PhD Tips: How to stay motivated during your PhD

By James Hayton,
February 27, 2020
James Hayton is a former physicist, PhD coach and author of "PhD: An uncommon guide"
Since 2010, he's coached hundreds of individual PhD students and now offers
group support and online courses

Sometimes, a PhD can seem like a huge, never ending task. And sometimes it can feel like the things you do on a daily basis don’t seem to have much impact. If you have a really good day, it’s usually only a tiny step in the right direction, but if you have a day where you achieve nothing, it doesn’t really have any immediate negative impact either.

This makes it hard to stay motivated. And with little or no positive reinforcement, it’s easy to let negative thoughts take over.

But there is a simple trick you can use to flip the script, stay motivated, be more effective and maybe even start to enjoy your work; celebrate small wins

Here’s an example.

Let’s say you have a to do list with 10 tasks on it and you do four of them. Maybe these four took longer than you expected because there were some unexpected complications you had to deal with.

Typically, you might look at the remaining six tasks, think about how long the first four took and think that you’ll never get it all done. You can try to force yourself to keep going - and it might work - but it’s going to feel heavy with the weight of all that negativity.

Now let’s take the same situation and approach it a different way, celebrating every success, no matter how small.

So immediately after completing the first task (or overcoming any problems), celebrate. You can do this with a fist pump, by saying “YES!” or “good job” to yourself, or doing a little dance. If a task took longer than expected, say, “wow, that was harder than I expected, but I did it!”

Instead of relying on motivation or willpower (neither of which is very reliable), we’re using positive reinforcement to support the behaviour we want to repeat.

You don’t just have to celebrate when you succeed, though. In PhD research, there will be things you try that go wrong or just don’t work. It’s important to stay curious, creative and actively engaged in the face of these inevitable setbacks, so we want to reinforce that behaviour, too.

Stanford behavioural scientist BJ Fogg suggests celebrating at 3 points:*

  1. When you remember or decide to do engage with a problem
  2. While you’re engaged with it
  3. Immediately afterwards

*Fogg writes about this in the context of forming new habits, but we can say the new habit we want to form is engaging with difficult problems when they arise

The celebration does not need to depend on success in solving the problem. In this case, you can celebrate simply giving it your full attention and best effort. We’re celebrating and reinforcing the effort and behaviour that will lead to success, eventually.

So try doing this today. Celebrate your small wins, and let me know what you think in the comments below!

This post was inspired by the book "Tiny Habits" by BJ Fogg. It's excellent. Read it!

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