Motivation in Graduate School: The Mythical Fairy

Mythical Motivation Fairy
The Mythical Motivation Fairy

The Graduate School Motivation Myth: It will just come to you

I’m sorry to disabuse you of this motivation myth, but there is no Graduate School Motivation Fairy that is going to come along and bop you on the head with her magical motivation wand of productivity. There just isn’t. Every time you’ve felt motivated it has been a result of the self-talk you’ve been doing, your inner dialog working with motivational factors in the environment to make you feel energized and productive.

Cartoon man kicking briefcase

That’s because motivation in graduate school isn’t a passive experience. If you are sitting around, waiting for the motivation to get started writing that paper or to be in the right mindset to begin those analyses, then you might as well give up now.

All that waiting saps your energy more because while you are sitting there, thinking about how you should get started and feeling guilty with every minute that passes, your motivation gets worse, not better. Wasting time is demotivating and deep down, you know that.

You know that you are procrastinating and the idea of waiting for motivation to come along is just a smokescreen.

Productivity Creates Motivation in Graduate School

Loss of motivation is a vicious cycle. You hold off getting started on your schoolwork, waiting to feel more motivated, and then you feel bad for waiting. Instead of this increasing your motivation the next day, it makes it even more difficult to get started because thinking about it makes you feel guilty or shameful. Our natural reaction is to avoid thinking about the things that make us feel bad and so we are even less likely to want to work on things the next day. That just makes us feel worse and makes it even harder to get motivated. The only way to break the cycle is to be productive, in spite of the lack of motivation. Once you get moving, the motivation will return, but you have to start with small amounts of productivity.

Do You Even Need a Graduate School Motivation Fairy?

So how can you be a productive graduate student without motivation? Motivation is defined as the energy it takes to overcome barriers to completing a task. So instead of trying to boost motivation, try reducing the barriers to it instead. On any given day there are a few tricks that you can use to overcome the tendency to wait.

Make it easy to get started

Motivation in graduate students start button

Every step that you have to take to get into work mode is one more thing that will steal energy and motivation. So, make it easier to get started by removing as many steps as possible. Things like keeping the document open on your computer, keeping your list of things to do quickly accessible, and planning your activities ahead of time so you know exactly what you are working on that day. These don’t seem like big things, but as you change your approach the smaller steps add up to big improvements.

Make it easier to continue

Planning is a big part of maintaining motivation in grad. school. At the end of the day, take 15 minutes to plan the next steps for the project/s you are working on. If you are writing a paper, then jot down the plan for the next few sentences or points you want to talk about. If you are coding, add some comments about the next part you want to work on or where you’re going from here. It’s easier to think about where to go next when the project is fresh in your mind, rather than having to go back over what you did yesterday so that you can decide where to go from there.

Make it easier to focus

Stop fighting your environment! If you want more motivation in graduate school, turn off notifications, news feeds, and other distractions that steal your time and energy before you even get started. This is especially true for email and social media. Many graduate students start their day by checking email and social media but this is a dangerous rabbit hole that steals energy and motivation. Make a new habit of getting started on your schoolwork, before you check email or social media.

Set a time limit

Alarm clock for graduate school motivation

If all else fails and you’re still struggling to motivate yourself, give yourself permission to do 20 minutes of work, and then, if you still feel dreadful, quit for the morning. Do the same after lunch. It’s better to get 40 minutes of work done than lose the whole day to procrastination. A lot of times, you will find that after 20 minutes it’s not so bad and you can squeeze out a bit more creative energy. It’s easier to motivate yourself to work when you know there is a time limit so you won’t be spending your entire day working on something that you are dreading.

Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach

All for Free!