```liquid {% seo %} ```

  Completing a Happy TEL PhD: Wellbeing in TEL Doctorates

Luis P. Prieto, Tallinn University
Yagmur Cisem Yilmaz, Tallinn University

Abstract: This chapter lays out one of the key transversal challenges that doctoral students in TEL face, according to a recent survey: experiencing low wellbeing in the form of anxiety, stress or depression (sometimes leading to dropping out of the doctoral studies). From the myriad of factors that research has found relate to these closely intertwined problems, we focus on those you have some degree of control about. Three key motivational factors distinguish doctoral students that finish their theses from those that do not: a sustained sense of progress, manageable levels of mental distress, and being able to appropriate your thesis project. The chapter proposes “deep dives” into each of these motivational factors, and proposes different tips and exercises to foster them. Finally, we close the chapter with a guide to strategize your progress towards your next dissertation milestone, which you can use again and again until you finalize your PhD.

The Problem(s)

A doctoral degree is one of the most challenging (and long!) educational experiences that a human can undergo. It involves working on a single research question, for which human knowledge has no answer yet, during three or more years. In recent years, there has been an increasing awareness that such a protracted and complex learning experience can lead, for many doctoral candidates, to mental health challenges and/or the abandoning of the doctorate.

Yet, the doctoral journey is not a unified experience nor a linear path, and each candidate goes through somewhat familiar yet distinctive processes during the PhD. Here are some stories just to point out the diversity:

Anna, a fifth year PhD student, currently only has one article published (of the 3-4 she needs to finish the PhD). With a turmoil between her desire to complete her PhD, and the urge to keep her work-study-life balance, each rejected paper frustrates her even more. Her productivity seems to thrive: she works as much as a senior researcher, and has finished writing 8 papers already. However, luck and mental wellbeing does not necessarily blossom under the influence of such productivity. On the contrary, the gap between the acknowledged workload and her apparent inability to achieve doctoral success through publication of her papers disappoints and frustrates her to such a degree that she has been considering to quit her PhD entirely, at least once every week for this year.

Beth, a PhD graduate who currently undertakes her post-doc overseas, works as a senior researcher at the same time. She started to work as a student assistant after completing her master’s degree, which then turned into a doctoral degree defense as she already published multiple consecutive and interconnected articles as part of her job at the university. She published a few more, and wrote a monograph in two weeks to defend and obtain her PhD. Now, “how does that story look simplistic and direct?” you may ask. She had been through the hardships and the confusion of the PhD while working as the assistant at the lab where she felt that she needed to work more than the others.

These stories all have different elements and influence factors to them, but one thing is clear: they all involve lots of hard work, time, effort, and growth. Not being able to organize your approach and putting a straight face when encountered with problems, challenges or rejections are subtle parts of this path.

Mental health in the doctorate

Reading (8 min): To get familiar with key research studies on the prevalence of mental health problems (like anxiety, stress or depression), please read the blog post Is doing a Ph.D. bad… for your mental wellbeing?

Dropout in the doctorate

Reading (12 min): To understand how bad the problem of high dropout rates in doctoral education is, and some factors known to be related to the doctoral dropouts, read the blog post “Who drops out of the Ph.D.?”.

What about a TEL doctorate specifically?

So far, we have established that mental health and the risk of dropout are widespread in doctoral studies generally. But… does that apply to a doctorate in TEL? Maybe such an exciting field is free from these problems.

As it turns out, a recent (still unpublished) survey study of more than 200 doctoral students and researchers in TEL found out that psychological challenges (e.g., anxiety, depression) and work-life balance are the most difficult ones that they face during the PhD. The figure below illustrates the point:

How easy are different kinds of challenges in a TEL doctorate, from a survey of 200+ dooctoral students and researchers in TEL. The Likert scale goes from 1 (very difficult to face) to 5 (very easy).

This TEL-specific data, along with the wealth of research cited in the readings above, suggest that mental health and (research) productivity are closely intertwined in a TEL doctorate, and are often hard to manage for many doctoral students. If you feel like you suffer from these problems now, or you would like to be prepared for the moment when these challenges come (spoiler alert: they will probably come at some point during the doctorate), read on!

Motivational Factors to Complete a (TEL) PhD

“Progressing serenely in a project that makes sense”

Reading (8 min): To understand how this sentence summarizes the three key motivational factors distinguishing doctoral students that finish their PhD from those that do not, read the first half of the blog post “Cultivating the progress loop in your PhD” (until the section “A small bit of evidence from the field”, included).

Exercise: Self-assess your key motivational areas

Exercise (5 min): Take some minutes to reflect individually about how much you feel the different parts of the sentence “Progressing serenely in a project that makes sense” apply to your particular doctoral process right now. Score each of the factors:

  • Progress: On a 0-10 scale, how well do you think you are PROGRESSING right now in your doctoral studies? (with 0 being no progress at all, and 10 meaning the best progress you can conceive).
  • Serenity: On a 0-10 scale, how SERENE (i.e., free from too much emotional distress) your PhD journey is right now? (with 0 being hugely distressing, and 10 meaning no emotional/mental discomfort whatsoever).
  • Appropriation: On a 0-10 scale, how much does your doctoral PROJECT MAKE SENSE to you? (with 0 being complete lack of meaning, or not having a PhD project at all, and 10 meaning that your PhD project is crystal clear and makes total sense to you).

We know doctoral students are a busy bunch, so we will use the scores from the exercise above to prioritize which of the “deep dives” below you want to focus on first: pick the deep dive about the factor with the lowest score. You can do the others later, or leave them undone if you think you are doing very well on those.

Deep Dive: Progress and Productivity

As we have seen in the reading above, perceiving a sense of progress in the elaboration of the dissertation materials is crucial for completing a TEL doctorate in an appropriate length of time. However, the PhD thesis implies many tasks of different kinds, e.g., reading, writing, gathering data, analysis, … which means it is very common to have “multiple fronts open”. And we have not even mentioned other obligations you may have outside the dissertation (family, friends, other jobs, volunteering, etc.)!

How can we stand the deluge of tasks that all these areas of our life generate, and stay sane and finish on time? (and even enjoy it!?). This is where productivity advice, tailored specifically for the doctoral research environment and types of tasks, becomes helpful. In the following, we will quickly go over such advice, with links to further reading.

Common productivity problems/symptoms in a TEL PhD

When talking with (TEL and otherwise) doctoral students about their productivity, these are some of the reactions we get (you can find a wider categorization of doctoral productivity challenges here):

  • “Don’t know what’s the problem, but I know I’m not productive”

  • “I know what to do, but it does not look like I’m progressing”

  • “Don’t know why, but in the end I spend most of my day on email/phone/social networks”

  • “I am overwhelmed by so many tasks”

  • “I have this HUGE task that never seems to finish”

  • “I don’t have enough energy to do this important task, so I will do this other small thing” (procrastination)

  • “My productivity is derailed by other people/interruptions/unexpected things happening”

If you have ever thought along these lines during your PhD work, know that you are not alone: Many TEL doctoral students have experienced more than one of these throughout their PhD, and many more will. Now that we have dispelled some of the “impostor syndrome” that these thoughts often bring (no, it is not that you are particularly unfit to do a PhD!), let’s look at some solutions.

General practices to foster a sense of progress

Reading (9 min): To get familiar with some general practices that have been proposed in the academic literature and in industry to foster the perception of one’s own progress, finish reading the blog post “Cultivating the progress loop in your PhD” (from the section “Cultivate your own progress loop” onwards).

The practices mentioned above (making smaller tasks, journaling, self-tracking or OKRs) often help with the perception side of perceiving one’s own progress. Yet, how can we actually get more done in the (often, difficult, laborious, cognitively demanding) tasks that a doctorate implies? This is where (PhD-tailored) productivity advice comes in:

Doctoral productivity meta-principles

After four years as a PhD student, and many more trying to support doctoral students to finish their PhDs, there are several simple (but not necessarily easy) principles and rules that I have found work for many people, when doing research work for the first time:

  1. To be productive is a practice (even the productivity gurus fall off the wagon from time to time and have to start over and get into the rhythm)
  2. Manage your attention/energy, not only your time (see #3, #4 below)
  3. Do the most important thing first (this might not be the most urgent!)
  4. Do once thing at a time (multi-tasking does NOT work, unless it’s a really dumb task)
  5. Habits and routines are more important than willpower or great goals (focus on sustainability!)“Starting again” as a crucial meta-habit (see #1)
  6. Start now! (even if it is for 25 min only)

If you implement these rules consistently, you will already be ahead of many of the people that start a PhD thinking that it is “just like a longer masters”. However, given that each TEL PhD journey is different (topic-wise, circumstance-wise, etc.), it is also good to understand what are the concrete challenges that each of us is facing specifically

Exercise: Your key productivity challenges

Exercise (5 min): Spend a few minutes reflecting and writing down which ones do you think are your main productivity challenges. First, brainstorm many ideas (e.g., 5-10) without judging them much. Afterwards, highlight 1-3 productivity challenges which you think are clearly the most important in your particular case. When in doubt, select internal productivity challenges, i.e., those that depend mostly on you (rather than being because of external factors or people).

NB: You can also do this exercise in a group (as we do in our doctoral workshops), by joining with other colleagues of yours (especially, doctoral students) and brainstorming challenges and discussing them in the group. Try to select in the end the 1-3 internal productivity challenges that you think affect all of you the most.

A catalog of productivity techniques to address your challenges

Now that you know the exact productivity problem(s) you’re facing, it is time to get more granular on what kind of productivity advice would fit your particular situation. While there is a wealth of doctoral-specific productivity advice elsewhere, here are 10 productivity “patterns” that we have found work for most of the doctoral students we have talked with:

  1. Sleep more!
  2. Capture: Keep a diary/notebook, and Always Be Capturing (ABC)
  3. Diagnose: Track your key habits and progress metrics
  4. Organize: Plan your day (including morning and evening routines)
  5. Organize: Have a (productivity) system (a simple one!)
  6. Focus: the Pomodoro Technique
  7. Focus: limit your “work in progress” (a.k.a. Most Important Tasks)
  8. Focus: eliminate distractions and tweak your environment
  9. Focus: Timebox and task-batch
  10. Reflect: Do regular reviews (especially, if you journal or self-track)

Exercise (15 min): Look at the productivity patterns above, and reflect whether any of them could have an impact on your particular productivity problem(s) from the previous exercise. Then, read a bit more about the potential patterns you want to implement (to understand its rationale and how to implement it), and make a note (e.g., in a post-it) somewhere visible and meaningful, making the promise to yourself to implement it from now on.

NB: You can also do this exercise in a group (as we do in our doctoral workshops), by joining with other colleagues of yours (especially, doctoral students) and discussing the solutions and their match to your most important productivity problems.

Parting productivity advice

This is it for the doctoral productivity. Of course, much more can be said about this topic, but this is probably the “Pareto principle” version (i.e., the 20% of the advice that will give you 80% of the benefit).

Just one last piece of productivity advice, as a productivity geek for many years: don’t be like this guy I know (cough-myself-cough!) that thought for many years:

“Once I find the right productivity system, hard work will become easy!”

Rather, be like this other one, which became much wiser after trying and failing to find such perfect productivity workflow:

“I know why I want to do this, so I don’t care if it’s hard!

Let’s just organize the work enough, so that I do the best I can.”

May you be your most productive, researcher self!

Deep Dive: Mental Health

We have already established that mental health problems like depression, anxiety or stress, are widespread in doctoral education, and they are perceived as an important challenge in doctoral TEL research. But why is this the case? Read on below to find out:

Reading (9 min): To understand common mental health-related symptoms most doctoral students face during the PhD, some of its main underlying mechanisms and what to do about them (if something needs to be done), please read the blog post “Am I normal? An intro to mental health in the doctorate”.

Exercise: What takes us away from what is important

Now that we have a general layout of the typical mental health problem during a TEL doctorate, and a few basic techniques we can apply to face them, we can again go deeper into our particular challenges, symptoms we experience and how we often react to them in unhelpful ways.

Exercise (10 min): Take a few quiet minutes to reflect and write down the answers to these two questions:

  • How much time do you spend doing things that take you further away from your priorities (especially, your dissertation – which probably is one of your current key priorities), or that block you from progressing in that direction?
    • This is often what drives us away from the important stuff, or keeps us blocked, often has to do with spending too much time “in our own head”, tangled in our thoughts, feelings, worries, etc. and arguing with ourselves.
  • What kind of reactions do you have when facing those difficult emotions/thoughts (symptoms)? What do you often do?
    • E.g., Reading websites, tidying my workspace, responding emails, eating at random times, not sleeping, …

The key message to take away from the exercise above is not that everything we do when we face uncomfortable feelings, thoughts or sensations is wrong necessarily. For instance, taking a break can be essential to stay productive over long periods of time. However, if every time we face a symptom (e.g., thinking “this thesis is useless”) we take a break, we may end up not finishing our PhD ever. Therefore, we need to consider our reactions to such symptoms, and decide whether they are bringing us closer or moving us farther from what we think is important in our lives. And only we can define what these important things are!

Strategies and tactics against self-sabotage

When we are facing the kind of self-sabotage described above (unhelpful thoughts and behaviors that take us away from what we think is important, like our TEL dissertation), it is important to keep in mind a few general strategies:

  • Good mental health is strongly related to healthy lifestyle habits: sleep, diet, physical exercise…
  • Listen to/Observe yourself (e.g., through journaling), to understand what seems to work… not to get momentary relief, but rather to be satisfied with what we did if we reflect at the end of the day.
  • Analyze your observations and always keep in mind: “what is important for you?”

Aside from these general directions, there are more concrete everyday tactics that we can use to overcome our unhelpful reactions:

  1. Techniques aimed at loosening the “rumination muscles” in our minds and developing its “attention muscles”. Typically, this involves relaxation and mindfulness practices (see examples here).
  2. Simple but powerful techniques to focus on what’s important, such as “granny’s rule”: Do first what we tend to postpone (e.g., using the Pomodoro technique).
  3. If we find that we often face self-interruption and distraction, we can try exercises like “sitting with uncertainty” (e.g., during paper writing sessions).
  4. If we are prone to rumination cycles in which unhelpful trains of thought course through our minds again and again, we can…
    1. distance ourselves from our thoughts by changing the linguistic conventions of our self-talk (e.g., changing unhelpful thoughts to “I’m having the feeling/thought that…”).
    2. … put them physically in our back pockets: recognize the thought, write it down on a piece of paper, and do not reject it, but rather fold it, put it in your back pocket, and continue doing what you were doing.

Exercise: Going towards the important stuff (e.g., your TEL dissertation!)

Now that we know exactly what kind of behaviors and thoughts could become problematic, and some tactics we could use to address them, let’s try to put both elements together to get a first, personalized strategy for facing our mental health struggles in the TEL doctoral journey.

Exercise (15 min): Make a copy of this whiteboard (you will need a Google account to create the copy) and fill it in with answers to the following questions:

  1. What are common uncomfortable emotions/sensations you currently face (especially when working on your research tasks)?
  2. What kinds of actions you take controlled by those emotions/sensations, which take you away from what you consider important (e.g., finishing your TEL PhD)?
  3. What actions/habits could you take instead to go more in the direction you consider important? You can choose from the strategies and tactics above, or come up with your own rules, habits and actions that make sense for your context and current circumstances.

Parting mental health advice

Again, this is just the “Pareto version” of the mental health advice a doctoral student may get. Don’t think about it as a complete guide, but rather as a “first aid kit” that you can use for the everyday emotional wounds and bruises that a PhD often brings.

If these basic tactics do not work for you, please do contact a professional counselor or therapist (universities often have counseling units specialized on supporting students in facing this kind of challenges). This text should not be considered healthcare advice, but rather for informational and educational purposes.

May you have a serene doctoral journey!

Deep Dive: Thesis Appropriation

Several elements play into “a thesis that makes sense to us”, one of the three key motivational factors that Belgian researchers have found distinguish doctoral students that finish the PhD from those that abandon it (Devos et al., 2016). These elements include:

  • We feel we have control about where the research goes (perceived autonomy)
  • We understand the thesis as a whole (vs. a series of random studies) (conceptualization of content or topic of the dissertation)
  • We know how to get to the end (conceptualization of the dissertation process)
  • We think our research contribution is worth making (perceived usefulness of the outcome)

Below, you can find two exercises that other PhD students (including the authors of this chapter when they were students) have found useful to both assess and develop your conceptualization of the contents and process of your TEL dissertation.

Appropriating the Content (i.e., your PhD topic)

“What is your doctoral thesis about?”

This is one of the most common questions a TEL doctoral student receives at conferences, in seminars, in informal chitchat or in occasional visits by external professors. It is also one of the most difficult ones to answer, especially at the beginning. Answering it well, in a reasonable time, requires good knowledge about several key elements of your research, and how they fit together:

  • What is the research context: what areas and topics of research (and gaps in the literature) your thesis is connected to.
  • What is your main research question: something that human knowledge about technology-enhanced learning has not found out yet.
  • What is the research contribution: what kinds of answers you plan to find for the research question.
  • What is the evaluation scheme of your dissertation: how do you plan to prove that your contribution is novel, useful, and solves the problem/question you set out to answer.

The following exercise will help you develop this mastery of the contents of your thesis at a high level.

Exercise: Do your own CQOCE diagram

Exercise (20-60 min): Please read this blog post and create your own CQOCE diagram detailing the research context, main question, objective(s), contribution(s), and evaluation of your PhD thesis. You can do this on pen and paper, or make a copy of this diagram (will require a Google login to create your copy).

The resulting one-page summary of your thesis is quite useful for communication with your supervisor(s) as well (as they may be following multiple research threads and may not remember exactly what yours is about, and whether there has been a recent conceptual leap in how you understand the research). Additionally, you can use such a diagram in the introduction of your actual dissertation manuscript, to clarify its main elements for the reader. Indeed, some of us still use this kind of tool internally after the PhD, when starting a new research project or research line!

It is important to repeat it: this kind of exercise is iterative. It is OK if you find some parts difficult, or you do not know what to put in some parts of it. That is already useful information about what things are not clear, which you could discuss with your supervisor(s) or other colleagues. And it is also OK (and quite common, actually) to do multiple different versions of the diagram over time as the dissertation process evolves and you understand better your research field and the exact nature of what you can achieve within the scope of your dissertation (one of the authors of the chapter did about 20 different versions of it!)

Appropriating the Process of the PhD

In our doctoral workshops, students and supervisors that had a good grip on their doctoral process mentioned having a “map of the thesis” in their heads. It is useful then to also externalize this map onto a piece of paper, again for our own understanding and to discuss with your supervisor(s) and colleagues: you may have a different understanding of what is crucially important, and what is just “nice to have”. As with any other map one uses to plan a trip, there are several useful elements to account for:

  • Major milestones until the destination, which define phases or stages in the journey, and provide unequivocal proof that you are going in the right direction.
  • Obstacles (internal to you, or external), defining places or times that can be especially tricky to navigate, or personal weaknesses or constraints that we need to carefully consider so that they do not hamper our advance.
  • Fuel and how to get it: in this case, these can be everyday actions, habits or indicators that provide more frequent feedback that we are moving, and which keep us going between milestones.

Exercise: Do your own Thesis Map

Exercise (30 min): Read this blog post and create a map of your own doctoral journey, either in pen and paper, or by creating a copy of this editable thesis map template (it will require a Google login to create the copy). Make sure to add at the 3-4 most important elements of each kind:

  • Milestones (yellow post-its): major key points or events, help we know in what part of the journey we are.
  • Obstacles (red post-its): factors, unexpected events, dangers that may make it difficult to advance and hit the different milestones
  • Fuel (green post-its): More frequent, everyday events or habits (e.g., daily, weekly) that help us avoid obstacles and hit the milestones

You can draw some of these elements from the exercises in the other deep dives (e.g., main challenges or unhelpful behaviors can be internal obstacles; useful productivity/progress practices can be fuelling; etc.)

NB: This exercise can be done individually or in a group, especially with other people that will have a similar journey (e.g., doing similar kinds of research or using the same methodology). However, you will want to ultimately personalize your own version of the map, to account for particularities of your topic, circumstances or personality.

May your journey be fast and enjoyable!

Putting it all together: towards your next dissertation milestone

If you have read through this chapter and done the suggested exercises, you probably have a wealth of tips, techniques and advice about how to progress and not abandon the doctorate:

  • Important (but infrequent) milestones (see the “Map of the PhD” exercise in the deep dive about Appropriation)
  • More frequent progress indicators and metrics (see the fuel in the “Map of the PhD” exercise in the deep dive about Appropriation)
  • Obstacles to our advancement in the PhD journey (see the “Map of the PhD” exercise in the deep dive about Appropriation)
  • Practices to better perceive progress (see the deep dive on Progress & Productivity)
  • Productivity tips and practices specific for facing the challenges of a TEL PhD (see the deep dive on Progress & Productivity)
  • Self-sabotage tricks that our minds often play, which can derive in mental health problems (see the deep dive on Mental Health)
  • Mental health practices and techniques we can use in our everyday lives when we face such self-sabotage or other emotional challenges of the PhD (see the deep dive on Mental Health)

Indeed, now you may have too many tips and advice in your repertoire! It can be difficult not to be overwhelmed, or deciding which ones to apply. How do we translate that wealth of ideas into actual progress in our dissertation?

What we need to do now is to “connect the dots”: Define a single, important longer-term objective (the next “milestone” in your thesis) and set day-to-day practices aligned with achieving it. Then, we just start working on it, with regular (e.g., weekly) revisions in which come back to this strategic plan, check our progress, adjust the plan if needed, and define how to continue advancing during next week.

As a capstone of this wellbeing and productivity mini-course, we would like you to take something tangible and personalized away, that enables you to continue progressing in your dissertation. Please do the exercise below to obtain a Strategic plan towards the next dissertation milestone.

Exercise: Write down a strategy towards your next dissertation milestone

Exercise (30-60min): Please follow these steps.

  1. Go to a quiet place and turn off all distractions, we’ll need all our focus and concentration to build this strategic plan. If you have done the exercises proposed above, please have the outputs (diagrams, sheets of paper, etc.) on hand, as we will need them.
  2. Make a copy of this editable template (will require a Google login), and in your copy put there as the title what is your next important dissertation milestone (something that is a few months away from where you are, see the “Map of the PhD” exercise). In case it is not clear enough, give it a set of very concrete completion criteria (i.e., how do we know we achieved the goal or not?) and a (reasonable but challenging) deadline to achieve it.
  3. In the following section of the template, decompose the milestone into more manageable stages or intermediate milestones (e.g., different phases of the study you are running, according to your methodology; different sections if it’s a document, or writing phases, if the milestone is about writing a paper), each with a concrete deadline. Then, select weekly and daily indicators that will help you achieve the intermediate and large milestone (e.g., if the milestone is about writing, indicators can be a number of words written, or focused time spent writing). You can also take these indicators from the fuel elements in your “Map of the thesis” exercise.
  4. In the next section of the template, you can detail the most probable obstacles you will face to achieve the milestone. These can be internal obstacles (those that depend mostly on you, including self-sabotage and other mental health issues we may face) or external ones (those that depend on other people or factors outside your control: lack of feedback or resources, collaboration partners, etc.).
    1. For the internal obstacles, you can detail what are: a) the main symptoms you typically face when trying to achieve this kind of milestone (e.g., recurrent thoughts, emotions, physical sensations); b) things you do controlled by those symptoms, which take you away from what is important (e.g., distractions, addictions, destructive behavior); and c) things you could do instead, which would take you closer to what is important to you (e.g., milestone-related activities, or self-care). You can take these elements from the exercise “What takes us away from what is important”, in the deep dive about Mental health above.
    2. For the external obstacles, make a note of the obstacle itself (e.g., supervisor will not provide feedback because he’s so busy), what concrete actions you can take to preemptively avoid the obstacle from happening (e.g., agree in advance a feedback slot with supervisor, and stick to that deadline), and additional actions you could take to minimize the damage that the obstacle inflicts, should it actually happen (e.g., ask other senior lab colleagues for feedback).
  5. With those overall actions and metrics in place, it is time to plan how exactly we are going to progress towards the milestone in the coming week. To do that, first select this week’s 1-3 Most Important Tasks (MITs). These are concrete and realistic tasks that we can do in the week, which will for sure mean we have made progress towards the milestone. The “intermediate milestones” you defined above are good candidates for this part. You may also include a MIT not related to the milestone (e.g., if you have an important, obligatory deadline this week that you cannot forego), but make sure that one or more of the MITs are related to critical parts of the dissertation milestone. The point of MITs is to really focus our efforts into achieving these, prioritizing them above distractions and even useful but not critical tasks.
  6. Then, we define what tactics would help us this week in achieving the weekly MITs (and, eventually, the overall milestone). These can be techniques (e.g., the Pomodoro technique), self-imposed rules (always do the thesis stuff before reading email), etc., and can be taken from points #2-4 above, or other advice you found in this book chapter.
  7. To close the weekly plan, we can also make a table to track daily and weekly metrics that will help us stay on track and achieve the milestone: these can be related to long-term self-care (e.g., hours slept) or directly related to the milestone (e.g., hours spent focused writing, if the milestone is about writing a paper).
  8. Now we come to the final page of the template, in which we plan how we will set out to a great start towards the milestone, tomorrow. We first define tomorrow’s MITs: again, 1-3 tasks that are achievable tomorrow, and which will noticeably “move the needle” towards achieving the weekly MITs. You can also define one non-milestone MIT (again, for critical but unrelated tasks, appointments or deadlines). The idea again is that we will focus our efforts into achieving these tasks, prioritizing them above distractions and even useful but not critical tasks.
  9. Finally, we add after the day’s MITs other tasks and appointments that we need to take care of the next day. Again, try to stay realistic when doing this task list: after doing the MITs and unavoidable appointments, how much time do you really have tomorrow? Don’t set yourself up for overwhelm by adding 20-something tasks here that there’s no way you will accomplish tomorrow!
  10. A critical and often overlooked step in making this strategic plan work is to periodically review it: Every day, at the end of the workday, go over the day’s plan (steps #8-9), mark your progress (and celebrate it!) and note undone tasks, note down your metrics (step #7) and make a similar plan (MITs, tasks and appointments) for the next day. Similarly, at the end of each week, go over the weekly plan (steps #5-7), notice your progress (yay!) and make the plan for the following week. In each of these reviews, see if you need to adjust the overall strategy, deadlines or milestones: it is seldom the case that our original plan (done with incomplete information) will work until completion! Rather, we often need to adjust dates, or modify the scope or number of tasks, eliminating “nice-to-haves”, etc.
  11. Once you hit the dissertation milestone, really celebrate: take the afternoon off, do something you really like, go out with some friends. Later, do the strategic plan for the next milestone (go again to step #1). Rinse and repeat. The dissertation will be done in no time! :)


Anna, having been close to burnout and drop out numerous times, now takes it slow on her routine and priorities. Although there still seems to be struggle with the publications, she takes more confident steps towards completing her PhD with a better time allocation in hand.

Carl, a second year PhD candidate, has experienced confusion in deciding what direction to follow with his research, and multiple outburst of inspiration have been gone with the wind after having an apparent epiphany. Questions of imposter syndrome and being a terrible researcher come at the slightest inconvenience, and the uncertainty of his work’s publishability puts into question the long time, commitment and effort that invested in them. He found himself questioning whether a PhD is worth it, and whether to proceed with the research. Yet, at the end of the day, he realizes that the degree in itself is not necessarily the end goal, but that the journey is exciting.