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Addicted to your phone? Convert it from distractor to dissertation power device with these apps | Issue 263

Summary: Do you waste time on your smart phone? Try these 7 apps to convert it from your biggest distractor to your most powerful dissertation device. 
Estimated reading time: Five minutes your future self will thank you for taking.


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

"Let's face it, checking your 'likes' is the new smoking."  

– Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism  |  Tweet this


Don't let your smart phone distract you. Instead convert it to a crucial tool for finishing your dissertation. But do you know how best to harness digital power to speed your dissertation out the door? 

Below dissertation coaches and clients share favorite apps for sustainable progress. Whether you are challenged by overwhelm, weak focus, isolation, or editing issues, they've got you covered. Experiment with their recommendations to discover what works best for you.



Feeling overwhelmed by too much to do? Too little time or support? 

Nearly everyone, and especially ABDs, can benefit from a good meditation app, says California-based coach Diane Dreher, Ph.D. She recommends HeadSpace, which gets two thumbs up from her colleague and dharma master Juan Velasco. Beginners find it very user friendly and attractive. You'll also find short meditations to help you focus and sleep—and even recover from "mini meltdowns." 

Equally polished and popular is Calm, which also features bedtime stories and ASMR sessions. Find a comprehensive comparison here. Note that both Calm and HeadSpace offer desktop and mobile apps with free trials before you must pay to subscribe.

Free and premium users of Spotify can find guided meditations as well as playlists for quiet music for contemplation or work. If you prefer live social support for meditation, check out your local sanghas, i.e., meditation communities, which may ask for whatever donation you can afford. 

Explore your digital and live options until you find one that resonates with you so that you stick with it. Meditating regularly may improve your emotional resilience, mental health, relationships, and physical health, according to research. It may also boost your compassion and reduce bias. 

"The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment." ~ Thich Nhat Hanh  |  Tweet this



You won't need the classic tomato-shaped timer to use the Pomodoro technique when you choose one from your app store to download to your phone. 

Or skip the apps and keep it simple as does one coach. 

"Like most people, I have downloaded more apps than I use," writes coach Vanetta Iddrisu, Ph.D., from Georgia. Her favorite go-to is the phone's built-in timer, which she uses daily to create laser focus for completing a task. As she observes, "It works best when you commit to the task for a set time and stick with it. And choose a distinctive sound for the timer's alarm." 

My favorite Pomodoro style app, the Productivity Challenge Timer, appeals to those dead serious about tracking their time. With its intuitive user interface and features, this freemium app earns top ratings from users and reviewers.


The PCT default mode timer has you work for 25 minutes and take a 5-minute break ("one Pomodoro"), but you can adjust the periods. Unlike other Pomodoro apps, this one expects you to show up every day and to work until break time, promoting and demoting you according to your diligence. How quickly can you work your way up from "Unrepentant Slacker" to "Strategic Asset"? 

Do you prefer to keep your phone hidden while dissertating? Then open the simple Tomato Timer right on your desktop. 

In any case, prepare yourself for inevitable distractions. One proven strategy is to have an "if-then" plan in place, e.g., "If I am tempted to get up, then I'll take a deep breath and reread the last paragraph I wrote." Keep in mind that honoring breaks will calm your restless inner monkey. 

"A plan is what, a schedule is when. It takes both a plan and a schedule to get things done." ~ Peter Turla



Have you ever wished for a writing buddy to help you avoid procrastination and distraction? Now you've got a digital alternative: virtual co-working. 

Focusmate provides a digital platform that allows face-to-face video sessions with an accountability buddy or "focus mate"--ideal for those who spend much of their workday alone on a computer. To get started, create your free account for desktop use or download the app for mobile devices. 

Open the dashboard and select an available time slot. Then show up on time and meet your accountability partner. Briefly share your task, then get to work while your buddy's live video streams in the background. When the 50 minutes are up, check in with each other and share mutual pats on the back for progress. 

My experience and client reports bolster Focusmate's claim that 96% of users report a 50% increase in productivity. When Melanie Sobocinski, Ph.D., Ann Arbor ADHD coach and professional organizer, started recommending it, here's how one client reacted: 

"Got into the office early! I didn't want to stay until closing time but I had already booked a Focusmate session. It kept me laser focused! Who knew I could actually start and finish a task in 50 minutes? Knowing that there was a stranger occasionally glancing at me was a surprisingly good form of accountability." 


"I love those connections that make this big old world feel like a little village." ~ Gina Bellman 



I'd be lost without Alexa, the voice of Amazon Echo, Tap, and Dot, and Queen of App-dom. You may already have an Alexa device but may have overlooked ways to leverage it to boost your productivity and mood. 

With simple voice commands, she awakens me to music or radio, reminds me of appointments, turns on lamps at dusk, serves as a basic Pomodoro, adds items on my shopping and to do lists. She can give me the local weather forecast, check my email and calendar, and tell me when to go to class or to bed. 


When working, I have her play "quiet study music" or Spotify playlists. When I'm cooking or doing dishes, she serves as a hands-free timer and entertains me with radio, latest NPR news, audiobooks, or podcasts. (For laughs and news, you can't beat the NPR podcast "Wait Wait�Don't Tell Me.") At day's end, she offers a range of sleep sounds from rainforest to white noise. 

She's not all work, though. She can tell you what movies are playing locally, find local events, and give you store hours. Stuck? Ask her to tell you a motivational quotation or a joke. However, you might want to disable the Amazon ordering feature, as did I. 

P.S. Watch for an Amazon sale to get an Echo Dot for under thirty dollars. If you want listening privacy, hit Alexa's mic button.


Does your writing need an upgrade? Free and nearly free writing apps will reduce your errors and improve your grammar and style. 

Upload texts to ProWritingAid for a free review your content style, syntax, and structure. As your digital writing coach, it will catch everything from missing commas to overused words. One enthusiastic Reddit user describes ProWritingAid as "godly."


A license for $70 gives you an integration with Scrivener, Google Docs, and Word. I am using my current free trial to write this article in Word—so far it's been very intuitive and helpful. It can handle long documents, e.g., dissertation chapters, easily. 



For basic grammar and punctuation fixes, free Grammarly gets high reviews. While many of my clients swear by it, others find the high rate of false positives in identifying grammar errors and plagiarism annoying. Use it for shorter texts with ease. 

Tip: Write first, then edit. Otherwise the inner and outer critics will stifle your ability to generate ideas. 

"I've found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then rip the living $%^ out of it." ~ Don Roff  |  Tweet this


Have you always intended to start journaling? Pausing the action to contemplate what is good in your life, what is already working, liberates energy and deepens your wisdom. A few minutes each day of "me time" will keep the positive juices flowing and contribute to your success and well-being. 


The Five-Minute Journal app serves as an easy way into the journaling habit. Each morning it prompts you to identify three good things in your life, three top important outcomes for the day, and your strengths and talents. In the evening, it asks you to reflect on three amazing experiences and add an inspiring photo. Over time notice how much you stop to soak in the good feelings along the way.

Informed by positive psychology research and endorsed by the likes of Tim Ferriss and Leo Babuta, the Five-Minute Journal runs $4.95 at app stores. Prefer the printed version shown above? Get it from the creators at Intelligent Change or from Amazon for $24.99. 

"Documenting little details of your everyday life becomes a celebration of who you are." ~ Carolyn V. Hamilton


The above six apps can help you finish. But what if your biggest challenge is quitting all the other apps, the distracting ones such as Instagram, Facebook, or Candy Crush? Then it's time to download the Forest app on your computer, tablet, or phone to overcome your unhealthy addiction and cultivate focus. 

Heartily recommended by a former client (now Dr. H), the Forest app trains you to keep off your devices and stay engaged in real activities. If you jump at every ping, install the free app and set the phone-free time period. The app then plants a "seed" on your screen that matures into mature tree or bush as long as you don't give in (which will cause your plant to shrivel up). Have fun populating a whole forest and comparing your progress to users around the globe. [I just earned three adorable little trees while writing this on my laptop.]

Bonus: The Forest team has partnered with Trees for the Future to plant real trees around the globe letting you cultivate better habits and a greener earth! 

After you conquer your phone addiction, experiment with the above healthy apps that promote sustainable dissertating. 

If you want warm, encouraging support to get traction, consider getting your own dissertation coach. Apply here for a free consultation.

Image credits: The photos of Smart Phone & Laptop, Meditation, Editing & Pomodoro are all licensed under CC BY-NC-ND



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 resources

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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