When All Motivation Is Lost

Written by: Andrea Zellner

Primary Source: Gradhacker

Screen shot of new writing document with a blank screen

Andrea Zellner is a Phd student in the Ed Psych/Ed Tech program at Michigan State University. She can be found on Twitter at @AndreaZellner.

I admit it. I’ve hit the wall. I reached a level of amotivation and apathy that, when I reflect on it, both impresses and worries me. My coursework is finished, my dissertation proposal is on the verge of being finished, I stand at the threshold of the very last obstacle in between me and graduation, and I would rather fill out applications to work at Starbucks. Not even the stern looks of my advisor matter to me any more. Oh, yes, the wall has been hit. It’s just that grad school just keeps going on and on—like the movie Groundhog Day. I’m clearly not going to leave until I learn what I need to learn. And somehow, I need to keep putting one word in front of the other on the page, I need to keep reading, and I need to keep doing ALL THE THINGS (side note: if it’s grading that’s really got you stuck, please visit Natascha’s post). They say that the return to work after the New Year is the most depressing and amotivating. If you are among the legion of people for whom this is true (as I clearly am), I’ve rounded up a few tips and tricks to keep us all at least moving instead of binge watching MST3K episodes on Netflix under a blanket all winter. (Side note: there’s amotivation, but there’s also Depression, which can be very close to one another in certain behaviors. If you aren’t sure, speak with your doctor. Please get help if you need it.)

1.  Edit your own story: Finding motivation might be as easy as writing out a different version of your current situation. Recently, NPR highlighted research that found that taking time to write about the issue (whether it be in general or specific to a task that is particularly amotivating) while reframing the problem had a strong positive effect on student achievement and motivation. I tried the writing exercises as discussed in the article, writing for 15 minutes each day about how much extra time I have, how much I love to write and do all my academic work, basically re-writing what has been a negative narrative (I DON’T WANNA!) into a positive one. I don’t know how long the effects will last, but I have seen an uptick in my motivation and productivity.

2. Create elaborate productivity cycles: While I have survived the majority of my graduate school career thus far on my own intrinsic motivation, when I find myself really unmotivated or procrastinating, I’ve found a surefire way to extrinsically motivate myself and generally keep my process interesting by introducing novelty. In short, when writing, (which is where my procrastination always rears its ugly head: I will pretty much do anything to avoid writing) I number sections of my paper, use a random number generator to tell me where to write/edit, listen to motivating white noise, all the while writing in timed chunks.  For more on my process, see my original blog post here.

3.  Take a break: Many people are aware that lack of sleep can hinder productivity. If you are feeling unmotivated, it could be that you need take a nap or just get more rest in general.  For me, every time I rob my sleep, I pay for it in wasted time and lack of motivation the next day. If a nap isn’t possible, maybe a quick peek at cute animal pics and gifs is enough of a mood brightener to get you back in motion (or maybe it just works for me. The hedgehog in the bath gets me every time.)

4. Check in with your network: Don’t underestimate the power of a cheering section. Maybe all you need to get moving is a pep talk. Maybe a session of working side-by-side with a fellow grad student in your same situation is all you need to get kickstarted. Even checking out the #amwriting hashtag on twitter or giving a shoutout of your daily goal to the #gradhacker or #phdchat tag can result in virtual cheers from around the globe. Remember: no matter how isolating academic work can be, we aren’t ever really alone.

In the end, I’ve decided that wall-hitting is a part of many grad students’ journeys to graduation, and this, like so many parts of life, shall also pass. I know my motivation will return, and, in the meantime, I’ll be the first one cheering you on from the Twitter section.

How do you handle a slump in your grad school life? Let us know in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user alzellner used with permission of the author.]

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Andrea is a PhD student in the Ed Psych/Ed Tech Program at Michigan State University. Her research interests focuses on the impact of digital badges on student motivation in online learning settings. Her additional research interests include teacher integration of technology, and the impact of online and social network settings on motivation and learning. She is a former High School English and Biology teacher and misses it every day.

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