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Please stop telling me to stay motivated

(Yes, those are potatoes. Read on)

Motivation is a big thing in the PhD. We have endless discussions, workshops and university-sanctioned training sessions to tell us to create and maintain motivation, so we can all go out there and be productive, thriving, successful, driven researchers!

Urgh. Yuck. STOP.

Sometimes, I’m just not motivated, okay? Sometimes, I don’t want to be motivated. Sometimes, I want to just sit here in a heap and be a potato.

Let’s talk about the other PhD demon twins – guilt and shame. And though it doesn’t always seem like it, guilt, shame and motivation are very close cousins.

We feel guilty because we’re not working as much as we need to be; we beat ourselves up because we’re not as far ahead as Perfect Patricia from our department; or, like me, feel this horrendous shame that it’s been soooooooooo many years and we still haven’t finished the PhD.

We think that if we could just find that motivation again, we can stop feeling the guilt and the shame; we’ll jump right back on the PhD bus and go!

We go to a workshop or a training session, we talk to everyone we know for inspiration, read a bunch of productivity articles on Medium or listen to 26 hours of podcasts about how to be motivated (and then feel guilty that we ‘wasted’ 26 hours).

Well. I’m not here to tell you how to get motivated (and if that’s what you really want, please move along to one of the many podcasts out there).

I’m here to tell you to just take that time off. Sit in the staleness for a bit. Feel it. Say hello to the writer’s block and welcome it in. Let it hang out for awhile.

If you’re not feeling any mojo around PhD-ing, or writing, or whatever else you’re supposed to be doing, there’s probably something else going on that’s wanting your attention.

Maybe there’s some other personal stuff that needs tending too. Maybe you’re in a horrible emotional place that needs a little space and a little love. Maybe you’re just sick of the work and need to not look at it for awhile. Maybe you just need to rest – and I mean real, slowed-down, juicy rest of the yoga nidra kind where you consciously let yourself relax.

Cut yourself some slack and give yourself the time you need to deal with whatever it is that’s needing your attention. That’s absolutely okay. You’re human and you have shit to deal with; anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t need to be in your life anymore and it’s time to tell them where to go.

Don’t be motivated. Don’t try to chase it. Don’t, for the love of all that is holy and good, power through it.

It doesn’t fucking work – and you just make yourself more miserable.

Go do something else that gives you joy instead. Surround yourself with the things and the activity that will lift your spirits back up and get you to a place where you feel more able to tackle things – when the time is right to tackle them again.

(Also, don’t go setting yourself conditions for doing these joyful things:

“I’ll allow myself to watch 3 episodes of Botched and then write 500 words”
“I’ll go for a walk but will spend the whole walk thinking about my methodology chapter”
“I’ll have a nap but to make up for this blatant laziness I will feel guilty for it”)

Nope. Just set everything aside. Let this one (or two, or five) joyful thing(s) be the only thing you do. ‘Lean away’ from productivity and ‘into’ doing nothing.

Here’s some motivation-maths (or what I’ve found works for me 100% of the time):

Scenario one: You force yourself to be motivated, to do the work and power through. You take say, one month to get some sort of shitty, half-arsed work done. At the end of the month, you realise how shitty and half-arsed it is. So you spend another month forcing yourself through another bout of false-motivation to rework that work. This goes on indefinitely for 6 months until you burn out and start all over again from scratch.
Total time taken: 6 months (and have very little to show for it)

Scenario two: You tell the motivation monsters to shove off, give yourself a few full weeks off and do everything that’s not what you’re supposed to do. You relish not doing the work. You enjoy that time off. You decide not to open that wretched document until you feel ready to. It’s 6 weeks before you feel anywhere near able to think about it again. But that’s okay. 6 weeks later, you feel rested, happier, a little more chill. You sit back at your desk, open the file and bash out a load of excellent work in 2 weeks.
Total time taken: 8 weeks (+some great work you feel proud of!)

I absolutely know the compulsion to keep working through the block, to punish yourself for not being up to mark and making yourself do it. I also totally know that it feels completely wrong and impossible to take that time off.

But I also know this: sometimes (actually, most times) slowing down can be the fastest way to get where you need to be.

Also, I get it about deadlines and that not everyone always has the luxury to take 6 weeks off. But you can still apply this principle and scale it down – take a full day off; enjoy the whole weekend; stop working in the evening.

In summary:

  • Don’t force the motivation. It doesn’t want to be there for a reason. Listen to that; pay attention to what else is going on for you that maybe needs dealing with first.
  • Then, go do something else joyful. This isn’t some sneaky way round to try to re-find your motivation; it’s about getting into a different headspace altogether and to remind yourself of what it’s like to feel happy, light, and peaceful about something again. Use that to fuel your day and move you forward, as and when you are ready.

There is no retrieving motivation from a past-you; or generating motivation for a future-you. There is just this moment right now for shifting into a different feeling-space.

So do yourself the biggest, best favour you can and step away from your laptop. Go eat something delicious (or better yet, bake it for yourself); have some wild, endorphin-filled (but safe, consensual!) sex with a stranger; smash out some deadlifts; buy a load of shit you don’t need online; have a 5-hour nap.

And feel bloody good for it.

Your thesis will thank you.

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One Comment

  1. This reminds me of another thing people say that I despise. When you have something terrible happen, like losing a loved one, people often say “stay strong.” That really bothers me. It doesn’t sounds supportive or empathetic at all to me, it just seems patronizing in the worst way.

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