Pretty much every PhD student loses their motivation at some point. Sometimes it can happen during the middle of the PhD, when that enthusiasm and novelty of the PhD begins to wear off. On the other hand, it can hit you at the end of your PhD when things begin to feel unmanageable, when you have too much to do, where the smallest piece of work feels pointless due to failing to even put a dent in your ‘to do list’.
First and foremost, it’s important that we normalise this loss in motivation. It’s easy to start criticising ourselves, comparing ourselves to others, or worrying about how ‘were not just cut out’ to complete a PhD. This simply isn’t true; we all have our moments when this loss in motivation arises. In all honesty, if you’re not experiencing a loss in motivation during your PhD, you’re more likely to be one of the few as opposed to one of the many. In the grand scheme of things, losing motivation for a week or two isn’t really a concern. Even if you lose motivation for a month, it can be salvaged. A month should be reflective of your entitled holiday or annual leave anyway – whether you can take it off or not is a different conversation for another post. But all in all, losing motivation for a month won’t set you back. It’s not the end of the world – promise.
The part where this gets concerning is when that loss of motivation snowballs into two months, three months, or even more. Usually, this can be related to burnout. It might show up in different forms, like procrastination, analysis paralysis, writers block, or motivation, but the underlying reason we’re struggling to stay focused and motivated is because we haven’t given ourselves enough rest. Be sure to have a read of our post about burnout and check-in with yourself. When was the last time you had a break? Sometimes a little breather is just what we need to reignite our motivation again. If you don’t manage this appropriately it can contribute to feelings of wanting to quit your PhD. All in all, motivation has its highs and lows, and when we hit a low patch it’s important to see if we’re taking care of ourselves or if there is a bigger reason behind it.
If once we’ve identified that it’s not burnout contributing to our loss in motivation, it’s time to build a strategy. At this stage it’s likely you either feel anxious/stressed for not getting things done or a complete sense of apathy – where rationally, you know you should be concerned or feel a sense of urgency, but in reality, you’re just unbothered by it all. To push through this period the key focus is really about momentum. We can think of momentum similar to habits or trying to build in some consistency to our lives. It’s not necessarily about the quality or quantity, it’s about the doing – i.e., momentum.
Momentum can be those small, remedial tasks that eventually have to be done. Even if the task takes 5 minutes to complete – getting things crossed off the to-do list is the goal here. The idea being that as we complete one task, we slowly get back into a rhythm or groove for completing other ones. It’s not necessarily about the time spent on a task or how many hours – it’s easy to convince yourself that sitting at your desk for 5 hours is being productive when in fact you’re just twiddling your thumbs or watching videos on YouTube.
Another way to improve your motivation momentum is to make use of what’s known as Parkinson’s law. Parkinson’s’ law is the idea that work will inevitably expand or increase in order to fill the available time. In other words, if you allocate a week or a month to do something it’s likely to take that exact amount of time. The way to leverage Parkinson’s law is to give yourself immediate, more urgent deadlines – and stick to it. If you give yourself an ‘hour’ to write an abstract to a publication or a conference, it’s likely that you’ll do it. This approach can also help with motivation – it’s no longer about waiting for the ‘right’ time or to ‘be in the mood’, you’re creating a sense of urgency that can help you get things back on track. The benefit to working in a task-oriented manner (as opposed to a time-oriented one) means that if you do finish your allocated tasks for the day, you can take the rest of the day off without feeling guilty or unproductive. This can also help accelerate the Parkinson’s law approach, you might be more inclined to write that abstract in an hour if it means you can go home early or join your friends for lunch.
Certainly, this isn’t always the case. Some parts of our PhD simply do take a long time. You couldn’t say, write an entire publication in a day (or a good one at least). But nonetheless you’re likely to produce a significant amount of work if you tried, which would bring the timeline forward.
This approach is likely to help get some momentum back, with less concern for quality and more about ‘quantity’ – or output. It’s the doing part that really matters. As we get back into the groove and our motivation comes back, you’ll free up some capacity and time to then worry about the quality. In fact, having those first set of actions act as building blocks which are likely to motivate you further to get things done. It’s always easier to edit a paper than write one from scratch, right?
With all things said and done, being able to manage and navigate through the motivation-less days is a true testament to your ability and self-resilience. Once again, we all hit those periods where we don’t want to do anything productive or simply can’t motivate ourselves to start. The true success is being able to stand fast, rest if you need to, and then implement strategies to get things rolling again.
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