If you are like the typical graduate student I meet, you may be a good candidate for an “email intervention.” Checking email, responding to received emails, and composing new emails has become a habit (even maybe an addiction of sorts) for millions of Americans (Wright, 2006). I am quite certain that many doctoral students rank among those who can’t seem to stop themselves from checking email all day long. The typical student I encounter begins a given work session by opening up his or her email usually delaying dissertation work and then continuously interrupting work progress by checking it on and off throughout the day.

In the spirit of candor, I am a reformed email addict (who still relapses on occasion). I could start the charter chapter of Email Anonymous. While I wrote the first four chapters of this book, I was completely hooked on my email. Every single time I sat down to write, I first opened my email before launching into a planned writing session. The next thing I knew, 30 minutes or longer had passed and I had not written one word. Then once I was writing, I would find myself compulsively checking my email anytime I was tired, bored, uncertain, or even for no apparent reason. Email can be a good distraction and give you a little kick of adrenaline as you see what “urgent” messages await your response. The process of writing this book forced me to conduct an email-intervention on myself. You may be a good candidate for such an intervention (this intervention may also apply to surfing the Internet or playing computer games). When I am writing, I keep my email program closed. Otherwise I will hit the receive button in an involuntary fashion as if my right hand is possessed by an outside demonic force that demands, “Must check email. Check it now.” When I am incapable of keeping my email closed on a voluntary basis, I actually disable my wireless connection altogether by unplugging the wireless router in my husband’s office and dropping the Ethernet cord on the floor behind a file cabinet where it is hard to reach (sad I know, but it works). I then use email as a reward for writing. I allow myself to check it after a certain amount of work or a certain time of day. Also, I do not work in coffee shops that have free wireless Internet access. I regularly remind myself that it is highly unlikely that is anyone is communicating a life or death matter to me over email. I am sometimes desperate to check my email and feel a little anxious wondering what is waiting in my inbox. But ultimately, I know that for me checking email is a self-defeating distraction that limits my productivity and writing output. You may be thinking, “I can handle my email. It isn’t a problem for me. I can restrain myself when it is time to work.” Maybe that is true, but I am guessing that you are just in denial.

Many of my clients, list “disable their Internet connection” or “close down email” as the first daily action on their action plan. I encourage you to think about your actual email habits and then put some guidelines in writing in your weekly action plan that will help you limit and structure when and for how long you will check your email. This may seem unnecessary but if you add up all the time you spend checking email, you may be surprised at how much time it takes. Email is something that is available all day long just waiting to interrupt you and your workflow. It is hard to be productive and motivated when your momentum is constantly interrupted. I know it can be hard to break the habit of checking your email. For many people, it has become an automatic habit. Yet if you can put some firm limits on your use of email, you will find it easier to be productive.

Ask yourself what bad habits you may have that are the equivalent of my email addiction. Maybe you play hours of computer games promising yourself that each new game is the last. You may surf the Internet mindlessly telling yourself that are going to get to work in 5 more minutes. Maybe you turn on the television to keep yourself company or for background noise and then find yourself sucked into three back-to-back episodes of Law and Order. You may also have some very sneaky bad habits. These are the kind of habits that at face value look like you are working on your dissertation. You are reading literature, making writing plans, working on your outline, or doing other dissertation-related tasks. Yet, really what you are doing is not necessary and is peripheral to getting your butt in the chair and doing what your truly need to be doing. To be sure, reading literature, outlining and so forth may be legitimate activities that are important precursors to writing. If you are honest with yourself, though, you know when they are valid activities or habitual ways of avoiding your dissertation.

Many of my clients resist changing their work habits because doing so is unpleasant and difficult. For example, when students initially attempt to develop better work habits such as limiting email usage, writing beginner drafts or turning off the television, they feel uncomfortable and anxious. Thus, they revert to their old ways to relieve themselves from the tension and discomfort that the bad habits seem to mitigate. Changing bad habits does not necessarily feel good because you must face the negative feelings you would rather avoid. Yet if you know that your work habits interfere with your ability to be productive, what is your alternative? Is feeling tense or anxious as a result of limiting your access to email or computer games worse than being angry with yourself for wasting time and failing to meet a deadline? Is being uncomfortable while you learn to lower your standards and write very rough drafts so much worse than feeling hopeless and demoralized by your lack of progress? I encourage you to be honest with yourself about your own unhelpful, self-defeating behavior and strive to change your work habits for the better. Breaking bad work habits is fundamentally about making choices that will make you happier in the long run even if they feel uncomfortable in the short run (Wright, 2006). It takes focused, consistent effort to break bad habits and replace them with better, more productive behaviors. There will be setbacks and days where it does not seem that you are getting any reward from your efforts. Most people need continued practice engaging in new, positive behavior over several weeks for the behavior to become easier and more automatic. I do not promise that it will be easy but developing better work habits can lead to more productive workdays and eventually a finished dissertation.

This article was written by Alison Miller, PhD, owner of The Dissertation Coach, a business dedicated to helping doctoral and master’s students successfully earn their graduate degrees.

Copyright August 2007 by Alison Miller, Ph.D., The Dissertation Coach