The 15-Minute Rule

March 31, 2021

Categories: Problems

When I work with graduate students, I tell them about something I call the “15-minute rule.” Basically, what this means is that if they are working on something and get to the point where they are stuck, they should continue to work on it for 15 minutes. Then, if they are still stuck, they should email me and see if I can help them out.

Getting Stuck is Common

The idea behind the rule is that when you are learning how to do research, there is a lot you don’t know. That’s okay—as a graduate student, you are a beginner. You’re still learning. So, getting stuck is pretty common. Usually, it just takes a quick email or phone call, and I can get them un-stuck and back to work, with minimal frustration.


But sometimes students feel like they need to figure it out themselves. They might spend hours (or even days) in that stuck place. They don’t make any progress, and they get really frustrated and upset. They might even end up hating research.

You Just Need Help

The 15-minute rule tries to circumvent this frustration. It treats getting stuck as a natural occurrence. It isn’t a bad thing—it just means you need help. You don’t know what you need to know right now. And again, that’s perfectly normal and okay—you’re still learning.

Hit the Pause Button

I’ve been talking about this rule in the context of graduate school and research, but I try to keep this rule in mind in other areas of my life as well. In most areas of life, I’m not an expert. If I encounter something that I can’t figure out, I can get really frustrated if I keep trying and trying with no progress. In these situations, it’s better to hit the pause button and see if I can get someone to help me.

A Clogged Sink

This happened to me the other day. We put some potato peels down the sink, and our sink got clogged. I read some articles online, watched some YouTube videos, and tried a few different things to unclog the sink. Nothing worked. I could feel myself getting frustrated, and finally I made the decision to call a plumber. The plumber fixed the problem, and the sink was working again in under an hour. Also, I watched what he did, so if I get in the same situation again, I think I could probably fix it myself. So, it was a win-win.

Catch Yourself

It’s not a bad thing to try to figure out a problem yourself. The key is to catch yourself when you are in a stuck place, not making any progress. When you get stuck, it’s time to reach out for help.


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