The Productive Writer
March 28, 2013


Kearns, H., & Gardiner, M. (2006). Defeating self-sabotage: Getting your PhD finished. Flinders, Australia: Flinders Press. 


Jin, J., & Dabbish, L. (2009).
Self-interruption on the computer: A typology of discretionary task interleaving. In Proceedings of the 27th Annual International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. New York: Association for Computing Machinery. 


Some of the information in the Productive Writer draws from previously published work, and I have tried to properly attribute the ideas and work of others. If I fail to do so, please let me know so I can clarify and correct.



Hjortshoj, K. (2010). Writing from A to B: A guide to completing the dissertation phase of doctoral studiesIthaca, NY: Cornell University.
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Avoid Distractions  

Want to be even more productive? Reduce distractions.


Research with information workers and college students - those who spend much of their day using a computer - has found that we are interrupted about every 12 minutes. So you will be more productive if you find a space to write away from your interrupters and distracters. Can you write behind a closed door? Or post a sign, "Dissertation in Progress - Come Back Later," at your work space? (That suggestion comes from Kearns and Gardiner). When Stephen King began writing his first novel, he would hide in the laundry room of his trailer to work without distractions. You, too, can increase your productivity by reducing interruptions of your work.


But be aware that half of these every-12-minute interruptions are self-interruptions, when we distract ourselves by checking e-mails, making phone calls, or getting a snack. (What is on your list of activities that keep you from more productive writing?)


The most prevalent way we interrupt our own work is

  • taking breaks, followed by
  • distractions, when we "react to minimal external stimuli even when immediate action is not necessary"
  • reminders to do a different task
  • stopping to remove obstacles to our work, and
  • deviations from the primary task to other, less relevant tasks (Jin and Dabbish, 2009).

These interruptions can alleviate stress, increase mental stimulation, and create a sense of accomplishment, for example, when a "reminder prevents forgetfulness through completion of short tasks." Stopping your writing to pay a bill on-line or to e-mail a birthday greeting lets you check one more task off your list. But it also reduces productivity when these distracting behaviors stop the flow of your thinking and writing because of the time, occasionally significant time, required to refocus and return to the task at hand, i.e., your writing.


So I (again) encourage you to work for 90 minutes without getting up from your chair (or without checking e-mail or Facebook). Write 90 minutes without any self-interruptions. Try it. You will be amazed at how much this one change in your behavior will increase your productivity.


Have you written today yet? 


Jan Allen


Jan Allen, Associate Dean 

Academic and Student Affairs
Cornell University Graduate School

354 Caldwell Hall
Ithaca, NY 14850