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Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is the Managing Editor of GradHacker and received her PhD from the University of California, Irvine in September 2014. Follow her on Twitter @mauracunningham.

In a GradHacker post last year, Laura McGrath proposed that grad students employ the “Treat Yo Self” method of motivation to get through long projects that have far-off completion dates, like preparing for comprehensive exams or writing the dissertation. Laura suggested that while it’s important to keep your eye on the prize, it’s also nice to reward yourself for interim accomplishments—a way of congratulating yourself for a job well done, as well as provide some motivation for the next stage in the journey.

I have no problem with implementing the Treat Yo Self system. In fact, I am almost too good at it. My problem is learning to treat myself well.

I spent most of 2014 finishing my dissertation, and it was tough. I’ve never struggled so much to write so little; blog posts and freelance articles poured from my fingertips, but when I switched into dissertation mode, the flow of words stopped. So every completed bit—sub-section, section, chapter—felt like a huge accomplishment that needed to be rewarded.

My rewards included: pizza, Indian takeout, almond croissants, caramel popcorn, peanut milkshakes, M&Ms, lattes, and Portuguese egg tarts.

My rewards did not include: a gym membership, yoga classes, or swimming lessons (all of which I considered, researched, and then decided against).

Predictably, by the time my dissertation was filed, my jeans—well, most of my wardrobe—no longer fit.

And at that point, I was simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. I was finally done—now to celebrate! Friends wanted to take me out to dinner. I took myself on a trip to Myanmar. Freed of academic work, I spent October lying on my sofa reading my way through the Outlander series. I decided that I would eat better and exercise more “later” ... but then in November, I moved and started a new job. Then came the holidays. Then came a cold, snowy winter that made hibernation in my apartment—knitting, reading, eating Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut-butter cups—an appealing way to spend my evenings. A champion procrastinator, I continued to push back that “later” day when I would improve my diet and commit to a daily workout.

But, as Jason McSheene wrote in a post here last fall, we can declare our own “new year” whenever we’d like. For me, the arrival of sunlight and the occasional spring-like day in New York has suddenly proven the inspiration I needed. Distance from my dissertation has helped, too: it’s now been six months since I filed it, and I’ve recovered enough that “later” has finally arrived. I’m officially done with Treat Yo Self; now I’m working on Treat Yo Self Well. For the past several weeks, I’ve been diligently taking walks on my lunch break and snacking on fruits and vegetables instead of muffins and bagels. I try to set aside some time every evening for exercise (yoga or the 7-Minute Workout). Three of my high-school friends and I have signed up for a 5K run/walk at our alma mater next month, giving me a specific goal to work toward and teammates who will support me along the way (although I have downloaded the Couch to 5K app, I expect to be walking, not running, that race).

Of all the things I wish I had done differently in grad school, I most wish I had paid more attention to health and exercise. When dissertation deadlines are looming, it’s easy to be “too busy” for working out; when those deadlines are met, it’s tempting to celebrate with a calorie-laden treat. But I think if I’d given more consideration to how I was treating myself, and moderated my rewards, I would have felt much better, both during and after the dissertation process.

So yes, absolutely, Treat Yo Self. But also take some time and think about what you need to do to Treat Yo Self Well.

What are your favorite ways to Treat Yo Self Well? Share them in the comments!

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user sweetonveg and used under a Creative Commons license.]