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Finish Your Dissertation:  Become a Willpower Ninja | Issue 239

Summary: Finish your thesis faster with less drama: Learn the 11 secrets to becoming a willpower ninja.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

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

"There is no such thing as a great talent without great willpower." ~ Honore de Balzac

For sustained success, nothing beats good habits. But sometimes an extra push comes in handy, and that's when you need willpower. If you answer "yes" to one or more of the following, read on to learn the secrets of a Willpower Ninja.

1. Do you find it hard to get started on your dissertation?

2. Is it hard to work steadily? Do you pause often to get coffee, check your phone, or engage in other non-priority tasks?

3. While writing challenging sections, does your mind wander excessively?

4. While trying to work, do you get stalled trying to make up your mind about simple things?

In popular lore, willpower is seen as a mystical force or an inborn trait. It's neither, says Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., the world's leading willpower researcher. Anyone can develop more willpower (aka self-control), which is simply the capacity to monitor and regulate one's own behavior.

Willpower generally works like a muscle, i.e., it gets depleted with use and stronger with rest or exercise, Baumeister explains. You begin each day with a fresh reservoir of willpower energy — that is, if you get a good night's sleep and eat a healthy breakfast.

Throughout the day, your willpower energy gets sapped through various activities, e.g. resisting the jumbo sugar-frosted muffin with your cappuccino or dragging yourself to the gym until it becomes a habit. Whenever you force yourself to avoid a temptation, you're using this energy. Yet there are other drains that may surprise you, Baumeister has found. Surprisingly, when your brain does heavy cognitive lifting, e.g., making a difficult decision, it taps your willpower reserves.

Why does this matter to the ABD? As a scholar, you rely on this energy to write—for analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, creating, editing, and so on. With low willpower reserves, you will struggle more than necessary to get going and then keep going through the inevitable moments of boredom and challenge. Until you have cultivated rock-solid work habits, you need to become a wise steward of your willpower. Here's how:

1. Eat that frog for breakfast.

Willpower is strongest in the morning—so put your highest priority willpower items here. Manysuccessful people reserve these hours to do their creative or intellectual work and save routine work—e.g., answering emails—for later. In other words, eat that frog before lunch and save the "brain-dead" tasks for down times.

2. Budget your willpower.

Over each day, intersperse willpower-intensive tasks with less demanding tasks (e.g., checking references or fixing lunch) to give your willpower muscle time to bounce back. Keep in mind that any self-control effort consumes willpower energy—even failures. Restraining "bad" behavior or forcing "good" behavior exhausts willpower energy. Lesson: Avoid temptation as resisting carries a price.

3. Minimize the number of decisions you make.

Former President Obama let others choose his outfits to conserve energy for more weighty matters. What choices can you delegate? Let someone else pick the movie, the restaurant, the itinerary, etc. Hold a weekly "executive session" with yourself to calendarize your tasks to conserve willpower during the week. Decide now that you will turn down certain types of invitations and projects instead of wasting energy "thinking it over."

4. Take care of your body, starting with sleep.

"A rested will is a stronger will," assert Baumeister and Tierney. Adequate sleep may matter more than food. How much sleep do you need to wake up refreshed, without an alarm clock? Probably more than you are getting. Figure a minimum of seven to eight hours. (See Tom Rath's Eat, Move, Sleep for great evidence-based tips.) If your mind is fuzzy, chances are you need a nap. . . or food.

5. Feed your brain properly.

You cannot do your best work on coffee and a donut. Build your diet around nutritionally dense foods with enough proteins and complex carbs to fuel your brain optimally all day, avoiding the spike-and-crash syndrome caused by sweets. Your brain relies on neurotransmitters, which in turn rely on glucose. Skipping meals or relying on coffee and junk food is a recipe for disaster. For snacks, try some nuts, a yogurt smoothie, or cottage cheese and fruit.

6. Expend a little willpower on neatness.


You'll get a good return on your investment because, as studies show, a messy desk induces reduced self-control. "Order seems to be contagious," note Baumeister and Tierney. Decluttering your work space frees up your mind for thinking and writing.



7. Identify triggers that get you off track.


Identify and remove other triggers in your environment that distract or tempt you. An unpaid bill on your desk? A pinging cell phone? A television? If practical, dedicate one computer to your dissertation and use a second one (or your tablet) for internet and Facebook time to avoid the dangers of the "slippery slope."

8. Do nothing—and that means nothing!


Take a page from the successful novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler: If you won't or can't write, do nothing. He set aside four hours a day for his job by stringently following two critical rules: (a) You don't have to write. (b) You can't do anything else. Nothing else. Nothing fun, nothing boring, nothing. This makes it likely you'll start writing—even if simply to overcome boredom. Giving in before time is up is like rewarding your pet for jumping up on the sofa or table. Bonus: This will also build your willpower muscle.

9. Monitor your progress.


Tracking your progress kindles motivation, even if you slack off now and then. You ward off hopelessness as you tick off dissertation tasks on a posted timeline, energized by watching the remaining distance to your degree shrink.



10. Reward yourself.

Online game designers know what keeps the hordes coming back: a mix of frequent small prizes with occasional big ones. How can you tweak your reward system to become addicted to playing with your dissertation? What small treat could you use for completing your daily quota of time or words? What larger reward would pull you towards finishing an entire chapter draft?



11. Nurture healthy habits.

Don't rely on your limited willpower resource to get you through the day. Instead, invest it in building good habits one at a time to reap rewards without burning up resources. Save willpower energy for important decisions, deep thinking, and crises.

The aim is not to transform you into a production automaton, but rather to create a good life—one of success and productivity balanced with the freedom. How much do you yearn for the time to enjoy life's other pleasures, like a weekend getaway or an afternoon at the zoo or museum, without a sense of guilt? While building your willpower muscle does require up-front effort, the return on your investment will be more than worth it.

When will you start? Use your existing willpower now to commit yourself to one of the above strategies. When you've got it down pat, move on to a new one. (If you find this challenging, consider hiring a positive psychology dissertation coach as cultivating healthy habits is in their wheelhouse.) May you savor your dissertation marathon with less drama and fewer delays, appreciating your developing a secure foundation for a bright future as "Dr. You."


"In the absence of willpower, the most complete collection of virtues and talents is wholly worthless." ~ Aleister Crowley


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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