"Fifteen minutes!" you say. "That's too good to be true!" Okay, author Joan Bolker admits she gave her book the title Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day to get the reader's attention. And she admits that it's unlikely you'll actually finish a dissertation at that speed. As she tells her clients, however, a mere 15 minutes is much better than no writing at all when they're stuck. As a clinical psychologist who cofounded the Harvard Writing Center, Bolker has helped hundreds of writers complete their dissertations. She offers suggestions on how to create a writing addiction so that you feel incomplete if you don't write every day and stresses the need to set reasonable goals and deadlines for yourself to keep from getting discouraged. She also offers strategies for dealing with both internal and external distractions and for fending off writer's block. Even more important is the advice on some of the more awkward issues related to dissertation writing, such as how to choose your adviser carefully. (For example, when faced with the tradeoff between a famous advisor who is inaccessible and a less famous advisor who is willing to make time for you, Bolker advises, "If choosing a politically advantageous, famous advisor makes it unlikely that you'll complete your degree, it's clearly not worth it.") The book even includes a helpful appendix for advisers that could become the basis for an honest discussion of what student and adviser can expect from each other. Throughout this excellent book, Bolker acts as a therapist, cheerleader, and drill sergeant, all rolled into one.
While some of the book's advice is of interest only to dissertation writers, much of the information--on battling writer's block, for instance--is valuable to anybody engaged in writing. Rather than being filled with rules defining how to become a great writer, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day is about finding the process by which you can be the most productive--it's a set of exercises that you can use to find out more about you and the way you write. Along the way, you'll do a bit of writing. And that's what matters, especially when you experience writer's block--as Bolker says, "Write anything, because writing is writing." With its helpful advice and supportive tone, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day should be required reading for anyone considering writing a dissertation. --C.B. Delaney
The “15-minute rule” is one of my favorite motivation and productivity strategies. Bolker (1998) recommended that students begin by writing for an absolute minimum of 10 minutes everyday and then expand to 15 minutes and then to longer periods of time. Bolker suggested that students make a commitment that no matter what, they will absolutely write for 10 minutes a day. Bolker said, “anyone can write for 10 minutes a day, particularly if one is freewriting” (p. 41). I usually recommend that students work for a minimum of 15 minutes but the number is somewhat arbitrary so long as it is enough time to help you get warmed up to working on your dissertation.
Making the transition on a daily basis from not being engaged in dissertation work to actually sitting down and putting words on a page, analyzing data, reading, etc. can be very tough. Many people find that committing to dissertation work for a relatively short amount of time such as 15 minutes makes it easier to make the transition to a meaningful work session. The 15-minute rule means that you commit every day (at least the days you plan to work) to work for at least 15 minutes no matter what. Here is how it works. You commit to working on any relevant part of your dissertation for an absolute minimum of 15 minutes. I recommend setting a timer if possible. Some of my clients actually buy an egg timer at the supermarket or use a sports watch as their 15-minute rule dissertation timer. You set the timer and then start working. If you are writing, write with abandon, letting go of concerns about sentence structure, flow, spelling, or grammar. You just write your ideas as they come out of your head. If negative critical voices pop in your head you can write down what they have to say. If you extraneous thoughts pop into your head, write them down too with the aim of getting back to your dissertation and staying on task as much as possible. When the 15 minutes is over, you can stop and highlight what you want to keep and the rest you will ignore. Or you can keep going if you are so inspired. Often, my clients tell me that once the 15 minutes are over, they feel “warmed up” to writing and it is easier to continue. A short period of forced writing, where you commit to writing no matter how much you do not feel like working, can often get you over the motivational hump and lead to a productive writing session. Sometimes, students need several planned 15-minute periods in a day to help them stay on course as motivation and energy because writing ebbs and flows throughout the day for most writers.
The 15-minute rule can be a great way to deal with the basic fact that warming up dissertation work can be unpleasant. No matter how detailed your action plan and timelines or how inspired you felt the night before, when you wake up in the morning you may feel like a thick fog of apathy rolled in during your sleep. The next thing you know, hours, even days go by and you have completed little or no meaningful work. Inspiration and motivation rarely come from inaction. Every day you intend to work but do nothing puts you at risk of becoming disengaged from your dissertation and makes it that much harder to get started in your next work session. It is often the act of writing, making discoveries, articulating and connecting ideas, or analyzing data or sources that will inspire and motivate you.
Am I saying that you need to work first before you are motivated and inspired? Yes. Sure there are times when you are rearing to go first thing in the morning. But if you wait for those days to just happen to you, your dissertation may to take a long time to complete. I suggest that you commit to working a minimum of 15 minutes two to three times a day as a way to get your intellectual juices flowing and to motivate yourself when you are struggling to work consistently. Staying connected to your dissertation, outlines, ideas, argument, intellectual quandaries, data, what you have written, and what you hope to write on a regular basis are important ways to keep the fires of motivation and inspiration alive. Do your best to write or do other dissertation work for at least 15 minutes. When the 15 minutes is over, push yourself to go for 5, 10, or 15 more. Stretch out the work for as long as you can. Then plan another 15-minute session later in the day and repeat your efforts to stretch the work session longer. If you consistently engage in the 15-minute rule, you will likely be able to work for longer periods of time on a regular basis.
Bolker. J. (1998). Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. New York, NY: Henry Holt
This article is written by Alison Miller, Ph.D., owner of The Dissertation Coach, a business dedicated to helping doctoral and master’s students earn their graduate degrees once and for all.
Please visit www.thedissertationcoach.com for more information.
Copyright August 2007 by Alison Miller, Ph.D., The Dissertation Coach