Searching for Motivation: Some Tips and Reassurance for Students


    I am writing this article as a way to procrastinate many things: editing a chapter draft of my PhD, working on a conference paper, writing an abstract for yet another Call for Papers, learning new vocabulary, doing homework for various classes, reading articles. And that’s just the academic things! The main reason why I am procrastinating today is that I am honestly not motivated. I am tired just thinking about everything coming up this year, and since I think I am not the only one feeling that way, I thought I would list some things that I use to make myself feel more confident, less anxious, and more enthusiastic about doing some work. Whether you are doing a PhD, Masters or undergraduate degree, I hope this list helps. If not, at least you’ll have wasted a few minutes of your day procrastinating: you’re welcome.

     First things first. You will hear and read it everywhere, which makes it annoying, but it is true: you will have so much more energy for everything if you eat properly (veggies and variety are important), and if you have a good 8 hours of sleep every night (I personally like to do 10 hours on weekends but that’s just me). Obviously doing this consistently is difficult, but maintaining good habits will definitely work in your favour in the long run. 

    Now on to the Thing you are procrastinating. Here’s what I usually do: 

    If I really really really have to do the Thing in the next few days (writing a paper, editing that draft, reading that article, learning that thing, etc), here’s what I do:

  • Give myself a deadline a few hours / days before I actually need to have it done (depending on how much time I have left). That way, even if I’m slow to get started or it takes me longer than planned (and it will), I still won’t be panicking too much towards the end.
  • On that note: plan for (more than) the time it will take. If it’s writing a paper, think of everything: analysing the topic, writing an essay plan, reading secondary and primary sources, actually writing (!!), then editing and proofreading. It can help to give yourself small deadlines for these; I know I tend to over-research when I’m delaying writing a paper, so I have to force myself to start writing before I run out of time.
  • Planning also includes the very much needed breaks: you will not be writing something good or learning something well if you are too tired. So make sure to allow time to just lie face down on your bed and turn off your brain at the end of (or during) the day. I assure you that it helps. 
  • Put your phone on silent, or turn it off when you’re working. Don’t let yourself touch it until you’ve done a more or less satisfying amount of work (works better than timing myself, I find).
  • Organising something nice to do after the Thing is done also helps motivate me, just to have something to look forward to. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing – honestly, even just doing laundry or taking a nap is sometimes a good enough reward to get me going.   

All this is great, but I know that I tend to procrastinate the most when I have many different tasks that need doing, but are not particularly urgent or are all similarly important. In which case, you have to take out the big guns.

  • I start by writing down a list (with empty boxes or circles to tick, for added satisfaction) of everything I have to do (usually for a designated week), including little things like ‘write email to X’, ‘register for Y seminar’. Ticking off small tasks is satisfying and easy, and helps start the day.
  • Once small tasks are ticked off, look at how much time you have left of your day, either before you have lunch/dinner, or before whatever commitment you have that day, and pick something you can reasonably get done during that time. By the end of the day, then, you should have ticked off a few small(ish) tasks.
  • I also find that doing just small tasks during that first unmotivated day is very rewarding, because you end up ticking a lot of boxes; and then the following days you can concentrate on bigger things.
  • At the end of that first day, check what is left on your list and allocate tasks to the next few days, taking into account other commitments you have. That way, you can leave your desk knowing exactly what you’re doing the next morning, and won’t spend an hour checking social media, stressing about lots of little things, and wondering where to start. Because you’ve done that today already.

     Here are some other things that might help:

  • If you’re really, really not in the mood – you’re exhausted, cranky, not motivated at all... is there really a point forcing yourself to do work? Try doing other things instead, to distract yourself and relax a little. After an hour or so, you might then feel better about starting a bit of work – in which case, be mindful of yourself and don’t do too much!
  • If you’re lucky enough to live close to friends or family, why not meet up with them for a walk? Either complaining about your work, or talking about everything else but what you have to do can definitely make you feel better. If you don’t have anyone to meet up with at the moment, maybe go for a walk by yourself (if you can), or try calling/texting someone you miss. Alternatively, you could also open your window and breathe in the car fumes fresh air.
  • Put on some music that you love. It can be super energetic, or deeply nostalgic. The point is to lose yourself in the music for a few minutes, and forget about what you have to do. Bonus point: if it is so good that you leave it on, and get to work!
  • Clean up your desk / room; it will free up space in your brain too.
  • [If you like your degree:] Think or write down the things you like about your discipline. Why did you choose this dissertation topic? Why are you doing this course with an exam you are struggling to study for? What do you hope to achieve with that? Thinking about why I am doing what I am doing sometimes helps me get started and puts things into perspective, and then after half an hour I am in the zone again, not procrastinating anymore.
  • Think of how relieved and happy you’ll be once you get that Thing done.
  • Try doing the Thing for 30 minutes to an hour, just to see if your brain is being a bit lazy and you can wake it up. It’s worth a try, but it doesn’t always work.
  • Don’t be hard on yourself. Sometimes, you’re not able to study because you have other worries, which is completely okay. Life is especially difficult at the moment. Know that you are not alone. If you’re struggling and feel that you need help, please reach out to a trusted friend, family member, to your university or your doctor. If online resources are better for you, check out Student Minds, Young Minds, and Spunout.
  • Bake or cook something nice to reward yourself for surviving the day [or buy yourself a treat]. Trust that tomorrow will be easier.

    If everything fails, and you are still reading this thinking ‘well, that was a waste of time’, I suggest writing an article for the Celtic Students blog. It’s a very useful way of procrastinating, you can write about something you already know, and maybe once you’re done you’ll feel energised again and will get that Thing done in no time!

Now I’m off to make cookies work on my PhD chapter.



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