Though the time we usually associate with taking stock and establishing new habits is the New Year, for those on an academic calendar the new academic year provides us with a similar opportunity. Remember grade school, high school, and even the undergrad days? Didn’t each new school year feel like an exciting wonderful new beginning? When I look back on those days, each New Year always felt like a new adventure just waiting to unfold with all the new challenges, learnings and fun the coming year would bring. One of the wonderful things about those days was that each year was like a little self-contained unit. So it didn’t matter if your sophomore year was awful—for me it was my junior year—when that next year rolled around, you got a completely fresh start.

If you’re in the middle of writing your dissertation, those days may seem very remote, and rather than feeling anticipation, you may be feeling anxious, or frustrated at not having met summer goals. Does any of this sound familiar?

  • The summer’s over, and I didn’t get nearly as much written as I’d planned!
  • My advisor is back on campus and I’m still not done with the draft I promised her!
  • Now I’m going to have to start teaching again, so I’ll have even less time than before.
  • This is my last year of funding, what if I don’t get it finished?

I want to challenge each of you to step back from those fears, and let yourself feel that excitement again. Maybe even treat yourself to a little back-to-school shopping! Buy a back-pack, a new outfit, or, if money is tight, a new planner or some flowers for your office. And when you look at your new purchase, let it remind you of that feeling of the promise of exiting things to come.

Ok, you say, but what about that unfinished draft? If your writing hasn’t progressed as far as you would have liked, make a little time to ask yourself why not. If you didn’t get those conference papers submitted, this could be your golden opportunity.

I realize that what I’ve written so far probably seems nostalgic. But if you take advantage of this bridge to a new year, it can be a great time to start fresh, new habits that will carry you on to the finish line

So what would you like to change in the year ahead?

  • Do you need a better work environment?
  • Do you need to spend less time surfing the net?
  • Do you want to set and stick to a daily, weekly, or monthly writing goal?

I say this in just about every blog post I write, but get as specific as you can. The more specific you are about what you want to do differently, the more likely you are to be successful in making those changes. A good way to do this can be to apply the SMART test to each goal you set. SMART goals are goals that meet the following criteria:

  • Specific (What is my goal?)
  • Measurable (How will I know when I’ve met my goal?)
  • Attainable (Do I have the necessary tools or skills to meet my goal?)
  • Relevant (Why is this goal important?)
  • Timely (When will I meet this goal?)

The relative importance of each of these criteria will vary, of course, depending on the nature of your goals. But they nonetheless provide good general guidelines for establishing well-defined goals that you can actually meet.

It’s also important to take some time to put a name and a face to those saboteurs I mentioned a minute ago. Don’t let them be a faceless gremlin that just makes it easier for them to trip you up again.

Was the Huffington Post your downfall? Lumosity? Facebook? It’s OK to enjoy those things, but plan a time of day when you can relax and enjoy those diversions, without letting them interfere with your dissertation…(Hint: 8:00 AM at the beginning of your work day is probably not the best time.)

Are you one of those people who either choose or have to work in a noisy environment? Maybe a coffee shop, maybe your kitchen with kids playing in the background? If so, there are a couple of things worth trying. First, if possible, choose a quieter, more conducive work environment, even if only for a few hours. So instead of working in that really noisy coffee shop, perhaps find one that is a little quieter, where there will be fewer distractions. A location where others are also engaged in work is an ideal choice. If you are working while caring for children, you probably need to get more creative. Maybe think about bringing in outside help to watch the children while you work if you can. If that’s not an option, try and carve out small chunks of time—nap time, a couple hours while they’re at day-care, to at least get started. Identify tasks that require less concentration and can be done during those periods of time when you can’t escape the din, and save the tasks that require greater concentration for those times when you can make other arrangements.

If you’re just starting your dissertation, all this may seem either irrelevant, or impossible, depending on how you feel about the task ahead. But for you this post is especially important. I often work with clients after they have missed deadlines, become overwhelmed, or encountered other problems. The best time to establish good habits is when you’re starting out, before you’ve had the chance to fall into bad ones.

So enjoy the freshness of this new academic year, and do your best to make the most of it. And if you feel you may need a little extra help, this is also a great time to begin working with a dissertation coach. If you would like to know more about dissertation coaching, I would love to hear from you at I wish each of you a happy and productive New Year!