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The Single Best Dissertation Hack Ever | Issue 246

Summary: Forget all the other dissertation hacks you've seen—this one beats them all hands down. 

Estimated time: 5 minutes


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

What if adopting just one new habit could get your dissertation out the door? 

What if this new habit could make you twice as productive—while at the same time reducing your stress and improving your work-life balance? 

One strategy can do all that. And it's probably the one habit you've resisted cultivating. 

In over 15 years of coaching hundreds of ABDs, I have observed that the single most effective habit for success is creating a daily schedule. 

Writing down a daily action plan creates more momentum and progress than all the other dissertation hacks combined.

Then why do many people, including doctoral students, ignore or even push back against this simple strategy?

Failing to Plan Spurs Chaos, Not Freedom

If you are like many ABDs, you never needed to write everything down. You zoomed through college and early graduate school days relying on your powerful brain to serve as your calendar. 

But writing a dissertation is far more complex than a college class or master's thesis. Furthermore, with age comes additional responsibilities—a home, a family, a job, etc. Your bigger life demands better tools. Choosing to adopt them does not show weakness but rather maturity and perspective. 

I've met many doctoral students who create a false sense of productivity by jumping into action each morning rather than sitting down to prioritize and plan. By day's end they report feeling frazzled and frustrated from working in this impulsive, reactive mode. And despite their nonstop busy-ness, they often fail to accomplish their most important work. 

Others mistakenly believe that a schedule will hamper their freedom and creativity. However, planning only seems like a straitjacket until you try it. It actually puts you in the driver's seat. You wouldn't start driving from Los Angeles to New York without a map, would you? Devising an overall plan with periodic milestones will get you there in less time with less hassle. 


"If you are ready to take control of your life, start by taking control of your day." ~ Coach Gayle 


15 Benefits from Daily Planning

What makes creating a written daily plan such a powerful strategy for success? Let me share valuable insights from research and experience as I invite you to try it. 

1. You waste less time and energy. You no longer dillydally trying to figure out what to do next—you simply consult your plan. Fewer decisions saves brain energy for more important things. 

2. You get more done. Scheduling it makes it twice as likely that you will follow through. Committing yourself to a schedule creates mental triggers, e.g., "Remember your appointment with your advisor this afternoon at two." 

3. You drop fewer balls. With a schedule, you will forget fewer things. You won't forget commitments to others and you'll realize when you need to cancel or reschedule. You will stop double-booking. 

4. You develop your project management skills. Scheduling daily tasks ("outline section one") rather than major outcomes ("finish chapter") reminds you to break down monumental tasks into doable chunks. 

5. You stop setting yourself up for failure. You become more realistic about how much you can complete in an hour or a day. You discover how long tasks take (which is likely to be at least twice as long as you predicted) and adjust accordingly. 

6. You feel more motivated. Your brain gets energized when it sees how you can get from point A (where you are) to point B (where you want to go). 

7. You feel more satisfaction. At day's end, your brain enjoys a good dopamine jolt as you check off completed tasks. You can take justified pride in your accomplishments. 

8. You stop doing things that don't matter. Your full calendar makes it easier to say "no" to things that do not advance your agenda. You realize that saying "yes" to one thing means saying "no" to something else. 

9. You get the right things done. You are not merely busy, but intentional and directed. Calendarizing actions forces you to decide if and where various possibilities fit in your life. You develop perspective and wisdom along the way about what really matters to you. 

10. You maintain better work-life balance. By incorporating your life priorities into your written plan, you are less likely to put them off. You start living your values more fully. 

11. You think more clearly. Once you stop using your mind as an agenda book, you have more mental power for focusing on your work. Intrusive thoughts about incomplete tasks diminish because your mind knows you've got them covered. 

12. You become more creative. With a written calendar, you can carve out and protect large blocks of time for "deep work." To do your most advanced, creative thinking and writing, you need more than random short periods scattered throughout your day. 

13. You experience more inner peace. You will find comfort in knowing the next steps to your goal while gaining a much more accurate idea of how close you are. Looking ahead in order to play your day means you won't be caught off guard by unpleasant surprises. ("Was that due today?") 

14. You enhance your personal growth and well-being. When you review your schedule at day's end, you can take stock of what you learned (fostering a growth mindset) and appreciate what contributed to your wins. This practice creates an upward spiral of success. 

15. You create a sustainable process for future success. With your new planning habit, you can anticipate a wonderful, rewarding life, one in which you are often at your best. 

Still not convinced? Then ask yourself this: "What have I got to lose by trying something new?"


"For the first twenty-five years of my life, I wanted freedom. For the next twenty-five years, I wanted order. For the next twenty-five years, I realized that order is freedom." ~ Winston Churchill 


Just Get Started

You can begin with just a notepad, but you will eventually want to get a planner with pages for scheduling. Two popular planners include the Panda Planner (weekly or daily) and the Best Self Planner, both of which also incorporate goal setting and motivational features. Or you might prefer a simple, economical planner. The choice is yours. [You can also download a template from the resources below.] Your planning skills will improve with practice. 

If you need more accountability, ask a peer to buddy up with you for daily check ins. If you want more support, get your own dissertation coach who can help you clarify your priorities, clear your path, and build momentum. 

Remember: Daily planning is the single best step you can take towards getting to write "Graduation Day" in big bold letters soon on your calendar! 


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

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

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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Recommended Resources


From the author: Find a free planning template and other great ABD resources here on my website, Check out my reviews of major dissertation guides as well as linked articles with tips for overcoming procrastination, impostor syndrome, and more. 

Bregman, Peter. Eighteen Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. Great for helping you whittle down your priorities to manageable size and for creating a daily self-monitoring routine.

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