readers more readily overcome the roadblocks that often seem to stand in the way of completing the dissertation. It is read throughout the world.

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INSIDE THIS ISSUE - September 9, 2011

1. An Extended Note from the Editor, Tracy Steen, Ph.D.
P.S. Take a Break

2. Inspirational Quotes

September 9, 2011

P.S. Take a Break
Tracy Steen, Ph.D.

Every few months or so I enjoy browsing through the archives of the ABD Survival Guide and reflecting on which articles and themes have been the most successful. If I were compiling an ABD Survival Guide Greatest Tips issue, it would most certainly include this proven winner: Conceptualize the dissertation as an endurance event.

Throughout high school and college, clever students can perform well academically by alternately sprinting and crashing. Some believe they work better under pressure and even enjoy the intensity created by a rapidly approaching deadline. If you consider yourself a scholastic sprinter, please take a moment to consider how your life circumstances and academic challenges have changed over the years.

How quickly do you bounce back to work after sprinting to meet a deadline? For most graduate students, the amount of recovery time needed increases with age. Sprinting becomes a less attractive strategy for those students who would like to minimize physical and emotional wear and tear.

More importantly, the nature of your work becomes less compatible with sprinting as you move toward the Ph.D. The dissertation journey is always long and sometimes lonely. Your relationship to time changes when you transition from taking classes to writing a dissertation. There are no breaks between classes to help you pace yourself, and firm deadlines become scarce. When every day is unstructured and most tasks are open ended, weekends begin to lose their significance.

If you would like to avoid a mental overuse injury, you will need to conceptualize the dissertation as an endurance event and schedule time off from work to recharge. That brings to mind another strong contender for an ABD Survival Guide Greatest Tips issue: To avoid mental overtraining, schedule restorative breaks. But anyone who has ever wished that our brains came with an off switch knows that the transition from working to relaxing can be bumpy. Sometimes our busy brains stay in work mode long after we have powered down our laptops. Because relaxing is sometimes easier said than done, I created a snappy visual aid for the weary ABD:

P.S. Take a Break

The P is for Positive and the S is for Structure. I realize that Positive Structure sounds more like work than play at this point, so I will elaborate:

P is for Positive

Remember the catchy reminder phrase P.S. Take a Break? The letter P is for Positive, and it serves as a reminder to choose activities that will likely have a positive influence on your state of mind. If you are watching a movie or browsing the Internet on a break, how do you want to feel after you finish? Unsettled? Cynical? Guilty? Inspired? Uplifted? Relaxed? Allow your answer to influence your decision making when choosing what to do on a break.

I should note that I have not always been so deliberate about my leisure time. As a teenager I was drawn to dark movies, books, and music, and I routinely ignored my parents' lectures about "garbage in, garbage out." As it turns out, they had a point.

If you aren't convinced that reading angry Internet message boards or watching dark programs on TV can negatively impact your future work sessions, I invite you to design a test for yourself. Monitor how you feel during and after your chosen activity and note the quality of your next work session. What trends emerge over time? Please share your observations with me so that I can pass them along to ABD Survival Guide readers in a future issue.

I'll get the ball rolling by sharing some of my favorite things to do on a break. Playing with my dog, hiking in the woods, or taking photographs around the neighborhood are my go-to activities when I need to recharge. Watching television is generally a poor choice for me, but there are two notable exceptions:

1. Phillies Games. In a recent article I mentioned how much I love watching the Philadelphia Phillies play baseball, but I should also give thanks to my favorite team for improving my productivity at work. Watching a game is like taking a mini vacation with a motivational coach. The talent of the players is certainly awe inspiring, but so is their mental approach to the game. The Phillies work better when they are relaxed and happy, and so do I.

2. Doctor Who. This long-running British science fiction series is the only TV program I've encountered that is reliably uplifting, engaging, and inspirational. If you are new to this series, I recommend starting with the following episodes: "The Girl in the Fireplace," "Blink," "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead," and "The Lodger."

Now it's your turn: What do you do to relax and recharge after a long work session? Share your recommendations by e-mailing me at, and please let me know whether you would like your name to be included along with your ideas in a future newsletter.

S is for Structured

Sometimes the transition from work mode to play mode has more bumps than we would like. In these situations, simply removing yourself from your desk and telling yourself to relax may not be sufficient. Instructing yourself to stop thinking about work is even less likely to work. (For more information about the paradoxical effects of thought suppression, check out the classic study by Wegner, Schneider, Carter, and White, 1987.)

The S in P.S. Take a Break is intended to remind you to consider the level of structure involved in your chosen break. When you are feeling carefree and unburdened by looming deadlines, you might savor the opportunity to be entirely spontaneous in your leisure time. When you observe your mind bouncing back to work long after you have physically removed yourself from your desk, a well-chosen structured activity can provide the support you need to guide your attention away from work.

Finding the right amount of structure for your breaks requires some experimentation and awareness of your changing needs. For example, many academics enjoy playing bridge or poker in their downtime because they are forced to concentrate on the rules and the moment-by-moment action of the game. For some people, the structure and intensity associated with competitive card games is a bit much. Moderately structured activities like going to the zoo, making a new recipe, or even going to the movies with a friend may provide pleasant distraction without added stress.

Summary and Conclusion

Leave it to a psychologist to make taking a break sound complicated! Let's simplify by returning to your handy new visual aid: P.S. Take a Break. Have you placed it somewhere visible? Burnout is inevitable without breaks, but breaking away from work can be surprisingly challenging. When the desire to take a break isn't sufficient, turn to Positive, Structured activities for extra support. You deserve it!


Inspirational Quotes

"Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer's day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time."
--J. Lubbock

"Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed through life trying to save."
--Will Rogers

"It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do."
--Jerome K. Jerome

"To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring - it was peace."
--Milan Kundera

"Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer."
--Leonardo DaVinci

"Slow down and everything you are chasing will come around and catch you."
--John De Paola

Tracy Steen, Ph.D. , is a clinical psychologist and dissertation coach in Philadelphia, PA. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Steen draws on her research background in positive psychology in her coaching work with writers, helping them to remove internal obstacles so they can find more engagement and flow in their work. You can contact Dr. Steen with questions about this newsletter or about coaching in general at You can also visit her website at

Dr. NANCY WHICHARD, Contributor, ABDSG; Director, MentorCoach Academic and Writing Coaching Programs
Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC, is a dissertation and academic career coach. She has successfully coached to completion doctoral candidates from all over the world. To recommit to your writing and replace self-sabotage with a robust writing habit, contact Nancy about Dissertation Boot Camp and about coaching at To write sooner rather than later, enroll in Boot Camp. To receive Nancy's Smart Tips for Writers e-newsletter, sign up at and read her blog at

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BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished helping professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches.You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.


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