PhD student on sofa not motivated

#51: Overcoming low motivation while in COVID-19 lockdown!

During the corona pandemic, many of you may suddenly have ample time to get important work done, but not feel motivated to do so. Perhaps your original plans for your PhD project have been turned upside-down. You already know that you’ll be pretty short on time for your experimental work once the lockdown is over. So there is a clear sense of urgency and pressure to deliver while you’re working from your home-office, but you’re struggling with a lack motivation. In this post we’ll help you overcome low-motivation quickly and efficiently! 

Throughout the lockdown, we’ve heard that many of you are having problems with self motivation to get work done. We’ve been contacted by PhD students and even supervisors, who are concerned about their PhD candidates struggling with motivation. 

Here’s one example from many: “I’m a PhD student in life sciences and I have a really hard time getting work done under lockdown. I thought maybe I just needed to get used to it, but it’s getting worse and worse. I have a massive amount of reading to do and a paper to write (among other things). When the lockdown is over I’ll spend a great deal of my time doing experiments and I won’t have time to read as much, so it’s crucial that I get some work done right now – at the very moment when I lack motivation! Do you guys have any tips on coping with this and raise my productivity level?”

Yes of course we do! We’re here to help and serve you, especially in these pressing times. We’ve already posted a whole bunch of helpful tips and tools to assist you during the lockdown check out our 20 great ways to stay productive when Corona (COVID-19) has locked you out of university or Mastering the literature review during the Corona lockdown that will help you further. This blog-post will take up the issue of how to motivate yourself during the lockdown and stay on the productive side at home! 

We’ll start with having a closer look at what motivation actually is, which will help you locate the root of your own motivational problems right now. Then, we’ll give you four simple strategies to move yourself into the productive mode! Plus we’ve also thrown in a great free worksheet ‘How to tackle low motivation’, which will help you strategise what needs to be done and work your way towards it! 

What you need to know about motivation

As a scientist, you are used to applying logic. That’s why we’ll start by clearing up a common misconception about motivation. Once you understand why putting more pressure on yourself isn’t going to change anything, the way is open to overcome low-motivation and adapt a more productive work-style. Logic, right?

Contrary to popular belief, motivation often is the consequence or result of a certain behaviour or activity, not the beginning of it. And low motivation is the consequence of a lack of activity, not a pre-existing emotional state that will magically shift and then you are suddenly motivated to start working. 

This is why statements like ‘I hope I’ll be more motivated tomorrow morning’ or, ‘I’ll have to have more motivation before I start working on this!’ fall short! It doesn’t work this way! And definitely not with scientific tasks! You can’t wait for motivation to arrive like a train into the station – well you can, but it won’t come! 

You may have experienced it before, motivation often sets in after you’ve started to perform a certain task! Activity and action are what induce motivation. Motivation is the consequence of your actions, not the cause! 

So forget about ‘waiting for motivation’ – inertia will only make the situation worse. Once you come around to this way of thinking, you’ll be able to take the first steps to actually motivate yourself! 

The motivation spiral

A difficult task or activity when completed will result in you feeling motivated and being ready to tackle more of that difficult task – increasing your motivation further! Once you realise you are making progress, it results in satisfaction, happiness, and increased confidence. Then suddenly you are enjoying yourself, or at least not longer experiencing the task as painful. You gain momentum and move towards your goal! You’ve had a positive stimulus and that further increases your willingness to work on a task. You’ve accomplished more and as a result, you feel motivated! 

But this goes the other way round as well: If you sit and do nothing but wait for motivation to come to you, you’ll feel bad about yourself because you got nothing done. You’ll be dissatisfied, less confident, and as a result less motivated to do anything . . . a vicious cycle.

Once given yourself this negative stimulus it further decreases your willingness to work on your task and evokes negative emotions resulting in a loss of motivation!

So how do you escape this paradox: Starting to work is the best way to motivate yourself to work! To break the downward spiral, you must actually start doing something meaningful, thereby increasing your motivation. We hear this over and over again from the scientists we work with, and you’ve probably experienced it for yourself – the start is always the trickiest part, but once you are over that barrier, you gain momentum and get into the flow of things! 

That’s the theory behind what we’re recommending and here’s how you can snap out of low-motivation with 4 proven strategies. And – as always – we added an amazing free worksheet ‘How to tackle low-motivation’ to help you implement the 4 strategies for yourself! Grab it, complete it for yourself, and put it above your desk to motivate you of how within reach your goals are. The first step: 

1. Schedule a task!

Make a decision and schedule a task. Identify the ‘what’ and ‘when’. What are you going to work on and when exactly are you getting started? Write this down. Our two hints for this: 

  1. Pick a single task to get started, that’s all you need. 
  2. Schedule this task early in the day – it’s the ideal time. We’re happy to discuss the full reasons behind this in another blog post! Sign up to our newsletter so you won’t miss it! For now, just schedule the chosen task as early as possible or make it the first thing you do the next day. 

Once the decision is made, you need to stick to it! If this is your soft spot, set an alarm or reminder on your cell phone, or ask your spouse or a friend to remind you! 

2. Manage expectations

The surest way to kill budding motivation is to set yourself an unachievable task. In the message from the earlier PhD student, she wrote about 

“a massive amount of reading, and a paper to write (among other things).” 

Now, who wouldn’t be overwhelmed or demotivated by that! 

The problem is that most scientific tasks are not easy and take considerable intellectual capacity to perform. Plus, there’s that risk of failure! No one finds it super easy to write and publish a paper (but we can also help you here: 15 steps to get a paper written during the Corona lockdown). But then again, who has ever found it easy to write a research proposal knowing that there’s a 1/1000 chance of getting it funded? It’s also not easy to comb through all your data to detect significant correlations or to set up your experiments to yield the expected data! Being an academic is hard work!

It’s difficult, it takes energy and can make you anxious! And that’s why scientists are masters of procrastination! Out of anxiety and fear of failure! Procrastination and low motivation are best friends! The one seldom appears without the other! 

So, in order to stay in the motivational frame of mind, you’ve got to: 

  1. Break down those scary, demotivating beasts into smaller chunks that are not threatening. Sticking to the example above: The task is not to “do a massive amount of reading”. The task is to “read just a few specific papers.” And once that is completed you’ll pick the next small piece of the puzzle to complete, and so on. 
  2. Work in shorter bursts. No one’s able to productively read for an entire day – not even during a lockdown! Keep your expectations realistic. Instead of expecting yourself to do nothing but read, day after day, decide on a time-span of 1-2 hours. During that time, focus intensely (see also Nature Career, April 2020). Do it, and then you’re off the hook! Do the same thing the next day, and the day after . . . that will help you to build a routine, which is the next strategy. 

3. Establish routines

Routines are automated behaviour and will help you to work on difficult tasks. A routine is done without second thought. If you take a shower every morning, you’re not questioning that anymore. You get out of bed and into the bathroom. Easy! 

A famous comedian was once asked how on earth he could come up with so many cracking jokes all the time. The answer was simple! He had committed himself to writing one – just one – every single day! It had become a routine instead of a struggle to write all day long when he needed to.

It’s a well-known fact, how prolific composers or writers manage to produce a huge amount of songs or novels year after year. They sit down, every day, and work on it! They don’t wait for inspiration or motivation. So guess how the Harry Potter volumes were written? Guess how your dissertation or papers will be written? Exactly the same way! So we recommend you start a working routine in this way:

  1. Sit down and write bit-by-bit, every day! One session every day, same time, same place. 
  2. Keep it going for a few days – don’t break the chain! You’ll gently slide into a productive routine that takes little effort to keep up once you’ve got the ball rolling. 

You’ll no longer experience ‘start-up’ problems, and keep the routine going! This procedure works the same way for your research proposal, your data analysis, your upcoming conference presentation, or whatever else is on your agenda and has been stymied by low-motivation. 

4. Create positive feedback loops

While the first three strategies are helpful for getting over the difficult starting-phase, this one is here to help keep you in the productive zone! 

After getting rid of your starting-problem, you now need to keep yourself going and sustain the momentum. You do this by creating positive feedback loops. You deliberately amplify the feeling of success and accomplishment after completing a task, so you actually start looking forward to working on it again (e.g. you are motivated!) You can do this by: 

  1. Ticking off completed tasks on a task-list! We often hear academics say that they really enjoy making these tick-marks! It makes them feel good to tick things off a list as the day goes on! That’s because checking a completed task off is a very tangible measure of success! You can literally see the progress you’ve made in a day!
  2. Having a short end-of-day or closure practice! At the end of a day, you write down what went well and what you have accomplished on that day. Again, the focus is on your successes and writing this down gives you a feeling of accomplishment. 
  3. Working with a reward! After you’ve completed a tricky task, you reward yourself with something that gives you pleasure! So now you can get the ice-cream out of the freezer and allow yourself to get lost on Facebook or Netflix. Enjoy yourself – guilt free, because now you earned your break! 

It’s a temporary struggle

It’s good to remind yourself that what you’re experiencing right now is a temporary struggle and that goes two ways:

One day, the lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic will be lifted and you will be able to access your beloved lab again, hug your colleagues, and embrace a new phase in your academic life! That is certainly something to look forward to and motivating in itself!

But it’s also good to remind yourself of how ‘temporary’ the pain is of doing difficult tasks. Writing that research proposal or paper, in the end, is a matter of days. Yes, it’s tricky, but the time you need to dedicate to this task is small in comparison to your entire day and the many other things you can enjoy as well. It’ll go quicker than you think!

How you come out of this temporary lockdown is your choice: You can either return with a few great academic accomplishments under your belt and improved working routines that will be a massive asset in the future, or with a feeling of resentment and regret over the wasted weeks! That would be pretty demotivating, right? If you need help staying the course, print out our free worksheet ‘How to tackle low-motivation’ to give yourself a boost when your routine starts to fail, or you feel the knock of your old friend procrastination at the door. We will get through this time together, and come out the other side a little wiser and kinder to each other. So get cracking!

PS: If you like more help with your PhD working routines, join us at our upcoming free PhD Webinar! – See you there! 

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