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The 7 Habits of Highly Productive ABDs & Other Academics | Issue 304

Summary: Cultivate the classic 7 habits to get you across the dissertation finish line.

Estimated read time: 5 minutes.


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

"Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going." - Jim Rohn | Tweet this


How can a business classic help academics—including doctoral students—be more productive?


As Stephen Covey's bestseller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, approaches its 35 th birthday, we looked at how his advice holds up against contemporary research and expert recommendations.

The results will surprise you.

One basic truth emerges from Covey, science, and top gurus: Forget hacks. Focus on habits.

Your success depends less on finding shortcuts than on cultivating healthy success routines. Productivity hacks serve as mere band aids that leave you perpetually struggling to reach goals.

Instead, take a lesson from the fable of the Three Litle Pigs and build your own rock-solid foundation through daily best practices.

Ready to develop your success habits portfolio? Heed these seven pearls of wisdom curated from the overlap of Covey, scientific research, and current expert advice.


Habit 1: Be Proactive—Plan, Monitor & Review Daily

Being proactive is about taking responsibility for your life, according to Covey.

Do you put off working on your dissertation because you lack hard deadlines? Do you really want to relinquish the control of your destiny to others?

Once you have successfully navigated classes and qualifying exams, the external structures that once held you accountable evaporate. You suddenly become the master of your time, responsible for inventing your day, your week, your year—and how you use it eventually becomes your life and legacy. No one else is going to create your dissertation timeline or write it for you.

What really matters to you?

Being proactive means that you set your priorities and then plan your schedule accordingly. Thus, your first task is to narrow your current priorities to no more than five areas of focus, advises Peter Bregman, a top productivity columnist for The Harvard Business Review.

Plan your worktime around the deliverables for those areas, devoting 95% of your schedule to those five areas. That means saying "yes" to tasks related to your dissertation and at most four other major foci and saying "no" to almost everything else.

That means you'll need to relegate familiar distractors, e.g., checking social media or on-line shopping, to non-work hours. [For more details, read our earlier article on Bregman's 18 minutes here.]

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind—And Plan for the Obstacles

A good intention is only half the story. As Aldous Huxley wrote, "Hell isn't merely paved with good intentions, it's walled and roofed with them."

Keep your graduation goal firmly in mind—and then create the steps to get there. Imagine not just the destination, but the actual path, including obstacles.

You need more than a bucketful of positive affirmations and a tantalizing vision of your goal to finish.

Such fantasizing backfires by tricking your brain into thinking you've already accomplished your goal—which then kills your motivation to work.


That's what NYU psychologist Dr. Gabrielle Oettinger found in studies of simplistic positive thinking. Failing to consider potential roadblocks leads to worse outcomes—whether you are trying to secure a job, find a mate, lose weight, etc.


Oettinger offers an alternative she calls "WOOP" for short, as illustrated here. To succeed, you need to identify your wish (W), your desired outcome (O), the potential obstacles (O), and your plan (P) to overcome them and reach your destination.


Sure, allow yourself to imagine the glorious finish of your doctoral journey. And then sit down to figure out the path—obstacles and all—between you and your successful dissertation defense. (For my free e-book of proven strategies for overcoming dissertation hurdles, click here.)

Habit 3: First Things First—Even When Temptation Strikes


Putting first things first means doing what you know is in your long-term best interest. Yet how often have you put off writing a difficult section to read another resource, or worse, to check email or procrasti-clean or procrasti-bake?


Obstacles have an insidious knack for making distractions even more alluring. Since our more primitive brain wants to make things safe and easy for us in the short run, dangerous impulses tend to win out in the absence of good habits.


Dr. Peter Gollwitzer, also of NYU, offers a surprisingly simple strategy that you can apply here. To keep you on track by shielding you from all manner of temptations and distractions, use what he calls the "if-then" plan. Here's how it works:

  • " If the phone rings while I am working, then I will let voice mail get it."

  • " If I am tempted to start baking brownies while working, then I will drink a glass of water."

  • " If a little voice inside my head starts whispering my writing stinks and I should just give up, then I will boot the little devil into outer space, take three deep breaths, and write another sentence!"

  • If anything tries to knock me off course, then I will take one minute to evaluate the situation and then choose to act in my best interest.

Essentially, you have precommitted to doing the right thing. Athletes, dieters, scholars, and countless others have found "if-then" planning works wonders—more than doubling the rate of success, according to Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson in Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.


Habit 4: Think Win-Win — And Be Generous Toward Others

As you become an "independent scholar," do not overlook your interdependence with others. Covey's win-win attitude balances consideration for others with courage to be yourself.

Feeling at odds with the IRB or your committee over details? How can you respect their agendas, including their role in upholding institutional standards, while still maintaining ownership of your project? Ditto for balancing your personal priorities with those of families and friends.

Eschewing "tit-for-tat" transactions in favor of true generosity works better, writes U Penn's Dr. Adam Grant in his bestseller Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. He documents how good deeds, e.g., introducing others, freely giving resources, and so on, often sow tremendous indirect benefits for the giver.

Your generous gesture today may provide tomorrow's opportunities. Who knows? Maybe that classmate who pesters you for proofreading help now could someday be the editor of your field's top journal!

"Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones." - Ben FranklinTweet this


Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood —And Keep a Growth Mindset

Be sure you understand—then try to get your point across, Covey recommended.

Writing a dissertation presents an unparalleled opportunity to hone various professional skills—including how to receive feedback skillfully. For example, before getting huffy or depressed about requested rewrites, keep the big perspective, including an appreciation for your professors' roles as teachers as well as gatekeepers.

Don't just listen passively to faculty and peers—open yourself up to their influence in ways that stimulate your intellectual and personal growth. Jettison any notions that your intelligence or talents are fixed. Embrace the possibilities for endless growth.


For example, try reframing criticism of your work. Rather than taking feedback as a sign that you are an intellectual fraud, accept it as a chance to improve your writing or research skills. Instead of aiming to "be good," aim to "get better," advocates Halvorson.


Keeping a "get better" or "growth mindset" lowers your anxiety and allows you to maintain a more positive attitude—which in turn will broaden your perspective and build your resources for greater success with the next draft.

(Find more examples in the highly recommended book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Dr. Carol Dweck, who, not so coincidentally, was Halvorson's dissertation chair).

Habit 6: Synergize—Collaborate for Success

Synergy refers to creative cooperation, a critical component in Covey's principled approach. Open interaction generates new insights due to intra-group differences.

While you are the sole author of your dissertation, opportunities for synergy still abound. You may discover, for example, that the committee member or a colleague who knows the least about your field asks the most mind-opening questions.


Students in dissertation writing groups and with dissertation buddies consistently report that collaborating with peers offers far more than mere moral support. When group members have varied backgrounds, synergy emerges. Such groups serve as veritable talent pools that each member can access for help with theory, methods, writing, and other tasks.


Sharing feedback in a safe environment also allows each member to develop broader perspectives and enhanced writing and speaking skills that will improve final dissertation content and defense presentation. That translates into fewer rewrites and a shorter time to graduation day.


Habit 7: Sharpen The Saw—And Take Gentle Care of You

How much time and energy do you invest in caring for your own greatest asset, namely you?

Covey's recommendation for a balanced self-renewal program in the four areas of your life (physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual) gets two thumbs up from positive psychology researchers and practitioners.

Self-care also turns out to influence your ability to self-regulate, the foundation of Habit 3. Without self-control, ever-present distractions—from Internet links to domestic duties—can easily send you down a rabbit hole from which you may not emerge for hours.

Surprisingly, eating well, exercising regularly, sleeping, and meditating can all boost your ability to stick to your plan, according to willpower expert Kelly McGonigal in The Willpower Instinct. In other words, taking time out for self-care really pays off.

Spending time in nature, exercising, and connecting with others also contribute to your well-being, according to Covey and scientists. As you weave positive emotions into your day from such activities, you create an upward spiral that enhances productivity and health on multiple dimensions, UNC positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson asserts.


"It's All About the Practice"

Which of the above success habits do you most need to cultivate to rev up your work on your dissertation? You may wish to print this, post it, and put a check mark next to one or two that you can focus on for now, then move on to the next.


Developing the above seven habits can be a powerful way to finish not just your dissertation but also other worthy projects. Note that word "develop." A new habit takes time and effort—and these are worth it. Any time you backslide, resist the urge to admit defeat. Just start again. Rely on supportive friends. Consider getting a coach—they specialize in helping make new habits stick.

"It's all about the practice," my coaching colleague Steve Coxsey wisely reminded me when I was trying to make a change. Let go of demands for overnight success.

A further caveat is in order: Trying to start multiple habits simultaneously can backfire, by overtaxing your willpower reserves. Focus on just one or two at a time. Chart your progress. I invite you to share your experiences with me here.


"Good habits are worth being fanatical about," asserted John Irving, possibly the only author to win both the National Book Award (The World According to Garp) and an Academy Award (The Cider House Rules). These seven habits, backed by research and experts, rank among the most effective anyone could possess, and their value will compound over time.


With well-aimed perseverance, you too can become a highly effective person—and, of course, the proud holder of a doctorate in your field.


Image Credit: obstacle image is licensed under CC BY-NC; mindset image is licensed under CC BY.



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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