How to Juggle Your Dissertation (or your book) and Everything Else in Your Life – With Guest Blogger Donna Goodin, Ph.D., C.M.C.

Guest Blogger Donna Goodin regularly works with dissertation candidates, helping them get their dissertations finished, and she’s shared her comments here which are equally applicable for book authors.

For those with responsibilities beyond the dissertation, some amount of juggling is inevitable. The key to success is developing habits and attitudes that allow you to manage your juggling act so that you control it rather than the other way round.

Key #1:  Pay attention.

The first step is figuring out how many balls are swirling around you and getting clear about what each of them represents to you. Just as with budgeting money, you can’t take charge of your time until you know how you are actually spending it. For one week, use a journal or agenda book to document how you spend each part of each day.

Review your journal at the end of each day, and again at the end of the week:  What do you notice?  Identify the habits that may be subtly contributing to your feelings of overwhelm and lack of progress.

Key#2:  Time to Take Stock of Your Rocks

Now that you have obtained a clearer picture of how and what you’re juggling, you’re ready to make better choices about which of those balls you want to keep, and which you don’t. The classic story known as “Life’s Big Rocks” illustrates this point well. In this story, a professor filled a mason jar with two-inch rocks.  When he asked his students if the jar is full, the class responds unanimously that it is.

The professor then proceeded to add pebbles, then sand, and finally water to the jar. “What’s the point here?” he asked, One eager student quickly responded:  “That no matter how full your schedule is you can always fit more things in your day if you try.”

“Very good,” replied the teacher, “but look deeper at a bigger truth:  If you don’t put the big rocks in first, but instead fill up your jar with sand and pebbles, you’ll never get those big rocks in at all.

What are the “big rocks” that you need to put into your jar each day, before it gets filled up with the daily “sand and gravel”?

Setting priorities is crucial to time management. You may not have time for everything—but you do have time for the most important things if you put them in first. What are the things that are most important in creating a sustainable path to success and well-being for you?

Key #3:  Putting your choices into action

Everyone’s jar space is limited.  We each get just 24 hours in a day. Do you want to waste yours on things that are not taking you where you want to go?  What can you start to say “no” to?  It’s time to distinguish between the things you really want and need (your dissertation, a morning jog around the lake, bedtime stories for the kids, etc.) from the rocks or balls that really just serve as fillers (television, internet surfing, chitchats with colleagues, etc.).

Now put the big rocks– your dissertation, your family, your job, and your self-care activities—in your jar. Use an agenda book or digital calendar to plan concretely for where, when, and how you will meet those obligations and choices. Use your most productive hours of the day for these tasks.

After you’ve done that, you can start adding pebbles: email, daily chores, housecleaning, and so on, fitting them in your less productive times. One friend keeps a special list of chores for his “brain dead” times, usually late in the day.

Take a look:  How much empty space remains in your jar?  Though you might be able to pour in one more layer of tiny grains of sand, do you really want your jar to be that full?  You need room to breathe!  Are there any tasks that you can dismiss altogether?  Delegate?  Diminish or make smaller?  Defer?

You may find this a good time to shift some priorities. While you’re dissertating, housecleaning or meal preparation may only get two pebbles in your jar. You can focus more on that when you’re done with your dissertation.


donna goodinDonna Goodin, M.A. Ph.D. is a writing and personal coach.  She holds a Ph.D. in Hispanic Cultural Studies from Michigan State University, as well as a Master’s in mental health counseling from Eastern Michigan University.  Having earned her own Ph.D. later in life, she has a first-hand appreciation of the unique issues and challenges that nontraditional graduate students and other writers often face, and the ways these issues can manifest during the dissertation-writing process.  Her passion is helping students reach their greatest personal and professional potential.  Visit her website at 

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