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The Critical Dissertation Resource You Are Mismanaging | Issue 234

In less than 6 minutes, discover what critical dissertation resource you are mismanaging. Find out what you need to STOP doing and START doing to achieve your doctorate or any other goals.

The Critical Dissertation Resource You Are Mismanaging

By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC, Editor

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

Did you resolve for 2018 to make noticeable headway on your dissertation?

If you are struggling, your problem might not lay in a lack of scholarly ability or time management skills. You have a different problem if you answer yes to any of these:

1. Do you find it hard to get started on your dissertation?

2. While writing challenging sections, do you find your mind wanders excessively?

3. At times do you find it hard to make up your mind about simple things?

4. Do you tend to overreact to trivial stuff too often?

5. Do you feel brain dead or listless when you need to be productive?

Most likely you are mismanaging one of your critical resources: your willpower.

Your Critical, Limited Resource

To manage your willpower optimally, you first need to understand two basic lessons:

1. Your supply of willpower is limited.

2. The energy resource that fuels willpower also fuels many other crucial activities.

Let's unpack those lessons from Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., the world's leading willpower investigator to show you how to boost your own willpower. Forget concepts of willpower as some mystical force or inborn trait. You and everyone else has the capacity for willpower, which is simply the ability to monitor and regulate our behavior.

Research shows that willpower works like a muscle—one that gets depleted with use but stronger with exercise. You begin each day with a fresh reservoir of willpower so long as you get a good night's sleep.

You consciously deploy willpower to avoid the jumbo sugar-spiked muffin at the coffee shop when you order your latte. And you call on it again at lunch to order the tossed salad instead of the juicy burger with fries. But those are not the only kinds of occasions which deplete this precious resource.

Whenever you exercise self-control, you are draining your willpower reserves. It does not matter whether you are restraining "bad" behavior or activating "good" behavior, or if you struggle and then succumb to temptation. You've used up some of your willpower.

Of course, you are using willpower when you force yourself to open your manuscript instead of Facebook. But did you realize that you are also tapping it whenever you button your lip while someone rips through your latest draft? Or when you fake interest during a boring lecture? Or when you force a smile at someone's dumb joke? When you exert conscious force to regulate your behavior, you are draining your willpower energy.


Even Small Decisions Sap Your Willpower

Even the wheels of justice require willpower to grind. One study found that parole boards granted parole more often during early morning hearings and right after the noon recess compared to late morning and late afternoon. Apparently making tough decisions depleted their willpower, leading them to render the easier default decision of "no parole" until lunch provided a temporary rebound. If you ever grabbed fast food at the end of the day instead of making a healthy dinner, you can sympathize with them.

What is going on? It turns out that the act of deciding sucks your willpower energy, explains Baumeister. Weighing information and arriving at a decision consumes the same fuel source that self-control does, creating "decision fatigue."

Try counting how many decisions you make in a day. According to Cornell researcher Brian Wansink, the average person makes over 220 just about food. Even a Starbucks stop involves myriad choices: "Espresso or latte? With a shot of amaretto? Cream or sugar? Cash, debit, or credit?" This suggests that if you are counting on an energy boost from coffee, you would do best to place a standard order each time.


Willpower: A Must for Thinking

By now you should be getting the picture: If you are making a host of decisions before you even sit down at your desk, your willpower has been compromised before you write your first word.

Why does this matter to a scholar? You need to tap into that same willpower energy reservoir to think. We're talking about the "heavy cognitive lifting," e.g., analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, creating, and so on, not rote tasks.

When you engage in deep thinking, your brain burns the same fuel it requires for self-regulation and decision tasks. In a willpower-depleted state, you will struggle with the challenging sections of your dissertation. Given all the drains on your willpower reservoir, is it any wonder you feel "brain dead" at times?

If you find yourself overwhelmed by simple decisions as you write, or if you catch yourself overreacting at small irritations and interruptions, take note: These signal a willpower tank hovering on empty. Beware misinterpreting them and becoming frustrated or angry with yourself or others.

Take a break and allow your willpower to renew itself before proceeding. Eat that lunch you skipped. Try a walk outdoors or some meditation. Try a nap. Even better, work on building your willpower with these 12 evidence-based tips.

"There is no such thing as a great talent without great willpower." Honore de Balzac


12 Ways to Boost and Manage Your Willpower

Willpower, like money, is a depletable but renewable resource. For success, you need to budget the resources you have while growing them. Here are some immediate steps you can take to conserve and increase your willpower:

1. Do the hardest thing first each day. Willpower is strongest in the morning—so put your highest priority willpower items here. Many successful people reserve these hours to do their creative or intellectual work, saving for later routine work, e.g., answering emails, filing papers, etc.

2. Budget your willpower. Prioritize your dissertation for your willpower resources. Throughout each day, intersperse willpower-intensive tasks such as writing with easier tasks (e.g., checking references or folding clothes) to give your willpower muscle time to bounce back. Say no to new projects that will drain you.

3. Let someone else decide. What decisions can you stop making? Enjoy letting someone else pick the movie, the restaurant, the gift for grandma, etc. President Obama was famous for letting others choose his daily suit and tie so he could focus on more vital decisions.

4. Pre-decide your schedule. Hold a weekly "executive session" with yourself to calendarize your dissertation and other tasks to help you conserve time and energy later. Also, plan your work the evening before or first thing in the morning before you get started. Stopping to decide what to do kills your momentum.


5. Take care of your body, starting with sleep. "A rested will is a stronger will," assert Baumeister and Tierney. Adequate sleep may be even more important than food. Unless you are walking up on time and refreshed without an alarm clock, you need more than you are getting. Tom Rath's Eat, Move, Sleep will convince you to get at least 7 or 8 hours of sleep each night if you want sustained high performance.

6. Fuel your brain. Nourish your brain with low-sugar, high-protein foods that metabolize slowly. You can't do your best work on coffee and a donut or granola bar. Resist the craving for sweets that arises as willpower wanes. Stave off the sugar spike-and-crash syndrome--munch on nuts, cheese, or high-protein foods for your mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks.

7. Expend a little willpower on neatness. Start with your desk. You'll get a good return on your investment because, as studies show, messy desks reduce self-control. "Order seems to be contagious," note Baumeister and Tierney.

8. Build your willpower reserves by deliberately exercising it in small ways. Make your bed each morning. Open doors with your non-dominant hand. Stop eating while computing. Do not let yourself get up from your chair during dissertation time—even if you can't write, you must stay glued to the chair. (This was a key strategy for author/poet Raymond Carver.)

9. Identify other environmental cues that lessen self-control. Identify and remove other triggers in your environment that distract you. An unpaid bill on your desk? A pinging smart phone? If practical, dedicate one computer to your dissertation and use a second one (or your tablet) for internet and Facebook time to avoid the "slippery slope."

10. Monitor your progress. A visual record will give you immediate encouragement and permit better long-term planning. Even if you slack off now and then, you'll see your progress and immunize yourself from hopelessness. Check off your tasks as you finish them on a posted timeline so you can see how much further you have to go. Drop a marble in a jar each time you work for an hour straight or finish a page. Acknowledging progress provides a nice dopamine boost that will nourish your habit.

11. Reward yourself. Online game designers know what keeps the hordes coming back: a mix of frequent small prizes with occasional big ones. How can you tweak your reward system to become addicted to playing with your dissertation? What small treat could you use for completing your daily quota of time or words? Or when you fill up your marble jar? What larger reward would pull you towards finishing an entire chapter draft? (One client paid herself per hour in Monopoly® money, keeping the growing stash in view; she later converted the colorful notes to real money for a post-dissertation vacation.) Rewarding self-control helps build it.

12. Leverage willpower to create healthy habits. Most importantly, don't rely on your limited willpower resource to get your dissertation out the door. Instead, invest it in building good habits one at a time. That way you will reap rewards without burning up resources. Save willpower energy for important decisions, deep thinking, and crises.


"I value self-discipline, but creating systems that make it impossible to misbehave is more reliable than self-control." Tim Ferris

Developing self-control requires some effort at first, but in the long run, it is well worth it. So when will you get started? Use your existing willpower now to decide just one small habit to create. Then commit yourself to practicing until it becomes ingrained. Let me know how it goes. Drop me a line at



Under Armour Ad with Michael Phelps, "Rule Yourself" video:


Baumeister, Roy and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength


Rath, Tom. Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes


Illustration above by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA


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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