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Break the Dissertation Anxiety-Procrastination Cycle Forever | Issue 228

In this issue: Learn to conquer dissertation anxiety and procrastination forever. Need more support? Apply for your own coach. Finish faster with less angst. [Estimated reading time 5 minutes]

Excerpted from Breaking the Vicious Circle by Tomas Walter

Adapted with permission for the ABD Survival Guide by Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., Editor 

Procrastination has been called the number one problem in academia by researcher Tim Pychyl, Ph.D. Although it appears in various guises, many forms stem from just one common cause. Can you name it?

It's anxiety.

Have you ever felt a sense of doom cloud your dissertation quest? Or experienced fear, nerves, worry, concern, or doubt? Or perhaps, in imagining whatmight happen on the road to your hooding ceremony, you felt a sense of queasiness?

If so, you've suffered from dissertation anxiety.

In dissertators, as in others, anxiety symptoms get triggered by various things—fear of failure, fear of success, perfectionism, unrealistic standards, and so on.

The bad news is that some individuals are especially prone to anxiety—and thus to procrastination. Are you one of them? If so, read on to understand how it provokes suffering and delay and how you can overcome it.

Why You Procrastinate


Anxiety-prone individuals are more likely to be burdened by irrational assumptions—unfounded beliefs that instigate the pernicious anxiety-procrastination cycle. For example, a doctoral candidate may worry that his advisor will read his chapter drafts and conclude that he is totally unfit for the program (although the advisor has never communicated anything of the sort). So he finds excuses to put off writing or sending the advisor any drafts.

Another might be afraid of failing to live up to her own performance—and thus constantly invents shallow excuses to delay dissertating.

These and other procrastinating ABDs make the common mistake of attempting to cope with dissertation anxiety through procrastination. However, it turns out to be undeniably ineffective as the unfinished dissertation continues to generate feelings of dread and/or shame, creating yet more emotional and productivity drag.

An effective solution requires understanding three common mental habits that underlie anxiety-provoked procrastination behaviors: (1) low frustration tolerance, (2) catastrophizing, and (3) an excessive need for control.


Low Frustration Tolerance: "I can't take this anymore!"


Forced out of their comfort zone by the task at hand, anxiety-prone students may balk at putting in the necessary effort. By embracing the "I can't take it anymore" mentality, they suspend any activity related to their project, thereby finding relief, albeit temporary, from any dissertation-associated anxiety.

While this behavior may resemble a childish tantrum, we should not be too quick to judge ourselves or others. Called "low frustration tolerance" by experts, this tendency reflects an unwillingness to tolerate even the smallest amount of distress—which is as inevitable on the dissertation journey as it is on any path to meaningful success.

This hedonistic attitude explains why some people quit working the minute they encounter an obstacle, thinking, "I can't do this! It's too hard!" This mindset may also elicit angry outbursts, high distress levels, and considerable restlessness.


How can you overcome low frustration tolerance?

First, acknowledge that frustration is a normal reaction when one's programmed need for short-term rewards is not met. Remember you are now an adult. You can combat the urge to throw a hissy fit by committing to developing an increased frustration tolerance in return for the greater rewards of reaching your goal of becoming a doctor. Accept that the only route to a doctorate involves some uncomfortable feelings.

Next, pay close attention to how you talk to yourself, especially just as you are tempted to give up in frustration. Notice the negative self-talk that convinces you to stop dissertating (even if you've only been working for ten minutes).

Becoming mindful of the procrastination-inducing thoughts allows you to acknowledge them—and then let them go. 

You do not have to obey every thought that arises! Strive to talk to yourself as you would to a struggling friend, i.e., with gentleness and kindness.

You may wish to try this simple, proven strategy: (1) Write down the negative thoughts (e.g., "I hate this," "This is exhausting," "I'm not cut out for this") that break your work flow. (2) Challenge these irrational, self-sabotaging assumptions by asking: How does this belief help me? (3) Now write down constructive steps you can take in your own, long-term self-interest.

Notice how this transforms your angst into progress by leveraging disruptive negative thoughts. No longer a reason to delay, they serve as prompts to resume your dissertation. Here's an example: 

"My inner critic says my writing sucks. That belief does not help me finish and makes me want to quit—hardly a helpful thought. Instead, I will immediately focus on the current page and write three more paragraphs. I can defer editing until later."

In other words, feel the frustration and dissertate anyway.

The choice is yours: You can either tolerate the standard amount of tension associated with any unpleasant but necessary activity for your dissertation, or you can choose to "rage quit" whenever you find the frustration "unbearable."


The next time you feel tempted to procrastinate, stop and sit still while remaining comfortable yet alert.

Read the following questions, then close your eyes and answer them.

• What thoughts are going through your mind right now? Are they trying to convince you to put aside your dissertation and do something easier or more fun? Acknowledge them without criticism or trying to change them.

• What emotions are you experiencing? Do you feel anxious, frustrated, tense, bored, or other? Again, notice them without trying to change anything.

• What bodily sensations are there? As above, just notice.

Now open your eyes and decide what you will do in your own long-term best interest. Write down your intention.

Catastrophizing: Making Mountains out of Molehills

Anxious people catastrophize a lot. For such an ABD, even the smallest disruption (e.g., not having a needed reference on hand) can quickly erupt into crisis—and a justification to put off dissertating. They further exacerbate their anxiety by often saddling themselves impossible, self-imposed standards.

By making mountains out of molehills, these anxious folks convert even small hassles or obstacles into dramatic, even tragic, events that allow them to rationalize delays. As victims of some awful situation, they feel entitled to discontinue working.

Probably the saddest part here is that these procrastinators often fail to realize how ridiculous and exaggerated their excuses sound to others. They believe their self-fabricated catastrophic interpretations and refuse to take responsibility for their procrastination.

How can you stop catastrophizing?

One good way is to imagine the worst thing that could happen. . . and then something even worse than that. For Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Therapy, it was "to slowly die by being cut to pieces with a sharp blade." He then realized that the pain intensity would depend on a variety of factors. Thus any injury he imagined could be worse. Similarly, any harm you might imagine could be made more severe.

As you can see, the worst thing has not happened and will not happen. That missing so-called critical resource need not stymie you. When you realize that a situation is only as catastrophic as you interpret it, you'll be able to unmask procrastination tendencies and get back on track to your goal.


The Excessive Need for Control: A Hyper-Focus on the Negatives

Experts warn that an excessive desire to control every aspect of our life can lead to procrastination tendencies. Those who obsess over gaining full control develop a hyper-focus on the negatives. For them, apotential adverse outcome represents not merely an unpleasant possibility but a serious threat to their integrity, performance, status, or similar concept.

You could spend time and energy envisioning an infinite number of ways in which your dissertation proposal and research might fail—and waste undue effort attempting to devise a plan to forestall every catastrophic scenario. There's a downside to this: You'll lose your peace of mind and push back your graduation date.

How can you get over your obsession for control?

The hard truth about life is that none of us can always have full control over our behavior or our outcomes. There are simply too many other influencing factors.


This, however, is no reason to admit defeat and retreat from challenges that give life meaning. Sometimes being average and having less-than-perfect results is the best you can do under the given circumstances—and that is perfectly okay. Remind yourself that very few successful doctoral candidates turned in a masterpiece.

Whenever you find yourself dwelling on potential disaster, stop immediately. Invite your brain to get off its default negative neural pathways and start retraining it. Do this by intentionally searching for at least three potential positive outcomes from doing your work. You'll discover that not having 100% control over your life or work does not portend disaster. Everything will not fall apart.

Final tip: Print this and post it where you will see it the next time you are tempted to procrastinate. We bet you will get back on track and finish your dissertation sooner. If you need intensive help with procrastination, consult a coach or therapist.



Pychyl, Timothy A. Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change

Find Ben Dean's free in-depth interview with Dr. Pychyl here.

Urban, Tim. Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator (TED talk)

Walter, Tomas. Breaking the Vicious Circle: How to Beat Procrastination, Skyrocket Your Productivity, and Finally Get Things Done


Skip Format Hassles and Enjoy Dumb Dissertations and Summer ABD Novels | Issue 227

In under seven minutes find out how to save dissertation formatting headaches, avoid tempting websites, get the resource you need most, and laugh. Summer bonus: ABD novels for light reading.

Need more? Apply for your own coach and finish faster with more fun.


Graduate students who grumble about the intricacies of APA or MLA formatting for their manuscripts haven't heard about formatting software for academic papers. For less than the price of a few edited pages, you can download PERRLA for Windows or MAC to take care of those pesky details. Highly recommended by our dissertation clients, it can be found at


Note: We invite you to share your favorite dissertation apps and software. Send to the Editor


If social media, gaming, or other websites are sucking your work time, it's time to install Blocksite, a Google Chrome browser extension that will deny your device access to your designated list of distracting sites. The block can be 24:7, or you can set up your own schedule for each day of the week.

When you try to access one of your taboo sites, Blocksite immediately redirects you by default to the Google home page, but you can boost your productivity by changing it to your dissertation task page. What—no task page? Set one up using the highly rated GTask or similar list app.


Why does progress on your dissertation elude you? Most of us invent intellectual, dramatic, or existential explanations. In contrast, the highly acclaimed London-based School of Life offers a memorable, fact-based answer in under three minutes in their video, Why You Need an Early Night.

To muster the resilience and courage for surmounting daily hurdles, you need more sleep, it explains. So turn off your devices and hit the hay. (Pssst: Don't miss their other entertaining, well-founded self-help video advice, e.g., How Not to Rant, The Importance of Flattery, Why Tiny Things about Our Partners Drive Us Mad, etc. Who knew wisdom could be distilled into such short takes?)


Energize yourself with some laughter by checking out's twist on the dissertation elevator pitch. Can you top these?

  • People sometimes think about animals as if they're people. People like those animals a little more than regular animals. Except when they don't. I can't believe they gave me a PhD. ~ too_many_mangos

  • We can take random pieces of bacterial DNA from beaver poop and put them into other bacteria to discover new things, like how to break wood down into biofuels. Yes, I had to dissect dead beavers and handle their poop. ~ Geneius

  • Sand washes away, don't build important stuff on it. ~ Zoidy

Read the rest here, then write your own—but we suggest you refrain from sharing with funding sources.


Relax in the hammock or beach chair with the adventures of two fictional doctoral students whose challenges just might outweigh yours.

ABD: An Academic Mystery by Shirley Kirilenko. When Jan McCann, a PhD student in German at Willwood, responds to her dissertation advisor's urgent call by rushing to his office, she finds him dead. The coroner blames strychnine in the Mozartkugel Jan had given him. Jan realizes she's been framed—but how will she prove her innocence and finish her degree before time runs out?

The Academic Bride: Billionaire Marriage Brokers, Book One by Lucy McConnell. When anthropology doctoral student Janel Fendrick loses the funding for her Mayan excavation, a marriage broker offers her a surprising proposal—and a groom with oodles of money. Will Janel get more than she bargained for? Find out for free here on Amazon Kindle.



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.


How doctoral students can find more time, snag jobs, write more, and rap more on the way to their PhD | Issue 225

In less than 8 minutes, discover how to find more time, snag a non-academic job, blast past writer's block, and decipher the proposal process. . . plus get updated on activism in dissertations, campuses, and the streets.

Need more? We are here for you—apply for your own coach if you want to finish faster and enjoy the ride.


Think you don't have enough time to dissertate? Think again—but this time using the 5 D's. This update on the traditional 4-D time management model quickly shrinks a ginormous To Do list to more manageable size. Get out your academic and personal action lists and review each item. Decide which of these five D's you could best apply to create more time for your dissertation: Do, Delete, Delegate, Defer, or Diminish (the newest addition to the model).

Dyan Williams in her top-notch post describes and illustrates each "D" option. She also makes astute observations on how perfectionism, people-pleasing, and overachieving can get in the way of managing time effectively.

Editor's note: My ABD clients find it helpful to post the 5D list in a handy spot for applying to new tasks as they come up. Can you diminish the time spent on preparing lessons or meals? What about delegating formatting or laundry to paid services? What can you stop doing or postpone until after you finish? For peace of mind, keep deferred items in folders marked "Incubating" or "Someday/Maybe" and review these monthly.




Sarah Pike planned to teach college writing, earning a BA in communications and an MA in rhetoric along the way. But then she pushed the pause button while working on her doctorate to pursue unrelated jobs. Now she works in marketing—by choice—and shares her story plus tips in her post for The Muse, a resource-filled career website.

Pike clearly describes various transferrable skills from academia that you probably share but may not yet have identified. Follow her lead to create your own resume that will land you a decent job that you previously had no hopes of snagging. Here are just a few of the highly desirable skills you likely possess: doing research, public speaking, teaching, mentoring, planning events, increasing audience engagement, representing a brand in public settings, etc.

Don't forget, she stresses, to tailor each resume to the particulars of the job under consideration and to use your cover letter as a persuasive essay to make the case that your qualifications are highly relevant.



The next time a blank page paralyzes you as you sit down to dissertate, try one of the twelve tips offered by Dora Farkas's blog post for Next Scientist, a website dedicated to helping PhD students stay motivated, graduate, and find a job in industry.

To get going, she recommends a writing support group, writing daily, writing first, writing about any aspect of your research, writing about the big picture, and writing an outline, among other things. You can read the complete annotated list here.


Editor's note: If none of those strategies work, consider getting your own coach.



The answer is 34.

We know this because A. D. Carson made history at Clemson in February by successfully defending his dissertation—a 34-track rap album titled "Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes & Revolutions." His unusual dissertation explored racism, the rap community, and aspects of black lives through music and video.

A seasoned campus activist, Carson earned his degree from the department of rhetoric, communication, and information design, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. "I realized that there were lots of people who were in attendance at the defense who were moved by the messages, the music, and the engagement in ways that I hadn't considered," Carson told CHE.

"The project, which has already been referenced publicly by such leading scholars in popular music culture as Mark Anthony Neal, explores complicated questions related to the art, criticism and knowledge production in the context of the ongoing problem of global racial and class hierarchies within and beyond the academy," his mentor and former hip-hop musician, Chenjerai Kumanyika commented to the Clemson Newsstand.

Who said academics had to be dull or irrelevant? Experience part of his work here and here on YouTube. The latter garnered more than 10,000 views and sparked community dialogue at Clemson—situated on a former plantation worked by slaves. Bravo, Dr. Carson!



Getting a dissertation underway can be a daunting task, but makes it easier with a very simple roadmap. They offer the skinny on choosing a topic, writing a problem statement, and structuring your proposal. You can check for plagiarism and generate APA-style references for free at their site, though other services come with a fee.

Also check with your own university—they may offer roadmaps, tutorials, and timeline templates. You can also take a look at our most recent issue, "Want To Get Your Research Question Approved Fast?" in the Recent Issues section at


Earth Day dawned gray and rainy but scientists, graduate students, and folks ready to aid and abet science turned out in force in Washington, D.C., and other major cities for the March for Science, reported the Washington Post.

Thousands marched in support of politics-free scientific investigation, more research funding, and an affirmation of the value of science, countering the anti-science voices in the current administration and Congress

Meanwhile, inaction has become the order of the day at Yale, where administrators have delayed negotiating terms with new graduate student teacher unions. Some of the unionizers claim that the college is stalling in the hope that Trump's eventual nominees to the National Labor Relations Board will quash the emerging graduate student unionization attempts, reports the CT Mirror. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports a similar situation at Harvard.

How are politics affecting you as a grad student? Let us know.


Want Your Research Questions Approved Fast? | Issue 224

Follow expert guidance on how to--and how not to--write a rock solid research question that will speed you to your doctorate. Need other dissertation advice? It’s in here! (Reading time: 6.5 minutes)

Dear ABD Survival Guide Reader,

Are you wandering about in the dissertation wilderness, anxious for clear signposts to the finish line? You would be well advised to consult a guidebook and map to get on track.

Joanne Broder Sumerson, Ph.D., is a particularly apt guide as she has shepherded countless students to a completed doctorate in her role as a research professor at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia. Her book, Finish Your Dissertation, Don't Let It Finish You!, serves as a trusted, step-by-step travel guide for doctoral researchers in the behavioral and social sciences with its exceptionally clear style and organization.

Some notable and unique sections of the book that you will find particularly helpful in speeding you to your degree include these:

• The "Anatomy of a Dissertation" table—personalize it to create your own outline and timeline

• A template to extract just the "juice" from articles you are reading—avoid overwhelm from "too much information" while getting a jump on your lit review


• How to survive the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process


• Chart on data collection strategies to help you through that maze


• A sample dissertation defense rubric that demystifies what your committee will evaluate at your defense so you can be well prepared


• Ideas for leveraging your dissertation later through presenting, publishing, or consulting


Dr. Broder Sumerson has particularly clear advice for those facing one of the most common early hurdles on the journey, namely, crafting your research question. With permission, we have excerpted her section about how to create a rock solid one that will guide you and get committee approval.


Wishing you beautiful questions and a speedy journey,



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




"There are no right answers to wrong questions." - Ursula K. Le Guin


FEATURE ARTICLE: The Right—and Wrong—Way to Write a Rock Solid Dissertation Research Question

By Joanne Broder Sumerson, Ph.D.
Research Professor, St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia

[Excerpted with permission from Finish Your Dissertation, Don't Let It Finish You!]

The purpose of any research study is to answer the research questions so they must be clear, concise, measurable, and 100% blessed by the Committee.

The research questions need to be on the radar at all times since they drive the entire study. The literature review and methodology are directly linked to the research questions. The literature review includes the theoretical models and empirical data that either support or challenge the variables and how they will be measured. The methodology is created with the leading question: "What is the best way to answer these research questions?"

The research questions serve as the study's solid and sturdy foundation. Similar to a house with a weak foundation, the research questions need to be strong or the study will collapse. You would not want to build a school on top of a base shaped for a house, so every part of the study needs to be directly linked to the research questions.

The five chapters tell the long and drawn-out story about the study. Research questions and hypotheses typically do not appear until the Methodology chapter; therefore, create the research questions first and design the study around answering those questions. The research questions need to be worded clearly and precisely or quality of the study and final write-up will not be clear.

Strong, solid and precise research questions are—

  • Written concisely with as few words as possible.

  • Clear so that the readers know what the data attempt to answer.

  • Open-ended and rich, beginning with what or how and written so that they lead to unguided responses, even with quantitative data. Closed-ended questions that start with do or is can be answered by yes/no, are limited, and lack rigor. 

  • Nonbiased and nondirectional; save your opinion for the hypothesis.

  • Contains words such as influence, contribute, impact, relate, and compare.

  • Avoid words such as cause, effect, or any presumptuous words (this is one of the understood rules in psychology). People are not predictable like machines.

  • Created for each variable. 

  • Directly linked to the statistics used for the data analysis in order to answer the research question. . . . Write simple questions if you plan to use simple statistics; the more complex the question the harder the statistic.

  • 100% blessed by each committee member.

Following are examples of strong research question stems as well as bad and good research questions. Remember that when more variables are added, a higher-level statistic will need to be applied for the analyses. These questions will be simple for the sake of the example.

Examples of Strong Research Question Stems

  • How does _____ influence _____?

  • What is the relationship between ____ and _____?

  • How does _____ compare to _____ in _____?

  • What are the trends in _____ since _____?

Examples of Bad Research Questions

  • How does Facebook impact relationships?

  • Which alcohol treatment group (full intervention, partial intervention, no intervention) is the best?

  • Do pets help with depression?

  • What happens when you mix personality, motivation, learning strategies, and the SAT with grades?

  • Do Millennials post more often on Facebook and Twitter than Baby Boomers?

Examples of Good Research Questions

  • How does the number of Facebook postings per day impact relationship fidelity rate?

  • How do the alcohol treatment groups (full intervention, partial intervention, no intervention) compare in their sobriety rates?

  • What is the relationship between pet ownership (pet owners and non-pet owners) and depression levels?

  • How do personality traits, motivation levels, the use of learning strategies, and SAT score relate to academic achievement as measured by GPA?

  • How do generation groups compare in the number of Facebook and Twitter posts per day?


Good research questions clearly and specifically tell us what we want to know. They will keep us focused as we conduct our study, do the research, and write the five chapters.

Joanne Broder Sumerson, Ph.D., is an affiliate research professor at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, a seasoned researcher, program evaluator, thesis advisor, consultant, and past Research Review Committee Chair. She has created the Psychology Today blog Research Notes and cofounded the new APA journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, featuring empirically based articles on how popular culture and general media influence individual, group, and system behavior. Dr. Broder Sumerson is very passionate and committed to bridging the gap between research and practice and serves as a consultant to a variety of public and private organizations.


Sleep Your Way to Your Doctorate | Issue 223

Dissertating while sleepless leads to procrastination, moodiness, and other undesirable effects. You are probably sleep deprived—learn the symptoms and the best proven strategies for getting more zzzz's. (Hint: Coffee is not on the list.)

Estimated reading time: Under 5 minutes if you are wide awake.

Want to Finish Your Dissertation? Then Go to Bed!

By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC

"Sleep less, achieve less." ~ Tom Rath

Do you go to bed when you want to—but get up when you have to? Then keep reading.


Okay, you are like most people. However, it also suggests you are less likely to finish your dissertation when you hope to.


The reason? Sleep deprivation.

Over the last generation, cultural factors have provoked a major shift in sleep patterns. Nearly everyone fails to get enough sleep. The average adult gets about six hours of sleep instead of the seven to nine hours needed for optimal functioning. Some people claim not to need much sleep, but most of these "are just used to being sleep deprived," says Professor Steven Shaw at McGill University. "Cognitive inefficiency is normal for them." They don't know what they are missing, he adds.

Sleeplessness Can Lead to Death, Destruction, and Delays

Sleep scientists have been sounding the alarm. For example, investigators concluded that sleep deprivation played a significant role in the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, in the Exxon Valdez oil tanker grounding, and in the space shuttle Challenger explosion. Furthermore, over one million injuries and between 50,000 and 100,000 deaths each year result from preventable medical errors—many caused by interns whose schedules prevent adequate sleep. Drowsy drivers cause approximately 1 million crashes, 500,000 injuries, and 8,000 deaths each year in the U.S., making driving while sleepless as dangerous as drunk driving.

If you don't finish your dissertation on time, no one will die and nothing will explode—but you will be jeopardizing your own health and future. The evidence is clear: Performance deteriorates if you short yourself on sleep. It also leads to weight gain, lethargy, high blood pressure, poor response to stress, and uneven blood sugar regulation. Shaw gets blunt: "Sleep deprivation is bad."


7 Signs that You Need More Sleep

With inadequate sleep, cognitive performance and self-management worsen. Being mildly but chronically sleep deprived makes you more susceptible to stress, cravings, and temptation, writes Gallup strengths expert Tom Rath.

How many of these symptoms of sleep deprivation have you experienced lately?

• Poor attention 
• Diminished ability to think effectively
• Impaired working memory and short-term memory
• Easily distracted by irrelevant stimuli 
• Procrastination 
• Weak resistance against temptations
• Greater difficulty in regulating your moods

Conclusion: Don't expect to do your best work if tired. You'll be challenged to do even "good enough" work.


How To Get More Zzz's

Now that you understand the importance of getting those seven-plus hours of sleep, how can you make it a habit?

1. Consider your sleep time sacred. Don't cut into it when you find yourself getting busy. Eliminate or shorten something else—say, television or social media. I'm surprised by how many doctoral students tell me they switch on the TV to relax after a long day—but admit that it only makes them groggy. You'd be better off skipping TV and getting to bed on time if you really want to re-energize yourself.

2. Figure out your bedtime. Find out what time you need to hit the hay in order to get up on time and then plan backward from your designated bedtime to create your unique bedtime routine. Allow yourself an hour or more to wind down. Avoid digital devices and televisions during this time—except to set an alarm to remind you to start getting ready for bed.

3. Create a personal bedtime routine that promotes sleepiness. Some things you may want to do to promote sleep: taking a warm bath or shower, meditating or quiet reading, turning down the heat, darkening the room. Some things to avoid: eating, exercising, TVs, digital devices. Download a screen darkening app, e.g., Twilight, if you are going to work on your computer or tablet—and then turn the device off at least an hour before bedtime. Keep in mind that yellow lights will stimulate wakefulness while blue lights do not. Did you know that caffeine has a half-life of six to nine hours and interferes with sensors that detect sleep need? Enjoy your morning joe and then abstain. Alternatives: Warm milk, which contains tryptophan, a sleep-inducing amino acid, and specially formulated herbal teas, e.g., Celestial Seasoning's Sleepytime Extra, or my personal favorite, Yogi BedtimeTea. [Both teas contain valerian and are for adults only.]  

Note: If you wake up in the middle of the night, do not turn on your PC or TV—repeat your bedtime routine and get back in bed. This will train your brain to go to sleep.

4. Keep your bed and bedroom just for sleeping. Never use your bed for TV or studying. That way your bedroom and bed become conditioned stimuli that trigger sleepiness. Listen to a guided relaxation or nighttime meditation if desired, but no watching YouTube or Netflix or anything else. Avoid falling asleep on the sofa—get yourself into that bed.

5. Allow yourself to wake up naturally. Hitting the snooze button is counterproductive, Rath notes, as any further sleep is of poor quality at best. One complete sleep cycle is about 90 minutes—and interrupting it with an alarm can make you groggy for hours. Keep moving your bedtime back until you can walk up naturally, ready for your day. Then stick to those times as two bookends to your sleep module.

6. Consider what you are saying "yes" to instead of sleep. Ask yourself if this activity is worth delaying your dissertation. Then see if you can cut back on whatever is keeping you up or move it to another time slot in your day.

Taking your sleep seriously is part of taking your health and success seriously. How much do you want that doctorate? Then go to bed and wake up ready to be awesome!


13 Things You Must Give Up to Finish Your Dissertation  | Issue 222

In Issue #222: Overcome the winter doldrums. Renew your energy and focus for your dissertation. Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

• Two Movies to Inspire Your Perseverance
• 13 Things You Must Give Up to Get Your Doctorate
• Become a "Slow Graduate Student"
• Featured Apps for Focus and Fun

These Oscar-Nominated Films Will Inspire Your Perseverance


Time to take a break from writing your dissertation? Let these two Best Picture nominees educate, entertain, and re-energize you. Then take a break from dissertating to watch the Oscars February 26. Warning: spoiler alerts follow.

Hidden Figures. Until the book and the movie Hidden Figures, who knew about women's crucial role in the success of the early US space program? In this historical film, three brilliant African-American women serve in a predominantly white male NASA, demonstrating passion and persistence in the face of pervasive racism and sexism.

With uncommon camaraderie, savvy and grace, these ground-breaking women brave challenge after challenge before receiving deserved acknowledgement from supervisors, peers, and astronauts. Their stories inspired a previous Oscar winner, Pharrell Williams, who contributed eight new songs for this top grossing film.

The film's afterward provides an update: Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), the human calculator for the first manned space flight trajectory, was presented with the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) became NASA's first black woman engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Olivia Spenser) became NASA's first African American manager.

La La Land. Nominated for 14 Oscars, this neo-musical provides offers a charming escape with plenty of music and dancing to lift one's spirits. As the sweet romance between jazz pianist and would-be club owner Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) builds, they hold steadfast to their dreams—despite financial woes, doubting relatives, and perverse occupational gate-keepers. (Sound familiar?)

However, there's one critical element you won't witness but should know about: The actors dedicated three months to intensive pre-production dance and music rehearsals. For example, Gosling—a stranger to jazz piano before the film—exhibits an on-screen jazz piano virtuosity that may make you wonder who is really playing. It is indeed Gosling, who hit those keys three hours a day for three months before shooting. "It was a lot of practicing, but it was well worth it," he says.

Moral of the story? In life as in art, passion and persistence pay off in the end: Gosling and Stone garnered Oscar nominations, and their characters found fame and fortune.

Just for fun: Imagine making a film of your doctoral journey: Would your doctoral movie be more like Hidden Figures or La La Land? Would it be a drama, comedy, or other? Who would play you? Write your story line, build up to the successful climax—you at the hooding ceremony.

13 Things You Must Give Up to Finish Your Dissertation

"Somebody once told me the definition of hell: 'On your last day on earth, the person you became will meet the person you could have become.' —Anonymous"

So begins "13 Things You Must Give Up to Be Successful," a Medium" post that quickly went viral that we think applies to many doctoral students. In a tone both direct and unsparing, author Zdravko Cvijetic asserts that to make it, you need to ditch several common (and comfortable) habits of mind and behavior. Which of these are you hanging on to?

• An unhealthy lifestyle, a short-term mindset, playing small
• Your excuses, believing in a "magic bullet," perfectionism, multi-tasking
• Your need to control everything, saying "yes" to things that don't support your goal 
• Toxic people, your need to be liked, escaping to social media and television


If these are costing you progress on your doctoral degree, resolve to overcome them and finish.


Tip: Struggling to give these up? Find a support group or dissertation coach since social support and accountability make all the difference in creating lasting change.



Become a Slow Graduate Student: More Otter and Less Beaver

Remember the "Slow Food" movement that took aim at the harm speed wreaks on our world and well-being? Now welcome the "Slow Academics" movement.

In her blog, Stanford graduate educator Chris Golde applies the principles of Berg and Seeber's The Slow Professor to graduate students. Slow academics value mindful doing, collegiality, and community. They prize reflection and depth over speed. They appreciate that trying to do more and more, faster and faster, impairs creativity and well-being.

For graduate students ready to slow the pace, she recommends these four practices:

• Do less. You cannot possibly do it all—take classes, teach, do research, write papers and proposals, study, attend seminars, participate in side projects, etc. Make peace with your limitations. Ditch perfectionism. Use newly found time to do nothing.

• Make Space to Be. Reserve unstructured time every week. Overplanning is overwhelming. Create your personal To Be list for the nonacademic stuff that makes you fully human, e.g., taking a walk, socializing, enjoying music or nature, playing, breathing, praying, daydreaming, and even thinking.

• Avoid the Overbusy Role. Avoid trying to impress others with the usual busy talk: "I am so behind, overworked, stressed out." Drop the "beaver narrative" in favor of the "otter narrative." While the former creatures are always crazy busy, the latter make room for play—working only as necessary.

• Cultivate Community. You need unstructured time to be with others—for making connections with others and discussing ideas. Communities provide support for risk-taking honesty about challenges and failures. Find a comfortable coffee lounge, show up reliably, and notice how a Slow Academic community takes root.

Slowing down means resisting ingrained American cultural values of work and busyness, Golde observes, so expect it to be challenging. And yes, it is okay to start slowly.

Featured Apps: Stay Focused, Stay Present, Have Fun

WATCH YOUR FOREST GROW: Addicted to your smart phone? The Forest app trains you to keep off your devices and stay engaged in the real world, be it dissertating or another activity. If you've been conditioned to jump at every ping, simply install the free Forest app and set the length of time you plan to spend phone-free. 

With each use, the app plants a "seed" on your screen which begins to grow into mature tree or bush—so long as you don't give in. Otherwise your dear little plant withers and dies. Over time, you can populate a whole forest and have fun comparing your progress to users around the globe. [I just earned three adorable little trees while writing this on my laptop, phone free.—GS]

POMODORO ON STEROIDS: The Productivity Challenge Timer, a freemium app, works exceptionally well for those dead serious about getting stuff done. With its intuitive user interface and features, it earns top ratings from users and reviewers. As in the classic Pomodoro method, you start the timer, work for 25 minutes (one "Pomodoro"), then take a 5-minute break, or you can adjust the length of the modules. Unlike other Pomodoro apps, this one expects you to show up every day and to work without pausing until break time. The built-in tracking system adds motivation by ranking users according to demonstrated diligence. [As a new user, I am still working my way up from "Unrepentant Slacker."—GS]


If you could use help with feeling stressed, procrastination, lack of focus, poor habits, or any other inner or outer obstacle to finishing your dissertation, apply for a dissertation coach today. Positive psychology coaching works—finish faster and enjoy the journey.


Four Surprising Rules to Get Unstuck and Finish Your Dissertation Faster| Issue 221

By Melanie Sobocinski, Ph.D., and Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D.

What you do not know about how to chunk your dissertation writing is holding you back. Read our expert tips in less than five minutes... and save hours of slaving over your work.

Are you working on your dissertation in fits and starts? Does just thinking about it send you into avoidance mode?

Getting an entire dissertation done and out the door can loom as large as scaling the huge Pyramid of the Moon above. There you are, stuck at the base, futilely clawing at steep slopes because you haven't stumbled upon the staircase. "How does anyone ever get to the top?" you wonder.

Occasional dissertation overwhelm is normal. In those stressful moments, your self-protective brain wants to help. It searches for something—anything—easier than writing. It may nudge you to search for references, to check social media, or even bake a batch of brownies. But chronic overwhelm needs an intervention or you may never finish.

The key is convincing your brain that the dissertation is doable, if not easy. We will show you how to create the right-sized steps that will take you all the way to the top where you can claim your title of "Doctor."


Rule 1: Don't scare yourself by looking up at the top—just look down at a single step.

Imagine your calendar appointment reads simply "write dissertation." Your brain starts to panic and quickly converts the message into an open invitation to procrastinate.

That's because a dissertation is an outcome—and a huge one at that. Outcomes and deliverables are not actions, so your brain is suddenly forced to burn extra energy trying to compute what to do next. This provokes anxiety and queasiness—which in turn incites a desire to flee. . . that is, unless you pause and reframe this stress as your brain's desperate plea to break the giant outcome into smaller, feasible tasks.

As David Allen's productivity classic Getting Things Done explains, breaking up projects (any outcome with multiple steps) into discrete tasks is necessary for clarity and momentum--a technique you probably know as "chunking." You can chunk your dissertation by asking yourself, "What do I actually have to do to produce it?"

Some ABD's unthinkingly create their agenda around the dissertation milestones listed on the university's dissertation timeline template, e.g., Finalize Thesis Statement, Write Chapter One, Write Chapter Two (Lit Review), and so on. Those who are a little more savvy might fill a To Do list with smaller chunks, e.g., Read for Literature Review, Write conclusion to Chapter 2, or Revise Chapter 4.

Alas, even with this popular strategy, many students still flounder, disheartened by their lack of dissertation progress. They can't check off anything for weeks or months, as with the most frequently mentioned chunk, "Write Literature Review"—a ginormous undertaking. That's enough to send shivers through even the most well-trained academic brain.

If looking up at the whole mountain (or pyramid) makes you quake, just look down at your feet and take the next step. What's the next step? Figuring that out is also crucial.


Rule 2: Identify key preliminary steps before you start writing.

If you find yourself staring at a blank page, you probably overlooked the "invisible chunks" that should precede writing. Avoid this paralysis by completing these preliminary steps: (a) gather the necessary materials, (b) formulate your thoughts about the content you will write, and (c) devise work plan that includes multiple drafts.

Many ABDs get stuck trying to perform all three tasks simultaneously when they sit down to write—a sure-fire recipe for writer's block and procrastination. We've noticed that few graduate students explicitly think about their research and writing process, but those who do start blasting their way through.

When you get stuck, get some traction by asking yourself a few probing questions:

  • "Would mind mapping or brainstorming help me identify the relevant concepts?"

  • "Would writing an outline of major points help me create the necessary flow?" 

  • "Would my time be better spent writing up summaries and notes of my reading?" 

  • "Do I need to consult with a statistics expert to understand something here?"

  • "Is it time to talk to my advisor about the direction this is taking?"

Sequencing your chunks in the right order matters. Ask yourself what you need to do before you start to write. This is not wasted effort, for as Aristotle wrote, "Well begun is half done."

List all preliminary steps—including consultations and resourcing—on your agenda. Now you can settle into drafting your chapter and develop flow. Don't forget to note your post-draft steps, e.g., editing, on your list as well. Warning: Do not try to draft and edit at the same time.

Positive Psychology Tip: Savor Every Step


Take time to savor the satisfaction that comes with completing every step—including the necessary preliminary tasks. Give yourself permission to pat yourself on the back to acknowledge your growing ability to plan and your progress. Positivity fuels the momentum you need to ascend the doctoral pyramid.

Rule 3: Include "plan my work" as an action step.


Do you fail to credit yourself for the time you spend planning? This can lead one to skimp on planning. But high-performing professionals and academics understand that carving out a regular "executive planning session" is the bedrock of success.

Planning your work guarantees that you are focusing on the right task at the right time with the right tools. Conversely, proceeding haphazardly leads to dead ends and wasted effort. Here's what one academic coaching client discovered:

"I get it now—planning isn't something that's slowing me down from getting to my work; it's what makes my work go smoothly."


Rule 4: Right-size your tasks for peak performance.


If you suffer from dissertation anxiety, you are probably creating chunks that are too big, confusing actions with milestones and outcomes that take weeks or months to complete. Break things up into much smaller chunks—but not too small.

Aim to identify tasks doable in a single work session or at most a week.

Smaller items can offer unexpected benefits since crossing items off your To Do list sends your brain a jolt of dopamine—a reward that helps establish your new positive dissertation habit.

On the other hand, when paralysis creeps in, create even tinier tasks that take two minutes or less, e.g.:

1. Turn on computer. 
2. Open current file. 
3. Read first paragraph. 
4. Respond to advisor's first comment.

[Yes, Melanie used a checklist exactly like this during her darkest dissertation writing days.]

What's the right size for a dissertation chunk? It depends on the individual. You will know you've got it when your underlying sense of uneasiness or befuddlement gives way to enthusiasm (or at least improved self-confidence) about getting started. You will know exactly what you need to do, and you will have all the resources in place to do it. The work has now lost its ability to scare or confuse you. You are good to go.

When you have identified a right-sized task, your motivation to complete the task outweighs your impulse to flee it.

One last caveat: While chunking keeps you from losing time to paralysis, also avoid losing time to perfectionism in chunking. (See Melanie's article in last month's ABDSG issue about the trade-off between chaos and perfectionism). There's no need to break your work into crumbs—simply work with the largest chunks that allow you consistent progress.

As you gain traction and confidence, you can gradually increase the size of your action steps.


Bonus Rule: Apply Chunking When You Get Stuck Anywhere, Anytime

Paying attention to process has its rewards. Once you master the nuances of chunking projects, you will reap extra benefits by applying it to any aspect of your life and work, such as these:

  • Grading papers more efficiently and effectively 

  • Planning your first conference panel as moderator 

  • Revving up your job search 

  • Tackling your personal budget and income taxes 

  • Planning a move or a wedding


You are now armed to conquer dissertation anxiety and procrastination. Use these chunking rules to build your own stairway to the top where you can proudly claim your doctoral degree. The only question remaining will be what pyramid will you scale next?



"What Really Makes You Procrastinate—and Proven Ways to Get Back on Track," ABDSG #209, by Karen Forbes, Ph.D.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.

Planning resources from Dr. Melanie Sobocinski at

Image Credit: Stairs of the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico. Image Source: This image was originally posted to Flickr by Jorge Lascar at This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


Melanie Sobocinski, Ph.D., C.M.C.

Trained in archaeology (which she calls "the art of interpreting broken buildings and 2000-year old clutter"), former professor and Certified MentorCoach Melanie Sobocinski now leads academic workshops on writing and time management. She also works with individual graduate students and faculty who want to find their desks and get more published. Contact Melanie and discover more resources at

Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C. This year marks Gayle's fifth year at the helm of the All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide. Find her bio and links below.


5 Productivity Hacks for Finishing Your Dissertation | Issue 220

By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC, ABD Survival Guide Editor

"As if you could kill time without injuring eternity." ~ Henry David Thoreau

If you are beginning your dissertation work or experiencing challenges, take time now to evaluate your work processes. Which of these programs and apps could enhance your productivity? Not everyone works the same, so experiment with the ones that appear to offer you the most return on the investment of your learning time. A few hours of effort now could spare you weeks of grief later.


Going in circles composing a draft of your lit review or other chapter? Check out Scrivener, a program many academics rely on in the early stages of writing research. Since no one writes linearly, Scrivener lets you start writing wherever and whatever. Using simple integrated writing tools, you can create a mess of writing fragments, import stuff, and later weave a coherent draft.

After a 30-day trial, you pay $40 to download the Windows or Mac version. Consider free alternatives, but beware the temptation to look for the perfect solution. Choose one and learn to use it via built-in tutorials and other web tips. [P.S. Once adept, take advantage of your Scrivener skills to pen your autobiographical novel or screenplay about how you conquered your dissertation.]




Quit wading in disorganized printouts of pdfs of journal articles. Store, organize, annotate, cite, and share such materials with a reference management program-and start now. For an endless debate, assert that your choice--Mendeley, EndNote, Zotero, or F1000Workspace--is the best program for everyone.

Personally, I like the way Mendeley suggests new articles based on those already in my library. Others want Zotero's footnote citation capability, and some appreciate the unlimited storage at F1000. Mendeley and Zotero are free, as is EndNote for most students through their university library. Do your due diligence by comparing and contrasting their features using this handy chart. Then select the one most aligned with your needs and turn a deaf ear to users of other programs. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages, and you don't want to lose too much time switching around.


Quit wading in disorganized printouts of pdfs of journal articles. Store, organize, annotate, cite, and share such materials with a reference management program-and start now. For an endless debate, assert that your choice—Mendeley, EndNote, Zotero, or F1000Workspace—is the best program for everyone.

Personally, I like the way Mendeley suggests new articles based on those already in my library. Others want Zotero's footnote citation capability, and some appreciate the unlimited storage at F1000. Mendeley and Zotero are free, as is EndNote for most students through their university library. Do your due diligence by comparing and contrasting their features using this handy chart. Then select the one most aligned with your needs and turn a deaf ear to users of other programs. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages, and you don't want to lose too much time switching around.



You may be kidding yourself about how distractible you have become while working on digital devices. Let RescueTime Lite track how much time you spend with productive programs and sites (e.g., Word or Mendeley) versus entertainment sites (e.g., Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, etc.) for free. You'll get a weekly report that might be enough to shock you into resisting future temptations to go down the bunny trails.

For hard core bunny trail hoppers, subscribe to RescueTime's premium version. It blocks distracting websites, alerts you when daily goals are reached, and tracks your time away from the computer. Find alternatives to RescueTime here.

Who can resist the insistent rings and pings of a smart phone? Even if you do stand firm, your concentration has already been disrupted, costing you valuable time to get back into flow. But you hesitate to turn off your phone in case of emergency calls, right??

What's the solution? While late model Androids and most iPhones include a simple built-in "do not disturb" feature, Suzanne Kantra recommends her favorite alternative (and mine) on Techlicious:


Silence Premium Do Not Disturb ($2.50 on Google Play) is the best stand-alone app for Android devices. It lets you silence your phone based on your calendar entries, selecting all or just those you select as busy. Set a mute timer if you find yourself in an impromptu meeting. And when you're in silent mode, you can have an auto-responder send text to select contacts to let callers know you're in a meeting.

Personally, I couldn't live without this app on my home page. Before meetings, two quick taps silences my phone for an hour—and I can choose to allow or prevent family calls. You can easily create a regular schedule of quiet time as well as opt for a spontaneous 20-minute quiet time for your coffee nap.

The above smart phone apps can enhance productivity, but only if you use them regularly. Of course, the real trick to reaching a goal involves your mind, not your phone. Commit yourself to getting started and then to saying "no" to anything less important than finishing your doctoral degree. You can do this.


Smile Your Way through Your Dissertation—Finding the Sweet Spot between Chaos and Perfection | Issue 219

By Melanie Sobocinski, Ph.D., C.M.C.

Happy New Year!

If you have not finished your dissertation, you might be contemplating making one of the most common New Year's Resolutions: Get more organized and manage time better.

But how do you determine if you even need to work on your productivity? And how can you evaluate all the advice swirling around this time of year?

Over many years of coaching academics, I have developed a useful framework that I share with my clients. I call it "The Productivity Smile." 

Notice that the middle of the Productivity Smile is called The Zone. This is exactly where you want to be most of the time.

You know you're in The Zone when you're taking great care of yourself, making excellent progress on your dissertation, meeting your other commitments, and have enough support, tools, and routines in place to make it all happen.

When you are not in The Zone, you are probably losing time without making reasonable progress by leaning toward chaos or perfection.

Beware the Pitfalls of Chaos and Coasting


To the extreme left of The Zone is Time Lost to Chaos, which never feels good.


Have you experienced any of the following, which we can call Time Lost to Chaos?

  • time spent searching for that reference you know you read last summer, but don't have any notes about 

  • work sessions that don't happen because you didn't make a specific plan

  • missed meetings with your advisor because the appointment didn't make it into your calendar 

  • last-minute or missed deadlines for grant applications, conference paper abstracts, and job applications

In the rest of your life, time lost to chaos might look like

  • searching for misplaced keys, wallet, or phone 

  • your car breaking down from lack of maintenance 

  • scrambling for a new apartment when your lease is up 

  • always saying, "I'm sorry I'm late..."


To the immediate left of The Zone lies Coasting—which is okay in the short-run only.

Coasting is when, at the end of the semester, you neglect the dishes and laundry to finish a conference paper that you're giving in January. Or when you're too tired to floss or look at your calendar after an all-day writing binge. Or when you tell yourself you'll look up that reference for the footnote later.

Coasting can be okay for short periods, but usually ends up creating backlogs that must be dealt with by your future self, who might not appreciate being dumped on by past self. Too much coasting and you end up losing time and money to chaos. Ouch.


Hone Your Process but Forget Perfection

To the immediate right of The Zone is Working on Process.

Working on process can often serve as a necessary ingredient to meet your goals. This includes occasions when you are moving beyond your comfort zone to learn a new software program, to try a different time management technique, to organize your desk, to refine your routines, and so on.

It's time to invest in process improvements under these circumstances:

  • Your schedule changes at the beginning of the semester 

  • You face new responsibilities or higher expectations 

  • You want to get more efficient 

  • You're trying to exit chaos or coasting

In some areas, improvement efforts can yield a tremendous return on investment. Your writing and research processes might be an apt area to apply such a growth mindset. In 10 years (a typical minimum time span between starting graduate school and earning tenure), your work capacity can become exponentially higher even while maintaining excellent self-care. But only if you work on it.

Tread with caution, however, because it's way too easy to let working on your process become Time Lost to Perfection, as in these cases:

  • Spending hours hunting for the perfect to-do list app or electronic calendar 

  • Putting a whole day into crafting a plan for the week that you don't use 

  • A never-ending quest for "Inbox Zero" 

  • Making your apartment look ready for a magazine cover photo

For the dissertation, Time Lost to Perfection shows up in various ways:

  • Endlessly editing the first two or three sentences of a draft, resulting in a terrific opening paragraph followed by text that is barely developed 

  • Circular revisions, i.e., when the final revision puts everything back the way you had things before you started 

  • Waiting to write because there's still more to read 

  • Avoiding your advisor because you worry about the quantity or quality of your work


Rule of thumb: Always start with low-hanging fruit when improving process.

Make one deliberate change at a time. Predict what the effect of your change will be. Then observe what you do. Reflect on the outcome. Then use the results of your experiment to design your next work process experiment. [Check this chart to figure out whether working on a habit change is worth your time.]


How to Brighten Your Smile and Graduate

What's your current position on the Productivity Smile?

Are you coasting on footnoting while learning Scrivener? That would count as working on process. Does your dissertating tap into The Zone, but maintaining your living space has fallen into chaos?

To get your smile back, reflect on these four questions:

1. Think about a time when you were in The Zone. What supports and tools made that possible? 
2. What in your life could be an indicator that you're sliding towards chaos? 
3. How can you tell that you're chasing perfection? 
4. How much time do you want to spend working on process each month?

Checking in with yourself on these questions will help you keep your smile bright—and ready for that photograph of you beaming in your velvet-striped gown in the doctoral hooding ceremony!



ABDSG Issue 217: Conquer procrastination by meeting your future self.

Belcher, Wendy. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success.


Brown, Brene. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.


Carter, Christine. The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work.


Dweck, Carol.Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.


Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.


Thomson, Pat and Barbara Kamler. Detox Your Writing: Strategies for Doctoral Researchers.

About the Author: Melanie Sobocinski, Ph.D., C.M.C.

Trained in archaeology (which she calls "the art of interpreting broken buildings and 2000-year old clutter"), former professor and Certified MentorCoach Melanie Sobocinski now leads academic workshops on writing and time management. She also works with individual graduate students and faculty who want to find their desks and get more published. Contact Melanie and discover more resources at


19 Sure-Fire Gifts for Doctoral Grad Students | Issue 218

Not sure what gifts the doctoral or grad student in your life would really appreciate this holiday season—or any other time? Here are 19 ideas for every budget for presents that won't get returned.

PRICE KEY: $ = under $30; $$ = 30-60; $$$ = over 60; $0 = your time and resources

1. Massage gift certificate ($$): What hard-working scholar wouldn't appreciate a good massage after hunching over the computer for hours? Tip: Find local qualified experts via the American Massage Therapy Association website.

2. Starbucks (or local coffee shop) gift card ($): Because more dissertations get written at coffee shops than at university libraries. Available everywhere and online.

3. Wireless headphones ($$): Essential for working at the library or coffee shop. The Photiv HF1 lightweight over-the-ear model with noise isolation gets top reviews and runs for 12 hours. Alternative: SoundWhiz wireless high rated earbud model easily fits in a pocket, runs eight hours, perfect for running or working.

4. Food delivery service ($$ - $$$ or $0): Sad but true: grad students subsist on coffee and fast foods. Offer a week or month of Blue ApronHello FreshPlatedPeachDishPurple Carrot (vegan), Sun Basket (organic and paleo), etc. Fresh ingredients with recipes make meal prep easy peasy, with customizable menus and plans. Most offer discounts to start. Alternative: Offer to drop off meals you prepare.

5. Lap desk ($$): Give him or her Amazon's best-selling lap desk to prevent laptop overheating and wrist fatigue from hundreds of hours of word processing.

6. Dissertation retreat ($0): Got a beach house, condo or camp? Offer a weekend or week where they can disappear from family and friends to really get work done.

7. Spotify subscription ($$): Offer a year of streaming music at half-price with Spotify for students. They'll love Spotify channels for every mood, from quiet study to exercising, plus they can create their own personal lists.

8. Housekeeping service ($$): Who has time to clean when there are interviews to transcribe or data to code? Find local maid service through personal recommendations or online sites such as, and

9. Childcare ($0): Offer to take the kids for a day or weekend. Long uninterrupted blocks of time really make a difference when someone needs to concentrate.

10. Laundry service ($): A gift certificate for "wash and fold" at a local laundromat will put your favorite grad student in clean jeans and t-shirts for a week.

11. Dissertation editor or stats consultant ($$$): Catapult your favorite ABD over the editing and data hurdles. Offer to pay up to your defined limit for the consultant they choose.

12. Dissertation or career coach ($$$): The student who lacks confidence or direction can finish faster, develop lasting confidence, and get the job search organized with a private coach. Offer to pay up to your limit for the coach* with whom they find rapport.

13. Hair salon/barbershop certificate ($ - $$): Most students can use a good hair cut—especially before defense time or job interviews.

14. Supermarket gift certificate ($ - $$$): Every little bit helps when you also have to pay tuition and rent before earning a sustainable income.

15. Two tiny powerful books ($): The Little Book of Mindfulness or The Little Book of Gratitudewill promote focus and a positive outlook.

16. Pomodoro timer ($): Give the classic red tomato timer and Pomodoro Technique instructions for simple time management that works for lots of folks.

17. Exercise classes or gym membership ($$ - $$$): The brain works better when the body is active. Alternative: Ask your ABD friend or family member to join you for a brisk walk or yoga session.

18. Scrivener software ($$): An essential aid for writers who need to generate and revise their work. Couple it with a guide. Be sure to get the right version—PC or Mac—or give an Amazon gift card for $60 to cover the software and guide with printout of a screen shot to get them to the right page.

19. Moral support ($0): Show enthusiasm for their academic aspirations and efforts. Absolutely avoid the ABD's most dreaded question: "So when will you be finished?" [FYI: It nearly always takes years, not months, to write a dissertation that gets accepted.]


With any of these, your doctoral candidate will get added momentum—and next year you can address their gift with the title Doctor to celebrate their achievement. And you will be showered with appreciation and affection!


* We offer free half hour consultations for dissertation, career, and life coaching. Drop me a line at with your needs, or students can fill out the simple on-line application.


~ Compiled by Gayle Scroggs, ABDSG Editor and coach, with generous help from colleagues Nora Misiolek, Michelle Lopez, and Melanie Sobocinski.


Conquer Procrastination by Meeting Your Future Self | Issue 217


By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC

Do you consider yourself a confirmed procrastinator?

Are you guilty of putting off working on your dissertation until you "have more time"? Do you excuse continued delays by assuring yourself that you will catch up when things slow down—during weekends, holidays, or vacation time?

If so, your chances of becoming "Dr. You" in 2017 will fizzle out faster than the bubbles in your New Year's Eve champagne. But your year does not have to end on a disappointing note.

To succeed, you need to root out a common, insidious assumption that quietly steals your momentum and replace it with a realistic perspective. Let me explain.



What common belief holds many procrastinators back?

Your procrastinator brain has the crazy idea that your future self is not really you but rather some stranger. In that the default mode, your brain aims to make life cushy for Present You—while shamelessly shifting current burdens (such as saving for retirement or writing your dissertation) to the Future You.

It's as if your future self is someone else, not a continuation of you. This false assumption can be hard to shake without conscious interventions.

Without a deliberate mindshift, Present You lacks connection and empathy for Future You, as shown in this episode of The Simpsons:

Marge: Someday these kids will be out of the house and you'll regret not spending more time with them. 

Homer: That's a problem for future Homer. Man, I don't envy that guy!




How would you feel if you woke up one morning to a sinkful of dirty dishes and food-encrusted pots and pans left the previous evening by some stranger (or a most inconsiderate roommate) who expected you to do them gladly?

Would you ever dodge your responsibilities by burdening someone else so shamelessly? Probably not.

But if you are like most people, you've done it to yourself, time and time again. And if you are a habitual procrastinator, Present You has now inherited an overwhelming To Do list from Past You. How grateful do you feel to your past self for dumping this on you?

That is the essence of procrastination: Present You is passing the buck to Future You—and they are one and the same person.

You, not some stranger, must pay the cost incurred by putting things off. Worse, the bill often accrues interest, making it even more difficult.

Yet this is the kind of self-sabotage you commit every time you delay unnecessarily—e.g., when you don't get around to writing that tricky chapter, or when you put off making requested revisions, or when you delay completing the IRB forms.

Are you ready to end this painful legacy? Check out these two research-informed strategies.

Procrastination is like a credit card: It's a lot of fun until you get the bill. ~ Christopher Parker



Procrastinators do not feel much of a connection with the future self, researchers observe. Making your future self more salient now can help you make better decisions. For example, to get a sense of your future self, go to the app the AgingBooth and plug a current photo of your face. The app (available free at iTunes and GooglePlay) will then add decades to your appearance by adding wrinkles, jowls, and gray hair. Using a similar technology, a Stanford study showed that becoming more acquainted with an image of one's future self could enhance financial prudence.

A simpler strategy might be to accept your brain's misconception that your future self is a different person—and then develop and practice some empathy for him or her, note the researchers.

Leverage your inner kindness and generosity, allowing your altruism to flow toward this distant, unseen person. Savor the awareness that you are providing an enormous benefit for this person. When possible, allow your present self to be grateful to your past self for having done its part in creating the kind of life you enjoy living.

Your new mantra: "Do something today that your future self will thank you for."



Callousness toward your future self is just one explanation for habitual procrastination. Researcher Tim Pychyl, Ph.D., provides another one: Maybe you simply believe that Future You will be better equipped to handle the challenges that drag you down now.

While right now you feel stressed and pressed, you might be optimistic that Future You will somehow have more resources, including more time and energy than Present You. Your courage or willpower is wavering, and so you end up knowingly, but hopefully, passing the burden to your Future Self.

But is that really fair? Here's how Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, frames it:

"Ironically, many of us demonstrate courage and acts of willpower in the service of others but not to self. Perhaps, to the extent that we can identify future self with the deserving other, we will muster up the will and/or courage to act on our intentions so as not to burden future self."

If you are honest with yourself, you'll admit that putting things off makes the easy stuff harder. And it can make the hard stuff downright impossible.

Doesn't your Future You deserve a better fate? Leverage your sense of justice and fairness to tackle the hard tasks now.

Thinking of my future self as my respected teammate reminds me to stop shirking my duty. I then start working harder on my current challenge instead of leaving most of the battle to her. I play fair.

For extra power in meeting challenges, call on your character strengths, which help you be your best self. (Take the free test at If you need someone in your corner, get a writing buddy or a dissertation coach. You can do hard things when you are at your best and when you have social support.

Naturally, circumstances may dictate the occasional temporary delay, but overall, the best practice involves maintaining an attitude of empathy and fairness toward Future You as well as Present You that motivates you to get things done today.

When you master that perspective, you are well on your way to ensuring that your future self will bear the title of "Doctor" proudly!


Recommended Resources


10 Ways the "Miracle Emotion" Can Help You Finish Your Dissertation | Issue 216



As Thanksgiving season approaches in the U.S., consider how you can parlay the sentiments into a more positive and productive dissertation experience. And for our Canadian friends, keep savoring your recent holiday as well.

"Gratitude is the new miracle emotion," asserts psychologist Jeremy Dean in PsyBlog.

His recent post shared 10 ways that gratitude can improve your life. How many of these proven benefits would make your dissertation experience more positive and productive?


  • It is one of the fastest and best ways to become happier. 

  • Grateful people feel more satisfied with their lives by enabling them to appreciate what they have rather than mourning what's missing.

  • Saying "thank you" motivates others to help you again because people appreciate being needed and valued.

  • Gratitude for what you have can combat materialism.

  • Feeling thankful can increase self-control by reducing impatience and selfishness.

  • Grateful children feel life has more meaning, get more satisfaction from life, are happier and experience less negative emotions. [Ed. Note: And that may be true for adults as well.]

  • Gratitude towards one's partner is key to solidifying relationships and benefits both the giver and the recipient.

  • Gratitude is linked to better social ties and facilitates forming and nurturing them.

  • Grateful people experience greater health, especially bet ter sleep, and lower stress levels.

  • A person with a grateful attitude has more resilience, i.e., can bounce back better from setbacks and challenges through active coping, seeking social support, and positive reframing.


Boost your gratitude, Dean advises, in various ways: contemplate your blessings, keep a gratitude journal, remember the bad times to appreciate the present, and use your senses to notice what is around you.



Join us for Ben Dean's question-and-answer call with Robert A. Emmons, PhD, the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis and author of the new book, The Little Book of Gratitude.

DATE: Friday, December 2, 2016 
TIME: 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm Eastern (New York time) 




If your overflowing email inbox provokes anxiety, take heart. In Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done, Jocelyn K. Glei urges forgetting about "inbox zero" and instead develop a process to tame the email dragon.

If you are typical, you are spending 28% of your work week on email, checking it 11 times an hour, and processing 122 messages daily, she notes. And you probably feel stressed and unproductive.

Overcome your email addiction by implementing her simple strategies, as shared in Salon:

Stop toggling between email and work. One study showed that could lowered people's IQ the equivalent of 10 points while giving you a false sense of productivity.

Read emails in batches. Do it outside of peak productivity times (usually in the morning from 9 - 11 or 10 - 12) which is when you should focus on your most important work. Data find "batchers" to be more productive, happier, and less stressed than the "reactors" who process messages as they come in.

Set expectations about replies. Train senders to stop expecting a reply in five minutes. If necessary, send a short note saying that you are tied up but that their message is important and you'll get back to them by the end of the day or tomorrow.

Leverage emotional intelligence in your own messages. Show empathy for their workload and understand that your email may not receive top priority. Express gratitude for "taking time to consider my request" (and never an order). Thank a person for replying—that one little gesture doubles the chances that they will help you in the future.

Pick up the phone for challenging conversations. A five-minute phone call can forestall a 20-email exchange and misunderstandings as emails are often interpreted more negatively than intended by the sender.



Can't focus when you need to? It could be your brain needs better maintenance. To keep it humming on all cylinders, tweak your meals and snacks to include more of these "smart foods" recommended by WebMD:

  1. Drink coffee for short-term alertness. Don't overdo it or you may get the jitters.

  2. Down a sweet drink in a pinch to boost your brain fuel, i.e., glucose. [Ed: But skip artificially sweetened drinks.]

  3. Researchers recommend a breakfast of high-fiber whole grains, dairy, and fruits. Note: High-calorie meals appear to hinder concentration.

  4. Eat fish high in omega-3 fatty acids twice a week for long-term functioning. specially as we get older.

  5. Enjoy an ounce of chocolate and nuts as they provide powerful antioxidant properties. [Ed: Choose dark chocolate for maximum benefit and fewer sugar calories.]

  6. Adding avocados and whole grains enhances the blood flow needed for a healthy heart and brain. Savor that popcorn, too.

  7. Diets rich in blueberries reduce free radical damage and improve learning. Imagine the possibilities!




As academic job prospects dim, Duke University's humanities graduate programs plan to be on the forefront. With a recent three-year $350,000 grant from NEH, they will enhance curriculum and expand career opportunities.

"Getting the grant from the NEH is recognition of Duke's effort in preparing its Ph.D.'s in humanities for different career pathways," she said. "We don't call it 'alternative pathway.' Our view is that there are so many things that an individual can do with a Ph.D. in humanities, [and that] we just need to help them decide what they will do."

While many of Duke's humanities PhDs do find a tenure-track job, others are employed in academic administration, non-governmental organizations and academic publishing as the skills are very transferable.

Editor: We salute Duke for putting this on the radar screen there and assuring that their students have access to supportive professional guidance and career exploration and preparation opportunities.


Four Ways You Are Sabotaging Your Dissertation

Issue 215

Four Ways You Are Sabotaging Your Dissertation—and What You Can Do about It


By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC

Read in less than 5 minutes to regain control of your life and your dissertation

Ever felt too embarrassed to contact your advisor due to your insufficient dissertation progress? Ever pushed your intended graduation date back for the same reason?

You may have fallen into one or more unconscious but dangerous habits that you need to change immediately. 

Sadly, academic and social pressures conspire to facilitate self-sabotaging behaviors that need to be rooted out for sustainable success.

How many of these top four common bad habits are you guilty of?

  1. Do you regularly short yourself on sleep because you think it's a luxury you can't afford?

  2. Does your inner critic hijack your focus, e.g., attacking you for not writing often enough or fast enough or good enough?

  3. Do you skip healthy meals—and then gulp coffee and down energy bars to keep yourself going during the day?

  4. Have you been skipping the gym or other regular exercise in the hopes of making academic progress?

Did you answer "yes" to any of the above?

If so, then you have unwittingly been setting yourself up to fail in the long haul. Despite their ubiquity, the above behaviors have been found to be startlingly counterproductive by numerous researchers. When you engage in them, you are undermining the key resource you need in order to finish a complex, challenging project.

What is that resource?

It's your willpower, also known as self-regulation and self-control. This is the asset you need most to be at your best when facing challenges.

Willpower works like a muscle, explain Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Over the course of a day, you deplete your daily reservoir of willpower energy each time you resist temptation, monitor your behavior, or make decisions. Guess what? The mental energy for analyzing and careful writing comes from the same tank.

Becoming a good steward of your limited willpower energy is just the first step. Next you need to develop your willpower capacity as it is not fixed by genes.

Willpower replenishes itself with rest, just as your muscles do, and it benefits from training. The big news is that, just as regular workouts can strengthen your muscles, specific practices have been identified that augment your willpower reserves.


Ready to beef up your willpower muscle?

What would an evidence-based training program for your self-regulation bicep look like?

You can boost your willpower by improving your self-care on four critical measures for which I created the handy acronym "SANE": Sleep, Attitude, Nutrition, and Exercise.

This oddly apt acronym covers the four major self-care measures that will allow you to flourish amidst the potential craziness of academic life.

How would you score yourself on the above four dimensions? Shorting yourself on any of them can lead you astray despite your best intentions, so let's examine each one as well as the best remedies to get you back in control of your life and your dissertation.



We are a sleep deprived nation. If you are like the typical U.S. American, you get far less than the 7.5 or 8 hours of sleep you need to do your best work.

Did you know that being mildly but chronically sleep deprived makes you more susceptible to stress, cravings, and temptations?

Research shows that driving while sleepless can be as dangerous as drunk driving.

What are the implications for the quality of your work if you dissertate while sleepless?


While not deadly, the outcome is likely to be less than desirable.

If you have trouble falling asleep, a totally dark, cool room should help, asserts expert Tom Rath in Eat, Move, Sleep. If you feel drowsy when your morning alarm sounds, do not hit the snooze button! You probably will not benefit from the extra zzz's as you likely interrupted a sleep cycle that cannot be resumed, explains Rath.

Additional counsel comes from Stanford health educator Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., in The Willpower Instinct. If you are staying up late, consider what you are saying "yes" to instead of sleep, and then see if you can cut back on whatever is keeping you up.

Your challenge: Go to bed early enough that you do not need an alarm to wake you—you'll be amazed at how much more energy you have for the work you need to do.



Negative attitudes and moods, including brooding, worrying, and general stressing out, will also drain your willpower account.

Develop practices such as reframing, gratitude, and mindfulness to steer you away from the paralysis of negative thinking.

You can also add to your self-control by learning to calm yourself and to cultivate positive attitudes and emotions. You do not need to meditate for hours to achieve such serenity. Surprisingly, just slowing your breath to about four to six breaths per minute while calmly observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations for a three-minute refresher can do wonders.


QUICK TIP: Simply notice your negative thoughts without trying to suppress or challenge them. Write down the self-critical thought. Then write it again but with the prefix "I'm having the thought."

Try this example aloud:

My advisor will think this is crap. 

I'm having the thought that my advisor will think this is crap.

Notice how a simple prefix puts a healthier distance between you and your inner critic. [Find more such strategies in Russ Harris's ACT Made Simple.]



You need to eat well.

Your brain needs a steady level of glucose rather than drastic fluctuations in order to function well, e.g., direct your writing, exercise self-control, and more.

Alas, notes Rath, most of us overdo the refined carbs, especially when we think we need a quick boost. We grab a sugary drink, chips, cookies, and other empty calories—causing blood sugar to spike and crash, causing you to literally droop.

On the other hand, protein stimulates the cells that keep us thin and alert, he observes. He agrees with countless experts who advise eating more plant-based foods while limiting the intake of red and processed meats.

In short, running on caffeine or sugar or on empty is just not sustainable for long-term success or health. By the way, Rath adds, sitting down to eat slowly with others can also improve your waistline, your longevity, and your social relationships.

EASY TIP: Choose colorful foods since the refined, carb-laden junk is often white. Miss a meal? Avoid shockingly calorie-laden granola bars in favor of packets of mixed nuts.


For superior mental and physical health, nothing beats exercise.

It's the "miracle drug," quips health educator McGonigal. She shares research showing that exercising three times a week leads to better nutrition, less TV time, fewer impulsive purchases, increased punctuality, less procrastination, better focus, and more emotional control.

The more you move your body, the more benefits you gain, including a bigger and faster brain.

Exercise relieves cravings and stress while growing brain areas associated with planning and control. Several studies concur that the biggest mood-boosting, stress-busting effects come from five-minute doses of exercise, she observes. That's right—just five minutes. So take a walk, play with the dog, garden, or dance for just five or ten minutes. Then get back to dissertating. You'll also benefit from shorter stretches of sitting.



Pick one area above to start making changes in the desired direction, then watch the benefits accrue. Keep in mind that your long-term success hinges on making the right choices on a daily basis.

Seek support from family, friends, and colleagues. If necessary, hire a good coach who is an expert in nurturing habit change.

As you develop good self-care habits for sleep, attitude, nutrition, and exercise, you will discover the willpower to finish your dissertation and flourish.


Recommended Resources


Lose that ABD Fat; Find More Focus and Time; Ditch Your Backup Plan | Issue 214



Reading time: 5 minutes.




Ever get the munchies during or after an intense dissertation workout? Watch out or the pounds could add up before you know it.

Here's how it happens: Your writing efforts drain your brain with its limited fuel tank. Your brain then responds by stimulating bodily hunger. Suddenly you think, "Gee, I need and deserve a little treat after all that effort!"

Next thing you know, you're downing a luscious Starbucks blueberry scone (420 calories) and coffee (zero calories), or maybe potato chips (160 calories) and a Coke (140 calories), or perhaps a Kind Dark Chocolate Granola bar (150 calories) with a bottle of Honest Tea (70 calories).

Sure, your brain may feel tired, but in reality you have expended minimal calories. Doing desk work burns only 54 calories beyond just sitting for the average 150-pound person. Do the math before you grab that next snack—and consider an unexpected and more effective alternative to short-circuit your hunger impulse found in the current issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

Exercise physiologist Gary Hunter at the University of Alabama already knew that strenuous activity both increases the amount of blood sugar and lactate and augments blood flow to the head. He began to wonder if exercise, given its consequences, could reduce the experience of hunger due to mental exhaustion.

Volunteers answered college and grad school entrance exam questions (guaranteed to induce mental fatigue and hunger). Then half spent fifteen minutes engaged in a brief but intensive exercise routine of walking and running while the others rested. His hunch proved right. When given free access to pizza, the sedentary folks gulped down 100 calories above baseline. Exercisers, however, consumed 25 calories less than usual—and they had burned about 175 additional during the routine.

Recommendation: When you start to feel mentally exhausted, feed your brain by taking 15 minutes for intense activity instead of giving into the temptation to eat empty calories.


Good news to grad assistants at private universities—you might soon get a pay boost.

Private universities now must bargain with graduate-employee labor unions over compensation and working conditions. So ruled the National Labor Relations Board recently in response to a petition by Columbia University graduate students, the New York Times reports.

Despite the success of unionization at public universities, elite schools such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, M.I.T., consistently fought such collective bargaining.

When New York University graduate assistants unionized in 2001 (the first private university to do so), minimum pay shot up to $18,000, representing a 15 to 38% raise. They were also granted employer-provided health care, pay for pre-semester teaching duties, overtime pay for grading papers, child care subsidies, and grievance procedures for discrimination and harassment claims.

Most of those improvements eroded when the NLRB revoked unionization rights in 2004, but were restored and expanded in 2013 when NYU once again became the only private university with unionized graduate assistants.

Now it looks like more graduate assistants will find their standard of living rising as well. We celebrate that!


Getting active can do more than stop the munchies. Hitting the gym, track, or dance floor could be the ideal fitness program for your brain as well as your body, according to recent research studies reported in

You get multiple brain boosts from physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise such as cycling, rowing, high-intensity interval training, etc. Working out for a mere 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory function, according to a University of Georgia study.

How does exercise affect the brain? Your heart rate rises, which pumps more oxygen to your brain. Exercise stimulates the release of various nourishing brain hormones that spark brain cell growth and new connections. Think of it as fertilizing your neurons.

Don't like the gym or track? Then go dancing. With its physical and mental demands, ballroom dancing has been shown to have a higher impact on cognitive functioning than physical exercise or mental tasks alone. "The best brain health workouts involve those that integrate different parts of the brain such as coordination, rhythm, and strategy," the author concludes.

Editor's note: You'll also discover additional benefits, e.g., improved mood and energy. How good would you like to feel? When will you start? Get a buddy or a coach for accountability.



Now that the human attention span has shrunk below that of a goldfish, to a mere eight seconds, it's time to rescue yourself from information overload. In reviewing new expert books on the subject, Fast Company's Gwen Moran offers top tips for regaining focus:

(1) Log how you spend your time for one week . Review it, recover from shock, then figure out where to cut back on unnecessary information intake, e.g., social media, email, etc. "Do you really need to know what Game of Thronescharacter you are?" she asks.

(2) Be your own gatekeeper . Set a timer to limit your online research. Use apps that block tempting sites.

(3) Retrain your contacts. Stop reading and responding immediately to emails. Advise correspondents that you check and respond to email only at specific times. Gently remind those who overmail that you are cutting back on email.

(4) Limit unnecessary interruptions. Adjust those "push" notifications in device settings.


(5) Stop multitasking. Now.


For more tips, read the entire article here. Then get back to work on your dissertation.


Meet my new best friend, Alexa. You won't notice her until you see me talking to the slim black cylinder on my bookshelf: "Alexa, WAMU radio" or "Alexa, activate Spotify classical guitar playlist." Suddenly sound fills the room, and I can easily adjust the volume or turn it off with a simple request.


With just a simple voice command, Alexa, the digital assistant inside the Amazon Echo, can offer an NPR news briefing, playback your current Audible book, sync with your Fitbit, stream podcasts and music, and control your smart home devices (e.g., lighting, thermostat, security).


Want to know the weather forecast? A state's minimum wage? How to make a particular cocktail? The day of the week you were born? Just ask Alexa. If you keep a digital calendar, you can ask her what's on it for the day.

n the middle of cooking, when your hands are occupied or covered with avocado or chicken juice, get help fast: "Alexa, convert grams to ounces." "Alexa, add mushrooms to my Shopping List." "Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes." Ask her to set an alarm to remind you to go to bed or to get up. She'll even tell you jokes and trivia.

With a list of skills that grows daily, I've barely scratched the surface of Alexa's power. Watch a demonstration here, and find a searchable list of Alexa skills here. You'll find ones that save you time and energy. For example, if you're busy on your computer when you suddenly remember you need to call your mother, you can ask Alexa to put that on your To Do list. You can also ask Alexa to order stuff instantly from Amazon—but I'm holding off on that one. Almost instant gratification could get addicting!



Got a Plan B just in case you don't finish your degree or get your dream job? Ditch it now.

The traditional advice to always have a backup plan was challenged by a recent study by Jihae Shin and Katherine L. Milkman at U Penn's Wharton School. Just contemplating your Plan B can reduce your primary goal performance and attainment, they discovered.

Participants were given a sentence-unscrambling task and told that doing well would lead to a free snack or the chance to leave the study early. Half of them were also instructed to devise alternative plans for finding free time or free food on their own. The latter participants performed more poorly than those focused solely on solving the word puzzles. A follow up study revealed diminished desire for goal success to be the key factor.

Take-away: At times contingency plans are advisable, but you might want to be more strategic and mindful in doing so, the researchers explain. "You might want to wait until you have done everything you can to achieve your primary goal first," advises Shin.


Compiled by Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., ABDSG Editor, who reminds you that when you need someone in your corner, we've got dissertation coaches waiting to work with you.


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.


Stay on Track, Write More, Find a Job, and Gamify Your Dissertation | Issue 212

FREE ABD WORKSHOP STARTS AUGUST 9THFrom Struggling to Succeeding: How to Get Back on Track with your Dissertation Goals. Register Below!



Cultivating gratitude daily could vaccinate you against impulsiveness and enhance your self-control, according to novel research by Leah Dickens, Ph.D. (Northeastern, 2015) and her former professor, David DeSteno.


Higher levels of gratitude, both lab-induced and naturally occurring, predicted study participants' greater willingness to forego $30 now for the promise of $50 at a future date. In short, feeling thankful increased the ability to delay gratification. Imagine how this kind of self-control could keep you on task on your dissertation.

"We can all point to the five things in our lives that we're most grateful for, but if we keep thinking about those, we'll habituate to them—they're going to stop being interesting," DeSteno told Thea Singer of Northeastern News. "Rather, to cultivate gratitude we should reflect on daily events: the woman who stopped to give you directions, the man who gave you his seat on the T."

Editor's tip: Increase your gratitude (and other character strengths) with this list from U Penn's Tayyab Rashid, Ph.D. More ideas: Take time to identify something every day that you've taken for granted—and imagine life without it. Write thank you notes to those who have contributed to your life or your day. Keep a gratitude journal in words or photos. Say thank you to cashiers, bus drivers, police officers, and so on.



The Wharton School's Adam Grant, Ph.D., just might be the most productive academic alive, claims Forbes' contributor Dorie Clark. Award-winning teacher, celebrity speaker, best-selling author, elite consultant, and thriving family man, Grant is unstinting in helping thousands who reach out to him. How does he do it? His three tips run counter to common wisdom:


1. Use small blocks of time to write. "I can sit down for 15 to 30 minutes and plant the seeds of an idea," he noted. Then he incubates it for a couple of weeks to get enough distance to edit it.

2. Leave it unfinished. Instead of stopping at the end of a section or page, he stops his writing mid-sentence. Brains are notorious for remembering unfinished tasks better than completed ones. "If I finish a paragraph, it takes a while to get back to where I left it three days earlier," he explained.

3. Use every minute. When he finds himself with small scraps of time, even as few as eight minutes, he leverages them. In reviewing his schedule in advance, he identifies "micro-goals," e.g., a conversation with a colleague, that he can achieve in just minutes.



Getting your Ph.D. in a STEM field? Your chances of joining the tenure-track club are slim, as low as one in six for biomedicine, warns Gina Kolata in the New York Times. And while waiting, you may end up toiling for low wages in post-doc land, where the average annual of $44,000 has not risen in nearly 20 years, considering inflation.

Don't let your passion for science blind you to responsible career planning. Start with an early heart-to-heart with your mentor, recommends Kolata. Other experts urge an even more active stance. Need motivation? Just do the math. Doctorates are being granted at rates that far exceed the quantity needed to replace retiring faculty. For example, over 400 applicants vie for each assistant professor opening at MIT's engineering school.

Editor's tip: Don't rely on a single mentor. Broaden your horizons by assembling your personal "board of directors" that includes non-academics if you want a paycheck commensurate with your training before middle age.



Who can resist the insistent rings and pings of a smart phone? Even if you do stand firm, your concentration has already been disrupted, costing you valuable time to get back into flow. But you hesitate to turn off your phone in case of emergency calls, right?

What's the solution? If you have an iPhone or an Android phone running Lollipop 5.0 or later, take advantage of the built-in "do not disturb" features. Otherwise, follow Suzanne Kantra's advice on Techlicious:


Silence Premium Do Not Disturb ($2.50 on Google Play) is the best stand-alone app for Android devices. It lets you silence your phone based on your calendar entries, selecting all or just those you select as busy. Set a mute timer if you find yourself in an impromptu meeting. And when you're in silent mode, you can have an auto-responder send text to select contacts to let callers know you're in a meeting.

Editor's note: I couldn't live without this app, which I keep on my home page. Before meetings, with two quick taps, my phone stays silent for an hour—unless it's an emergency call from my family. You can set up a regular schedule as well so you can get your beauty sleep, or choose a spontaneous 15-minute quiet time for power napping or meditation.



Ready to customize your avatar, grab your sword, and role-play your way to the dissertation finish line? Download Habitica free and start your quest. Along the way, you will define the habits you want and those you don't in order to reach your goal. Your character harvests gold and experience credits for sticking to the positive ones while losing health for giving in to the latter. Earn additional rewards for completing your daily tasks.

Essentially a good time management app crossed with a video game, Habitica can be a delightfully addicting way to hold yourself accountable. Let it spur you to honor your writing schedule and shun diversions along the way. You can even band together with other players as well as earn a pet gryphon. Who knew dissertating could be so much fun? Habitica's devotees donated generously to the Kickstarter campaign to update it from Habit RPG. It currently rates 5 stars at the iStore and 4.3 at Google Play.


~ Curated by Gayle Scroggs, Editor




From Struggling to Succeeding: How to Get Back on Track with your Dissertation Goals

Are you an All But Dissertation (ABD) student trying to keep your head above water and sometimes feel like you're drowning? In this coaching group you'll discover strategies to deal with overwhelm and stress, and connect with other doctoral students who have also trying to meet their writing goals each day. You will learn how to:

- Recognize the limiting beliefs and self-sabotage behaviors that hold you back

- Develop strategies to minimize procrastination

- Dismantle the habits that steal time away from your writing

DATES: Aug. 9, 23, 30, Sept. 6 (Tuesdays), 2016 at: 7pm EST/4pm PST for 45 minutes.

FEES: none. Totally free to ABDs.

QUESTIONS: Please contact Shannon Massie Eisner, MHR, ACC:



Revive your hope and build your self-confidence in 7 minutes | Issue 211

Editor's Note: On Your Dissertation Path, Will You Choose Fear—or Hope?


"Why are you predicting disaster? You could just as easily predict triumph."

I realized my colleague spoke the truth: In the midst of a major crisis, I could retreat in fear. Or I could move forward with hope.

You have the same choice when you hit a crisis or challenge on your path to your doctorate. When things seem to fall apart, you can throw your hands up in surrender. Or you can call on hope and act to turn things in your favor. 

We all have the capacity for hope. It's that ineffable human quality that motivates us to prevail in spite of everything. Hope means expecting the best in the future—and working to achieve it. It means believing that the future holds promise. No wonder so many studies place hope in the top five character strengths associated with life satisfaction, along with gratitude, love, zest, and curiosity. 

Are you finding hope in short supply? Then dig into this month's feature by my esteemed colleague, Diane Dreher, Ph.D., professor and coach. Soak up her personal dissertation hope story, and then experiment with her cutting-edge tips for reviving your hope and energy. Take heed and you'll reach that goal of a doctoral degree in due time and in good shape.

With hopes for your success and well-being,





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

Words from the Wise (and Hopeful)

"Hope is a waking dream." - Aristotle

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow." - Albert Einstein

"When the world says 'Give up,' hope whispers 'Try it one more time.'" - Anon.

"Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness." - Desmond Tutu

"It always seems impossible until it is done." - Nelson Mandela

"Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come." - Anne Lamott

Conquer Dissertation Overwhelm with Three Powerful Strategies from Hope Psychology

By Diane Dreher, Ph.D.


When I began grad school at UCLA, getting my Ph.D. felt like climbing some formidable mountain.

The other grad students seemed to know more than I did. Many already had their Master's degrees. Facing the looming doctoral mountain, I felt confused and overwhelmed about how to proceed. I realized that if I was going to reach the summit, what I needed most was hope.

What is hope? According to psychologist Rick Snyder, hopeful thinking involves three things:

  • Goals: Having objectives that bring meaning to our lives. I know where I want to go.

  • Agency: Believing that we can take the necessary actions and persevere in the face of obstacles to achieve these goals. I have the abilities needed to get there.

  • Pathways: Finding different ways to achieve our goals. I can figure out how to get there.

In short, the equation for success is Goals + Agency + Pathways, or GAP. This powerful combination helps us achieve our goals, bridging the GAP between where we are and where we'd like to be.

My goal was clear enough: Get that Ph.D. Most of you reading this have the same ultimate goal, i.e., a doctoral degree, but you will also need pathways and agency to fuel you to success.


Finding Pathways to the Goal

After working my way through college as a first generation college student, I knew how to work hard, so I could credit myself with some measure of agency. What I really lacked was a good pathway.

My classmate Stephen had a Master's degree and a clear idea of the path ahead. Not only was his father a distinguished professor, but Stephen had actually met some of the researchers we were studying, correcting me when I mispronounced their names. And in our first semester, he was already working on his dissertation.

Without Stephen's advantages, how in the world would I be able to figure things out on my own?

For the first exam, I decided I needed help. So I invited my classmates to my apartment for a study group. We shared insights, passed the exam, and developed strong, supportive friendships. Suddenly, I was not alone. Watching my successful colleagues write their dissertations, one step at a time, I learned valuable pathways skills and used them to write my dissertation.


You Need to Believe You Can Get There

You might be surprised to discover that Stephen never finished. He clearly had pathways, but apparently he lacked sufficient agency—that belief that he had what it takes to reach the goal. Perhaps his external bravado masked a ferocious inner critic. Perhaps he had what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a "fixed mindset," too busy defending his reputation to learn from new challenges.

Unlike Stephen, you can move from a fixed mindset to a "growth mindset," overcoming obstacles to complete your dissertation by building your hope skills, which, like our muscles, can be strengthened by practice. You can learn to hush your inner critic .

Using the tips below, you can begin now to build your own hope skills by strengthening your goals, agency, and pathways, as my own experience and research have shown.



How to Work with Goals and Mini-Goals

Ultimately, you want to finish the dissertation. Since this goal is too big to tackle all at once, make it manageable.

  • Break it into smaller subgoals: separate research tasks, separate chapters.

  • Then take one small step at a time.


How to Build Your Agency Factor


Do you feel overwhelmed? Inadequate? Try these various tactics to strengthen your agency.

  • Remember a past challenge you overcame, and the skills you used. What skills can you use now?

  • Be kind to yourself. Maintain your energy by getting enough sleep, healthy food, and exercise.

  • Think of someone you admire. What can you learn from how this person deals with challenges?

  • Meet with like-minded friends, encourage each other, and celebrate each other's progress.

  • Tell yourself, "I can do this."

  • When you find yourself worrying or putting yourself down, STOP, take a deep breath and return to the present moment.

  • See the process as a game, asking, "What can I learn from this?"


How to Create the Pathways to Your Doctorate

Are you confused like I was, blocked by obstacles? Do you feel thrown off course when you face a setback?

  • If you're feeling stuck because there's a tool, skill, or information you don't have, what can you do to get it? Check the Internet, read a book, take a class, or ask someone who knows.

  • Ask for help when you need it. This is not a sign of weakness, but a valuable hope skill, multiplying your effectiveness.

  • Anticipate roadblocks. Plan backups and alternate routes. Ask, "What can I do if this step doesn't work out?"



Then build positive momentum with this exercise my colleague Dave Feldman and I used in our positive psychology study:

  • Write down your goal: "I will finish the dissertation by _____ (date)."

  • Beneath your goal, write down 3 steps to get you there.

  • Beneath each step, write down one obstacle that could come up.

  • Beneath each obstacle, write down one way you would overcome it.


Finally, put the power of mental imagery to work. Close your eyes and visualize yourself taking each step, confronting and overcoming each obstacle, then finishing your dissertation. Take a deep breath and feel the sense of accomplishment. Dave and I found that using this simple technique helped people develop stronger hope skills and make significant progress toward their goals.

As you work on your dissertation, you will experience victories and setbacks—that's all part of the journey. But building your hope skills will keep you moving forward to get your Ph.D. and beyond.



Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books

Feldman, D. B. and Dreher, D. E. (2012). Can hope be changed in 90 minutes? Testing the efficacy of a single-session goal-pursuit intervention for college students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13, 745-759

Snyder, C. R. (1994). Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There . New York, NY: Simon & Schuster



ABOUT THE AUTHOR (photo above)

A positive psychology, writing, and ABD coach in the San Francisco Bay area, Dr. Diane Dreher, Ph.D., M.A., is the author of six self-help books, a college professor and a researcher in positive psychology who enjoys helping doctoral candidates overcome roadblocks, finish the dissertation, and flourish. Contact her at


ABDSG:  Surprising ways successful ABDs spend their summer plus how to do more “deep work” while creating more balance | Issue 210


To All: Proclain your independence. Remind yourself that finishing a doctoral degree is a choice. Then free yourself from interruptions and impulses blocking your progress by implementing our carefully curated tips below.

Estimated reading time:  Seven minutes (that will free up hours of productivity) 

Put your own motivational quotes on mugs, T-shirts, and hoodies at 

Surprising Ways Successful Graduate Students Spend Their Summer

With summer’s slower academic pace, even new graduate students need to leverage the time well. Chronicle Vitae’s free booklet advises setting aside 10% of your time to building your future. Key areas to work on include identifying publishing venues and grant sources, honing research presentation and teaching skills, and developing other skills such as language or computer proficiency.

If you are headed for the fall job market, summer preparation is essential to prevent overload in the fall. You can spruce up your CV, organize a spreadsheet to track your applications, create a teaching portfolio, and pull together an interview wardrobe. You’ll also find tips for writing and publishing, for surviving on a shoestring, and for enjoying your summer. Imagine your September self celebrating your completed writing, new skills, and great vacation time!

How to Stop Working at 5 pm and Still Finish:  Do “Deep Work”


Yearning for uninterrupted stretches of time for dissertation work? Has the internet and social media have turned you into a mere “human router” with shallow work habits, e.g., handling email and interruptions?  If you want to finish, you must shift to doing “deep work.”

“Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work,” asserts Cal Newport, a Georgetown U professor of computer science. On the other hand, resisting interruptions or alternating tasks may actually improve brain infrastructure for productivity.

In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport describes prolific professionals and academics who end their workdays by 5 or 6 p.m. How do they manage this feat?  By focusing on depth, i.e., sustained concentration on important projects, rather than breadth. Newport takes refuge in the library, while J. K. Rowling opted for a luxury hotel. Bottom line:  Create your own strategy now for prioritizing your deep work.  


The Essential Resource You Keep Wasting     

“What we attend to creates our lives—attention is the most essential human resource, fundamental to our lives, to our relationships, and our quality of work.” ~ Jeremy Hunter.

Hunter concurs that we need to do more deep work. That means learning to manage our attention. Think about the last time you were in the zone. Chances are you were intensely focused on your work. “Focused attention leads to our most exhilarating moments of being alive,”  Hunter observes.

You pay an extraordinary price for mismanaging your attention. Intrusions provoke more stress, exhaustion, and pain.  Interruptions that last a mere 2.8 seconds can double your mistakes and keep you out of flow for nearly an hour.

In short, deep thinking requires deep focus. If you want to optimize your performance, you must learn to manage your attention. Read on for how to create new habits for this.


Six Secrets to Building and Keeping Healthy Habits

You need about 66 days to build a new habit. . . and that is only if you do it right. The awesome blogger Eric Barker summarizes the evidence-based strategies for how to make habits stick:

  1.  Start with “Keystone Habits”: Begin with something like exercise, which that leads to improved diet and productivity.  Alternate writing with activities that refresh and energize you.

  2. Use “Minimum Viable Effort”: Keep the bar low so you will really do it. Proofread one page.

  3. Make a simple plan: When and where will you do it?  Make—and honor—appointments with your dissertation. (More on this here.)  I will start outlining chapter two at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the library.

  4. Reward yourself: For each “should,” have one “want” or reward. When I finish the outline, I will treat myself to a Chocolate Chip Frappuccino (but make it a skinny).

  5. Use reminders:  Use agendas, lists, and alarms. Put your dissertation appointments in your Google calendar app and set a notification to remind you.

  6. Get help from friends: Socialize with supportive friends and family.  Create a dissertation writing group. Avoid slackers and downers.


[One more tip:  Frame your new habit in terms of your most central values or highest goals, e.g., “I am creating a fulfilling future for myself.” ~ Gayle]


Carve out more time for deep work by optimizing shopping errands. While no one has come up with an app that vacuums or cleans, you can simplify grocery and other tasks with the top-rated Out of Milk android app. (iPhone users might try AnyList.)

Enter items quickly on your phone whenever they occur to you. You will have your list handy whenever you need it—cutting down on extra trips to the store because you forgot your list. And lists can be synced across devices and shared with others.

You’ll zip through the store fast and undistracted because the app automatically classifies items as produce, dairy, pantry so on. You can also create lists for Pharmacy, Home Goods, and To Do that make it easy to check off all those errands in one trip.  

~Compiled by ABDSG Editor Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D.  Write her here.

What Really Makes You Procrastinate--And Proven Ways to Get Back on Track | Issue 209


Editor's Note: Would You Rather Feel Good or Finish?


What are your favorite ways of procrastinating instead of dissertating? TV? Facebook? De-cluttering? Or an ABD perennial favorite, reading another research article? What else?

Take a moment to think back the last time you decided to put your dissertation on the back burner. Chances are that you were beset by anxiety or feeling stuck. And you decided to go for feeling good instead of doing well.

You are not alone if you choose delaying tactics in order to avoid feeling frustrated or fuzzy. But choosing a short-term positive mood gain over the long-term benefit ultimately backfires, as the data on failure to complete doctorates reflects.

If you want to go from putting things off to getting things done, keep reading. Dr. Karen Forbes, an esteemed therapist and coach, will share evidence-based strategies that promote sustainable progress and goal attainment.


Wishing you success and well-being,


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


Words from the Wise


"Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him." ~ Charles Dickens


"Procrastination is opportunity's natural assassin." ~ Victor Kiam


"Someday is not a day of the week." ~ Janet Dailey


"Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone." ~ Pablo Picasso


"You may delay, but time will not." ~ Benjamin Franklin


"Procrastination is the biggest problem in academia." ~ Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D.


The Secret to Conquering Procrastination: Master Your ETA


By Karen Forbes, Ph.D.


How guilty are you when it comes to putting off your dissertation work?

Don't despair. You can learn how to quickly identify and then navigate the three major roadblocks that are keeping you from reaching your destination. Master these strategies and you'll soon be getting that hood and velvet stripes.

Delaying a task makes sense when you have more pressing needs. But when putting things off has long-term negative consequences, it crosses the line into procrastination. That's dangerous.

Success requires developing effective strategies to conquer the natural human tendency to procrastinate. The fastest way to do that is to check in on your emotions, thoughts and attitudes—your personal "ETA profile"—when you are tempted to wander off track.

Why do we put off something when we know it's likely to make our life worse?

We procrastinate because we want to feel better.

Procrastination often involves an aversive emotional state that we are driven to reduce or eliminate. This tendency to focus on fixing our bad mood instead of on accomplishing our tasks is "giving in to feel good," explains Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., in Solving the Procrastination Puzzle.

Unfortunately, using procrastination to avoid a bad mood only reinforces the connection between avoidance and feeling better. That's about as helpful as repeatedly allowing a kid to raid the cookie jar instead of eating a healthy lunch.