How Do You Get Motivated to Write a Thesis When You’d Rather Do Anything Else?
I was awakened from my day dream by a loud knock on my door.
I rinsed the bathroom disinfectant off my hands and went to open the door
It was another grad student from the dorm returning a casserole dish I had loaned her the previous week.
“What happened to you?”she asked stunned.
“What do you mean?” I asked “I just decided to work from home today. Is there a problem?”
“You have blood on your face,” she said raising her eyebrows.
I ran back to my living room to look in the mirror, and there it was.
Blood smeared all over my forehead.
Where did it come from?
I didn’t see any cuts on my face.
“It’s your right hand. Look at it” my friend told me.
I paused for a moment before glancing down.
There was a thin stream of blood dripping from the knuckles of my right hand.
I must have wiped my forehead with my hand earlier, and smeared blood on it without realizing.
“Are you OK?’ my friend asked.
“Yeah,” I assured her. “It must be the gloves in the lab. When I wear them for a long time they irritate my skin.”
That was sort of true.
I had been working in the lab for long hours the past week, and lab gloves weren’t particularly kind to my skin.
My skin must have been irritated further by the disinfectants I used to clean my bathroom that afternoon.
The strange thing was that I hand’t planned to clean my bathroom.
The last thing I remembered was that I took a break from writing, decided to have a snack, and went to the bathroom to wash my hands.
Then I realized that I needed a new bar of soap, and when I grabbed it from the shelf I noticed that the shelf was dusty and I decided to wipe it off.
While I am at it, why not wipe of the dust from all of the bathroom shelves?
And, what harm could it do to clean the mirror and the stains from the tiles too?
Before I knew it I was down on my knees scrubbing the tiles on my bathroom floor (don’t ask why, I think I was in a trance state, also known as “procrastination in its most extreme form”).
I had spent over an hour cleaning the bathroom before my friend came by with the casserole dish.
I cleaned and bandaged my hands and wondered what to do next.
If my friend hadn’t come by I probably would have spent another hour reorganizing my bathroom.
But it was now time to return to thesis and I really didn’t want to.
I felt the bathroom shelves calling for me.
How I wished I were folding laundry or scrubbing the charcoal from the bottom of my oven.
I would have even done my taxes to put off writing for another day.
Tax season was over, my bathroom was mostly clean, I hadn’t baked anything in my oven for months, and I had already done my laundry that week (at least I got something out of procrastinating).
I had to figure out a way to get motivated to write a thesis even if it was the last thing I wanted to do.
How to get motivated to write a thesis when you’d rather do anything else
1.Throw away your to-do list
“Work on chapter 1, read 5 papers, email supervisor to get feedback on manuscript, call aunt Mary for her birthday, figure out what to cook for dinner, buy batteries…”
Just reading this list makes me cringe (and unmotivated).
Does a to-do list run your life?
A to-do list is just that: a list of things that you (think you) need to do.
It feels so good to keep ourselves busy, and being under the illusion that we are making progress.
But (spoiler alert), being busy and making progress are two very different things.
You can be busy writing and rewriting parts of your thesis, doing studies that don’t lead to interesting findings, or working on a side-project that isn’t related to your thesis at all.
What if you could liberate yourself from a “to-do list” and define what are the most important results you need to accomplish today to make progress on your thesis?
It is a subtle difference, but a critical one.
You could eliminate all the “noise” in your life and put your mind to working on the things that matter the most.
The clarity you gain by focusing on results rather than to-do’s will automatically motivate you to start working towards your goals.
2. Park on a downhill slope
No worries, you don’t need a car for this one.
Have you ever parked your car on a slope?
If you are parked uphill on an icy road, good luck with getting your car going uphill without sliding backwards.
You may even decide to not move your car and wait until the ice melts, which could be days or weeks.
(This scenario reminds me eerily of waiting until the perfect moment to start writing.)
What if you set yourself up for success so getting your car out was super-easy?
If you park on a downhill slope, gravity is now working with you to help you get your car moving down the hill.
So, what does parking a car on a slope have to do with getting motivated to write a thesis?
When you try to motivate yourself to start writing without having a clear plan, it is like trying to start a car going uphill on an icy road.
You may have the best intentions to write, but if you don’t know where to start writing or what your goals for your day are, it will be very hard to get started and make progress.
Now, imagine sitting down to write and having your outline, your materials (literature, data) organized, and a clear plan of which section you need to work.
Wouldn’t that make it so much easier to get the writing going?
Set yourself up for success by parking on a downhill slope at the end of each day.
A little bit of planning on what sections you will work on, getting your materials organized, and setting up a writing plan will go a long ways towards helping you get and stay motivated to finish your thesis.
3. Forbid yourself from writing
Didn’t you just tell me to “park on a downhill slope” so I could be motivated to write my thesis?
Why would anyone want to forbid themselves from writing if they have to finish a thesis?
Here is a multiple choice question (no peeking, just take your best guess):
Do you think it is easier to motivate yourself to write when
- a) you have the whole day free, or
- b) you only have 2 hours?
You may be tempted to answer (a).
Students go to great lengths to carve out large chunks of time to write (hiring babysitters, taking days off from work, turning down dinner invitations) and then realize that when you have an amorphous blob of 12 hours, it is hard to structure your day to make significant progress.
It almost never pays off to turn down dinner with friends (if they are true friends that is).
In practice, it easier for most students to motivate themselves to write when they have a limited amount of time.
The scope of work is usually better defined (if you only have 2 hours you will probably set a very realistic goal), and it does not feel so overwhelming.
If this sounds like you, and you have a day with a big chunk of time to write, forbid yourself from writing after 2 hours.
Define a realistic goal for those two hours, set yourself up for success for the next day (decide what you will work on), and then do something else for the rest of the day.
This unusual strategy may set off the guilt fire-alarm in your brain, and leave you with a nagging feeling for the rest of the day that you “should” be writing.
Your guilt is actually motivation building up that will help you get your writing fired up the next day (assuming you set yourself up for success the day before).
Disclaimer: Don’t use this strategy if you are very close to a deadline. The deadline itself will usually give you the adrenaline rush you need to be motivated.
This strategy works best when the due date for your project is far enough in the future that you don’t feel the urge to work, or your goals aren’t clearly defined.
4.If you fall off the wagon…get back on as if nothing had happened
This is a fancy way of saying “get back on schedule as soon as you can and don’t beat yourself up”.
I am not sure why, but there is a wide-spread myth in grad school (and maybe academia in general) that if you beat yourself up, you will be more efficient.
Most of the students who leave academia are not lazy.
They usually leave because they are exhausted from the workload, or it is too dofficult to balance their work and family responsibilities.
Beating yourself up will not help you to manage your time better, be more produtive, or be more creative,
You are a human being, not a robot.
No matter how much you plan and how well you try to set yourself up for success, chances are slim to none that you will follow through on your plan 100% of the time.
Who says that the plan you came up with was the best one anyway?
Sometimes the breaks that you are forced to take because of an illness or family emergency (or because you feel stuck in your research), will help you to see your research in a new light and create an even better plan.
No matter what happened or why you didn’t follow through (even you are convinced that it was your fault) be kind to yourself.
Let’s face it: grad school is hard enough as is.
You don’t need yet another person beating you up for not being super-human in a hyper-competitive environment.
No matter where you are are or how behind you feel, there is a way to get back on the wagon and continue with your thesis research.
Who cares if someone else makes a negative comment or gives you a dirty look?
They are probably dealing with their own pain and projecting it onto you.
Don’t make their problem yours.
Keep your eye on your goals: this is your education and your career.
It is your journey, and yours only.
5. Let your friends worry about your thesis
Here is the nice thing about sharing your problems with others: when you “worry” with someone else, you lift a huge weight off your shoulders without burdening the other person.
There is no shame in getting support, whether it is academic or emotional support.
Don’t take my word for it.
The more people you “worry” with, the more perspectives you get and the smaller your problems seem.
When you live in your own head you can blow a minor issue out of proportion.
Suddenly, taking off two days from work because you didn’t feel well may seem like a huge setback until you hear from others that what you are going through is normal for a graduate student.
There will be times when you feel so burnt out that you will not want to work for weeks.
Or, you may start doubting the point of grad school when you don’t know what you’ll do afterwards.
Without a context, these situations can rob you of your self-confidence and your motivation.
How could you be motivated when you identify yourself as “lazy” and think there is no point in finishing your thesis anyway?
You can sort out these sticky situations by sharing with others, especially graduate students who are going through similar experiences, and feel better about your experience in grad school.
So if you are wondering how to get motivated to write a thesis, when you would rather do anything else, look no further than support from other graduate students.
Just knowing that you are not the only one going through these tribulations, can already take most of the pressure off that has been keeping you from being motivated to work on your thesis.