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Doctoral Study Skills

Doctoral Level Study Skills & Focus

Achieving success crafting a dissertation requires significant amounts of dedicated careful and tightly focused effort – a concept known as deliberate practice (Baron & Henry, 2010). It’s not how many hours you study, it’s how you train your brain to improve concentration, analysis, and problem-solving. These skills are necessary to reach specific focused goals (Ericsson & Harwell, 2019).

There is a wealth of resources available to help you train your mind, control your choices and adjust your activities.  Take advantage of the many free or low-cost apps and tools available to help you succeed. 

Study Makes You Strong

Study Focus

  • Start training for success from day one.

  • Pick one or two areas to begin. 

  • Everyone has their own unique approach to training themselves.

  • Practice honest self-assessment. Regular, effective self-evaluation is a vital success skill. 

  • Find personal favorite tools. If a tool disheartens or frustrates you, locate a better one.

  • Regularly assess your chosen tools for their effectiveness. As your skills progress, your needs will change.  

  • Update your tools and set new goals as necessary.

Setting Goals

Setting Goals

 Set Up Personal Goals, Incentives & Rewards.

The prospect of earning or achieving rewards drives decisions on how to use our time and resources. While there is a wealth of research on what motivates us, intrinsic motivation theory says we’ll seek out an activity because we find it interesting and/or satisfying (DiDomenico & Ryan, 2017). Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, suggests we’ll seek out activity that offers easiest ways to receive the best rewards or the least punishment (Cherniawsky & Holroyd, 2012). Often successful self-motivation is a combination of both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

Many of the tasks essential to successful PhD completion do not have immediate rewards. Completing pages of a chapter, for example, or learning the software for data analysis, will often come with delayed or absent rewards. Many dissertation tasks generate difficult and frustrating feedback.   


It’s helpful to self-motivate toward long-term anticipated rewards by linking immediate, tangible, satisfying rewards to the work you are doing. Pick rewards that encourage you step-by-step through the many small steps needed to conduct your research and finish your dissertation.


Even though you know “what’s good for you,” your brain will often overvalue an immediate reward and undervalue a delayed reward. The immediate and easily obtained reward of food or entertainment triumphs over the challenging and sometimes punishing dissertation tasks. 


Your brain will always look for rewards anywhere it can. However, most likely those immediate and satisfying rewards (eat, play game, exercise surf the web) won’t help your dissertation unless you connect them with your dissertation efforts.

You can override your brain’s natural impulses by setting up a reward system that links immediate and pleasing rewards to achieving less satisfying or mentally taxing tasks needed in dissertation writing.


Epic to-do list

RPG planner with reminders. Create an app version of yourself, give it custom and flexible tasks with various difficulty levels, do them, track them, get self-assigned rewards. Go to the Google Play store and search for Epic to-do list. Freemium.

Get Epic

Create your avatar and your goals, habits, and to-do lists. As you learn and achieve, you earn rewards and level up. Free. Subscriptions are available.

Get Habitica

Role-playing game designed to build resilience while pursuing long-term goals. Helps reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms and improves the likelihood that you will achieve your goals. Free. 

Get SuperBetter

Learn To Use Reward Systems:

How To Overcome Procrastination By Creating A Token Reward System. Written by Patrik Edblad at 

Better Humans

How To Use A Reward System For Successful Goal Setting. Written by Patricia Weber at

Savvy Senior Widows

Rewards. (Handout available from Reed College.)




Multitasking, especially with non-academic distractions, is not a friend of the dissertation. Your brain needs uninterrupted focus to understand complex research articles and engage in precise scholarly writing. Yet multitasking is addictive and rewarding to your brain and changes how your brain works (Rothbart & Posner, 2015). To fight this addiction and focus on your dissertation, consider using a blocking app.


Block yourself off distracting apps and websites. Mac, Windows, and Android. Freemium.

Self Control

Block yourself off distracting apps and websites. Mac. Free and open-source.

Cold Turkey

Block yourself off distracting apps, websites, and games. Windows. Freemium.


Decrease your mobile app use. Android. Find it on the Google Play store in the apps section under AppDetox.

Time Management

Your time and your mind are your two strongest resources. Maximize your time using the Pomodoro Technique. Developed in Italy by an overwhelmed university student back in the ‘80’s, it’s an effective technique to decrease procrastination and combat distractions. Essentially, you create a list of tasks, set a timer for 25 minutes and dig in. Break for 5 minutes and record one Pomodoro. Do it again and again until the task is done (Mohn, 2020). 


There are a wide variety of choices for free or low-cost apps that use the Pomodoro Technique. Find one that works for you.

Study Bunny Focus Timer

Study for a set amount of time. Earn coins. Spend coins for rewards. Simple yet addictive. iOS and GooglePlay. Free.

Tomato Timer

As simple as it gets. Start, stop, short break, long break, reset. Browser-based. Free.

PowerPom Pomodoro Timer

Another simple timer. Windows. Free and open Source.

Get PowerPom

Personalized music that changes at specific time intervals to help you to focus. One-week free trial, then subscription-based.

Get Focus@will

Popular timer app. Plant a seed. Study, study, study. If you stay focused you grow a tree. Leave early and the tree dies. Grow a forest then spend your earned coins to plant real trees. Low cost plus in-app purchases.

Get Forest
10,000 hour‪s

Simple time tracker to record your accumulated time spent on your dissertation. For iPhones. Find this on your iPhone in your App Store. Free.

Simple Time Tracker

Simple hours tracker for Android. Find it on the Google Play store in the apps section under Simple Time Tracker. Free.

Get Simple
Time Management

“For the present is the point at which time touches eternity” - CS Lewis

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