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THE ALL-BUT-DISSERTATION SURVIVAL GUIDE™ -- 1997 (1)

Devoted to practical steps for completing your doctoral dissertation.

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Three Ways to Start Writing When You're Totally STUCK......

By Ben Dean Ph.D.

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Last summer, I ran into a colleague who was utterly blocked on writing a

proposal for a major consulting contract. She's a brilliant woman, a great

writer, and the owner of a small, highly regarded consulting practice. 

But she was moving up to a new level of competition with this proposal and

was certain that the established national firms would be fighting for it,

too. She "knew" she wasn't going to get it. Yet she'd never forgive

herself for not trying. She was painfully stuck. And the deadline was just

three days away. 

 

What could she do--right away--to start writing? We had only a few 

minutes to talk before her ride to the airport came, so I quickly offered 

her three ideas for getting started. Then later that night, I E-mailed 

her four more. 

 

Here are the first three......

 

 

1. GIVE UP.

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Cut your losses and enjoy the weekend! You don't have to do

it! Winning this contract has no intrinsic meaning except that which you

invest in it. You don't have to write this proposal. If you do write it,

you don't have to win the contract. You don't even have to be a consultant.

None of these is necessary for you to have a wonderful life.

 

See the paradox? If she can truly give herself permission to consider

giving up, she will have begun to detach from the outcome -- and this, alone,

can release her. 

 

If she will let go of the factors she can't control (the result, who will

win the contract), she'll be freer -- either to walk away or to swing for

the fences...to write a bold, killer proposal.

 

Does this apply to you? 

Absolutely.

 

No matter who you are, no matter how much you want it, no matter how

desperately you dream of stardom at a major university, you can have a good

life without a Ph.D. 

 

If you deeply realize this, you'll feel less performance anxiety than most

ABDs and new faculty feel (no matter what they tell you). The more you

detach from worry about the destination, the more you'll be fully present

for the journey. And full, detached awareness is a hallmark of the road to

mastery.

 

 

2. REFRAME IT.

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Reframe the overwhelming task. Simply list 10 - 20 small steps that will

move you forward. Each step must take less than 15 minutes. It's OK if

they're small steps (e.g., locate Department of Energy report; find contact

person's phone number; decide when to call the contact person; address

envelope; buy stamps). Once you've done that, rank them in the order they

would be done.

 

At this point, without doing anything more, you've begun to reframe the

task from "overwhelming" to "manageable on a step-by-step basis." At this

point, believe it or not, you've made serious progress. 

 

Now, one at a time, do them. If you have to, just work for 15 minutes at a

time, then stop. 

 

Big tasks can be intimidating and often immobilizing. If you can

identify the component parts of the overwhelming task and work on each part,

one at a time, it won't be so intimidating and will get done.

 

 

3. PROCRASTINATE CONSTRUCTIVELY

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Commit to a set amount of time (e.g., 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Make a list that

has two columns--one for high-priority "to-do's" and another for

low-priority ones. Do the high priority ones (e.g., revise draft) if you

can. 

 

When you need a break from the heavy-duty work, start on your

low-priority items (simple, clerical tasks that still advance the process,

such as organizing documents and checking references). 

 

When you "procrastinate constructively" you use the time slot you've

allocated in an efficient way. Even when you're not doing high-priority

tasks, you're still using your time in a way that will move you closer

to your goal.

 

 

EPILOGUE. 

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Want to know what my friend decided to do on that proposal?

She did her best to write it passionately with no regard for outcome and

FedExed it in by the deadline. She later told me that learning to work with

detachment was a huge insight which alone was worth the long weekend. 

 

Then sometime last month she heard the news.

 

She won the entire contract. 

 

And now she's joyfully--lucratively--doing the work.

 

 

THE SECRET...

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An important secret of successful scholarly writing is to know many ways

to start--again and again--no matter how stuck you are, no matter how

much you want to avoid the work. In the next issue of the ABD Survival

Guide, I'll describe some of the other helpful techniques I offered to my

consultant friend.

 

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