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Just 18 Minutes a Day to a Done Dissertation | Issue 292

Summary: Get traction on your dissertation with a simple 18 minute ritual. Seriously. 

Estimated read time: Five minutes that can get you to the finish line and beyond.


By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC

"Lost time is never found again." ~ Benjamin Franklin 

As the fall semester gets underway, it's time to get intentional about how you spend your time. 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 to accomplish, I spend my time doing lots of little things and avoiding the big one. (1)

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 we 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?

Bregman captures a common scenario faced by 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) in three simple steps. 

"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 


(1) Decide What Really Matters: Identify Your Focus Areas

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 to reflect, 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 to say "no" to.

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

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, Bregman found he could concentrate on five major "areas of focus," though others might come up with three to seven. The point is to narrow your priorities sufficiently that you can move forward in life without overwhelm. 


Bregman's priorities included three professional areas 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 day job or prepare to find new one 
3. Keep connected to friends/family 
4. Have fun 
5. Practice self-care

If your dissertation does not make your "Top Five Priorities" list, drop it now and move on! 

Now commit to spending 95% of your time on your chosen focus areas—and only 5% on all the rest. That's right, just 5% for reading emails, shopping on Amazon, watching YouTube, etc., during workdays. 

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.


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

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


(2) Your Incredible Shrinking To Do List


The secret to converting priorities into action lies in planning each day following the 95% rule above. 

Begin your day by drawing a box for each one of your top priorities on a blank sheet. In each box put the relevant actionable items, e.g., contact advisor, code data, read a particular article, write methods section, meet with writing buddy, and so on. Put nonpriority items in another box that will get limited attention. 

Save your planning sheets for a weekend review. Do you notice an imbalance across priorities? Beware the common trap of overloading the "day job" and "social connections" boxes while neglecting dissertation and self-care concerns. 

Reflect and take the necessary actions! 


(3) Follow the 18-Minute Daily Ritual

To conquer distractions and maintain focus, here's how to leverage the 18 minutes day: 

STEP 1: Your Morning Minutes (5 minutes)


Before turning your computer on, plan which priority-related tasks will boost your sense of productivity. Schedule them into today's agenda. 

STEP 2: Refocus (1 minute per hour)


Set a device to sound every hour and start working your list. At the beep or chime, breathe deeply and review your progress and agenda. Vow to be intentional about how you invest the next hour. Continue to manage your day, hour by hour. 

STEP 3: Your Evening Minutes (5 minutes)

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

Now Experiment with 18 Minutes

Adopting the 18 Minutes approach ramped up my productivity so much that I continue with it to this day with a few small tweaks. 

Instead of drawing boxes, I rely on a great planner that encourages users to define just three quarterly priorities that carryover into daily planning. Called the Self Journal, it also invites one to reflect on the day's lessons, wins, and gratitudes—spurring more insight and action. Habit and mood trackers are just a few more features that make it one of the top reviewed planners. Use one that works for you. 

Are you ready to experiment with a mere 18 daily minutes for the next week to get more traction on your dissertation? This simple ritual could become your secret success habit that will carry you through graduation and beyond. 




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


Book18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done by Peter Bregman.


PlannerThe Self Journal by Best Self 


(1) From Peter Bergman's quiz



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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