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Twenty Seconds to Your Doctorate—or How to Become Extraordinarily Productive | 244

Summary: You are just 20 seconds away from becoming dramatically more productive, finishing your dissertation, and setting yourself up for a lifetime of success. 

Estimated time: 6 minutes (that will keep you from wasting countless hours)


By Gayle Scroggs

As if you could kill time without injuring eternity. ~ H. D. Thoreau

What if only 20 seconds separates you from your doctorate?

Psychologist Shawn Achor asserts that learning to leverage that little interlude could be the secret to reaching your goals instead of falling further behind. If you feel stressed from working all day while making little progress on your dissertation, read on.

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 business clients echo lament of many doctoral students: 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:

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.


They tallied 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."


Granted, as a graduate student, you may be checking social media rather than investments, but with the same effect: You feel exhausted by the end of the day and have little to show for it. Meanwhile you fret under a perpetual dark cloud of missed deadlines and stress.

Distractions and interruptions do double damage, Achor observes. First, you lose the time elapsed during the detour, and then you need extra time to recover the focus and flow required to do your best work.

How much energy can you afford to waste in this way?

Once upon a time, the options for killing time were limited to sharpening pencils or getting a drink at the water cooler. Nowadays, with electronic temptations bombarding us all day long, focusing on work becomes more challenging than ever. Habits, however, are malleable, and Achor offers a simple way to get started on making productivity your default setting.


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

~ Charles Duhigg



The Fastest Cure for Distractions

How can you shift from habitual procrastination or underperforming to productivity? The key is simple: Lower the costs of the desired behavior while you simultaneously raise the costs of the undesired one.


For example, successful dieters learn to purchase healthy snacks instead of junk food during grocery runs. They know that once they get home, indulging a craving requires the burden of another trip.


You can leverage this technique for your benefit by devising obstacles that impede mindless distractions while you simultaneously clear the path to your best intentions. Or as Ted told Achor, you need to make checking your email "a pain in the ass," but make getting started on your real goal as easy as rolling off a log.


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

How much of an obstacle do you need? How much extra bother would persuade you to give up a temptation?


Achor found a 20-second delay was sufficient to get him to forget watching TV and instead pick up his guitar daily—an intention he kept putting off. He created the delay by hiding the TV remote batteries in another room while at the same time leaving the guitar in a stand in the living room. Suddenly the guitar became easier and more alluring, while the thwarted TV impulse waned.

In a mere three weeks, he had cultivated a solid new guitar habit

I can testify that this really works because I tried copying Achor's above strategy. For added effect, I placed a lush green houseplant in front of the TV while hiding the remote behind the set. Then I strategically placed a good book on the coffee table, and voila! In 10 days, I had reestablished my evening reading habit with a bonus of a good night's sleep, which sets me up for success the next day.

Put the 20-Second Rule to Work for You

The steps for implementing the 20-second rule are very straightforward.

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 Instagram photo or Facebook comment? Do you keep your phone on your desk while you try to focus?

Step 2: Now place an obstacle between you and the distractor that takes at least 20 seconds to overcome.

If your devices tempt you, try one or more of these:

1. Silence your phone and put it in a distant room. 

2. Delete email/unnecessary icons from task bars, start menus on your computer. 

3. Disable notifications during work time or permanently. 

4. Remove distracting apps from home screens, or better yet, uninstall them. 

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


For Amazon Prime shopping addicts, discourage impulse shopping by deleting your credit card information so that you have to enter it manually each time.

Next, how can you shave 20 seconds or more off the time it takes to get going?

Step 3: Assess and remove existing barriers to getting started on your dissertation. Note what holds you back from a quick start. Do you have to figure out where you are going to work each day? Does clutter trigger distracting thoughts of teaching chores, unpaid bills, unwashed dishes, etc.? Do you know what your next step is, or do you dawdle as you ponder whether to read another article, transcribe an interview, or write a new section of your lit review? Do you lack necessary resources?

Step 4: Identify and incorporate elements that facilitate a quick start. Make getting started a breeze, even a pleasure, by experimenting with these possibilities:

1. Have all your tools in one convenient place where you enjoy working. 
2. Provide yourself with a good chair and lighting. 
3. Keep the current working document or resources on your desktop. 
4. Have on hand a list of next action steps.

I encourage my clients to try out different settings to find the one that offers them the fewest distractions and the most positive energy. Choices have included academic and public libraries, of course, but also a WiFi-free cafe, a hotel lobby nook, home (with a tablecloth over the television), a friend's cabin, and even a convent. Find what works for you.

Once you design your new routine, stick with it until productivity becomes your new default setting. Savor each small success with a pat on the back or a small reward. Be sure to watch for signs that daily writing is becoming more automatic, while former temptations are losing their pull.

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


Building Habits Trumps Willpower

In the long run, success depends much more on good habits than on willpower. The former become more self-sustaining with use while the latter becomes depleted, explains renowned researcher Roy Baumeister. Relying on good habits rather than willpower frees more cognitive energy up for doing your best work, namely, finishing your dissertation.


Think of it this way: Developing a good habit is like putting money in your IRA while you are young; over the years, the rewards will continue to compound, bringing greater riches.

Now isn't that worth your investment of just 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.


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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