Energetic researcher

#37: 5 ways to boost your energy as a researcher!

Do you want to be confident, upbeat, and ready to tackle any upcoming challenge at work? But are you suffering from a work routine that constantly drains your energy and leaves you feeling exhausted? We’ll tell you how to turn it around with our 5 energy boosters for researchers!

Does this sound familiar to you: You’ve recently come back from the holidays feeling relaxed and re-charged. You had lovely days off with family & friends, got a bit of extra sleep and a bit less stress as well. You’ve come back to work with a positive mindset, full of energy and highly motivated. You felt confident that you could work with more focus than before. But after just a short time at work, your optimism started to crumble! 

You’re instantly hit by a full workload and it feels like you have more tasks to do than you can handle. Unfinished projects and unsolved problems catch up with you and quickly drain your energy. You feel yourself getting dragged into the quagmire again and you don’t know how to escape. But you also know that you could be working much better and reaching more important goals, if you could only maintain the optimism, confidence and energy that you felt just a few days ago …! 

We at the Smart Academics blog know your struggle and are here to reach out and offer our support: We’ll show you how to boost your energy and maintain it long term with just a few but significant changes to your work-days! Eager to enhance your own work routine? Get our free worksheet “How to boost my energy”!

1. Clarify your priorities

One sure-fire way to drain your energy is to keep working on activities that you feel don’t have a big impact or benefit for you, your research, or in the academic community. Another frequent cause of low-energy in researchers is not knowing what is important, causing you to spread your efforts randomly on what comes up in no particular order.

You can turn that around by reassessing your priorities for the upcoming 10-12 months. These can also be your priorities for the year or even farther in the future. Ask yourself: What do I want to achieve by the end of that time period? What is most important to me, for my career, and for my happiness as a researcher? What would make me most proud to achieve over the course of the next year? Or what ‘must’ be finished in order to move my career ahead? 

To get you thinking: You might have really BIG priorities like finishing your PhD. Or, if you’re kind of in the middle of your PhD project, it might be a priority to get a better grip on your project, so you can be more confident about finishing your PhD on time. Or you might be looking to find yourself a new position, gain tenure, or get your first big project proposal funded. 

Maybe you also have more routine priorities like getting another paper published, a monograph written, or a new collaboration started. You might want to get your own first PhD student, or increase the size of the team to support you in the lab. You may want to revamp the lectures of a course you’ve been teaching for a few terms already (and you know you could make improvements), or finally get this new Masters Programme going with your colleagues’ help. 

On a side note: 

If your goal is to get a paper published, we’ve got you covered – see our blog post #36 ‘5 tips to get a paper accepted this year’

If your goal is to move forward with your PhD, but you’re currently struggling to get anything done in that direction, stay tuned – we’ve got a brand new opportunity coming up soon! All you need to do is sign-up here and we’ll keep you posted once the news is out .

Set your annual goals:

Once you have identified your priorities, pick the 3-5 that are the most important for you. Ask yourself what would have the biggest impact for you personally or for your academic career. Sometimes these are things that have a domino effect, e.g. if you manage to sort out the problems related to your PhD project, you’ll also be able to start writing your papers for the dissertation and then more things fall in place. Or: If you get funding for your project, you can focus more on your research, employ a few PhD students and move towards applying for a tenure-track position. So make sure to pick priorities that really make a difference in the long run. 

Set your quarterly goals: 

Now as the second step, identify short-term goals that will move you towards accomplishing your bigger goals. Ask yourself: ‘What should I achieve in 3 months time to contribute to the success of my big goal?’ So within each of the long-term goals, set a few more specific short-term goals to get you there. Print your quarterly goals out and hang them somewhere where you can see them frequently. They will give you direction when you’re feeling lost. Whenever you make a decision on what to work on, it should be aligned with your goals and priorities. Do you want to see how this would look for you? Get our free worksheet “How to boost my energy”!

2. Succeed with a quick-win

One way to keep your energy level high is to prove to yourself that you are able to tackle challenges and you are making progress towards your goals. You need a quick-win now that will give a feeling of success. Even a small achievement will boost your confidence and confirm ‘Yes, I can do this, I am in control, I will make it happen!’ As a result, you will feel more capable overall and that will help you to get other things going as well. 

Identify one area for a quick-win:

Pick one of your quarterly goals (yes, just one) and ask yourself what you could do that could quickly be finished and give that feeling of success. To give an example: Let’s say it is one of your annual goals to develop an entire new course for a teaching programme. Your quarterly goal is to have the first 3 lectures ready, but you are dragging your feet to getting started.  Then a great idea for the quick-win could be to have a short outline of content for all 12 lectures in the course, so you can start to work on the first three. The quick-win is often not so much about making massive progress towards achieving that end-goal already, but rather just to get going. It helps you to actually see real progress and a first result = the quick-win! 

If you’re wondering, how can I make time every day to work on your ‘quick-win’, see our blogpost #4: ’How to make time for research?’ and if you want an even more in-depth guide on how to become more efficient as a researcher, check out our free expert-guide ‘5 Steps to Boost Your Productivity as Researcher’. You should put more time and effort into this one area than any other and work on it regularly. You don’t need to work on it for half-a-day or a day at a time, but rather aim for 1-2 hours every single day. Making progress in this one area now is your most important focus. Ideally start working on your ‘quick-win’ first thing in the morning before you turn to anything else. 

3. Manage your energy throughout the day

Do not work for 10h a day non-stop without taking time to re-energise yourself. This is the quickest way to deplete your energy early on and leave you feeling desperate. There are many ways to re-energise yourself during a long workday, so here’s two we like best. 

Take a few breaks:

Plan out your day in the morning and take time for a few meaningful breaks throughout your workday. Think about what would really help to re-energise you during a break. Is there a little place nearby where you could pickup a better-than-average sandwich? Do you like to meet with your favourite colleagues over lunch for a chat (instead of getting stuck in a noisy canteen with a bunch of people you do not feel comfortable around)? Do you take a brisk 15-min walk in solitude to get some fresh air, because this feels better than going for another round of lukewarm coffee? See our free worksheet ‘How to get out of low PhD motivation?’ for additional tips on how to spend your breaks and structure your daily working hours. 

Identify a little ‘treat’:

The idea here is to have one little thing that you truly look forward to during the work-day. Again, this is stimulating and helps you to recharge your batteries. In our course ‘Completing your PhD successfully on time’ we encourage students to identify one ‘daily treat’ for themselves every single day. Knowing that there’s also something positive waiting for you can help to tackle work that is not-so-stimulating. To give you some ideas, your daily treat can be:

  • a 20 min. yoga session
  • reading another chapter in a page-turning novel
  • listening consciously to your favourite music
  • cook a nice meal
  • play an instrument 
  • explore the neighbourhood
  • craft something you want to give to your friend

Are you curious what our personal ‘daily treats’ are? We’re happy to share: Bärbel’s favourite is to practice ‘clarinet’ for 30 min a day. This is a total energy booster and gives tranquillity to her! Gunther on the other hand is a massive comedy series fan! So his treat is to watch just one episode- that always puts things into perspective for him. And he has the amazing ability to watch the same series over and over again until he’s picked up even the subtlest jokes in-between the lines! (Any raving fans of ‘Big-bang-theory’ or ‘The office’ around?)

Nothing is too silly or too basic to be on your list – as long as you enjoy it! Just make sure you make it a habit to include something small to look forward to every single day. This should help you to realise that there is something other than work in your life, and stop you from driving yourself to exhaustion. 

4. Make a physical activity routine

Nothing helps you to recharge your energy more than a physical activity that you enjoy! Ok, if you workout multiple days a week or you’re already running marathons, skip this section! But we know researchers and the pace of academic life very well and from own experience there’s not much physical activity built into a researchers’ average work day. In our work as scientists we use our brain capacity much more than our physical capacity! 

Our work mostly involves sitting – in front of computer screens, in meetings, while marking student exams, reading papers and may be a bit of standing while delivering lectures or doing lab-work! The closest the average academic comes to physical activity is walking to the canteen for lunch breaks and back again (you’re not taking the elevator, are you?). We all know about the health benefits of physical activity, so that’s nothing we have to describe here. But maybe this can help to get you going: research on high-performance workers suggests that our brain capacity improves as our physical well-being gets better, or in plain words: those that are physically strong have also more will-power and better mental capacity (see Loehr & Schwartz 2001, Schwartz & McCarthy 2014, Buchard 2017). A good researcher is a strong researcher! Convinced? 

Schedule physical activities: 

So if you want to improve your energy levels long-term, go for at least two sessions of physical activity a week. Don’t make it difficult, do what you like best, or pick an activity you always wanted to learn and get going. Universities often offer amazing opportunities on campus – so lift a few weights or join a team alongside your students and colleagues! If you’re not there yet, make a commitment to implement regular physical activity with our free worksheet “How to boost my energy”!

Pick opportunities to ‘move’:

Apart from that, make it a habit to ‘move’ whenever possible. Bike to work instead of boarding an overloaded bus, or walk back home even it it’s a longer distance! We’ve also banned ourselves from using elevators or escalators – it’s great fun to dash up the stairs and be quicker than the person on the escalator next to you!

Swap the bus for the bicycle!

5. Plan your holidays!

One of the first things we do at the start of a new year is plan our holidays! Sounds crazy? Not at all! If we didn’t do that all the potential weeks would be eaten up by teaching courses and 500 other tasks we have to do for the business! We would have no time to spend together, or to travel as a family! You should plan your holidays with your partner or family first thing in the new year and then schedule everything else around it! 

Schedule days off work:

Plan for a few shorter breaks (maybe just a longer weekend in conjunction with a public holiday) and 1-2 longer holidays throughout the year. Having days off from work every now and then has two obviously positive effects: 

First, you’ll always know when the next break is coming and thus you’ll have something to look forward to. This will help you to sustain your motivation, even when there are hard stretches at work. It’ll help you to plough through the grind. 

Second, you’ll actually have regular breaks from work and time to re-energise. You’ll always feel better, more relaxed, and optimistic after a holiday. You’ll also get the much needed benefit of not thinking about your research and ruminating on the same problems over and over again. It gives you the opportunity to distance yourself from your work and to see everything with fresh eyes when you return. 

A special comment to the PhD students here: Most of you are entitled to holidays — but we know that many of you are reluctant to go on holidays and take way fewer days than you could! This is all to the cost of your long-term mental health! So check your contracts, appointments, and scholarships for the details! You’ll benefit so much from a few days away from your PhD projects and a fresh perspective! 


It’s not rocket science to maintain high energy in the long-run. But it needs some planning, attention, and determination! We hope that we could encourage you to be more aware of what helps you to maintain your energy and motivation in the long run. Give our suggestions a serious try and set your own priorities with our free worksheet “How to boost my energy”!

Related resources:

  • Schwartz, T. McCarthy, C. 2014. Manage your energy, not your time. In: HBR-Guide to managing stress at work. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 53-81.
  • Loehr, J. Schwartz, T. 2001. The making of a corporate athlete. Harvard Business Review, Iss. Jan. 2001.
  • Burchard, B. 2017. High Performance Habits: How Extraordinary People Become That Way. Hay House Inc.

More information: 

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#PhD, #Research, #Stress, #Motivation, #Planning