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Finish Your Dissertation in Two Awesome Hours | Issue 226

How did it get so late so soon? - Doctor Suess

By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC

Are you struggling to finish your dissertation?

Abandon ideas for marathon sessions that wreak havoc with the rest of your commitments. That's a surefire way to burn yourself out before you hit "send." That kind of hasty work will probably not pass muster with your advisor so you'll end up doing extra rewrites later.

You can do it right the first time and at a sustainable pace. How?

First, you need to find your two peak hours for mental work each day—and then protect them. Don't waste them on emails or routine tasks—invest those two hours in dissertation writing. Even if you can't do this every single day, follow the practice explained below on your dissertation days.

This advice follows in Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done. As research director at New York's NeuroLeadership Institute, author Josh Davis, Ph.D., buttresses his recommendations with plenty of brain science.

"Every day is a battle of priorities," Davis observes. Every task saps mental energy—and some are very draining. That means you can't bring your A game to every task. But you can carve out a couple of awesome hours of productivity by choosing which tasks most merit your best mental energy.

In short, you've got to get more strategic about where you invest your mental energy. You already know it's smart to be intentional about how you spend your money. But are you being intentional about how you spend the 24 hours you have each day?

To set up the right conditions, it helps first to understand what kinds of tasks drain your brain.

I've got some bad news for you: Exercising willpower sucks your brain's energy. When you resist the blueberry muffin while ordering your latte or pointedly ignore your iPhone ping, you are exercising self-control. "Engaging in self-control tends to wear out our self-control," Davis notes.

Willpower often acts like a muscle—a metaphor offered by researcher Roy Baumeister, Ph.D.: It gets depleted with use and replenished with rest, e.g., a good night's sleep.

Consider all the ways in which you exercise willpower in a single day: sticking to your diet, holding your tongue when angry, forcing yourself to pay attention when bored, resisting an impulse buy at the checkout counter, and so on. Any time you force yourself to do something you do not want to do or force yourself to refrain from doing something you want to do, you're burning up mental energy.

Why does this matter to a dissertation writer?

Surprisingly, it turns out that willpower draws on the same mental energy reservoir you need for doing heavy cognitive lifting—for evaluating, analyzing, synthesizing, hypothesizing, and all those other clever things a dissertating mind must do. Hard thinking and self-control behaviors are all powered by the executive function areas of your cerebral cortex.


Alas, it turns out that willpower is not the only mental energy thief. There's a much more insidious one that most of us underrate.


How Decisions Can Stall Your Dissertation

Cornell researchers found that people think they make about 15 food-related decisions daily when the real number is more like 200. Internet sources claim the average adult makes about 35,000 decisions per day. Choice can be a good thing—but there is a cost involved.

Just making simple, everyday decisions—about food or anything else—drains your mental resources, making it harder to do your best work.

Chances are that you underestimate how much of your daily supply of mental energy goes to making typical decisions, e.g., what to wear, what to eat, what to do, when to do it, how to say something, who to spend time with, etc. Checking your email has the potential to sap oodles of your precious reserves as you decide whether and how to respond, whether to archive or delete, and so on.

How much of that energy would be better invested in finishing your doctorate?


Avoid the Mental Energy Vampires

You can begin to identify the tasks that drain your energy by noting how spent you feel after various activities. The energy toll for any given task varies from person to person.

For example, if you can proofread on autopilot, that means you are not using energy as much as someone who needs to pay special attention. [Personally, I print my written work and read it aloud to catch missing or repeated words due to repeated editing tweaks. I need a break afterward!]

Davis cites these as examples of common activities that can cause mental fatigue: task-switching, networking, small talk, sitting still for hours, making cold calls, identifying errors and correcting them, planning or scheduling projects, and keeping track of deadlines.

While you can't avoid such tasks, you can choose when to do them. Keep in mind the muscle metaphor: Don't strain your willpower or executive functions with overuse.

Become a Good Steward of Your Mental Energy

Applying Davis's approach to productivity, I offer you these four tips for avoiding mental fatigue to create the two awesome hours for writing your dissertation:

1. Do your dissertation work first thing in the morning. That means before your best energy has been depleted by exercising willpower and making decisions. No checking your email or any media first!

2. Categorize the tasks on your daily To Do list as "important decisions, creative," or "other." Schedule your non-peak time (after lunch? before dinner?) for the "other" tasks.

3. Limit your email time to one hour each afternoon. Then reflect on whether this change improved your ability to focus on your dissertation and other important tasks.

4. Make some decisions the night before a big day. Going to defend your proposal? Meet with your chair? Whatever the occasion, you can save some energy for the really important stuff by choosing what to wear, planning your meals, or laying out your agenda before hitting the hay.

First Aid for a Fatigued Mind

If you need a quick recharge, Davis suggests three ways to get back on track:

1. Breathe deeply and slowly.

2. Have a good laugh. [I watch a silly cat or baby YouTube video.]

3. Take a 10-minute nap.


When you invest your time mindfully, you avoid the perils of autopilot. By devoting two peak hours of brain time each day to your dissertation, you will assure yourself of that awesome degree you want.


Recommended Reading:

Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done by

Josh Davis, Ph.D.




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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