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Forget Resolutions—22 Ways to Build Focus and Energy for Your Dissertation | Issue 284

Summary: Stop trying to transform yourself with resolutions. Try an innovative, easier tactic that will move you forward each day.

Estimated read time: Five minutes if you are not multi-tasking.


By the MentorCoach ABD Coaches Collective

Making a New Year's resolution may seem overwhelming while a pandemic rages. If you are not ready to commit to a major overhaul at this time, you can still make 2022 a good year. 

Instead of a huge resolution, just commit to doing one small thing each day to improve your outlook and move you forward. Something doable, with no preparation or monitoring required. This novel tactic can keep you focused and motivated while working on your dissertation under challenging conditions. 

Below we recommend 22 stress-free "Positive Daily Actions" (PDA)—simple ways to enhance focus and energy in real time to boost your progress and mood. These positive psychology-informed ideas are great not merely for graduate students but also for anyone feeling drained by the continuing pandemic, financial issues, personal situations, and so on. 

You may want to print out the list for easy reference, adding your own to suit your inclinations. 

Here's how it works: Each day, choose just one item from the PDA menu. Then set an intention to follow through on it during the day. 

For some actions it may make sense to name a time or situation for doing it. Research shows that you are twice as likely to follow through on commitments when you identify the time or circumstance for doing it, e.g., "at 10 a.m." or "right after lunch" or "when I feel like giving up." 

As you carry out your particular intention, notice how it feels as you do it and afterward. Take stock of which ones work best for you. Repeat any you found especially helpful in creating focus or energy. 

There are no PDA police, so feel free to tweak these or invent your own for best results. Consider keeping a journal about your experiences. Become an expert on what drains you and what energizes you! 

Get started now by perusing the menu below. Circle a few options that immediately appeal to you. Then select just one, set your intention to do it today, and then follow through. Rinse and repeat tomorrow and for as long as you find it helpful. 



22 Positive Daily Actions Menu

1. Write down why you started on a doctoral degree in the first place. Read it aloud. 


2. Say "no" to one request or temptation that does not move you forward. 

3. Take a break to call a friend instead of texting—and enjoy a real conversation. 

4. Turn off your phone while you are dissertating. 

5. Move your body. Take a stroll outside, play with your dog, dance, or whatever. 

6. Get a FocusMate writing buddy or your own Zoom buddy for a day. 

7. Do absolutely nothing for three minutes. Just sit still, breathe, and listen. 

8. Pat yourself on the back after you write a page or read an article. Literally. 

9. Observe "Taco Tuesday." Whenever you need it. 

10. Do a kind deed for someone else. Anonymously when possible. 

11. Read something "just for fun" to wind down for bedtime. 

12. Switch your focus from how much you are producing to how you are showing up. 

13. Observe a digital detox day

14. Enjoy a healthy lunch with complex carbs and protein. No junk or skipped meals. 

15. Do something creative—sketch a tree, write a haiku, knit a scarf, invent a recipe, etc. 

16. Go to bed an hour earlier. 

17. Find something in your environment that sparks joy. Take five to enjoy it. 

18. Get guidance from a helpful advanced doctoral student. 

19. Pause for a moment of gratitude for a little thing you usually take for granted. 

20. Take five minutes to review how your day went. 

21. Listen to your favorite motivating music while you work. 

22. Step outside to appreciate nature or hang a beautiful nature photo nearby. 


Think of these as first aid for your mood. If you miss a day, no worries. Just pick up the list and start over without browbeating yourself. 

Tip: If you hit a slump during the day, pick another one to do immediately. Likewise, do one whenever you are tempted to procrastinate or binge. 


As researcher Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., concludes, positive emotions are the little engines that fuel flourishing. Building them into your day is key to finishing your dissertation and to life-long well-being. Stop to notice how good it feels to be at your best. You will reap immediate benefits, e.g., renewed focus or energy, from these positive actions. 


You can deepen their impact by becoming mindful of how they affect your body, mind, and spirit. Over time, don't be surprised if you notice a permanent shift in your energy as you deliberately choose flourishing over languishing. You will finish your doctorate sooner—and moreover, you will have learned the value of pivoting from self-sabotage toward your best self. Now that's a strategy that will serve you long after you become a doctor! 



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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