Staying motivated in the unstructured work environment of academia can be difficult. For me, it has always been easy to stay on task during the field season because the summer ticks away regardless of how much I get done. I have to be organized and get in while the plants are growing and the tides are favorable. As summer gives way to fall, I have often gone through productivity slumps. This was especially true after I was done with my coursework and, more recently, when I was struggling with some mental health issues. In spite of these challenges, I have been at this graduate school game for (*gulp*) nine years now, and I’ve learned a thing or two about how to bring structure to my days and set myself up for maximum productivity. In other lucky news, I have tons of smart friends who kindly offered up some of their best advice on a Facebook thread I started. Thanks Tanya, Jeff, Christy, Brendan C, Danielle, Haley, Kevin, Sarah, Brendan H, Anne, Vadim, Ashley, Chhaya, Jamie, Lyndsey, Eddie, Jessica, Caroline, Sacha, Becky, Bjorn, Carlos, Aviva, and Colin!
Here are my top tips for staying focused and productive!
1. Set goals at multiple time scales.
Why: This might seem obvious, but goal setting is a practice I didn’t really take seriously until after my PhD qualifying exam. I was done with my coursework and, suddenly, I was done with the last big benchmark my program offered before “Write Your Dissertation.” Writing my dissertation was, obviously, my endgame, but it was so hard to get anything done when I had this nebulous, humongous goal I knew I wouldn’t accomplish for several years. So, I took in some self-help media, like ya’ do, and realized I needed to give myself goals to meet in the near term in order to reach my long term goals.
Example: I have really long term goals (become a doctor; visit all the National Parks; write a book; gainful employment), but I don’t actually focus on those over much on the day to day. As an example, right now my major life goal is to finish my dissertation. But, I can’t get out of bed and say, “Work on becoming a doctor today,” because that would make me want to hide under the covers. Instead, at the start of each month, I set up a series of dissertation related goals. In August, I was trying to finish one of my chapters. Spoiler alert, I didn’t quite make the goal, but I’m so stinking close, which is the point! At the start of the month, I made a timeline with tasks I needed to get done to meet my goal. Each Sunday, I reassessed where I was and adjusted as needed. Sometimes it takes a week to figure out an issue you allotted a day for, and that’s fine. Sometimes you have life stuff come up, and that’s fine. During this weekly planning session, I made a to-do list for the week consisting of tasks that would ideally take no more than two hours each. I’ve learned it’s a lot harder to procrastinate “edit figure captions” than “finalize results.” All those two hour tasks fed into my goal for the week, for example, finishing writing the discussion section of my manuscript.
Tips & Tools: Right now, what works for me is a combination of Google calendar, Google Docs, and Evernote. I like these because the desktop versions sync well with the mobile applications. Over the years, I’ve used lots of different tools to keep track of my goals. On my Facebook thread, Anne mentioned Trello, which I’ve used before and liked, though it wasn’t ideal for me. I’ve also used bullet journals, with pretty high success. The main thing is to keep trying different methods till you find something that works for you!
2. Build an accountability community.
Why: It’s relatively easy to make plans and goals, but following through is a whole different mental hurdle. For some folks, PIs provide a great deal of accountability, but academia is flexible at pretty much every level, so there is tons of variation in how much structure people get, or want to get, from their mentors. Finding a group of peers and setting up systems to hold one another accountable can be useful, even if your boss checks in on you all the time. Nothing has been more helpful to me than this. Having to tell another human that you made no progress is embarrassing, even if there is no consequence other than having to admit that your work has stalled.
Example: For my previous dissertation example, I’ve set up accountability at several levels. First, the project is a collaboration with my lab mate. I love working collaboratively for lots of reasons, not the least of which is I have two brains thinking about any problems we encounter, but, more practically, we make the goals and the plans for meeting the goals as a team. Sure, we still encounter problems and setbacks, but it’s a lot harder to just blow something off or procrastinate a stressful task when you have a responsibility to your team. Second, I have a group of friends who act as my accountability group, and we regularly check in about our goals and progress. This is great for accountability and also for cheerleading! I love seeing my friends succeed and I know they are rooting for me too.
Tips & Tools: My accountability group has worked in different ways over the years. Currently, we do a weekly email chain where we outline how last week went, based on the plans we shared, and then we share our goals for the upcoming week. It’s great, because my accountability group (Meridith, my sister, my friend Dani) has set a standard of putting mental health/life items on our weekly lists. It’s a good reminder that we should be prioritizing our lives outside of work as well. For my collaborative project, we have a shared to-do list in Google Docs, we meet to co-work through Google Hangouts, and we have regular check ins about progress. You can also share to-do lists through Wunderlist (h/t: Kevin), and I’ve had accountability partners who I’ve met with weekly through Google Hangouts. Again, there are lots of tools out there, find out what works for you.
3. Share your daily schedule.
Why: I think you could easily bin this with the above point about accountability, but this has been so useful to me, I wanted to make it an independent point. The hardest thing, for me, about the flexibility of graduate student/academic gig has been the tendency to blur the lines between personal and professional life. Lots of friends on my Facebook thread have found blocking out times for different tasks far in advance has been really helpful. For me, and a few others who chimed in, this sort of long term planning mostly just produces anxiety. What if next week during writing time, I don’t feel like writing?! Alternatively, making a daily schedule where I block out work sessions, breaks, and time for non-work activities has really worked for me. I know what I need to get done in the day, thanks to my goal setting, but it’s flexible enough that I can work on what I want when the mood strikes me. Also, it helps me actually measure how much I’m working in a single day, and allows me to set boundaries around time I want to spend on non-work things.
Example: Every weekday morning, around 8 AM, I text my daily schedule to my my lab mate and collaborator, who I mentioned above (my callabo-bestie if you will; h/t: Kelly). We have been doing this every weekday for months now, and I think it’s one of the most powerful tools I have developed to maintain productivity. First, it has helped me understand my own productivity patterns so much better. For example, I now know that the two hour work sessions I keep trying to schedule for seven at night is generally aspirational unless I’m up on a serious deadline. Knowing this has finally allowed me to break through my mental barriers and start getting up consistently at six AM (a years long goal) to take advantage of my pre-lunch productivity peak. I’ve also learned the best time for me to tackle the most emotionally hot task on my list (ie: the thing I’ve been stressing about the most) is in my second work session when I’ve got a bit of momentum going from the first session of the day.
Tips & Tools: Biggest tip. Find a friend who is in a similar life situation to you who you can stand to talk to every single day. My lab mate is one of the kindest women I’ve ever met, and she is also pressing to finish her dissertation. We don’t even read one another’s schedules each day, though I love peeping and sending encouragement when she has a date or is about to have a big meeting, but knowing someone is expecting to hear from me gets me over the hump of making the schedule. And making the schedule forces me to look at my weekly to-do list and make a daily to-do list. You get it. I make my schedule in Evernote and screenshot a picture to her each morning. I think she uses the notes app on her phone? We are very high tech.
The take home message from my approach is to leverage your community! We don’t have to do this alone. What a relief, right? This is what has been working for me lately, but my friends shared so many gems, some of which I’m going to start doing, that I wanted to share them with you.
Here is my attempt to summarize the wisdom of my community!
- Location matters! So many folks said they found moving locations throughout the day allowed them to keep their motivation going. Maybe you want to maximize quite and concentration at your bedroom desk first thing in the morning, then move to a cafe to stay stimulated through that post lunch napish feeling, and round out the evening with a co-working session with a pal at your local public library. Maybe you work best at your desk in your office. Find the place, or combination of places, that work for you.
- Take advantage of your community and co-work! Seriously, this is the best. You can share snacks and set Pomodoro timers as a group. Repeat: you do not have to do this on your own!
- Set up incentive and/or disincentive systems. My friend Carlos said his accountability group set penalties for themselves if they didn’t meet their goals, like buying all the other accountability buddies a Starbucks gift card. My friend Eddie suggested an app that I’m already obsessed with called Forest. You can set a timer and if you open your phone during that time, one of your virtual trees dies. I’m already too invested. Also, you can work on growing forests as a group! Meridith and I have already started planning to sync up throughout the day to grow so virtual tree beebees.
- Blocking out time for different tasks far in advance was also a crowd favorite. Even though this doesn’t work for me if I do it more than 24 hours in advance, I thought it was worth stating that this is a really effective strategy for some of my most impressive friends. Pretty much everyone said blocking out every single moment of your day was a bad call and mostly just anxiety inducing. It seemed like folks had found different sweet spots for themselves as far as how exacting they wanted to be.
- Limit distractions however you can. Some people suggested closing your office door. Others talked about apps for blocking social media on your phone. One way to find out what distractions are really slowing you down is to do an Activity Budget for yourself. My friend Aviva, who is an amazing wildlife biologist, suggested this, and STS friend, Beth of Finding Delight, has a great post about a similar approach. Find out what your baseline is for tasks like cleaning, meal planning, writing, social media, family obligations, etc. Once you know how you are spending your time, you can change the allocation as you see fit.
- Take it easy on yourself when you can. It’s so easy to be hard on ourselves and think we should be getting so much more done than it’s even possible to do. Be gentle with yourselves friends. My friend, Sacha, suggested this amazing resource called The Dissertation Workshop. I haven’t gotten the chance to look through it all yet, but Sacha loved that it’s co-written by a clinical psychologist who did his dissertation on the psychological effects, impediments, and impacts of dissertation writing. I hope it helps you if you’re on the dissertation grind like myself!
Do you have your own tips and best practices? Share them with us in the comments section!