March, Mid-terms, Motivation, & Momentum

For as long as I can remember, the beginning of March has always been an interesting time for me academically, professionally, and personally. It often signals the beginning of the end of an inevitably very long, very snowy, and very cold Winter. With the days starting to get longer and the sun feeling a little warmer, it seems to promise a much-needed release from Winter’s chilly grip. And with Spring just around the corner, I often find myself thinking of ways to refresh and refocus.

The challenge with wanting to embrace all the newness that Spring has to offer is that often, you first have to embrace (endure?) all that remains to be done before you can successfully transition into the next season. This might mean that you have to wrap your head around wearing your winter boots for another 6 weeks, or that you need to keep your snow shovel handy for that sneaky early-Spring snowstorm in April, or if you’re a post-secondary student, it may mean that you not only have to wrap up any lingering mid-term assignments, but you also need to simultaneously bear down and rev up for the end-of-semester crunch.

This can be an incredibly daunting time of year. Your energy levels are low. Your desire for the sun, warmth, and leisure of summer (and maybe a drink or two on a neighbourhood terrasse) is at an all time high, and yet, you are required to diligently keep working towards your goals.

This is when motivation levels start to tank and the very thought of highlighting another sentence in one of your coursepacks or formatting even one more reference list seems unbearable.

Trust me: I get it. It’s a tough slog. But as the old saying goes: When the going get’s tough, the tough get going.

Easy, right?

Umm… maybe not.

But fear not! Your friendly (unsolicited) advice giver and self-proclaimed professional student is here to help you rekindle some of your motivation, to rediscover your passion for your work, and to help you over whatever hurdle you’re facing.

Over the past 7 months I’ve had to ‘bear down and rev up’ on numerous occasions in order to complete my dissertation. It would be great if I could say that my intrinsic motivation and astounding self-efficacy got me through the biggest academic challenge that I’ve faced to date… but that would be a bold-faced lie! Instead, I relied on a series of strategies to support and sometimes trick myself into getting the work done.

Thinking that some of these strategies might help some of you, I have put together the following list of tips that you can use when you’re intrinsic motivation just isn’t cutting it or when you want to rev up your momentum:

1. Set realistic goals. 

The importance of this first tip cannot be overstated. Who wouldn’t feel completely overwhelmed and immobilized if the goal that they set for themselves was: complete thesis. Full stop. A goal like this seems way too big and vague when it’s presented this way. So of course it will lead to stunted motivation – it’s so difficult to know where to start.

A more effective strategy is to break up your larger goal into smaller, easily digestible milestones. I have often found that it’s helpful for me to write out a list of all the steps required in completing a task/project, going into as much detail as possible. For example, if my goal is to finish a term paper by a certain deadline, my project checklist might look something like:

[ ] Read through assignment requirements

[ ] Contact Prof/TA if I have any questions about assignment requirements

[ ] Complete required course readings for assignment

[ ] Locate additional readings (my own sources) for assignment

[ ] Read additional readings for assignment

[ ] Draft paper outline (stay tuned for future posts about how to structure an outline)

[ ] Send outline to Prof/TA for feedback (some Profs and TAs provide you with a window of time in which to receive feedback on your initial ideas – it’s a really good idea to take them up on this generous offer)

[ ] Revise paper outline based on feedback

[ ] Write section 1 of # of paper (# represents the number of sections that you think you’ll have in your final paper, based on your outline. You’d include one point on your checklist for each potential section)

[ ] Review and edit grammar for full paper

[ ] Format full paper (again, check the assignment guidelines for specific requirements)

[ ] Create cover page (if required)

[ ] Create reference list (if required)

[ ] Submit to Prof

This may seem like an excessively detailed way to structure your work plan, but it’s a great way to keep track of where you’ve been and where you’re going. Also, I’ve always felt really good at the end of the day when I’ve checked multiple things off of my to-do list, even if these tasks were minute.

Importantly, this approach takes advanced planning. So to help you out, I will be discussing how to structure and stick to your own project deadlines in a post appearing later this week.

2. Focus on the times when you’ve felt successful.

Now that you’ve identified the smaller, more manageable tasks that you need to complete in order to reach your goal, you need to determine how you’re actually going to do the work. A good place to start is thinking about a time(s) when you’ve felt successful. Try to identify the conditions that helped you to accomplish whatever it was that you set out to accomplish. Maybe it was waking up early and getting to work while the house/office/library was still quiet. Maybe it’s exercising before you work in order to burn off nervous energy. Whatever it is, you’ve probably done it hundreds of times without even knowing it.

Once you’ve identified the environment/habit that helps you to feel at your best, incorporate this into your work plan. For example, I like to wake up early and write first thing in the day. I can do administrative tasks at any time, but my creativity peaks just after daybreak. So, I know that if I have a big project to complete, my alarm is going to get me up by 5am, I’ll brew myself a large pot of tea, and I’ll go straight into my office (often still wearing my PJs) to write until I lose focus or have to stop. Which brings me to my next point.

3. Take breaks.

You’re not a machine: you need to eat, sleep, bathe, and socialize. Avoid falling into patterns of ‘should’ talk: “I should be working now,” “I should have gone to bed earlier so that I could have gotten up early today to work”. Maybe you should have; but you didn’t, so accept it and move on.

If I’ve learned nothing else over my 15 years of post-secondary education, the guilt of “should be/should have” will stop you cold in your tracks. Nothing kills your passion for your work more than thinking about all of the things that it’s keeping you from. Remember that in most cases, your work will still be there, even after you binge-watch a whole season of Game of Thrones one evening. So unless you’re up against an absolute deadline, there’s no big harm in taking a night off.

Instead, taking a break to get some fresh air or to connect and share a laugh with friends and family is some times just the boost that you need to get over a hurdle. Often stepping away from your work helps you to approach it with fresh eyes and renewed interest. So take breaks. Take them often. But work hard when you’re working so that you can really enjoy the sweet rewards of time off.

4. Aim for consistency (and clarity).

This point kind of relates to the three previous points. When I have been struggling with finding and/or maintaining my motivation, I have found it most useful to aim to work in small, but consistent blocks of time, broken up by lots of breaks. For example, when I was facing the ever-so-exciting task of having to prepare my dissertation data for analysis (e.g., copy/pasting mounds of data from the Internet into separate Word docs), I was having the hardest time wanting to actually do it (surprise!). So finally, I had to set myself a fixed amount of time that I would just sit down and do the work each day: I told myself that I would work for at least 60 minutes every day (including weekends), until the task was done. It took about 14 days – some days I worked longer than 60 minutes, other days, I willed time to move faster – but then it was done. And I could move on to the next thing.

My key to success in this instance was setting a small, well-defined goal, with a clear measurable outcome, that I would complete in a small, well-defined time frame. Essentially, I identified what I was going to do, when I was going to do it, and how I would know when it was done.

What: copy/paste data from Internet to Word.

When: 60-minutes every day.

How: when all the data were transferred from one format to the other.

5. Find someone who’ll hold you accountable.

A final tip that I want to share with you is the importance of finding someone who will hold you accountable for reaching the goals that you’ve set for yourself. At times, it can be really easy to let your motivation and momentum slide when you are only answering to yourself and your intrinsic motivation is saying “Screw it, let’s go to the beach!” So, don’t be shy in reaching out to someone external to you (e.g., a member of your community) for support.

Maybe it’s your thesis supervisor, maybe it’s a classmate, maybe it’s your therapist, or maybe it’s your Grandpa… Whomever it is, share with them the goal(s) that you’ve set for yourself and ask them if they’d be willing to support you in staying the course. But remember that everyone has different needs, so make sure to tell them how you want/need to be supported.

Do you want them to phone you once a week to chat about your progress? Would you feel more comfortable emailing them a bi-weekly status report? Suggest a strategy you think will work for you and hopefully they’ll be on board to give you what you need.

I hope that you find some of these strategies useful and that they give you the boost that you need to succeed in whatever project you’re working on at the moment. I’d love to hear about any other strategies that you may have used in the past, so feel free to comment below and share them with this community.

Until next time,