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The 7 Habits of Highly Productive ABDs & Other Academics | Issue 231

In this issue: Cultivate the 7 habits you need most to finish your dissertation. [Reading time 5 minutes.]

Need more support? Apply for your own coach. Finish faster and enjoy the ride.



By Gayle Scroggs, PhD


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


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 30th birthday, we looked at how his advice holds up against contemporary research and expert recommendations.

The results will surprise you.

First, forget "productivity hacks." Those serve as mere band aids if you perpetually struggle to reach goals.

One basic truth emerges from Covey, science, and top gurus: Your success depends less on finding tricks than on cultivating good habits.

Rather than seeking short-term strategies, you need to build a rock-solid foundation for doing your best more through daily practices. (Remember the children's tale of the Three Little Piglets?)



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?


Once you've navigated the graduate classes and qualifying exams, the external structures that once held you accountable vanish into thin air. You become the master of your time, responsible for inventing your day—which 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 you plan your schedule accordingly. Thus your first task is to narrow your priorities for the year to no more than five areas of focus, advises Peter Bregman, the top on-line columnist for The Harvard Business Review.


Plan your worktime around the deliverables for those areas, devoting 95% of your time to those five areas. That means saying "yes" to tasks related to your dissertation and at most four other major foci.


Then say "no" to anything you can't fit in the remaining 5% of your workday. Do the math: That adds up to a mere three minutes an hour—not long enough to do email, check Facebook, or shop on Amazon. Relegate those distractors go to your leisure hours.


Here's how Bregman breaks it down in his book 18 Minutes: Take five morning minutes to identify what would make today a success, check in with yourself for one minute at the top of each working hour, and then spend five evening minutes reviewing your day.


Over time, keep your desired balance across your five areas of focus. (For a video summary, click here.)

Besides your dissertation, what other four top areas of focus will you choose? What will you have to delete or delay until after D-day (dissertation defense day)? Remember that your future self will thank you for your hard work and persistence.



"Begin with the End in Mind means to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen," wrote Covey.

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 very path you will take. As with any worthwhile goal, the path is strewn with obstacles to be overcome. After all, if it were easy, everyone would have a doctorate.


Ignore New Age types who claim all you need is a bucketful of positive affirmations and a tantalizing vision of your goal—and voila!—your dream will come true. Such fantasizing backfires by tricking your brain into thinking you've already accomplished your goal—and then kills your motivation to work.


NYU psychologist Dr. Gabrielle Oettinger has spent over two decades demonstrating that simplistic positive imagery and thinking (whether about getting a job, finding a mate, losing weight, or other) leads to worse outcomes.


To succeed, you need your wish (W), but you also need to state the outcome (O), identify the obstacle (O), and devise a plan (P). Oettinger calls this approach "WOOP" for short, as illustrated here. When you need energy to take relevant action, don't fantasize. Instead, practice flipping from thoughts about your desired goal to what you need to do to get there—and you'll generate the zest for the next step.


Sure, allow yourself to imagine the happy ending to your doctoral journey. Absolutely acknowledge your assets. Then sit down and figure out the path, obstacles and all, between you and the finish line.


(Tip: If looking at the whole path up the mountain gets overwhelming, take your eyes off the summit and focus on your next step.)



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 bake brownies?

Obstacles have a strange way of making distractions even more tempting. Alas your more primitive brain wants to make things safe and easy for you in the short run. Its strong impulses swamp the signals from your modern executive brain, whose role is to look out for your long-term best interest. Impulses often win out when doing the "right thing" has not become a habit.

Build on the second habit by creating a surprisingly simple form of self-discipline that really works. This strategy shields you for all manner of clever enticements, hidden obstacles, and nasty surprises and keeps you true to your best intentions. Here's how it works: Create an "if-then" plan to deal with potential distractions and saboteurs, such as these:

Build on the second habit by creating a surprisingly simple form of self-discipline that really works. This strategy shields you for all manner of clever enticements, hidden obstacles, and nasty surprises and keeps you true to your best intentions. Here's how it works: Create an "if-then" plan to deal with potential distractions and saboteurs, such as these:

  • "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 it up, then I will boot the little devil into outer space, take three deep breaths, and write another sentence!"

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

Athletes, dieters, scholars, and countless others have found "if-then" planning works wonders. In fact, those with such plans are usually more than twice as likely to reach their goal compared to those without such plans, according to Heidi Grant Halvorson in Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.



You are becoming an "independent scholar," yet 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 your institution's standards while still maintaining ownership of your project? Ditto for balancing your personal priorities with those of families and friends.


Dr. Adam Grant (U Penn Wharton School's youngest-ever tenured professor) documents how going beyond "tit-for-tat" to generosity will get you further ahead. His bestseller Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, 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!




Be sure you understand—then try to get your point across, recommends Covey's classic.

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.


In addition to opening yourself to simply listening to others, 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 growth.


For example, one way to do this is to reframe criticism of your work. Rather than take feedback as a sign that you are an intellectual fraud, accept it as a chance to improve your writing skills. In your research and writing, instead of aiming to "be good," aim for "getting 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).




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.


Participants in dissertation writing groups and those with a dissertation buddy consistently report that working with peers offers far more than mere moral support. It also creates the opportunity for synergy when the group includes students with varied backgrounds. The group serves as a veritable talent pool that each member can access for help with theory, methods, writing, and so on.


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 means less rewriting and less time until graduation day.




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 other words, taking time out for self-care will make you more productive in the long run.


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 has asserted.




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.

A caveat is in order: Trying to start multiple habits simultaneously can backfire by overtaxing your willpower reserves, so focus on just one or two at a time. Chart your progress. I invite you to share your experiences with me. Keep in mind these words from Aristotle:


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


"It's all about the practice," my coaching colleague Steve Coxsey wisely reminds me. Developing the above seven habits can be a powerful way to finish your dissertation as well as other projects that matter to you—and note that word "develop." A new habit takes time and effort—and these are worth it. Any time you backslide, resist the urge to throw in the towel. Just start again. Rely on supportive friends. Consider getting a coach—they specialize in helping make new habits stick.


"Good habits are worth being fanatical about," asserted John Irving, who may be the only author to have won both the National Book Award (The World According to Garp) and an Academy Award (The Cider House Rules). These seven habits, well supported by research and expert opinion, rank as some of the most important ones you could ever possess, and their value will multiply over time.


With well-aimed persistence, you will become not just a highly effective person, but also a proud doctor in your field.


References/Recommended Reading:.

Covey, Steven. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People 
Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success 
Grant, Adam. Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success 
Halvorson, Heidi Grant. Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals 
McGonigal, Kelly. The Willpower Instinct 
Fredrickson, Barbara. Positivity


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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