The PhD Chronicles: On the Dissertation Beard and Other Means of Getting It Done

Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes

A lego figurine of Gandalf in gray robes with a black background.
Not as wise as Gandalf, but dang,
the beard feels like this at times!
Photo by Elisabeth Pieringer
on Unsplash
So I've been shaving my head since around 2002.  But on January 1, 2024, I shaved my head and beard and pledged that I would not shave again until I had a dissertation defense date.  I knew it was something that would be help motivate me to get it done.  This week, I shaved.  I do have a finished draft of my dissertation and while I do not have a date just yet, it's much more likely than not that I will be defending in September (couldn't happen earlier because faculty are off during the summer).  Let's talk about how I got here and why.

Over the years, I've read about motivation and building habits. there are some great books out there that have been so helpful for me. Some of them include:

  • Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear
  • Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything by BJ Fogg
  • The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal
  • SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully: McGonigal by Jane McGonigal

I've learned a few things about building habits that are really powerful in getting me to this point.  First, we actually misunderstand motivation. We think of it as needing the motivation to do the thing, whereas actually, you start to build the practice, and that actually builds the motivation. Even if you have something big (like a dissertation), you have to actually start with small parts and create the habits to support the process, step by step. As you do more, that's when the motivation sets in. Action begets motivation if you want something to be sustainable--particularly something you are unsure of, confused about, or not sure how to get there (often the case with folks working on dissertations or other big challenges in their lives).

Figuring out that small chunk is a challenge. BJ Fogg's idea of needing to create small recipes of habits to build them and meld them is a really useful approach. When it comes to creative or taking on big projects that require deep thought, we have a myth that we need large canvases of time in order to produce such work.  But that's not true for most of us but we never commit to a smaller practice.  

I always looked at my dissertation as needing large chunks of time, like 2, 4, or 6 hours, so I could get the inspiration, get in the right mental space, and go and do it. Of course, those chunks of time never happened, or by the time I got to them, I thought, "Do I really need six hours? I could probably do it in three." So, I did other things, and when I got to three hours, I still did other things, and it just didn't happen.  Now, I would have been smarter to break these big chunks of time into smaller pieces but also, I had to realize big chunks--particularly early on might not have been that helpful.

After the first few unsuccessful years of progress on my dissertation, I moved into a smaller practice of 20 or 30 minutes a day. This is often known as the Pomodoro method of 25 minutes on and 5 minutes off and doing a few cycles.  I used a pomodora timer and app for a while.  In particular, I got fond of Forest which actually plants trees when you do a number of successful sessions! I've used different platforms for this.

Early on as I worked on my Chapter 2 (which is the literature review), I used this time to read (skim) the articles that I had found, take notes and quotes, and do a short 3-4 sentence write up of what I might be taking from it for my dissertation.  If I managed to do a pomodoro a day (just 25 minutes), it meant that I would finish at least 7 articles a week.  Not vast progress but in a month, I read 30 articles.  And THAT is where the motivation started to build.  

However, the game-changer for me and my favorite tool in the world is Focusmate. I've talked at length about how amazing Focusmate is.  But the short-hand of it is that it is an online platform where you get paired up with another person who is also working for the same duration (25, 50, or 75 minutes).  You meet in a video-conferencing room (that the platform provides).  You share what you're working on, put yourself on mute, work for the amount of time, and then share your outcome. 

The social interaction and appointment structure are really helpful for me. First, there are lots of folks working on big projects on FocusMate so there is much bonding and commiseration.  Second, the accountability to someone else--even if I've only known them for 10 seconds--was helpful for me to keep focus and commit to the specific action I was identifying during the session.  Third, the control of 25-75 minute session that can be scheduled whenever is helpful because it feels possible to work with my own schedule and flows.  Fourth, calendar holds and reminders make it just easier to keep in my mind.

The thing about building motivation and doing it through small increments and habits, you find new spaces and ways to push you further.  Last year, I started a morning writing group that's been meeting for about a year from 8am-9am on Monday-Friday. It started with two and now we're at about 4 folks who show up at least once a week.  It's drop in, not formal, and yet, folks find a rhythm for showing up that works for them.  This further created community as well as a group of folks that were working through different parts of their dissertation that we could celebrate progress (big and small) with.  

But as I started 2024--the 9th year of being in a doctoral program, I knew I had to do something more.  I had to do something that pushed me further to get me to the finish line.

As I got into this year and had chapters 4 and 5 left to write for my dissertation, I wondered how to make sure I was constantly committing to it or getting to it as many days as possible. What is the reminder that's going to help? I realized, "What am I going to do every day to advance this?" 

A lot of people talk about building habits and motivation by finding an anchor. Something that is already a habit or practice that you can attach it to. I look in the mirror every day, so what would be a good reminder? Obviously, tattoos or writing with Sharpie on my face didn’t seem like good ideas. I thought, "Well, my hair... that’s something I see every day." As I said, I've been shaving my head for most of my life. So, what if I let it grow out? Then I thought, "What if I let my facial hair grow out?" I've let it grow for three months before, and it really bothers me. It gets into my food and stuff. I had this click: if I shave it and then let it grow every day, I’m going to see a reminder as it gets longer and longer. As it got to three months and six months, it produced even more motivation because I just wanted it gone. I'm not good company to eat food with; it just goes everywhere. I can’t stand it. I get crumbs, I get sticky...

There was this very visceral and tangible aspect to this experience. Every day, I couldn't turn away from it. I had to face it. It reminded me all the time--"not done yet."

I think the practice also worked to induce guilt but not shame.  Shame's very easy to fall into, and I wanted to be careful about what kinds of structures I created.  I knew that I could look in the mirror and it would be a reminder and it might create a bit of guilt—the guilt of knowing I could find 30 minutes somewhere. That meant the next day, I needed to remember that more to find the time and do the work.  Like growing the facial hair was a choice, I had the choice to work on my dissertation each day for whatever small amount.

I wasn't interested in shaming myself and didn't want to feed that.  Distinguishing shame and guilt is a challenge. Shame is something we internalize as part of who we are, whereas guilt is about actions we could have done differently. Shame makes us dislike who we are, while guilt gives us agency to make better decisions next time. This practice didn’t trigger shame but used guilt as motivation, giving me more agency.

Another helpful aspect of this is the social accountability.  As the facial hair got longer, I had more conversations about it and why it looked that way--I had to explain that it was my guide to my dissertation.  That social component had people regularly checking in. "Is it done yet?" Even people I might not run into had to ask about it, reinforcing my commitment. Both internal and external ways of checking in helped propel me forward.

Finally, one last mechanism I've done time and again throughout this process is keep track of progress in ways that feel tangible.  Often, this has been by doing word count it was the most visible way I could see progress (You

A gif of 15 photos of Lance Eaton from January 2024 when he is shaved bald until June 2024 where he has a significant beard and hair on his head.
Photos of me from 
January 2024-June 2024
can see the chart I used for Chapter 4 & 5 here).  And it's was valuable as a marker.  It's not that the amount of words are particularly important but it is a clear way you can mark progress.  Even if you only add 10 words (1 sentence) in a given day--that's progress, that's momentum, that's getting you closer to the goal.  That's what I had to keep reminding myself.  So often it was counting words but at other times, it was reading articles, or the number of pages revised.  Don't confuse these small metrics for big achievements but they are what helped me get to the big achievements.  

So do I have a dissertation date yet?

I'll be shaving today.  Do I have a dissertation defense date yet? No.  And that's ok. I have a full draft of the dissertation along with a revised chapter 4 and soon a revised chapter 5.  I'm ok letting go of the beard now as I work on that and work with my advisor to get a date for September, the earliest I can currently plan for since faculty are off during the summer.  I'm not done but I'm to a place of consistent work and the hardest part is behind me.  Now, it's just fixing things up and actually defending--which I am way more comfortable with than having to do the whole writing part of it.  

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  1. "Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test." -William James

    1. Thanks for grabbing that quote and for reading!

  2. Thank you for bringing us along on your journey - it helps me keep my end in sight...

    1. my pleasure, Kay! Glad you're enjoying the updates :)


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