When the official university semester started, I suddenly had three jobs again. The upside of this, of course, was money and more experience; I’m tutoring some new subjects and short courses. The downside is that my motivation for my PhD vanishes regularly. Every time I teach, it wears me out. Even preparing to teach does. And so my PhD has been hard to get into on any day where I work, even though I don’t work for very many hours.

On top of that, we all have “bad days”. There are some days where I wake up and I’m ready to go. I get up at 6.30, I work until 5. And I mean, I really work. And then there are other days where I wake up, I make a coffee, I check my emails, I reply to students, I watch a video on YouTube, and then suddenly it’s lunch time. And by that point in the day my brain is starting to go “why bother?”

The hardest thing about lacking motivation is that as soon as you allow it to affect you, it becomes worse. I know that when I have a bad day, I feel terrible about myself. Even though I know logically that it’s not the end of the world, I still feel awful. I think that I should’ve done better, should’ve worked harder, and maybe I’m not cut out for this. And then feeling crappy about myself just makes it all the more difficult to do better the next day.

This has been an issue for me lately. If I can get into a rhythm, I can get a great few days of study done. But if that rhythm is interrupted by an additional class to teach, or some marking I didn’t realise I had to do, or even by an unexpected meeting with a supervisor… well then, sometimes that rhythm doesn’t come back for days.

I’m not writing about this for the purpose of telling you how I feel. I’m writing about this because I’m pretty confident that there isn’t a single university student on the planet that hasn’t felt a motivation slump at least once during their course. And I know I certainly find it helpful and reassuring to read that other people experience what I am experiencing. But more importantly, I want to write about what works for me and hopefully also hear about what works for you.

So what can we do to get out of a motivational slump?

  1. Don’t finish your work today – doesn’t that sound counter intuitive? Shouldn’t I want to finish my work today so that I have gotten something done and can feel great about myself? Well, no. I don’t find that works. But if I leave something even slightly unfinished – for example, a section of my literature review – then the next morning I wake up and I’m so, so motivated to finish that off. Because then I can feel great about myself at the START of the day, and hopefully get lots of things done thereafter.
  2. Enjoy. Your. Time. Off. – I really can’t stress this one enough, and it’s one that I’m also not great at doing – so I get it. If I take time off to watch a TV show with my boyfriend, or go out to dinner with my friends, I often feel guilt for “not working”. But you really need to tell that guilty voice to shut the f*** up, because if you don’t genuinely take time off when you’re not working, you’re just going to get more and more stressed. Shutting off that voice is easier for me when I go out and do something, because I’m totally removed from my laptop and my notebook and ANYTHING ELSE AT ALL that I could possibly use to work. When I’m not home, there’s physically no way for me to work and thus it’s a lot easier to enjoy whatever it is that I’m doing.
  3. Ask your supervisors if they’re happy with your progress – this is either going to be a firm “yes” or a “maybe you could do better”. Recently I had a meeting with my supervisor that I was majorly anxious about because I felt like I wasn’t doing well enough. He told me my work “given the timeline” was amazing. I instantly felt better about how much I’d done so far, and I celebrated that little success. However, if he’d said “I think you could have done a little more”, I would’ve been kicked into gear and worked my butt off to get a great draft to him by the end of the week.
  4. Forgive yourself – don’t try to “catch up” on missed work. If you don’t get enough done on one day, don’t try to cram more hours into the next day. Even if you succeed, you’re not going to enjoy it and you know it. If you have a bad day, accept it. Tell someone about your bad day, and why it was that you went down the wrong track. I always tell my boyfriend when things are and aren’t working for me, and then he can help me realise when I’m doing the not-working things before I get too far into a slump.
  5. If you hit your goals, stop working and celebrate! – so here’s one I’ve only recently realised that I always did badly. If I set goals for myself and finish them early in the day, I never used to sit back and go “wow, I did great today! I deserve a break!”. Instead, I would go “okay what work can I do now” and then get stressed when I wasn’t really sure what to do. Now, if I set some daily tasks for myself and finish them early, I let myself stop. If there’s still LOTS of day left to use, I might start again… but only after I stop for a while and enjoy the fact that I did the thing I wanted to do.
  6. Aim lower – I used to try and cram as much into a day as I could. I have learnt that is shocking for my motivation. If I don’t get all of my day goals done, I feel like rubbish. Or I stay up ridiculously late making sure I do get them done. Which, in the end, makes me feel like rubbish too. So set yourself goals that are a little lower. Achieve them most days. Make yourself feel great. If you feel great about your work, you’re going to feel more motivated about your work, and you’re going to start feeling less “this is so overwhelming” and more “I can totally do this!”
  7. If you’ve had a bad morning, you can still have a good afternoon – this one is my BIGGEST struggle. I find it so hard to start working after a rubbish morning because I just know I’m not going to get as much done as I could have today. But not working is going to get nothing done. Even 4 hours of not-great work is better than not starting at all. You’ll still write another 500 words. You’ll still read another 4 papers. You’ll still move forward, no matter how small the steps. Don’t give up on a day just because of a few bad hours.

So that’s my list for you. I completely understand that some days you’ll even do terrible at trying to do the things that will make you feel less terrible. I have days where I get overly ambitious because I’ve been doing well, and then I don’t do well, and hit a slump. I’ve had days where I glaze over an achievement because there’s more work to be done. I still find it hard to not be hard on myself when I have a bad day.

But I’m keeping on trying. And so far, trying seems to be getting me there.

What do you do to pull yourself out of a motivational slump?

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