New ABDs – Deadly Mistake Number 3:

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Failing to Set Up Accountability Systems

Why is it so hard to write a dissertation? Entire books have been written on this subject. I believe that the lack of immediate accountability is the most important reason.

You as an Undergrad

Do you remember the good old days? If you were like most undergrads who went on to graduate school, you were a pretty good student. You might not have studied on a daily basis, but I bet you rarely failed to hand in a paper, or study (even though you might have pulled an all-nighter) for an important exam. How did you do manage it?

The answer is: accountability. If you didn’t have that essay in by 5:00 Thursday, you would fail the class, or some other terrible consequence would befall you. What happens if you don’t write the 5th page of your current chapter by Thursday at 5:00? Nothing. Nothing at all, at least in the short run.

Are You Doing What is Urgent; or Important?

As Stephen Covey points out in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” we tend to spend most of our time putting out fires. In his matrix of “Important” vs. “Urgent” behaviors, we linger in the “Urgent” but “Unimportant” quadrant, doing activities like attending meetings or returning phone calls. Urgent activities have deadlines. Your dissertation is important, but it is rarely urgent.

What’s a Grad Student to do?

If graduate school is not going to provide pressure for immediate accountability in the form of important deadlines, it will be up to you to create them. Here are some ways to get accountability systems or deadlines into your life.

  • See my previous article on Deadly Mistake #2: Not Being Proactive With Your Advisor. Recommendations included setting a regular meeting time and asking your advisor to help you set deadlines.

  • Find a writing buddy. This could be a friend at a different school in a different discipline, or someone in your program. All that matters is that you can count on them to stick to your agreement and that they want to write as much as you do. Make a pact to talk at regular intervals – as often as once each weekday – and make firm commitments to accomplish certain tasks before you speak the next time.

  • Find a reader, perhaps a committee member, who will meet with your regularly, particularly if your advisor is not available.

  • Join a dissertation group, either at your school, or if you are writing your dissertation far from your school, at a nearby school. Usually these groups meet a little too infrequently, in my opinion – from biweekly to once a month. They are typically organized around reading each other’s dissertations and helping with feedback. In this system, you may only get a few chances a year to have your turn, so there are not frequent enough deadlines to keep you moving.

  • Join one of my coaching groups. Ok, this is a shameless plug. But these groups are extremely effective in providing accountability! With weekly phone meetings where you discuss what you plan to do for the week (and how you did on last week’s goals,) and then a private listserv where you post your progress to other group members during the week, there is plenty of incentive to follow through on the goals you have set.

What Should You Be Accountable For?

This might seem like a silly question, but it’s not. Too often, people set up unreasonable goals for themselves, and then predictably fail to accomplish them. I will go into this at length in a subsequent article, but let me just urge you to set small, well-defined goals that you can easily accomplish.

Best of luck!

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