Hey motivation, where are you?

My daily struggles throughout the academic year.

Sometimes in life, you just hit a slump. It’s unavoidable and it happens to all of us. What can we even do in those times? It seems like such a gigantic task is looming in front of you and you are stuck in its shadows with doubts in your mind.

We all hear well-meaning encouragement from friends and family telling you to bite the bullet: “don’t worry. Once you start, it will all come out”. But that is not the issue. Rather, the issue is being able to muster the motivation to… well… start.

I am a procrasti-planner. For me, I have a habit of procrastinating by doing other small, low-priority tasks instead of chipping away at, say, an assignment or research proposal. I procrastinate on the task by planning out what I have to do and never really start working on it. Instead of writing topic sentences, I write up schedules. Instead of making exam notes, I make decorations for my planner to highlight the date of the exam. Heck, I’ll even admit that I planned on writing this entry a month ago and had planned my content and everything but yet here I am. One month later and barely started.

But that’s not to say planning is a bad thing. The very first step is to start planning. My issue here is that I over-plan to the point where I know exactly what I have to do and all my deadlines but despite this I worry I’ve missed something so I continue to plan or research or read papers and have yet to start putting words on a page.

Some strategies to start

Throughout all my schooling, I have always used hand-written checklists to help me get started. There’s something very gratifying about checking things off and being able to throw away the page once all the tasks are done.

This semester, I tried some new strategies that were suggested by friends, like this neat app called “Done”. It’s basically a habit-tracker and you can set a number of daily goals that you do and each time you complete the task you can tick it off. I find it very satisfying to be able to check things off a list so this app was very effective for me.

These are the goals that I have for the semester and you can set how many times you want to do each task/goal for each day in the app.

The thing I like about the app is that it encourages you to keep up with each goal by having a “streak” where it counts the number of consecutive days you have accomplished the task (as you can tell, I have slacked off recently). As well as giving you streaks, they also graph your progress over the entire duration so that even when you do miss days, you can still have a record of what you have achieved and your longest streak to motivate you to beat it.

The app graphs your progress on each goal and this can be shown either weekly, monthly or yearly.

And for a long time checking lists on this app was effective for me.

Even before finding this app, I would create a plan and a checklist of all the tasks I would have to do, break them down into smaller tasks and check them off one-by-one. I’m so checklist-obsessed that I have dedicated stationery for writing down my to-do lists.

But at some point this doesn’t work anymore. Those were the days when nothing really worked and it was very much a struggle to even start the day. On those days it was very important for me to try different strategies to see what would help.

I recently read a blog on motivation and the author (James Clear) re-framed motivation as a habit. Motivation isn’t some weird process of ‘I feel this way just because’. Instead, motivation is something that you can actually control. He compares motivation to Newton’s laws of physics (Physics of Productivity):

“ Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Once a task has begun, it is easier to continue moving it forward.”

The blog tells me some strategies that I would really like to try out like making a ‘motivation schedule’ where I plan which days are my productive days. James also suggests that mental activity is linked to physical activity. The most important thing here is to be consistent with your plans.

Staying Motivated

Once you have managed to start, you’ve made the first big leap. Now, the next problem is staying motivated. Some general strategies that work for me:

  1. Reward yourself
  2. Be kind even if you do not finish
  3. Realistic goals

It’s important to reward yourself for doing work and not being too harsh on yourself when you don’t. One of the main struggles with my procrastination is the guilt. “I should be doing x but instead here I am on Facebook” and this guilt makes me more reluctant to start — I mean I’ve already failed the first task of the day…So, I may as well try and relax today (even though I know I should be working). And the spiral of guilt continues.

One method I use to avoid this negative spiral is being mindful and being kinder to myself when I don’t do what I’d promised myself. During the HSC I did mindfulness meditation with Smiling Mind. They do short (1 minute up to 10 minutes) guided meditations to help you focus on the present by anchoring yourself with breathing or other bodily sensations.

Following from this, giving yourself a break. Self-care is crucial. I know I’ve had days where I am working on a project and I am completely burnt out but I think “Just a little more till I’m done”. So I rush to complete it and end up with a mediocre project and sick the next day — or at least very VERY sleep deprived. I know that it’s not ideal but the appeal of finally being free is just too much.

Finally, setting realistic goals. Another contributor to the procrastination spiral is that I say to myself “I have to do this, this and that. In an hour.” Ok. No. That’s not how it will work. Instead, set yourself up for success by creating SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely) goals. It sounds simple to just break things up into manageable chunks but I find it surprisingly effective. Breaking things up makes huge task less daunting and I’d be more likely to start with something small than decide to tackle the entire thing.

Motivation is sometimes a scarce resource. But finding the right skills and strategies to get yourself started is something that we can all do. Good luck.