We all have our ups and downs in life and, speaking personally, this certainly applies to study. How can you maintain motivation and momentum on days when study feels like the last thing you want to do? In this post I’ll share a simple technique that continues to work well for me whether it’s a good day or a bad day.
TLDR: Make two task lists for your project: one for the good days when you can manage the heavy mental lifting; and a second list of more mundane tasks that you can tackle on the bad days.
The Good Days
There are the good days when time is plentiful, energy levels are high and inspiration fires every thought, pen stroke or key press. I find that these days take care of themselves. These are the days to deal with the big jobs that demand intellectual effort and make a tangible contribution to the end product. A thousand words to unpack a particularly tricky concept, or remodelling a chapter to improve the flow of the text, or incorporating some new journal papers into the literature review.
The Bad Days
But what about the bad days? These are the days when intellectual effort feels like, well, too much effort. I have a lot of these study days, often due to fatigue, time pressures and being mentally overloaded. I used to beat myself up about my perceived failure to “make progress” with my PhD, staring at a to-do list where, on a bad day, every task looked impossible. These are the days when distractions would take hold, shortly followed by guilt. But bad days happen and, regardless of whether they are unavoidable or self-inflicted, it’s important to maintain your study momentum if possible.
Time for Two Lists
On one of my bad days I was staring at a seemingly impenetrable document on my laptop screen. I had written the document myself (on a good day) but, with my head seemingly full of cotton wool, I wasn’t making any progress. I fairly quickly found myself looking for something else to do. But, on this occasion, the distractor task related to my study. Instead of writing the next five-hundred words of whatever thesis chapter it was, I spent an hour or two tidying up my references. This was low‑level stuff: editing records in my chosen reference management tool; downloading and adding missing papers; copying entries into my references document. The task required gentle focus but wasn’t too taxing. I had been putting off this job for a while because on good days it seemed boring and unproductive. Using word count as a measure of performance (more about that in another post) I hadn’t made any progress, but it felt far better than if I had disappeared on yet another Internet trail of distraction.
The outcome of that particular bad day was that my references were in a healthier state. My references document looked a lot tidier. I also found a missing paper that would, during a later good day, provide an important insight. Other bad day tasks involve gentle proof reading, or checking the consistency of fonts, text styles, line spacing and paragraph formatting. On a good day these jobs feel like a trivial waste of time but on a bad day, when anything productive seems impossible, they represent real progress. Something tends to be better than nothing.
This is the first in (what I hope will be) a series of “how I have coped with my PhD” posts. I’m writing these posts for my undergraduate project students but, whether or not you belong to this select (unfortunate?) group, I hope you find something useful in this blog category. However, I’d like you to note the emphasis I’ve placed on I in the opening sentence of this paragraph. I’m not a big fan of one size fits all solutions and, as they say, your mileage may vary. If something from this post works for you, or you can adapt it to work for you, then that’s great. Let me know, I’ll be delighted. But if you can’t apply it to your work, or the way you work, move along and try something different. Let me know about that, too. I won’t feel bad about it and neither should you.