Dissertation Stalled Out? Try the Forest-Tree Technique!

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Last week, I wrote about how to get those small tasks done by either using a Nike® formula (“Just Do It”) or a batching formula (Do it Now, Later.)

This week I focus on the bane of the dissertation writer—figuring out what to do next.

Many people find themselves dealing with the “forest and trees” problem. Either they are so overwhelmed by the enormity of their project, that they “can’t see the trees for the forest.” Or they are so bogged down in the details – the reading, the note taking, or the downward spiral of researching one detail at the expense of the whole project – that they can’t see the “forest for the trees.”

The people who only see the forest cannot begin to think of what to do next. Whenever they try, they become overwhelmed, and then lose themselves in doing useless behavior. When I’m in this phase, I play Snood (don’t ask.)

The people who only see the trees keep doing what they’re already doing. It’s comfortable and known. They might spend a year delving into the archives of Siberian beetle food, while writing two pages. They suspect that what they need to do next will be uncomfortable or even terrifying. So they keep reading.

How to extricate yourself from this dilemma?

I’ve developed a method for dealing with this, which I call the Forest-Tree (“forestry?” Get it?) Technique. Think of it as trying to figure out which tree to chop down next (in a self-sustaining forest.) I came up with this metaphor when reading David Allen’s book, “Getting Things Done.” He talks about “natural planning techniques,” and makes the point that,

“grounded reality-based thinking, combined with clarification of the desired outcome, forms the critical component of knowledge work.”

Since I have a simple, visual mind, I needed to put this concept into a table before I understood it. See below. 

First, look at the left hand column, “Where are You?”  Figure out whether you are in the forest, confused about what your next step is, or in the trees, bogged down in details.   If you are in the forest, you need to move down the ladder towards the trees.  That means that you need to choose a task that is at the bottom of the ladder, in the third column, which is labeled “Task.”   If you are spending too much time in details, not moving forward, then choose a task from the top of the “Task” column.  The right-hand column shows the benefit of each kind of task.

The Forest-Tree Technique

Where are You?



Benefit of Each Task


Move up and down this ladder in order to clarify your priorities.

You can then more easily decide on your next action step.


What do you see from where you stand?

If you are in the forest, then move down the ladder.

If you can only see one tree, move up the ladder.

To do this, find a task that is farther along in the direction you want to go.

Perform that task and you will gain clarity!

Make a one to five year goal
Define your desired outcome
See the big picture
Free write a “statement of purpose” for your dissertation, chapter or article

Gives clarity/Helps you focus

Explore areas of interest
Decide what questions you want to answer
Read, research and take notes
Mind Map
Discuss ideas with others

Make thoughts and ideas concrete — Expands creativity

Make lists of specific tasks
Prioritize tasks
Get organized
Make a schedule/timeline
Free write
Outline what you’ve written
Discuss/ Get feedback
Edit free writing/rough draft
Submit work

Moves you towards clarifying the next step

Creates your desired outcome

For example, if you are starting a new chapter and are overwhelmed, you are in the forest. You know what the overall concept is for your chapter, but you don’t know where to start.  Go to column three, “Task,” and look at the bottom of that column.  Find a task that makes sense to you. Have you thought about what questions you’re trying to answer in this chapter? Have you brainstormed a bunch of ideas and written them down? Have you created a Mind Map or tossed your ideas around with others? Start doing some of these tasks. As you accomplish them, you will find that you are more and more clear about what you need to do next.

If, on the other hand, you have filled 300 pages with notes regarding the beetles’ dietary habits, but haven’t written your first chapter, it’s time to look at the top of  the “Task” column. What are your long-term goals? What big questions are you trying to answer? Do you want to have a career in this field?  What is the purpose of this dissertation?  What are your main arguments?  As you answer those questions, you will slowly get pulled out from the details feel more clearheaded about the big picture.

There’s nothing wrong with being alone with your tree or wandering in the forest. You just don’t want to get stuck at either point. Use this handy guide to keep youself moving!

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