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Finish Your Dissertation in 18 Minutes a Day | Issue 257

Summary: Get traction on your dissertation with a simple ritual. Seriously. 

Estimated Reading Time: Six minutes that can change your life.


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

"Lost time is never found again" ~ Benjamin Franklin

Take this simple "yes-no" quiz, keeping in mind your dissertation work:


  1. Even though it feels like I work non-stop all day, I still don't get the most important things done. 

  2. No matter what I intend to focus on at the beginning of the day, as soon as I start working (checking email, etc.), I seem to get derailed and lose my focus. 

  3. When I have something important and challenging I want to accomplish, I spend my time doing lots of little things and avoiding the big one.*

Did you answer yes to any of the above? If so, your best remedy might take just 18 minutes a day. 

No, this is not one of those articles on how to write your thesis in a few minutes a day. 

In fact, during these daily 18 minutes, you will not be writing a single word of your unfinished chapters that prick your conscience day and night. But you will get significantly better at controlling distractions that keep you from writing them—and that is the key to success. 

In the best-selling 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, leadership guru Peter Bregman shares his wisdom distilled from years of struggling with overwhelm and then finally conquering it. 

Most time management advice fails, he finds, because they start in the wrong place. Working productively requires mastering distraction. . . and mastering distraction requires us to know who we are, what we are about, and where we really want to focus our time. 

"Our to-do list has become more of a guilt list." ~ Peter Bregman 


Getting the Right Things Done

Give up the hope of getting it all done, as some time management systems attempt to do. 

The key is getting the right things done by staying focused, as Bregman (pictured below) explained in an interview with Ben Dean.

That turns out to be the biggest challenge of all, he notes. It all began with this Harvard Business Review post that went viral that started with Bregman's humble admission:


Yesterday started with the best of intentions. I walked into my office in the morning with a vague sense of what I wanted to accomplish. Then I sat down, turned on my computer, and checked my email.

Two hours later, after fighting several fires, solving other people's problems, and dealing with whatever happened to be thrown at me through my computer and phone, I could hardly remember what I had set out to accomplish when I first turned on my computer. I'd been ambushed. And I know better. 

Sound familiar? 

It captures a common scenario among doctoral students I coach. The problem isn't one of commitment to the goal. Nor is it a question of laziness. They are working from sun up until they drop into bed. The problem is one of focus and strategy.

Distractions can pull you from your best laid plans like invisible magnetized land mines scattered throughout each day. How good are you at avoiding them? Measure your personal vulnerability to distraction with Bregman's free quiz

You can arm yourself with a deceptively simple daily ritual that costs you nothing to implement—except 18 minutes of your day. Here's how to get started (and consult his book for more tips, wit, and wisdom). 

"You don't have to have ADHD to feel like you have ADHD. The world has become so distracting

that everyone is working harder to stay focused." ~ Ari Tuckman 


First, Decide What Really Matters

The best way to enhance your immunity to distraction is to know what really matters. Without that, you are at the mercy of every shiny thing that gets your attention. However, identifying your top priorities does require some reflection. 


Before you balk at spending the time, consider all the hours or days that you would otherwise waste.

Once you know what matters most, you know what to say "yes" to. More importantly, you will be clear on what you must say "no" to.

As master coach Anne Durand teaches new coaches, "Saying 'Yes' to one thing means saying 'No' to something else." When you declare a resounding "yes" to your deepest commitments, it gets easier to decline requests, invitations, and opportunities that don't align. 

The trick lies in remembering those priorities when temptation sneaks up on you. No worries—Bregman has a strategy for that, too. 


"Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of the nonessentials." ~ Lin Yutang


Identify Your Five "Areas of Focus" for the Year

Life is often likened to a buffet, Bregman notes—and the secret to thriving is to choose fewer things—but do it strategically. 


Through trial and error, he discovered that in any given year, he could concentrate on five major "areas of focus." Someone else might come up with three or seven, he allows. The point is to narrow your priorities sufficiently that you can move forward in your life without feeling overwhelmed. 

Bregman's priorities included two professional goals and two personal areas: "Do great work with current clients; attract future clients, write and speak about my ideas; be present with family and friends; have fun and take care of myself." My list looks nearly identical, unsurprising since I'm in a similar line of work. 

What four to seven "areas of focus" will you commit to for the rest of this year? My dissertation clients typically name these: 


1. Finish dissertation 
2. Maintain current job or prepare to find new one
3. Keep connected to friends/family 
4. Have fun and take care of myself 

[Note: If your dissertation does not make your "Top Five Priorities" list, give yourself permission to abandon it and turn toward what does matter to you.]

Once you've identified your areas of focus, Bregman advises, commit to spending 95% of your time on those five things—and only 5% on all the rest. That's right, just 5% for reading emails, shopping on Amazon, watching YouTube, etc. 

Notice that leaves very little time for other things that usually crop up. That's the whole point. Those "other things" are not your priorities, so give them a pass or at least the short shrift. You cannot afford to spread yourself too thin if you intend to finish your dissertation (or anything else worthwhile).

With so many distractions lurking nearby, how can you possibly stay focused on your top five priorities day in and day out? 

"Focus does not mean saying yes, it means saying no." ~ Steve Jobs


The Incredible Shrinking To Do List

The secret to converting priorities into action lies in Bregman's own homemade invention: the "Six-Box To Do List." 


To make one, take a sheet of paper and making six large boxes (a 2x3 grid works well). Five will be for listing your top five priorities and the sixth becomes your "everything else" box. Put each of your tasks into those boxes. (Or download a free template.) 

Make tasks actionable items, not project names (e.g., "dissertation") or deliverables ("Finish Chapter Two") to be clear about the next step. For example, your "Finish Dissertation" box might list daily tasks such as these: Call advisor to schedule meeting, code data, research the literature on a specific topic, write methods section, meet with colleague for writing session, and so on. 

Save your planning sheets and review them at the end of the week. Do you notice an imbalance across priorities? For example, many graduate students find themselves loading up their "teaching job" and "social connections" boxes while leaving the boxes for dissertation and self-care blank day after day. 

If that describes you, reflect and take the necessary actions! 


How to Create Your 18-Minute Daily Ritual

Even with your priorities clear and your tasks defined, distractions can still entice you from those carefully designed plans. Here's where those 18 minutes a day can help you stay on track, explains Bregman, by calling for a regular check in.


STEP 1: (5 minutes) Your Morning Minutes.

Before turning your computer on, plan which of the tasks from your Six-Box To Do list will make you feel most productive and schedule them into today's agenda. 

STEP 2: (1 minute every hour) Refocus.

Set your watch, phone, or computer to ring, beep, or chime every hour and start working your list. At the beep or chime, breathe deeply and then review your productivity. Check your agenda. Be intentional about how you use the next hour. Continue to manage your day, hour by hour. 

STEP 3: (1 minute) Your Evening Minutes.

At the end of your workday, turn off the computer and review your day: "How did the day go? What did I learn about myself? Is there anyone or anything that I need to update?"


Experimenting with 18 Minutes

When I fully adopted the 18 Minutes approach a few years ago, my focus and productivity skyrocketed. Since then I've made a few tweaks to suit me, and you might want to do the same. 

The biggest switch was from the Six-Box To Do List to a planner that asks me to choose just three priorities for the quarter, with spaces for listing associated weekly and daily targets. The page's open space gets used for the "everything else" category as well as notes. 

The planner has numbered spaces for entering the three priorities every single day. At first I balked at this redundancy—but then I realized that by so doing, I was recommitting to them and remembering them clearly every day. (I am sure Bregman would get that!) 

The Best Self Planner also has dedicated space for reflecting on the day's lessons, wins, and gratitudes, which spurs deep learning and further action. Also, evenings turn out to be a great time to plan the following day's target activities so I can hit the ground running in the morning. 

What about you? Are you ready to experiment with a mere 18 daily minutes for the next week or two to get more traction on your dissertation? 

This simple ritual could become your secret success habit—one that will keep you flourishing long after your velvet-striped gown and mortar board gather dust at the back of your closet! 



Interview: To hear Ben's 80-minute interview with Peter Bregman, click here to submit your email address and instantly receive the links to the recording. 

Book: 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done by Peter Bregman.

Subscribe here to the ABD Survival Guide and get invitations to Ben's free interviews with thought leaders in positive psychology and related fields. 


*From Peter Bregman's quiz


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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