How I motivate myself to work on my PhD

If you haven’t heard, there’s a pandemic going on, and now the holiday season is also upon us. These things are timely and feel immediate (i.e., they are here right now), while my PhD doesn’t feel so urgent.

I noticed a few months ago that I didn’t feel much urgency related to my work. I thought, “I’m getting back in the groove of things, I still have 1.5 years until I need to finish my PhD, it’s all good, that’s loads of time.” That’s all fine, but time is ticking away. If I don’t focus and work now, I’ll be pressed for time later.

I needed to make my PhD work feel more urgent. But how to do that without any pressing deadlines? While February 2022 (the end of my PhD contract) keeps gradually coming closer, it’s still too far away to give me a tangible feeling of immediacy.

I turned to classical project management and laid out a plan for the rest of my PhD. I thought about what the major stages of my work would be and roughly sketched them out in time. I ended up with this:

Now, the point of this exercise is not so much how reliable this planning is. Sure, it’s good to shoot for realistic estimates, but it’s difficult (actually, impossible) to predict how long each stage will take. I’ve based my estimates on past experience and tried to add a buffer whenever possible. (The basic rule is that you should add 1/4 of the time you estimate as a buffer. So if you think a task will take you 4 weeks, give yourself 5 weeks in your estimate to account for any delays.)

You may question how realistic my planning is. “Programming an experiment for 5 months, really?” Believe me, with piloting and adjusting the task 49573 times, it will take that long. “Data collection for 38 participants (with two behavioral sessions + one MEG session per participant) will be done in three months, are you sure?” No, I’m not sure… that’s wishful thinking, to be honest. “You’ll be analyzing the data for 5 months, isn’t that too long?” Hahaha! I could probably keep analyzing such a dataset for a year or more… but I hope that at this point the sense of urgency will be very tangible and I’ll fly through my analysis!

The goal of having this table is to give me the ‘Oh sh*t!” feeling. Every morning when I lazily open my laptop and think, “Hmm, what will I be working on today?” I am greeted by this reminder that the time to work is now. “Oh sh*t, I don’t have much time, I’d better get to work!”

It shows me that I have a task that I need to be doing now, namely, programming my experiment. I don’t have time to waste; I need to get going and make progress. Tomorrow (or next week, or next month), I’ll have other tasks to do. I need to start working now, so I don’t end up pressed for time later.

I realize that this may be stress-inducing for some people. If this type of reminder stresses you out, which then paralyzes you and prevents you from making progress, don’t create such a timeline for yourself. Find out what works for you and do that.

For me, this works because it gives me a small jolt of urgency, that little bit of stress which motivates me and gets me started. I keep the tab with this reminder open at all times and glance at it often. So when I don’t know what to do next or don’t feel like I need to move on to the next task, I glance at the project timeline and think, “I have work to do! I’d better get going”

And finally, it also shows me that the end is near. I’ll program the experiment, collect the data, analyze them, and write up the paper. Then I’ll put together my thesis and… there’s my PhD!

How do you motivate yourself when you don’t feel like doing a task or working? What types of reminders work for you? Would such a project timeline help you or stress you out?

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