Four Willpower Secrets for a Done Dissertation | Issue 213

Editor's Note: How you are wrong about willpower — and why it keeps you stuck in ABD land

"You must do the thing you think you cannot do." ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Dear ABD Survival Guide Reader,

The recent 2016 Rio Olympic games brought us two weeks of dramatic displays of agility, speed, and power. However, treated only to polished performances, we never witnessed the countless hours of dedicated practice needed to develop such expertise on the diving board, the balance beam, the track, and every other Olympic venue.

Medals are not won and records are not broken through talent alone. Self-discipline, also known as self-regulation or willpower, is a necessary ingredient.

Willpower is also what separates the PhDs, SciDs, PsyDs, EdDs, etc., from the ABDs. Achieving long-term athletic or academic goals requires the ability to regulate one's behavior over several years. Relying strictly on academic aptitude or inspirational muses is a sure-fire recipe for failure.

Willpower, despite its importance a personal resource for success, turns out to be misunderstood misused, and even abused by most. Fortunately, recent research sheds light on this previously mysterious quality. For starters, it turns out that willpower is neither inborn nor limited. You can develop as much as you need—if you know how.

Welcome to "Willpower 101," our mini-review of strategies for self-regulation. While our willpower tips won't get you to the medal platform, let them spur you to the graduation stage for your coveted doctoral hood. Imagine how great that would feel—and then get right back to the next step of your dissertation journey with new resolve. You'll get there!

Wishing you much willpower and success,


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


Words from the Wise


"First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do." ~ Epictetus

"I don't wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know that it has got to get down to work." ~ Pearl S. Buck

"If you do what is easy, your life will be hard. If you do what is hard, your life will be easy." ~ Les Brown

"Will is character in action." ~ William McDougall

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

Four Willpower Secrets for a Done Dissertation


By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC

Do you ever feel brain dead at the end of the day, too tired to read, write, or think?


Do you marvel at—or envy—those energizer bunny types who just keep going and going?

Beyond the Willpower Mystique

Despite popular opinion, willpower is not a trait that some have and others lack. Nor is it fixed from birth. Cutting-edge research has unraveled much of the old willpower mystique. The good news from research is that everyone has some degree of willpower as well as the ability to develop more of it.

Science defines willpower as your capacity for monitoring and regulating your behavior. It allows you to be your "best self" by getting you (a) to do more of what you think you should, (b) to avoid doing things you know you should not do, and (c) to work hard toward your worthy life goals. In short, willpower enables you to focus on your long-term best interests and follow through even when the going gets tough.

Several recent books provide insights into the science of willpower, sharing evidence-based tips for getting better at self-management. Below we'll take a look at major findings and strategies that will help you get your dissertation done faster.


Will Power vs. Won't Power

Imagine a willpower struggle. Do you envision the classic scenario involving resisting temptation? Perhaps a yummy frosted cupcake vs. an apple, or perhaps a cigarette vs. a stick of gum, or watching a little more TV vs. going to bed on time.

If you can choose what is best for you—even when it's the harder path—you are using what Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal calls "I won't power." Think of it as the "just say 'no'" approach that can make you feel deprived or punished, as in that feeling of missing out when you sit down to revise a chapter while everyone else saunters off to the pool.

Human willpower, however, involves more than learning to say "no," she observes. After all, how hard is it to say "no" to exercising, cleaning house, doing taxes, or fixing a healthy meal? There are times you need to say "yes," she explains, whether it is to eating your broccoli or to saving for a rainy day—or even to dissertating when you really would rather do anything else, I might add.

This "yes" power is what helps you get important things done instead of procrastinating. It nudges you to act in your own best interests despite being distracted, tired, or anxious. McGonigal calls this "I will" power—the capacity to do the right thing even when attracted to the wrong things, e.g., watching television, checking email, socializing with friends, sleeping in, and all the other things my ABD clients say get in their way of finishing their doctoral degree.

When willpower is depleted, you might struggle to motivate yourself until deadlines loom perilously near. Tasks like organizing a literature review or figuring out a coding error or discussing unexpected results appear too hard, too complicated, too exhausting—and so are easily put off. But there is hope.


What Do You Really, Really Want?

You usually know what you "should" do in order to flourish, right? But do you do it?

In order to say "no" when you need to say "no" and to say "yes" when you need to say "yes," you also need a third power: "I want" power.

Think back to the last big challenge you overcame. What made your success possible? Most likely it was fulfilling some highly valued desire. When you remember what you really, really want, you can resist short-term pleasures with greater ease, says McGonigal.

When you dwell on how much achieving your doctoral dream means to you (and to your significant others), what will you do when tempted to push the snooze button, check email for the umpteenth time, or plop down to watch another forgettable TV show? Evidence and experience concur that you are more likely to and open up your dissertation-in-progress files or pull out those journals to read.

To summarize, we have three powers as our tools for understanding willpower, to use as needed: "I will" power, "I won't" power, and "I want" power. Now how can you apply these ideas in order to face down fearlessly those tempting summertime distractions?


Tip 1: Reframe Willpower Battles Strategically

To foster good habits, you need to stay mindful that your satisfaction from achieving your big goals will far outweigh and outlast any short-term, superficial pleasure. Focus on what you will gain, and then for further impact, focus on what you stand to lose if you don't stay on track. Focusing on potential losses actually serves as a good kick in the pants to procrastinators, asserts goals researcher Dr. Heidi Halvorson. Consider the following two alternatives you might consider after a long, hard day:

Option A: "Shall I relax with some TV or a movie—or force myself to sit down and eke out five more pages of my lit review?"

Option B: "Do I really want the immediate gratification of watching another basketball game or reality show—and give up my big dream of getting that 'doctor' title?"

Which pushes you more toward doing what you know is best for you? To put it bluntly, self-discipline is remembering what really matters, so frame your choices to tip the scales in favor of your most important goals.


Tip 2: Build Your "Willpower Muscle"

Ever notice how hard it can be to force yourself to turn off the PC and hit the hay at a reasonable hour? That's because you've already used up your daily reservoir of willpower. Your inner goof-off is now at the controls.

Willpower expert Dr. Roy Baumeister offers us the willpower-as-muscle analogy. As with a muscle, willpower gets depleted with use but becomes replenished with rest, e.g., after a night's sleep. Fortunately, both muscles and willpower get stronger with practice. A well-developed willpower "bicep" can be used to help you in a wide variety of situations, regardless of your method of strengthening it.

You can start training right now. As fitness trainers warn, don't start out trying to dead lift 200 pounds. Begin any new workout where you can easily experience success and go from there. For example, you could do the dishes immediately after dinner. Or you might set a goal to refrain from turning on the TV when you get home. Give it at least a week, then notice how easier it gets to make the right choice in some other area of your life since your willpower muscle can be used for a variety of tasks.

Jessica, a brilliant math doctoral candidate who called me, struggled to honor her dissertation given her heavy teaching load. Curious about how this strategy might help, she committed to making her bed each day. She was surprised to note that it automatically led to keeping her desk clear, which made it much easier to settle down to work as planned. Her two-minute investment in making her bed had a great return—and yours will too.


Tip 3: Do the Hardest Thing First

As your willpower reserve grows, you'll also want to learn to manage it wisely. Note which of your tasks require heavy mental lifting—e.g., resisting temptation, making tough decisions, forcing yourself to do something, self-monitoring your behavior, etc.—and then alternate those with lighter tasks.

For example, I learned this the hard way by going car shopping after working all day and before dinner. By the end of the countless decisions (model, color, assorted extras), I confess that I fell for the extended warranty that the salesperson pushed heavily at the end. Luckily I was able to rescind that unnecessary purchase the following week.

For faster progress, put the harder tasks first thing on your daily agenda, while willpower tank is still full.

Alana and Len, for example, each noted that they made significantly faster progress when worked on their dissertation early, before going to work and while the family was still asleep, rather than waiting until after dinner and the children's bedtime routine.

An unexpected upside, they reported, is that they feel lighter all day, pleased to have checked off one of their highest priorities. How much better could you focus on the day's demands if you were free of that nagging feeling at the back of your mind that you really ought to finish coding your data?


Tip 4: Conserve Your Willpower through Habits and Plans

The typical adult makes about 35,000 decisions per day, and unfortunately each one eats up willpower. Many students waste vast amounts of their valuable willpower reserve just trying to figure out when, how, and where to get started working.

Making an advance plan will save you valuable energy that you can instead apply to the task at hand. The best way to conserve your willpower is to cultivate routines that save you the energy of constantly making choices. After all, you don't struggle with when or how to brush your teeth—you've made it a habit.

So choose a prime time to work on your dissertation—and then make it your regular habit, even if it feels hard at first. You'll be patting yourself on the back soon enough.

Have you ever felt too drained at day's end to figure out what to eat, much less to write another page or read another article? Then take a page from the "Decider-in-Chief." President Obama delegates as many unnecessary decisions, e.g., what tie to wear, as he can so he can focus on what really matters.

If you can't delegate decisions about meals to another person, might you save some cognitive wear and tear by weekly menu planning? That's how Caitlin, one ABD coaching client, freed up the extra energy needed for the final push before a committee presentation.

These four strategies offer you gateways into the world of greater willpower. Apply them to your dissertation challenge now by writing out your answers to the following questions. Then start noticing the small willpower successes grow into habits which support sustainable success that will take you to your doctorate and beyond.

Design Your Personal Blueprint for Greater Willpower

1. Why does your dissertation matter to you? Be sure to elaborate on what you will lose if you do not finish it in due time as well as how you'll benefit from completing it.


2. To build your willpower muscle, identify one small thing you can start doing or stop doing that would be in your own best interest. Then begin exercising that muscle.


3. What changes can you make in your schedule to ensure that you will have sufficient willpower for starting and completing your dissertation tasks?


4. Consider where you most squander willpower, e.g., due to lack of habits or advance planning. What is one change that would save you precious willpower? Select just one and commit yourself to cultivating a healthy habit.




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 

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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