10 Top Tips for Maintaining Motivation in PhD Study

Motivation is important is all areas of our lives. Yet, it is often challenging and fleeting! The long-term nature of a PhD can lead you to loose sight of your goals and motives. On top of this, the work itself can vary from being engaging and interesting, to difficult, or boring and repetitive. The honeymoon period does fade away and you’re left with the hard grind and a considerable amount of work.

Motivation is specific to the individual and there’s no hard and fast rule about how to maintain consistent motivation. It is also inevitably linked to our workload and a number of other external factors. There are, however, some general things that we can apply to help keep ourselves inspired and, most importantly, continuing along the PhD path.

Photo credit: phd comics (I would happily fill my blog posts with all of their comics)!

Advance planning:

There will be times when your motivation will dip, sometimes this is unavoidable and unpredictable. However, being aware of how your motivation is linked to external, unavoidable factors can help you to plan ahead. For me, there have been certain points this year, marked by a quiet campus and a decrease in structure, that have resulted in me becoming demotivated. January, summer, and a period of strike action were particularly difficult for maintaining a consistent routine and keeping the motivated juices flowing! No one tells you how quiet campus can become – where does everyone go?!

Perhaps you can beaver away at home most days, and the ebbs and flows of campus life don’t affect you so much but recognising how your drive can be influenced by unavoidable factors can be useful for planning your breaks and field work, which may be better placed in these down periods.

Short term planning (this post won’t all be about planning, I promise):

Planning ahead can be difficult, particularly in the first year, when it’s hard to know what lays ahead of you. It can be just as useful to plan in the short term.  Setting out some time at the end of the week, or beginning of week to loosely planning your days/week can remove the need for you to think about what you need to do each day. It can also help to schedule in some time for the things outside of your PhD that give you balance, like exercise, socialising, and hobbies.

Take a break:

We are only human, we need to rest, recoup, and remember what the other important things in our lives are. There are a few types of breaks are important and can be useful when you are struggling to barrel on through a tough patch.

Most importantly – A HOLIDAY!

On my way to St Lucia for a real #PhDHoliday – I did work on a conference paper while I was there. However, this was during strategic moments – travelling, and at early hours in the mornings before everyone else woke up. A wonderful time of day that I am yet to see while working in England!

Now, I mean a proper holiday – leave the laptop at home, or at least strike a balance and take some days to switch off, travelling time can be a good time to get some writing done but don’t let it take over your break. Yes, these types of breaks do need to be planned but we should be proactive in our search for on-going motivation.

The spring clean break
Taking a few days at home to get organised, clean your house to within an inch of it’s life, and get those niggly, life-admin jobs done can help you clear your mind and get your head back in the game. I’m a big believer in the ‘messy room, messy mind’ concept.

The social break
Don’t neglect your friends, family or your social needs. Feeling flat and unmotivated? Connect with others in your cohort who may be going through the same things, and don’t forget about those outside of your PhD bubble – misery does love company, so sometimes drawing on the positivity of others in different circumstances might give you a boost. Just make sure they don’t ask ‘how’s your PhD going?’

Do something related, but different:

Stuck on one task that you are consequently avoiding? Bored of repetitive video coding (this has pretty much been my summer)? Try and switch up your tasks and come back to it. Watching conference talks can be a great way of leaving you feel inspired. Many now record and upload recordings of the talks for later watching. Watch the talks that you missed and get that post-conference buzz of inspiration at home!

Use deadlines:

If you find someone who works well to arbitrary, self-imposed deadlines, please send them to me. Unfortunately, for me, I know that they are not real, and I therefore do not adhere to them. One difficult aspect of a PhD is the idea that you have one deadline, in two or three years time. However, there are often internal events/reviews, expectations from your funders, and conference deadlines that can help give you a boost to get something finished and motivate you to push through.

Look after your health:

Photo credit: phdcomics

The items that appears on every list directed to PhD students, possibly because the above comic so often rings true. Eat well, keep hydrated, and exercise – you know the drill. If you’re feeling unmotivated, the likelihood is that you’re not feeling too excited about exercise either. It’s all too easy to forget how much it will make you feel better but the impact it can have on overall feelings of well-being and motivation is well documented.

Do something that you will enjoy and that doesn’t feel like a chore when the slump strikes. A swim with the reward of a sauna afterwards (if you have this luxury), a nice walk in the countryside with some friends of a furry companion might just help you to come back to your work with a fresh bought of energy.

Review your goals:

Take some time to think about your long term goals and remind yourself how the things you are doing now will help you to realise these goals. There are some useful career planning tools that can help you identify the skills that you have already developed, which in itself can be encouraging. It is also important throughout a PhD to keep in mind the skills that you wish to develop for the future, using things like the Researcher Development Framework can also be helpful in tracking your progress towards your goals.

Cultivate your surroundings:what-is-hygge-1

There is power in noticing the little things and making your environment a nice place to be in. If you haven’t read anything on hygge, then I would recommend The Little Book of Hygge.

As you can see from the quote from hyggehouse.com, it is about noticing elements of your surrounds but it also encourages you to consider how you can make your surroundings more comfortable and cosy. It is worth thinking about how you can make your workplace, whether this is an office or at home, a really nice place to be in. Enjoy the process and the place that you are in.

Consider your actions:

While hygge encourages you to consider and notice your surroundings, it can also be worth remembering that even the smallest of actions can have a big impact on how you feel. There is a fantastic app called You app that encourages behaviour change and routine development through the process of micro-actions. Micro-actions are small, easy actions that, when performed consistently, can lead to bigger changes. This has been a really fantastic app to encourage me to think about how my daily behaviours influence my overall well-being, and there is a lovely community of encouraging people that you can connect with!

Find out what motivates YOU!

Ah, the tricky one. There are lots of tips and tricks that you can employ when you’re feeling demotivated but what motivates you personally and intrinsically? Why on earth have you chosen the path of a PhD? What do you really enjoy about it? What makes you happy in your daily work?

Becoming explicitly aware of what gets you up and going in the morning can help you to tap into these resources when you are feeling flat and uninspired. It is a difficult thing to do but paying attention to how you feel during work-related situations can help you to figure it out.

It might be the impact that your research has on the community that you feel excited about, or the feeling of achievements that comes from publishing, getting into a conference, or simply finishing a difficult task. The process that leads up to each of these things can be long, and naturally your motivation with wax and wane. However, recognising this can help you to find things that motivate you at different stages and give you reason to continue and push through to your ultimate goal. I would recommend chapter 2 of The Productive Researcher if you are interested in some tips to explore your own motives.

Photo credit: graphjam

Ultimately, motivation will fluctuate, and it is different for everyone. It is completely normal to loose motivation, particularly during challenging periods. Bringing your ups and downs into your consciousness can help you to recognise what is draining or boosting your motivation levels. There is hope to push through a ‘PhD slump’!

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