Though November has blessed us with some beautiful, warm, sunny days, fall seems to have begun its inevitable fade into winter.  More and more conversations seem to be turning to turkey and travel plans, and last night my husband and I drove by our first house of the year with a display of Christmas lights.

The next six weeks can present some real challenges for many ABDs.  A hallmark of the month of December, along with the colored lights and Christmas trees, is the dramatic disruption in our daily routine.  Whether you’re traveling to visit others or whether your home will be the gathering spot, without careful forethought and planning, it can be tough to keep that dissertation moving forward.

christmas-tree-snowflakes-house-blue-background photoUnfortunately, many ABDs simply end up caught between feelings that they should be writing, and wanting to enjoy the holidays.  This is the worst possible outcome.  It is unproductive, and leaves you feeling guilty about the work you didn’t do, which in turn saps much of the enjoyment out of time with family and friends.

Don’t let that be you.  Avoid the pitfall of assuming that you’ll somehow manage to squeeze in enough work time.  Approach your work in a thoughtful and deliberate way.  Be clear about what your goals are, and how you plan to achieve them.  Decide now what you would like to get done, and plan where, when, and how you will meet those goals.

Below are five questions to answer that will help you to formulate a realistic work plan.  And, if you’re like me, you may discover that the need to work on your dissertation has some surprising benefits.

  1. How much time will you really have to write?  Be honest, even if the answer is none.  There’s no point in setting yourself up for failure by over-estimating your available time.  Are you facing a lot of travel time?  If yes, is that time you can use to work?  If you will be spending time with family and friends, how much disposable time will you have each day?  The answers to these questions will probably be different at different points during the break, so think through the whole break, and evaluate realistically how much time you will have throughout the month.  You may well find that you can commit to larger blocks of time during certain periods, while you may need to work with smaller chunks of time during others.  That’s OK.  The important thing is that you be realistic and honest about how much time you will have, and align your writing goals accordingly.

  3. finding-the-perfect-time-to-write photoWhen will you write?  In a study conducted by psychologists Gollwitzer and Brandstaetter, two groups of college students were asked to write an essay during the Christmas holidays.  One group was simply asked to write the essay, while another was asked to give a specific time when they would write their essay.  When the essays were received, two thirds of the group that had committed to a specific time to write returned their essays, while in the control group, the group that had committed to write, but not specified when they would write the essay, only one fourth of the essays were returned. 
    So when will you write?  From eight to eleven each morning? From three to five in the afternoon?  Will you try and write every day or perhaps a few days each week?  Whatever your answer, identify a specific time now when you will be free to devote yourself to your dissertation and stick to that schedule, even when it means saying no to something else.  This also has the advantage that you can tell others of your commitment ahead of time, so that they will know when you will not be available, and can support you in sticking to your schedule.

  5. Where will you write?  I don’t know about you, but my family sometimes bears a striking resemblance to the family in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  For the benefit of anyone who has not seen the movie, this means they’re loud, raucous, and personal boundaries are virtually nonexistent.  And thus was born the great Starbucks escape!  This is what I meant earlier about benefits.  The need for writing time can provide a great excuse to take a break from all the hustle and bustle.  Relish the chance to slip away from the holiday hubbub for a couple of hours to a nice quiet place where you can relax and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea, and a little time to yourself. 
    quiet-place-to-write-with-window photoAgain, planning is everything.  Before you travel, identify that perfect quiet spot, whether it be a cozy coffee shop, or a quiet room with a lovely view.  Then enjoy the peace and tranquility while you work away at your dissertation.

  7. And speaking of family, how will you deal with their expectations?  This can be a particular challenge for those of you who will be spending time with family or friends who you don’t see very often.  They want to see you, and you want to see them.  Saying no can be very difficult, so develop a strategy ahead of time.  Tell them of your need to work, and explain the schedule you’ve set.  Explain that this may also mean that you have to opt out of certain events.  By talking with people in advance, you can avoid a lot of the pressure or disappointment that can come with declining invitations at the last minute.

  9. When will you NOT write?  Answering this question is as important as answering the previous four questions.  Unless you’re facing an extremely tight completion deadline, I suggest that you make sure to build in some time to enjoy yourself.  Are there parts of your holiday that you especially enjoy?  Do you have certain holiday traditions that you don’t want to miss?  Are there certain people with whom you want to make sure and spend some quality time?  Design your work schedule so that you build in time for those special people and events. Then allow yourself to enjoy them guilt-free, remember, you planned for them.  It’s not cheating if it’s part of your work plan.

Whatever your plans or circumstances, the important thing is that you approach your holiday writing in a thoughtful, mindful way that will foster your success.  Though I often encourage coaching clients to challenge themselves by setting higher goals, I think that in this particular instance less is more.  Better to return in January feeling refreshed and up-beat about what you’ve accomplished, than to set a strict work plan which you either cannot meet or which prevents you from enjoying any of the holiday merriment, leaving you feeling cheated and frustrated.

If you are one of the lucky few who are able to take a break from your writing, then be thankful, and commit to that without looking back.  If, however, you’re one of the larger majority who needs or wants to continue to write your way through the holidays, give yourself the best holiday gift of all, a well-designed holiday work plan that will send you sailing into the new year on a wave of success!