On Motivation

After my last post on the beginning of year 3, I have had a lot of comments from friends and colleagues, mainly about my planning techniques, and in particular the Gantt chart I previewed in the post. Lots of “you must be so organised,” and “you must love planning,” but also questions like “what happens if you don’t make your target?” or “how do you stay on track?” or “how do you stay motivated?” So I thought I would use this week’s blog post to answer some of these questions.

First things first: I actually find it really hard to stay motivated. Even though there is nothing I would want to do more than this PhD, I don’t always feel like writing/planning/working, and I find it really difficult to motivate myself to continue with the same speed each day.

Secondly: The thing about the PhD is, although it might seem just like a really long time spent doing one thing, there is no way that it ends up being one thing. There’s teaching, workshops, conferences, papers, work, home, PLUS the thesis (maybe that’s in the wrong order…). It can be really difficult to find the motivation to write a chapter section when you’ve already written half a conference paper, taught a seminar, marked some assessments, and sent 30 emails. And then, if you don’t manage to make a target, it can be really easy to just fall further behind, and lack the motivation needed to catch up. I suffer with this problem A LOT. But I do have some methods for combatting it, and staying motivated in my work. So, without any further delay, here they are:

1. Find a work environment that works for you


I mentioned in my previous post how I actually looked forward to getting started in my new office. This was a great way to kick off the year. I enjoy working in a shared office where I am surrounded by other people working at the same time, where I can benefit from the quiet buzz of productivity, but also occasionally moan to other people if I’m having a bad day. However, I also need to change environment every so often, which is why working from home once a week works for me. Recently I have found it hard to focus in my draughty lounge, so today I have tried moving to the town library where I live: I still save money, but it gives me the drive to get out of the house and get some work done. Forcing yourself to work in an environment you don’t like isn’t going to help your productivity, so try and find somewhere you actually enjoy going every day.

2. Set realistic goalshigh_mountain_4000_pass

The main reason I felt like I needed to make a plan was because everything felt very scary and I didn’t know where to begin at the beginning of the year. By splitting up my tasks and creating realistic and achievable targets, I felt much more in control. Now, rather than saying I will “work on Chapter X,” I tell myself to “write 500 words on Chapter X” for example. Obviously it takes a little bit of forward planning, but I have found it so much more helpful than having a big, open-ended deadline looming over me. The other benefit to setting realistic goals is that the is definitely far less chance of failing!

3. Factor in catch-up time


Sometimes, things happen. You get sick, something takes longer than you expected, life gets in the way… This is why factoring in time to catch up on anything you haven’t been able to do is important. My catch-up time is at the weekend – anything I haven’t managed to do between Monday and Friday I try catch up on at the weekend. Although sometimes I feel like all PhD students are expected to work seven days a week, I really try not to. And there is nothing better for motivation than the prospect of a work-free weekend! Regardless of when your catch-up time is, it can dramatically reduce stress just by being there.

4. Do something else! (But stay productive)


Sometimes I find it really helpful to just do something else for a while, but I also find it very hard to start working again once I stop and do something unproductive like browsing the internet or watching TV. This is why, on my big master plan, I include things like seminar preparation, blog writing, weekly planning, etc. That way, I can get away from my main work tasks for a while, but still feel productive and motivated to continue. I also like to keep a list of “break-time tasks” on the go: things like going to the library, doing the laundry, or buying a birthday card for a friend; the things that definitely need doing, but aren’t vital. Then I can still tick things off, even when I’m having a “break.”

5. Listen to your body (and mind!)


Note: I am NOT very good at this.

Sometimes, you have to listen to your body when it tells you something. If you’re so tired that you’re falling asleep at your desk, it might be worth taking a break and having a nap, rather than trying to force yourself to finish working in a coffee-fuelled stupor. If you’re trying to work but you just can’t concentrate on anything, try and find a reason why: maybe you’re hungry, or thirsty, or need some fresh air. Look after yourself and your work will thank you in the long run (it’s not just a happy coincidence that working from home once a week also gives me extra time in bed).


If you have any tips or tricks for staying motivated, let me know in the comments!




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