The Motivation Fairy

I had the fantastic opportunity last week to attend a research and motivation workshop by Hugh Kearns, a psychologist based out of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. His message was consistently that the freedom that is provided in an academic career is a fantastic thing, but managing that freedom is very difficult, especially when you have interests outside of your specific research field. His tips were fairly practical and could be put into use quickly in your everyday life, so I thought it might be a good place to share some of these, and point you to his company website (Thinkwell) if you’re interested in learning more. Thanks again, Hugh for a fantastic workshop. The motivation fairy will visit my desk more often because of you.

My top three tips from the workshop for being productive in grad school

1 – email. deal with it, schedule it, or delete it. I’ll admit I’m probably one of the worst people for doing too much email. This idea of taking every email and filing it immediately, scheduling a time to do it, or deleting it (also applies to snail mail) was incredibly useful, and has already let me get through a few days of emails more efficiently than I did before this workshop. Not opening your email first thing in the morning and actually working on the thing that’s most important that day (usually thesis research for me right now) is a huge boon to productivity, and now I’ll only open my email after morning coffee. So if you need to get hold of me in the early AM, don’t try email – my inbox is off.

2 – measuring outputs instead of inputs. I’m definitely guilty of this too – if I spend a couple more hours on this I’ll not feel “the guilt” anymore. Fellow grad students, you know what I’m talking about. “The guilt” is that feeling that you’re not working hard enough, or long enough hours. In our creative field, this is totally bunk. Much off the time, those “extra” hours you put in aren’t all that productive and would be better spent doing other things. Working a dedicated and focused two hours can often be more productive than eight hours at a half-assed pace. By focusing on things and working hard for a short period of time, and measuring what you produce (your outputs – could be a thesis chapter, or this blog post) rather than the time you put in (hmm today I sat around thinking about blogging for a few hours, then decided to write a paragraph then get coffee, then thought some more… etc.). There are few times in academia that “hours worked” actually translate to deliverables (lab work might be the only thing in this case – if I spend 12 hours on the mass spec, I get a whole lot more done than 6 hours on the mass spec. The same doesn’t apply to writing or thinking about problems. Spend less time, but more focused time, and measure your success via your outputs instead of your time spent in front of your computer.

3 – Learn to say no. This is the final one that really stuck with me, whether it’s committee work, or teaching, or volunteer positions, we all have interests outside of our PhD’s. However, none of these things help us achieve our goal of writing a PhD dissertation (in “partial fulfilment” of the degree, Doctor of Philosophy). They might look great on a CV, and it might feel really great to help your friends out, but picking and choosing your battles is essential, and learning when to say no to something that will truly push you over the top is important. I love doing these extra bits of work. They’re extremely satisfying, but they will likely delay my PhD in the end. Focusing most of my time on research, and limiting my time doing extras is important, and learning how to refuse these great opportunities with grace (especially when you’re ‘expected’ to do them) is an essential skill I wish I’d developed sooner.

~Ben