Motivation is elusive. Some days you have it and others you don’t.

What gives?

Well, having fluctuations in your motivation is normal and to be expected. If you took ten PhD students, how many do you think would say that they’re highly motivated all the time? Not many, I imagine.

But it can also seem that motivation becomes harder and harder to find as you go through your PhD. With good reason. Studying for a PhD is an inherently lonely endeavour and the workload is considerable.

On top of that, the day to day routine can soon become boring, and you’re often undervalued, receive little acknowledgement for your expertise and frequently feel overwhelmed. Plus, the further you go on the PhD journey, the more uncertain you become about the quality of your work or where you’ll end up when you finally finish.

If you’re reading this and having trouble finding your own motivation, know that you aren’t alone. It’s okay to not always be highly motivated, and instead recognise that fluctuating motivation is a normal part of the PhD process.

Motivation is something you can control. Given the right tools, you can find motivation when it otherwise is missing. Here, I want to share with you a number of tips you can use to boost your motivation levels.

These tips have been shared by readers of this blog and from my own experience navigating my own PhD and coaching PhD students. Not all may be suitable for you, because everyone works in different ways. Instead, see them as a list you can pick from to suit your current situation.

Know that your lack of motivation is completely solvable. The first step in that process is changing your expectations.

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Stop expecting so much from yourself


Ask whether you’re expecting too much from yourself. It’s fine to have goals and ambitions, but it’s not fine to expect 100% from yourself all day every day. You’re going to have days when you don’t feel up to the task, or where your heart really isn’t in it. If you expect 100%, these days are a problem. If instead you recognise that you’re human and humans have off days, these days aren’t such a big deal.

Try and lower your expectations for what’s possible within a given day and acknowledge that having a bad day every now and again isn’t the end of the world, it’s just part of the journey.


See the bigger picture


An effective way of managing your expectations is to see the bigger picture. Remind yourself why you started out on your PhD journey in the first place, what motivates you, and what your goal is with the thesis and beyond. Focusing on the bigger picture means you can see each day for what it is: a small component of that bigger objective. Having an off day and periods where you’re not motivated isn’t so important, as it’s just one tiny step in a much longer journey to get you where you want to go.


Focus on what you can control


Okay, so you’ve lowered your expectations, you’ve taken more time to reflect on the bigger picture but you still can’t find the energy to concentrate. Have you thought about what within your day-to-day life you can control to increase motivation? There’s some low hanging fruit: tidy your desk, clean your room and get dressed out of your pyjamas. We all know those.

But what about your daily habits? Have you formed effective daily routines that promote self-care? Do you make sure that your phone is turned off, you’re otherwise free from distraction as much as possible and that your place of work is the kind of place you could actually expect to get some deep concentration going?


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Make specific to-do lists


Take it a step further and control the way you approach your day-to-day tasks. At the start of each day, you need to know clearly what it is you want to accomplish that day.

You need to be specific. Often a lack of motivation stems from not breaking down bigger tasks into smaller, more manageable components. If you wake up, look at your to-do list and all you see is ‘write literature review’, no sane person would be motivated to do that. Instead, if you saw ‘write the literature review introduction’ or ‘write 300 words of the literature review’, you’ve suddenly got something much more manageable on your hands.

On top of that, you’ve got clear, measurable deliverables. If your task is ‘write your literature review’ you aren’t going to finish it in a day so how will you know when you’re done for the day? If you instead write ‘write 300 words of the literature review’, you will know exactly where you stand.

So think to yourself: is this task broken down into small, more manageable components and am I being realistic about how many of those components I can achieve in one day?



Make your work place a place you actually want to work in


Once you’re sure you’ve broken down your tasks into manageable chunks, it’s time to think about how you actually sit down and work.

We’ve talked already about avoiding interruptions by doing things like turning your phone off. Your aim is for big chunks of uninterrupted time in which you can find your flow and focus on the job at hand.

Be realistic about how long you will be able to concentrate. A popular time management technique is the Pomodoro Technique. This simple productivity tool involves you setting a timer for twenty-five minutes, during which there’s no Facebook, no messages, no disruptions of any kind. At the end of that time, you take a five-minute break. You repeat that process four times (for two hours) before taking a longer, thirty-minute break.

Once you finish tasks, don’t just delete them off of your to-do list. Instead, shift them over to a ‘done’ list. That way, you can get a little motivational boost when you see how much you’re accomplishing in any one day. Also, because you’re working to a timer, you may find that you work more quickly because you want to get things wrapped up into neat twenty-five-minute packages.


Work out what’s important and urgent. Then work on that.


Choosing what to focus on in the first place is half the battle when it comes to increasing motivation. You need to bear in mind the distinction between something that is or isn’t important and something that is or isn’t urgent. You can have an urgent task that isn’t important, and an important task that isn’t urgent. Focus on what’s important and urgent first. Don’t waste your time on things that aren’t important and aren’t urgent.

This reflects the fact that 20% of your work is going to produce 80% of your outputs and outcomes in any given day. Spot what that 20% looks like and focus on that, as you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck. Don’t waste your time on the 80% of things that only lead to 20% of the outcomes.

The Eisenhower Matrix can help you understand what it is that is important or urgent and will help you better structure your workflow and to-do list.



Reward successes


Okay, so you’ve cleaned your desk, turned your phone off, set your timer and you’re moving stuff off your to-do lists. Good job. Here’s another important step.

Reward yourself. Life wouldn’t be any fun it is was all work, so be sure to reward yourself when you get things done, particularly if you’re doing things you didn’t particularly want to do in the first place.

There are two ways of doing this. On a day to day level, give yourself credit for getting stuff done. Have a slice of cake, take a long bath, do whatever it is you do to show yourself some love. On the grander scale, celebrate the successes. Each day adds up to the bigger goal you’ve set, so it isn’t enough just to celebrate getting through each day, you need to celebrate when you reach those goals. Get good feedback on a chapter? Celebrate! Got your fieldwork done? Celebrate! You get the idea.


Navigate Shit Valley


Inevitably though you are going to reach a stage where you can’t possibly face doing any more work. Everyone reaches this stage eventually. I call it Shit Valley.

In Shit Valley, everywhere you look is covered in shit and there doesn’t appear to be a way out. This stage normally comes about halfway through a PhD, when you’re about as far from a way out as it’s possible to be. You’re deep into your data, but you’re far away from the end of the tunnel. You still don’t really know what’s going on and you’re riddled with more self-doubt than you’ve ever had. It’s at this stage that motivation becomes a real struggle, as you’re too far invested to give up and too far away from the end to see what comes after.

Because the only way out of Shit Valley is to wade further through it, you need to really step up the techniques you use to foster motivation.

It’s at this stage that investing in your own health becomes particularly important. Resist the urge to eat junk and be lazy. Instead, eat well most of the time, eat junk only occasionally and make sure you’re moving around every day. Find something that suits you. Just move.

It’s also at this stage that having a life outside of your PhD becomes useful. Too many PhD students (myself included) make their PhD their entire life, at the expense of a sensible work-life balance and a healthy distraction away from your thesis. It’s important to cultivate your hobbies (or to find some if you don’t have any) and to maintain a friendship circle that isn’t full of PhD students. Having this external distraction may be the only thing that keeps you sane.

Now is also the time to frequently remind yourself why you are doing what you’re doing. Picture what it’s going to feel like once you’re done, when you’re graduating and when you’re able to move on with your life.


Summing up


One day you’ll finish, and you’ll look back and be incredibly proud of what you have achieved. That long term perspective is a powerful one, and should make you reflect more kindly on yourself on the days where you’re not so motivated or where you’re not at 100%. Be kind to yourself, particularly when you’re not as motivated as you wish.

But also be proactive. When you’re not motivated, look at your current situation and ask yourself what it is about current arrangements that don’t lend themselves to productivity. What can you change? The advice and tips above are a good start. Explore them, see what works for you and slowly chip away until you start to find the routine and short-cuts that work for you.

Keep doing that and you’ll be calling yourself Doctor in no time.


Hello, Doctor…

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