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Nudge Yourself to the Dissertation Finish Line with Four Proven Strategies | Issue 268

Summary: Has the quarantine become your dissertation quagmire? When willpower and habits don't suffice, let your environment nudge you into writing.

Estimated time: 5 minutes (which you'll save again and again with these tips)


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

Are you spending more time these days at home instead of at school or work? Are you thus surrounded by temptations from baking to binge-watching, luring you away from your well-laid plans to finish or make headway on your dissertation this summer? 

If you are like me, you also hear the siren call of an inner voice whispering, "Treat time!" as compensation for quarantine deprivations and stress. How will you muster any dissertation self-discipline now as the dog days of summer begin? 

Your dissertation will not write itself. If you want to get that doctoral degree that defines your future, don't bet on sheer willpower to overcome your lethargy.

Are you ready to try something different, something that works?

Then I invite you to experiment with "self-nudges," an easy to use, proven strategy to prompt you to do the right thing by manipulating environmental cues. 


Who's Steering the Ship?

Nudging by others is more effective and ubiquitous than you might realize. 

In public policy, official nudges are known as "choice architecture," a term coined by Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. They include approaches that steer behavior in the desired direction by making it the default choice. For example, when getting a driver's license, organ donation registration increases when people have to opt out of it rather than opt into it.

Have you ever suddenly decided to grab a candy bar in the supermarket checkout lane? Stores depend on marketing nudges, e.g., boosting impulse buying by placing merchandise strategically at eye level. And who hasn't experienced a digital nudge from a pinging smart phone? 

In every case, the situation has been designed to favor certain behaviors over others. Instead of explicit instructions or threats, environmental prompts silently steer behavior in the preferred direction. 

What if you could get yourself to dissertate this easily—by managing your environment rather than struggling with distractions? Experts say you can. 

Getting Started with Nudges

Individuals can empower themselves through "self-nudges," assert Ralph Hertwig and Samuli Reijula in their new article in Behavioral Public Policy.


"Various needs and desires are always competing for attention in our minds and bodies. Self-nudging can help us to negotiate these internal conflicts. It is a practical tool that can enhance self-understanding," says Reijula, a philosopher at the University of Helsinki, in Science Daily


To implement self-nudges, first hone your awareness of how your environment controls your behavior. Identify the cues that push you toward or away from finishing your doctorate. 


Then start modifying your environment to nudge you in the right direction, i.e., writing your dissertation through using any or all of the four kinds of nudges. 

Designing Dissertation Self-Nudges


Consider the four official nudge types below, with examples adapted for ABDs, to inspire you to design your own environmental nudges 


1. Use reminders and prompts strategically.


Planners serve as great reminders, and there are more ways to keep you on track. Place a sticky note on your laptop or TV with "ABD or PhD?" or "Just do one thing toward finishing" to remind you of your goal. Select a phrase that perks you up—and then channel your energy toward your writing. 


Keep a timeline and a list of dissertation next steps handy. Enjoy crossing off completed tasks without taking down your list. Avoid making the list so long that you feel discouraged looking at it. You can always update it. 


2. Frame your choices for success to tip the scale.

How you frame your decisions affects your behavior tremendously. If you ask yourself "Shall I struggle with those analyses or go bake some yummy brownies?", you have already tipped the scales in favor of temptation. Instead, frame the choice between success and failure: "Shall I invest my time in knocking off the rest of chapter three so I can send it my advisor or fritter time away in the kitchen making unhealthy sugary treats?" 

Framing your work as an opportunity for long-lasting success and pride creates goal attraction and momentum, while simultaneously describing the temptation as highly undesirable evokes aversion. 



3. Make it easier to do the right thing—and/or harder to do the wrong one. 

Cut back the time and effort needed to get underway by removing or lowering barriers. Keep your desk "dissertation ready" to facilitate a quick start without unnecessary prep time. 


Put your current chapter or work on your desktop so it is the first thing you see when you open your laptop. List your dissertation tasks rather than outcomes so you know what action to take when you sit down to work. 


Put obstacles between you and potential distractors. Turn off your phone or disable pop-up notification. Uninstall apps or games that hook you into wasting precious time. 


Are you working in your bedroom these days? Resist unneeded naps by making your bed and throwing some heavy dissertation references on it. Close the door if others are around. Get rid of things that attract your attention while keeping the ones that help you focus. 

4. Use social pressure and pre-commitment to enhance accountability.

Committing to a schedule can double the probability of follow-through. Developing a steady routine focused on process (e.g., writing hours) rather than product (pages written) will get the job done. Sharing your schedule is a win-win as it not only enhances accountability but also creates shared expectations about your availability. 

Enlist a peer or friend to be your daily or weekly accountability buddy. Or promise to send a check to an organization you loathe if you fail to stick with it. As you monitor your improvement, note that most experts recommend that you focus on process rather than product, i.e., measure how much time you work, not how many pages you write. 


After implementing self-nudges singly or in combination, evaluate their effectiveness and tweak as needed. By consciously designing your environment, you will eventually nudge yourself right over the finish line! 


Image credits: 
Top Photo by Unknown Author licensed under CC BY-SA-NC
In-text Photo by Unknown Author 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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