11 Proven Strategies for Passing the ABD "Marshmallow Test" and Finishing Your Dissertation | Issue 183

Summary & Contents


Do you need more self-control to finish your dissertation? Learn how to pass your ABD "Marshmallow Test" by leveraging 11 science-based strategies for building your willpower muscle.


1. Editor's Note: Don't Eat the Marshmallow


2. Words from the Wise


3. Feature Article: 11 Proven Strategies for Growing your ABD Willpower and Finishing Your Dissertation





You may have heard of the famous "Marshmallow Test."


But did you know this research area can help you obtain the Big Marshmallow, i.e., your doctoral degree?


In early studies of the ability to delay gratification, preschoolers at Stanford's nursery school were presented with one marshmallow and told that they could earn a second one by waiting 15 minutes for the experimenter's return.


Social psychologist Walter Mischel and his collaborators found that about 30% of kids managed to resist the small temptation and hold out for the larger reward using various amusing distraction techniques (highlighted in a riveting reenactment seen here). This research could have died a quiet death until Mischel decided to check on these subjects again in adolescence.


The data are astounding: Passing the marshmallow test at age four predicted better life outcomes across the board for decades ahead.


As Mischel reports in his new book and high-profile interviews, compared to their more impulsive peers, high-delayers earned an average of 210 points more on their SATs, had fewer behavioral problems, and were evaluated more positively by adults.


They might have made great doctoral candidates, too. After all, what is the dissertation journey if not a really big Marshmallow Test, where the delay of gratification lasts for years and years?


Could you have passed the Marshmallow Test as a preschooler? Are you passing it now?


If you feel doubtful, read our feature article this month for a crash course in Willpower 101, with great tips to help you pass your own Dissertation Marshmallow Test.


Wishing you long-term success and well-being,

Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C.






"There is no such thing as a great talent without great willpower." Honore de Balzac


"I will be calm. I will be mistress of myself." Jane Austen (in Sense and Sensibility)


"In the absence of willpower, the most complete collection of virtues and talents is wholly worthless." Aleister Crowley


"The ability to subordinate an impulse to a value is the essence of a proactive person." Stephen R. Covey


"I value self-discipline, but creating systems that make it impossible to misbehave is more reliable than self-control." Tim Ferris


"All you need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt." Charles Schultz






By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC


Are you struggling to finish your dissertation? Your problem might not lay in your intellectual ability or your time management skills if you answer yes to any of these:


1. Do you find it hard to get started on your dissertation? 
2. While writing challenging sections, do you find your mind wanders excessively? 
3. At times do you find it hard to make up your mind about simple things? 
4. Do you tend to overreact to trivial stuff more often than you mean to? 
5. Do you feel brain dead or listless more often than you can afford?


Most likely you are mismanaging one of your critical resources: your willpower.





To manage your willpower optimally, you first need to understand two basic lessons:


1. Your supply of willpower is limited. 
2. The energy resource that fuels willpower also fuels many other crucial activities.


First let's unpack those lessons from Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., the world's leading willpower investigator. Then we'll look at how you can grow your own willpower by leveraging this growing area of research.


Willpower is neither a mystical force nor an inborn trait, Baumeister explains. We all have the capacity for willpower, which is simply the ability to monitor and regulate our behavior.


Research shows that willpower works like a muscle—one that gets depleted with use but stronger with exercise. You begin each day with a fresh reservoir of willpower — at least if you get a good night's sleep and eat a healthy breakfast.


Then, throughout the day, your willpower gets drained away as you perform certain tasks—and far more than you might have imagined.


Of course you rely on willpower to avoid the jumbo sugar-spiked muffin at the coffee shop, and again when you order the tossed salad instead of the juicy burger and fries. You use it when you force yourself to hit the gym instead of plopping on the sofa with the TV remote in hand. But those are not the only occasions which deplete your willpower resource.





Did you know that you are also tapping your willpower reservoir when you force yourself to button your lip while your advisor rips through your latest draft? Or when you fake interest during a boring lecture or conference presentation? Any time you must force yourself to start or stop doing something at work, school, or home, you are using willpower.


In short, any self-control effort consumes your limited willpower resources—even unsuccessful ones. It does not matter whether you are restraining "bad" behavior or activating "good" behavior, or if you struggle and then give in to temptation. Willpower becomes depleted.


What exactly is getting used up? The critical element seems to be glucose in your bloodstream. Baumeister and Tierney marshal evidence from various quarters—hypoglycemia, juvenile delinquency, criminal recidivism, and children's school performance—to bolster the claim that low glucose levels lead to impaired self-control.


Experimental conditions designed to deplete willpower (e.g., resisting fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies) also led to lower glucose levels. Drinking lemonade sweetened with real—but not artificial—sugar provided a temporary willpower boost, but this is not a recommended long-term strategy.


"The glucose itself does not enter the brain, but is converted into neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals your brain uses to send signals," explain Baumeister and Tierney. "If you ran out of neurotransmitters, you'd stop thinking," they add.




Even the wheels of justice grind less evenly due to willpower depletion effects. Parole judges in one study granted parole more often in the morning and right after the noon recess than at other times. Apparently making tough decisions in the morning depleted their willpower, nudging them to render the easier default decision of "no parole" until lunch provided a temporary rebound.


The act of making a decision—even a hypothetical one—costs you willpower energy, Baumeister cautions.

Weighing information and arriving at a decision consumes the same fuel source that self-control does, creating "decision fatigue."


Many of us experience that after an exhausting day at work. Suddenly stopping at a fast food joint or ordering pizza seems more acceptable than it usually does.


Try counting how many decisions you make in a day. According to Cornell researcher Brian Wansink, the average person makes over 220 just about food.


Even a Starbucks stop involves myriad choices: "Espresso or latte? With a shot of amaretto? Cream or sugar? Cash, debit, or credit?" This suggests that if you are counting on an energy boost from coffee, you would do best to place a standard order each time.


By now you should be getting the picture: If you are making a host of decisions before you even sit down at your desk, your willpower has been compromised before you have written a single word.


This is no small matter because your performance will likely suffer. Why? Because you need to tap into that same energy reservoir to think. We're talking about the "heavy cognitive lifting," for example, analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, creating, and so on, not rote tasks.


When you engage in that deep thinking, your brain is burning the same fuel it requires for both the self-regulation and the decision tasks described above. Thus if you are in a depleted state, you will struggle more than usual with the challenging sections of your dissertation.


Given all the drains on your willpower reservoir, is it any wonder you feel "brain dead" at times?


If you find yourself struggling inordinately with simple decisions as you write, or if you catch yourself overreacting to small irritations, e.g., interruptions, take note: These signal that a willpower tank hovering on empty. Beware misinterpreting them and becoming frustrated or angry.


Take a break and allow your willpower to renew itself before proceeding. Eat that lunch you skipped. Try a walk outdoors or some meditation. Try a nap. And work on building your willpower using the following 11 evidence-based tips.



Willpower, like money, is a depletable but renewable resource. For success, you need to budget the resources you have while growing them. Here are some immediate steps you can take to conserve and increase your willpower:


1. Do the hardest thing first each day.


Willpower is strongest in the morning—so put your highest priority willpower items here. Many successful people reserve these hours to do their creative or intellectual work and save routine work—e.g., answering emails—for later.


2. Budget your willpower 

Prioritize your dissertation for your willpower resources. Over each day, intersperse willpower-intensive tasks with willpower-free tasks (e.g., checking references or folding clothes) to give your willpower muscle time to bounce back. Say no to new projects that will drain you.


3. Minimize the number of decisions you make.


President Obama lets someone else choose his outfits, conserving his energy for more weighty matters. What decisions can you stop making? Enjoy letting someone else pick the movie, the restaurant, the gift for grandma, etc. Hold a weekly "executive session" with yourself to calendarize your dissertation tasks and other To Do's to help you conserve time and energy.


4. Take care of your body, starting with sleep.


"A rested will is a stronger will," assert Baumeister and Tierney, and adequate sleep may be even more important than food. How much sleep do you need to wake up refreshed, without an alarm clock? Probably more than you are getting. (See Tom Rath's Eat, Move, Sleep for great evidence-based tips.)


5. Fuel your brain.


Nourish your brain with low-sugar, high-protein foods. You can't do your best work on coffee and a donut. Resist the craving for sweets that arises when your willpower wanes; respond to it by munching on nuts or cheese, high-protein foods which avoid the sugar spike-and-crash syndrome.


6. Expend a little willpower on neatness.


You'll get a good return on your investment because, as studies show, a messy desk induces reduced self-control. "Order seems to be contagious," note Baumeister and Tierney.


7. Identify other environmental cues that cause you to lose self-control.


Identify and remove other triggers in your environment that distract you. An unpaid bill on your desk? A pinging cell phone? If practical, dedicate one computer to your dissertation and use a second one (or your tablet) for internet and Facebook time to avoid the "slippery slope."


8. Try the "Do Nothing" Alternative.


You could imitate novelist Raymond Chandler, who set aside four hours a day for his job, by stringently following his two critical rules:


(a) You don't have to write.


(b) You can't do anything else. Nothing else. Nothing fun, nothing boring, nothing.


This makes it likely you'll start writing—even if simply to overcome boredom. Giving in before time is up is akin to the preschooler's eating the first marshmallow. You have to hang in there!


9. Monitor your progress.


A written record will give you immediate encouragement and permit better long-term planning. Even if you slack off now and then, you'll see your progress and avoid giving up on yourself as hopeless. Try marking your "did that's" on a posted timeline so you can see how much further you have to go.


10. Reward yourself.


Online game designers know what keeps the hordes coming back: a mix of frequent small prizes with occasional big ones. How can you tweak your reward system to become addicted to playing with your dissertation? What small treat could you use for completing your daily quota of time or words? What larger reward would pull you towards finishing an entire chapter draft?


11. Leverage willpower to create healthy habits.


Don't rely on your limited willpower resource to get you through the day. Instead, invest it in building good habits one at a time to reap rewards without burning up resources. Save willpower energy for important decisions, deep thinking, and crises. As with muscles, merely exercising your willpower strengthens it, so start where you find it easiest so that you experience success. Just straightening up your desk makes a good start (see #6)!





In the long run, the goal of developing willpower is not to transform you into a production machine. As Baumeister and Tierney, observe, it is about creating a good life for yourself—one filled with successes as well as the freedom to enjoy life's other pleasures, like a weekend getaway or an afternoon at the zoo or museum. Keep that goal in mind when you encounter your next willpower challenge.


Developing self-control requires some effort at first, but in the long run, isn't it worth it? So when will you get started? Use your existing willpower now to decide what you will do, and then to commit yourself to improving just one small behavior. Let me know how it goes.





Baumeister, Roy and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength 
Lehrer, Jonah. Don't, The New Yorker 
Mischel, Walter. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control 
Rath, Tom. Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes 
Wansink, Brian and Jeffrey Sobal. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think



BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (www.MentorCoach.com), a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.


Dr. Scroggs is an executive, life and dissertation coach in the greater Chesapeake Bay area. She has helped hundreds of students and clients overcome procrastination, self-doubts, and other internal and external blocks in order to find the motivation and flow necessary to reach their academic, professional, and personal goals. Contact Dr. Scroggs with questions about this newsletter or about coaching in general at gayle@essencecoaching.com. Enjoy additional free resources at www.essencecoaching.com.