The 20-Second Rule for Extraordinary Productivity | Issue 182

Summary & Contents


You are just 20 seconds away from becoming dramatically more productive. Discover how to leverage that short interval to set yourself up for a lifetime of success, starting today


1. Editor's Note: Resolve To Kick Your Worst Habit Now


2. Words from the Wise


3. Feature Article: Twenty Seconds to Your Doctorate—or How to Become Extraordinarily Productive






With fall classes now underway in many places, it's time for some New Academic Year Resolutions. Are you ready to finish your dissertation? Then follow the no-fail advice below for kicking your worst habits and becoming extraordinarily productive.


Leveraging just 20 seconds correctly could transform you from ABD to PhD or PsyD or EdD. We share tips from success expert Shawn Achor, winner of several Harvard teaching awards, that show you how to do just that. Read the featured article and let us know what habit you ditch and what habit you instill. Ready, set, go! Tick tock…


Wishing you healthy habits and much success,

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


P.S. Check out the new willpower class from eminent scholar and teacher, Roy Baumeister, that starts September 24 at MentorCoach (that's us!). We invite readers and friends to register for this unparalleled opportunity to understand and leverage self-control from the world's #1 expert. More info here.






We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. ~ Aristotle


As if you could kill time without injuring eternity. ~ Henry David Thoreau


We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never-so-little scar. ~ William James


Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and the responsibility to remake them. ~ Charles Duhigg


The easier it is to kick-start a healthy habit, the more likely it is to get established. ~ Shawn Achor






What if a mere twenty seconds stood between you and your doctorate?


That just might be the case according to habit change expert Shawn Achor. That little interlude could be the secret to reaching your goals instead of falling further behind.


Do you feel you are running in place all day without really accomplishing anything? Then you have lots of company. And none of them have doctorates.


The road to graduation is paved with good intentions—but alas, human nature usually leads us down the path of least resistance. This is because the human brain is wired to be lazy, asserts psychologist Achor in The Happiness Advantage.


His corporate consulting clients often voiced the same lament I hear expressed by many ABDs: Despite putting in longer and longer hours, it's impossible to finish the planned tasks. To unravel this apparent paradox, Achor asked one client to detail his workday, hour by hour. Here's what he learned:


Arriving at his desk, Ted first checks the news. Without thinking, he also opens investment websites to check his stocks. After that, he wades through his email inbox, clicks on some links and attachments, fires back some responses, and finally gets to work.


After about 30 minutes of real work, he takes a coffee break. Returning to his computer, his attention is drawn to all the new notifications, so he takes a look. Ted then gets about 10 minutes of writing in the next interruption. And so on.


Together they tallied the results: Five email checks per hour, three checks of stock portfolio, hourly news check, and miscellaneous interruptions. By day's end, Ted had finished less than two hours of "real work."


Does this sound a lot like your day? Granted, as a graduate student, you more likely are checking Facebook instead of your investment portfolio, but the effect is the same: You feeling busy all the time and yet get very little worthwhile done. You live under a perpetual dark cloud of missed deadlines and stress.


When distractions eat up a major part of the day, the result is a lack of progress sufficient to shake one's confidence. However, the time devoured by distractions represents only the tip of the non-productivity iceberg. As Achor observes, your major loss is in the focus and flow required to do your best work.


Have you noticed how, after any interruption, you need time to get back in the zone? How much energy can you afford to waste in this way?


Once upon a time, your options for killing time were limited to sharpening pencils or getting a drink at the water cooler. Nowadays, however, we are bombarded by countless electronic distractions and temptations all day long, from instant notifications of incoming messages to the near-instant gratification or Amazon Prime.


With the lures of constant dinging and pinging, focusing on work is more challenging than ever. For many, the default behavior is to answer the Siren's call of electronic devices. But you can change that.


Make Productivity Your Default Setting


How can you shift your setting back to productivity?


Achor offers a strategy for change that mirrors a proven behavior modification technique: Lower the costs of your desired behavior while raising the costs of the undesired one. For example, those serious about nutrition and dieting learn to purchase healthy snacks instead of junk food during grocery runs, knowing that once home, indulging a craving would require the effort of returning to the store.


The key to successful change is devising obstacles that impede mindless distractions while also clearing the path towards your best intentions. Or as the aforementioned Ted put it, make checking your email "a pain in the ass," but make it a cinch to get started on your real goal.


In short, make it easier to be productive than to procrastinate.


What makes Achor's approach especially appealing is that he provides an estimate of just how much effort creates a good obstacle to delay: a mere twenty seconds. It sufficed to help him instill a habit of daily guitar practice by overcoming the impulse to plop down in front of the TV set. He merely hid the batteries to the TV remote in another room while putting the guitar in a stand in the living room. After three weeks he had established his new practice—and felt the TV urge wane in the process.


"By adding 20 seconds to my day, I gained back three hours," Achor concluded.


My own experience validates the Twenty-Second Rule. To my chagrin, I recently found myself going to bed later due to the show Once upon a Time, instead of reading and getting ready for the next day. The Netflix default setting makes it easy to stay hooked since as one episode finishes, the next episode automatically starts. It's less effort to continue watching than to turn it off.


To nip this bad habit in the bud, I copied Achor. First, I removed the remote's batteries and stashed them in a bedroom drawer. For added effect, I placed a lush green houseplant in front of the screen and hid the remote behind the monitor. Finally, I strategically placed a good book on the coffee table. Voila! In 10 days I not only had established the desired habit of reading but had also returned to reviewing my next day's tasks. Now that I hit the hay at a good hour, I fall asleep easily, assured that I am setting myself up for success.


Put the 20-Second Rule to Work for You


How can you put a mandatory 20-second delay between you and your biggest temptations to get off track?


Step 1: Notice what distractions get in the way. While dissertating, do you really need to know the instant each email arrives? Or that Karen just "liked" your comment on someone else's Facebook post? Do you keep your phone on your desk while you try to focus?


Step 2: Add an obstacle that takes at least 20 seconds to get to the distractor. For example, if your devices are tempting you, try some of these recommendations on for size:


1. Turn your cell phone sound off and put it where you cannot see it


2. Delete email/unnecessary icons from task bars and start menus


3. Disable notifications


4. Disable cookies


5. Remove widgets/apps from home screens (perhaps uninstall?)


6. Activate an app that blocks the use of internet/apps


Step 3: Assess existing barriers to getting started on your dissertation. Do you have to figure out where you are going to work? Is there clutter that triggers thoughts of other activities, e.g., teaching, snail mail, friends, family, etc.)? Do you know what your next step is or will you waste valuable time trying to decide whether to read another article, transcribe an interview, or write a new section of your lit review? Can you shave off 20 seconds or more from the time it takes to get going?


Step 4: Remove as many of the above barriers as possible. To make getting to work a breeze, even a pleasure, be creative creative and thorough. Here are some possibilities:


1. Have all your tools in one convenient, well-lit place


2. Provide yourself with an appropriate chair and good lighting


3. Keep the current working document on your desktop


4. Have at hand a list of next action steps (not outcomes)


Once you establish your new routine, stick with it until productivity becomes your new default setting. Tweak anything as necessary to make it work for you. One of my clients, for example, discovered she accomplished much more by working in a cafe without internet. Another covered her television with a tablecloth.


Savor your successes with a pat on the back or a small reward. Watch for signs that daily writing is becoming more automatic, while simultaneously, distractors are losing their pull on you.


Building Habits Trumps Willpower


Why would such a simple strategy work? It occurs to me that when you create a 20-second delay before engaging in a distraction, you are giving your brain the necessary pause to switch from its predominant impulsive mode to its executive mode—the one which remembers your long-term best interest.


Furthermore, every time you repeat your new behavior, you are actually rewiring your brain. This makes the new behavior more automatic, say neuroscientists, because "neurons that fire together wire together." In effect, you are creating new, self-sustaining habits.


Renowned researcher Roy Baumeister* of Florida State explains that success depends much more on good habits than on willpower, which is a depletable resource. Think of it this way: Developing a good habit is like putting money in your IRA while you are young—the rewards will continue to compound over the years.


Good habits make more cognitive energy available for doing great work, e.g., finishing a dissertation. Isn't that worth an investment of 20 seconds this week?



Recommended Resources


Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work


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


"10 Online Tools for Better Attention and Focus": Blog post with 10 apps to fight off digital distractions, followed by suggestions by readers. Read it here.



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.


Dr. Scroggs is an executive, life and dissertation coach in the greater Chesapeake Bay area. She has helped hundreds of students and clients overcome procrastination, self-doubts, and other internal and external blocks in order to find the motivation and flow necessary to reach their academic, professional, and personal goals. Contact Dr. Scroggs with questions about this newsletter or about coaching in general at Enjoy additional free resources at