The Seven Habits That Will Get Your Dissertation Out The Door Fast | Issue 203



Good writing habits turn out to be the key to finishing your dissertation. How many of these seven critical habits have you mastered? Find out what you are missing—and discover how to create a smoother, faster, more enjoyable path to graduation by setting an intention.




Create Your Intention to Finish Your Dissertation—Then Act on It


Resolutions are so yesterday. So don't worry if you've broken or forgotten yours already. What you really need is to set an intention that will contribute to finishing your dissertation.


Setting an intention focuses more on the path than the outcome. To set one, use these two simple steps:

1) First get clear about your intent, e.g., "I intend to honor my commitment to my goal of earning a doctorate."

2) Then follow through by directing your full attention and energy toward it every day. Act as necessary to manifest your intention, e.g., create your outline, code your data, write your lit review, contact your advisor, etc.


Notice that, unlike with a resolution, there is no deadline, no failure, no giving up, andno beating yourself up. If you fall short one day, you forgive yourself and start again the next.


Prime yourself each morning by restating your intention. This creates a readiness "to receive, to sense, to focus, to behave in a certain manner" explains neuroscientist Daniel Siegel in Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.


No need for perfection—you just need to keep practicing. Every day brings you one day closer to converting your good intention to a solid habit—and one day closer to graduation. Trust the process and discover the satisfaction that comes with honoring your own dream, step by step.


When it comes to developing good writing habits, few know more than my esteemed colleague Mary Beth Averill, Ph.D. Review her seven key habits for ABDs in our feature article below. Then set your intentions, and start practicing. Before you know it, you will be sporting that title of "doctor" and a priceless habits toolkit for whatever you set your sights on next!


Wishing you positivity and productivity as you practice,




Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC
Editor, ABD Survival Guide




"Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it."~ Greg Anderson


"The secret to getting ahead is getting started." ~ Mark Twain


"You might not write well every day, but you can edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page." ~ Jodi Picoult


"Pay yourself first (money, energy, time, love). You'll have even more to give." ~ Unknown


"Accountability breeds responsibility." ~ Steven R. Covey


"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit." ~ Aristotle

Feature Article: Seven Habits that Will Get Your Dissertation Out the Door Fast


By Mary Beth Averill, Ph.D.

Developing strong writing habits has been shown to be the surest way to finish your dissertation as quickly as possible. Waiting for your dissertation writing muse to appear will not get you the gown with hood and velvet stripes.


Cultivating good writing habits now is like investing money in a guaranteed stock portfolio. First, you will finish your dissertation. Second, you will continue to reap dividends and interest throughout your entire career.


There's no question that reliable good writers are highly valued inside and outside of academia, so nurture your inner writer. Imagine the confidence you'll feel now as well as later in job interviews and your future career when you can trust yourself to take on important writing challenges and get them out the door in a timely fashion.


What are the most important writing habits for the doctoral student? Here are seven top ones that I have distilled from my three decades of experience as a coach and mentor:



"What have you enjoyed about your writing/research this week?"


Obstacles to writing are never hard to find, but focusing on the enjoyment is more likely to help you create and sustain your writing habit. Members in one of my writing groups requested that I ask this question every time we meet. When they can't think of anything, I ask them to "dig deep." Starting the writing process on a positive note has changed the long term tenor of the group and the way group members see their writing projects.


Take time each week to reflect on what you have enjoyed about your writing or research process. Activities that we feel bring us joy and satisfaction become easier to approach than ones shrouded in negativity. Furthermore, positive emotions have been shown to improve energy, creativity, and performance.





Writing from the start means writing from the very first day of the project.


Unfortunately, too many students think they must wait until they have "something to write." This turns the writing phase into a new or added process rather than a continuation of what they've been doing all along—leading to writing blocks.


However, by cultivating the habit of writing memos to self, taking notes on your reading, or sketching out mind maps and outlines, you'll be able to tap your own momentum.





Academic writers who write every day, even for short periods of time, produce more text in a year than those who don't.


Work on your dissertation in some way every day. When you do, it is always somewhere in your mind, fostering insights that would otherwise be lost.


A big mistake is to insist on waiting for large chunks of time to write. You already know what happens: Those chunks are easily eaten up by emergencies, meetings, and other normal demands of life. So take advantage of short bursts of time until you have longer periods.


There's nothing quite as motivating as success. You set yourself up for success when you commit to short periods of time that you can actually protect. If you aren't feeling very productive, you can tell yourself, "Just 20 more minutes to go...just 15 more minutes...just 5 more minutes..." Should you find yourself getting into flow with time to do more, by all means continue—but first acknowledge and celebrate that you met your initial daily goal.





Have you had those hours or days when your brain just won't get into top gear?


Be ready with what one client calls a "brain-dead" to do list. These are tasks that must be done but don't require your best thinking or creativity. Examples include data cleaning, adding text citations, editing references, and sorting through notes or archival sources.


Not ready for a real "first draft"? Give yourself permission to work on an outline or a "zero draft." Write memos about articles you have read for your literature review. Use freewriting to summarize what you know about a topic without bothering with footnotes. Spend time editing what you have written. These tasks will also keep you connected to your dissertation and will fulfill the "write every day" directive.





Paying yourselves first means that you value the doctoral potential in you, and you value the work you do toward the degree.


Until you finish, your dissertation needs to be a top priority. You can pay yourself first by working on it when you are at your best. That means protecting those times that you have the highest energy, creativity, and/or mental clarity. For some, this means getting up a little earlier and writing before breakfast or before heading to work.


Every time you do this, you are honoring your own goals and values. Notice how good that feels!






Consider joining an ABD group, finding a writing buddy, or hiring a coach.


Dissertating can be a lonely pursuit. Any of these may be good ways to report weekly on your progress and to get some problem-solving help when needed. One of my dissertation clients met several times a week at the local library with other dissertation writers. They limited the amount of time they spent checking in and checking out and mostly sat in silence at their computers making progress while feeling camaraderie.





Become more mindful of your process and progress through journaling.


Monitoring one's behavior is critical for creating a new habit, says willpower expert Roy Baumeister. Use an electronic or paper journal to document your progress and plan for the next day's work.


"How's the dissertation coming along?"


Does this innocent query provoke anxiety and even shame when you feel behind? Does admitting that or claiming otherwise leave you feeling worse?


Solution: Create an update you can share cheerfully: "I've developed a new method to...," "I just came across an interesting paper on...," or "I have some interesting data about..."


Then get back to writing so soon you can respond with pride: "It's done—and you may now call me doctor."

Use it to record ideas that you want to come back to later instead of getting off track during your writing time.


Each day, record when you started, a phrase or so about what you did, and where you will start the next time you sit down to write. You can adapt the journal to fit your needs by adding a word or page count, comments on your writing process, or whatever makes it meaningful and useful for you.


Celebrate your progress in your journal. My journaling clients report feeling frequent pleasure at discovering they've made more progress than they had thought.


If you begin cultivating these seven habits, you will be pleased at how quickly you get those velvet stripes—and be set up for a lifetime of success.






Baumeister, Roy, and Tierney, John. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength


Boice, Robert. Advice for New Faculty Members


Fredrickson, Barbara. Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life




Mary Beth Averill, Ph.D. has been coaching academic writers for over 30 years. She facilitates ongoing groups for ABDs and faculty writers. With Hillary Hutchinson, she is the coauthor of 

How to Become an Academic Coach.



Contact Mary Beth at 541.349.9999 or



If you are considering whether to get your own coach to help you reach your academic goals, fill out this brief application for a free consultation with a dissertation coach.



An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resource 

She also speaks fluent Spanish and delights in new exotic Scrabble words as she savors life in the Chesapeake Bay area, California, and Argentina.


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 (, 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.



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