Persisting with the PhD: Sustaining Motivation During the Coronavirus

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Are you feeling unmotivated at the moment and perhaps a little distracted by the ongoing global pandemic? It can be challenging to maintain PhD motivation at the best of times, even without a world-wide crisis to contend with. So, it is perfectly understandable if you’ve been struggling to sustain your motivation levels at the present time. In this post I will highlight three steps for maintaining PhD motivation during the coronavirus.

Step 1 is about getting set up and it takes place before you even begin working. Among the most important elements of this step is reconnecting to your ‘Why’– that is, your underlying reasons for pursuing a PhD in the first place. Given that the PhD lasts for several years, it is easy to lose sight of what first inspired you to pursue a doctorate, particularly when the world may now appear very different to when you began. Yet your ‘why’ is precisely what you need to try and hold on to in order to sustain motivation.

Step 2 takes place during your working hours and is primarily about cultivating the necessary focus and concentration to make the most of your working time.

Step 3, often overlooked, but perhaps the most important in terms of sustaining motivation, is detaching after work. This is about carving out non-work time for yourself on a daily basis. This final step has become particularly important in the current climate when people are essentially living in their work space.

The above steps work together in a virtuous cycle. For instance, when we are connected to our deeper level motivation and feeling excited about our work, it’s easier to focus and maintain progress. This in turn enables us to take a proper break, such that when we are ready, we can return to our work feeling re-energised and motivated.

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Here are a few tips relating to each phase of the cycle:

BEFORE | Getting Set Up

  • Find a way to represent your ‘why’ in your work environment
  • Create a collage with inspiring words and images for your desktop
  • List your top distractions and deal with them in advance (whether it’s social media updates, your email notifications, clutter, watching or reading the news, Netflix or your family/flatmates)
  • Find an accountability partner that you can check in with on a daily or weekly basis
  • Do some pre-writing before you start working
  • Establish a daily routine with the same wake up time
  • Get showered and dressed every day even if you aren’t seeing anyone
  • Walk around your block first thing in the morning as though you are walking to your office
  • Identify your incentives and rewards – keep a list of them
  • Prioritise your daily tasks for the following day

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DURING | Making the Most of Your Working Hours

  • Set an end to your working day in advance and stick to it
  • When establishing your hours remember that less can actually be more
  • Listen to inspiring background music | use a noise app to create an atmosphere
  • Instead of focusing on the long road ahead, focus on the next step in front of you by breaking tasks down into small, manageable pieces – one section at a time, one sentence at a time
  • Take the pressure off by shifting your language around work and your expectations (e.g. sketching, drafting, outline, preliminary).
  • Organise a virtual writing session with one or more peers for mutual motivation
  • Try a modified version of the Pomodoro Technique, especially when feeling stuck
  • Allow for ebbs and flows in productivity

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AFTER | Detaching from Your Work

  • Draw your work to a close at the time you had planned rather than waiting until you are too exhausted to continue or feeling burnt out
  • Try transition activities to ease your way into downtime (exercising, going for a walk, grocery shopping – online or in person)
  • Find ways to keep track of progress aside from word count (‘PhD Process Journal’/ Pomodoro rounds)
  • Check in with your accountability partner
  • Keep track of your wins
  • Cultivate gratitude for what is going well
  • Volunteer to help someone in your community who has been affected by COVID-19
  • Reward yourself with an item on your list
  • Make time for a new hobby or pastime that you’ve been postponing (learning a language, playing an instrument, drawing, painting, listening to music, reading a novel)
  • Set up a regular video chat with family or friends
  • Maintain the same bedtime | adopt a wind down ritual in the evening to boost your sleep quality
  • Since ideas or thoughts may come to you when you least expect it, have a notebook on hand to make space for these insights and commit to return to them the following day

 

Staying Motivated Throughout Your PhD

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With PhD projects averaging around 4 or more years to complete, it can be difficult to sustain the motivation that first inspired you to start the project in the first place.

A lack of motivation can show up in many different ways. Whether it’s procrastination, feeling low, getting distracted by other tasks, feeling incapacitated and unable to move forward – it’s often a vicious cycle. When we don’t feel motivated, we end up accomplishing very little and this results in us feeling even less motivated than before! And so, the cycle continues.

Whenever you find your motivation waning, it’s important to be gentle with yourself as you work through this and to know there are steps you can take to move forward.

When it comes to addressing this issue, there are two distinct, yet related levels of motivation: (1) Underlying motivation and (2) day-to-day motivation.

The first level, underlying motivation, is about reconnecting with your passion and excitement – the thing that inspired you to pursue a PhD in the first instance. The second level, day-to-day motivation, concerns the more immediate task of maintaining momentum on a daily basis.

While these two levels of motivation can be viewed as mutually reinforcing, the steps I would recommend for addressing each are slightly different. Moreover, while both levels are equally important, I would suggest concentrating on underlying motivation first. This is because even if we arm ourselves with the best tips relating to daily motivation, these tips can only be a temporary fix if we’ve lost our deeper motivation and can no longer identify why we are doing something.

So how can we begin to reconnect with our underlying motivation? Let’s try the following exercise.

Exercise: Finding Your ‘Why’

Find a quiet space where you can sit comfortably without distractions. Gently take a few deep breaths in and out.  When you are ready, start to write down all of the things that are worrying you about your PhD on a few sheets of paper. It could be things like: ‘I’m not working fast enough,’ ‘I’ll never get this done,’ ‘my work isn’t good enough,’ ‘what if I can’t find a job when I finish?’. All of the things that are worrying you about the PhD, just write them down.

Now, I’d like you to roll up each scrap of paper into a ball and throw them into a bin, one by one. Imagine yourself feeling lighter and lighter as you throw each piece of paper away. By going through this process, you are opening up space and quieting that critical voice in your head. If you find that more worried or anxious thoughts are coming to you, continue to repeat this part of the exercise.

Next, when you are ready, I want you to begin to ask yourself the following questions and be as honest with yourself as possible: why do I want to do this? What first inspired me to pursue a PhD? Was it a person I met, a place I visited or a book I read? And why did I choose this particular topic? What excited me about this field and this research topic? What can I do with the PhD that I couldn’t do without it? What doors will the PhD open up for me?

Take a few minutes to reflect on your answers. What has come up for you? Was there anything unexpected or surprising in your answers? Many of the students that have gone through this process are able to find their ‘why’ – that kernel of inspiration or passion that first inspired them to pursue a PhD. The thing that so often gets in our way and blocks us from connecting to that passion are our own thoughts, anxieties and worries. But what if you were able to sit in the place of inspiration more regularly? How would it feel to work on your research more regularly from this place of excitement?

As you go forward, can you identify whether there are things that remind you of your ‘Why’? Something that you can glance at that will automatically enable you to reconnect to why you are doing this. It could be a photo of someone, a book, a painting, an image on your desktop or some other object that that reminds you of your why. If you are able to identify something, perhaps you can keep this item in your work space as a way to tap into your underlying motivation more frequently.

Now that we’ve discussed how to reconnect to your underlying motivation Sign up for your free guide ‘8 Steps for Sustaining Motivation During Your PhD’where I address how to sustain day-to-day motivation.