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Revive Your New Year’s Resolution & Finish Your Dissertation | Issue 273

Summary: Four out of five people break their resolution—but you can beat the odds with our science-backed tips. Let 2021 be the year you finish that dissertation or dissertation proposal.

Estimated reading time: Six minutes that will turn self-recriminations into self-congratulations.


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

As the New Year dawned, did you nobly resolve to dissertate every single day? Did you vow to socialize less and turn off the TV early? Or perhaps you intended to lose weight, walk 10K steps daily, or declutter your place? 

Sure, you probably stuck with it for a week or two. But chances are high that you may now be faltering—along with most everyone. 

Chances are a whopping 4 in 5 that you will give up by Valentine's Day, says researcher Marti Hope Gonzales, Ph.D., at the University of Minnesota. Good intentions don't guarantee success. 

Don't give up! It's not too late to rescue your resolution and join the 20% who succeed. What's the secret? Focus less on outcome and more on cultivating good habits. You will find that they spur an upward success spiral that far outlasts graduation.

"Habits are like financial capital — forming one today is an investment that will automatically give out returns for years to come." ~ Shawn Achor, Ph.D.



Before you jump into action, consider the critical advice of Psychology Today blogger Ray Williams: Focus on just one change at a time. Developing new habits eats up your daily reserve of willpower, so don't spread it too thin. Break it down into small steps. 

Identify a "keystone habit" that will serve as a catalyst for other habits. For example, getting enough sleep and exercise allows you to focus better on your work while simultaneously building your willpower reserves to tackle other areas. 


If you're already doing well with sleep and exercise, kudos to you. Now pick another one that gives you a big boost. It might be planning your work the evening before, improving your nutrition, organizing your workspace, etc. (For more on keystone habits, see The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.) 

"For most of us, though, the problem is not a lack of goals but rather too many of them." ~ Roy Baumeister, Ph. D.



"Do everything you can to keep your personal goals manageable and meaningful and you will see the tasks as less aversive," advises procrastination expert Tim Pychyl, Ph.D. Identify how making your intended change aligns with your values and overall goals, Pychyl explains. Frame the goal in terms of what you will do rather than what you will stop doing. 


Furthermore, if the thought of dissertating stirs anxiety, focus on the next small step rather than the whole To Do list. When you complete one step, focus on the next. Conversely, if your dissertation provokes listlessness or apathy, journal about the awesome benefits of being "Dr. You" to spark new energy. 


"Success is a consequence and must not be a goal." ~ Gustave Flaubert



Find a user-friendly way keep track of how well you are meeting the targets you set. "It is hard to regulate something without being aware of it," writes willpower expert Roy Baumeister, Ph.D. 

Tracking not only keeps you aware of your progress but also stimulates motivation through the release of brain dopamine. Failing to monitor your forward movement deprives you of a free boost. So when you achieve a small win, pause to soak in the feeling of accomplishment as it builds momentum. 

What are some options for tracking your progress? You might tack up an old-fashioned calendar that fits your taste, then mark each day that you kept your resolution with a big colorful "X" or a sticker and aim to keep the string of successes going. Personally, I prefer a planner with a built-in habit tracker, e.g., Best Self Journal

Digital habit trackers have mushroomed in the app stores. Whether you are building your writing habit or preparing for a marathon, choose an app with features that work best for you. For example, do you need to sync across devices? Want fun daily reminders? Aiming to track several habits? Are you willing and able to pay for some special bells and whistles? Check out this recent review of top apps and experiment. 

"Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going." ~ Jim Ryun



Your behavior is exceptionally sensitive to environmental triggers, so why not leverage this fact? "Set up a workspace, a home, and a life that supports your aspirations," recommends Kira M. Newman of UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. 

Post a photo that represents the next phase of your life and career, or maybe a panorama of the Caribbean paradise to visit after graduation. Place in view books by authors who inspire you. Wear a special piece of jewelry that can serve as an anchor when you're tempted to give in. 

"Consider tweaking the screensavers, passwords, and desktop photos you encounter every day," adds Newman. 


Start noticing what diverts your attention—and what keeps you focused. Start eliminating distraction triggers, e.g., mail, magazines, and so on, as you add the inspirational prompts. 

"If you're tired of starting over, don't give up." ~ Anon.



Are you feeling isolated, as do many doctoral students? Experts agree that social support builds motivation and adds accountability. When you involve others, you can share your struggles and celebrate your wins, building an upward spiral of success. 

Identify potential writing buddies or dissertation support groups. Is it time to start or join an academic writing group? Or partner with a peer for regular Zoom updates or writing sessions? My clients and I have also boosted productivity with virtual buddies using Don't underestimate the power of being in a room, albeit virtual, with someone else hard at work. 

For more personalized attention, many rely on dissertation coaches as they are experts in providing support and accountability. 

"Fall down seven times, stand up eight." ~ Japanese proverb



How do you react when you fail to meet your target? Have you noticed how giving your inner critic free reign sucks the energy right out of you? A more productive response would be to pivot to a dissertation action step or pause for a good dose of self-compassion. 

Neither self-pity nor self-indulgence, self-compassion allows you to acknowledge yourself as a mere human—not a machine or a god—just like other people. Recognize your painful feelings and then comfort yourself as you would a friend who had fallen short. 

"Self-compassion is more motivating than self-criticism." ~ successful ABD coaching client


Finally, keep in mind that making important lasting changes always involves challenge. You're more likely to succeed if you acknowledge the difficulties and temptations and plan accordingly. Never allow a lapse to become an excuse to give up. Every time you start over you are that much closer to success. You are not starting at zero. Use what you learned to get back on track and plan better for the next challenge. With grit, you'll get there! 


May your year be filled with well-being and joy—and at least one new awesome habit.




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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