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Motivation – keeping the fire burning

There are an almost infinite number of ways of avoiding work; staring out the window, watching youtube, checking facebook, reading pseudo-news on the internet, fantasising about successful/beautiful/rich/unavailable people, etc etc. The tendency to avoid work is most likely a sign of a drop in motivation levels. This obviously becomes a problem if it lasts too long as it inevitably impacts on output, but it can also have a negative effect on self-confidence.

In the last little bit I’ve chatted with 3 ECRs all of whom are struggling with motivation. Once again I have been struck by how often the same challenges present themselves again and again, in different people. Probably the general issue is not unique to the field we are in, but there are some aspects that are a bit specific. I’ve collected a few thoughts about motivation that come from my own experience and also from numerous chats over coffee (sometimes beer).

Something I have accepted is that my levels of motivation run in waves. Sometimes I am all about getting stuck into a particular task, the hours fly by and when my head pops up it is all done, or at least a satisfying dent has been made in the job at hand. Other days one window on my computer barely stays open long enough for my eyes to focus; I flick between something I’m writing, something I’m reading, something I think I should be reading, something someone else wrote, my email inbox, the cricket score, and so on. I can’t even satisfy myself with the thought that I’ve wasted time efficiently.

One way I try to deal with the low motivation times is to try and knock off some small or contained tasks. This might be something like spending 1 hour screening articles for a review, creating a reference file for a project and inputting study details, answering emails that are sitting in my inbox, cleaning up and organising a part of my filing system. They may not be the highest priority jobs but having done them can sometimes extract something useful out of an otherwise unproductive day. Another technique is to pre-determine a time-period, say 1 hour, during which I will focus on a particular task, everything else is shut down and I make the commitment to stay on track for one hour. Sometimes it works…

The last point speaks to a method that I often find useful. It is about developing an ability to generate a narrow and short-term focus, when the need arises. Of course, this is not to say that abandoning the wider context is a good thing. On the contrary, I think being able to place my research in a larger frame of reference is extremely important. But there can be times when rumination over these big issues (how important is this the study, what does it contribute to the world, how will it change lives) can paralyse the ability to actually get the hands dirty and do the nuts-and-bolts work. Clearly finding this balance is not easy, but at a certain point you have accept that the research question is relevant and bring your focus down to the individual steps/tasks necessary to answering it.

So motivation waxes and wanes, some days will end with a satisfying lump of output and others won’t. For me, there is value in accepting that this will be the case, it means I don’t beat myself up too much for the lesser days. Being able to recognise when motivation is an issue and having some tools to squeeze something out of those days is also useful. My method is to try and break bigger tasks down into small bits and focus on just knocking off one little piece at a time. I’m sure other people have ideas and tips for getting through the days when motivation is low, let us know if you do.