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UK reader

Thanks for this Marcus. This is the thing I've struggled most with since moving from a non-academic job into a PhD program. In particular, I find what you describe as 'Commitment. Put deliberate effort into meeting this goal...' incredibly difficult to maintain!

It's not that I'm not committed. Of course I am. But in academia one has to be self-motivating to an extent rarely found in other walks of life. No one's there to make sure you're up and at your desk by 9am each morning, no one's going to disapprove if you take yet another unscheduled break, no one's going to give you a pat on the back for working steadily for several hours and achieving a breakthrough... Rewards and punishments and enthusiasm and energy all have to come from within. This is totally different from lines of work in which you work with colleagues. Humans are social creatures and, in many respects, the life of an academic is very unnatural. We're not really designed to sit alone at a desk with only our own brains for company day-in-day-out.

In short, I'm pretty good any goal-setting. But I'm terrible at holding myself to actually meeting my goals. It's so easy to just sort of drift by, permanently feeling slightly guilty for one's endless procrastination.

I wonder if you have any tips on how to deal with this malaise. One thing I always find helpful is to have a study-buddy. You needn't be working on the same things at all. This relationship isn't primarily about discussing your work with one another. It's more about agreeing to meet at the library at 9am, and holding each other to that, and taking breaks together, encouraging each other to keep at it, and so on.

Peter Furlong

Hi Marcus,

I have found that this is definitely true in my own case. I had been making little headway on projects, and then, at the end of February I printed out a calendar and wrote running word count goals for every day until mid-August. It has been months, and I am still on track, making far more progress than I have since I worked on my dissertation.

One difference I have found is that I don't do well when I give myself time commitments for each day, saying things like "work at least two hours on this or that paper." Instead, every single goal I have is based upon productivity, specifically in terms of word count. This does mean that my schedule varies widely--on one day the words flow quickly and I can be done in an hour. Other days, I need to track down and read an article or two before getting started on writing, and then the words might just not flow well, so it might take me four hours. In any case, it works for me.

In response to UK reader, I wanted to give a plug for R. P. Wolff's guide to writing a dissertation (http://robertpaulwolff.blogspot.com/2010/07/how-to-write-doctoral-dissertation-in.html) Some of my grad student friends hated what he had to say, but some of the tips he gave worked wonders for me. Most important is this bit: "If you do not have the discipline to write a page a day all by yourself, cut a deal with a fellow dissertation writer. You will send her a page a day by email, and she will send you a page of her dissertation every day by email. You will read her page [it only takes a minute] and send back an encouraging word, and she will do the same for you." In fact, I wish I had kept this going after the dissertation; I probably would have been far happier and more productive than I have been working largely alone the past few years. There is no doubt that the work itself is still a solo effort (my dissertation buddy and I worked in completely different areas of philosophy, so we didn't even have very much helpful input to give), but it felt a little like working together.

Trevor Hedberg

As we'll see at some point in the near future, this strategy differs an awful lot from the ones I adopted while working on my dissertation. The goal-oriented strategy always struck me as more effective at the monthly or weekly levels but too rigid to be effectively implemented at the level of daily scheduling. Or at least that's been my experience: I know very few people who have been able to implement it at the level of precision described here. Maybe in the summer -- when outside obligations are minimal -- that's doable, but new things pop up almost every week during the semester that would impede the kind of scheduling depicted here.

UK reader

Thanks for that Peter - it was a fun read. The bit about not rewriting, though? That just would NOT work for me.

Peter Furlong

Yeah, there are some parts of Wolff's advice that don't work for me either. The part on rewriting is one of these. Although I do, in general, try to work toward a unified rough draft before polishing, sometimes entire sections need to be radically changed, moved, or deleted before I can move on.

The other postdoc

A related issue—and one that comes up in UK reader's first comment—is the source of these motivations. Whether or not you use something like Goal-Setting Theory, there's still the issue of internal or external motivations (or however you want to divide them up). I'm not especially motivated by goals and deadlines that I arbitrarily set for myself. But I'm highly motivated by goals and deadlines that are tied to some external source. In my case, I wrote my dissertation by relying heavily on conference and journal special issue deadlines. Especially in the case of conferences that require only abstracts, I'd structure my time to research and write the abstract for their submission deadline. Then, upon acceptance, I'd structure my time to research and write the paper for the conference date. I did something similar for journal special issues. The only downside of this practice is that the compiled dissertation might come off as too modular or disjointed, since each section was initially written as something that could be presented or published on its own. But whether this is a problem depends on your own aims. In my case, at least, it made it much easier to publish each part of the dissertation as a standalone article.

Johnny Brennan

I think this is really helpful advice, and basically what I have implemented to be productive and meet all my deadlines. I do find it helpful even at the level of individual days. I have a notebook that is filled primarily with daily check-lists. Sometimes I meet all my goals, often I don't. I'm happy if I can check off around 75% of the tasks I set for myself. I find I am most productive when I work a little bit on (almost) every project I have on my plate each day. I often find that by doing this I can reach my goals earlier than expected. For instance, if I give myself a week to revise a paper, by working on it a little each day I end up getting it done in 4-5 days.

I agree with Peter, though. I never work in terms of time commitments. For one, I'm not very good at judging how long a task will take. Also, I find it natural to work in short bursts. I'll start writing, take a break (or get interrupted), and come back to it later. As long as I complete the tasks I've set out for myself, I don't care when or how long I work.

I also find it helpful to have a sense of what kind of work I'm productive at at different points in the day. For instance, I've heard many people encourage writing first thing in the morning. Despite being a morning person, I'm not very good at writing first thing in the day. But I do find it easy to read, take notes, or do emails and the like first thing in the morning. It's easier for me to grind away at writing in the late morning and early afternoon.

Finally, in response to UK reader, I don't have a helpful answer to how I hold myself to my goals. I don't know how to explain it, but once I set a goal for myself, it *feels* as if someone else is holding me accountable. I get that anxious feeling that if I don't meet my goal there are going to be consequences, like I'm going to be in trouble with someone (even though there really is no other consequence other than disappointment in myself). I don't know if this is an unhealthy mindset, but it has helped me be productive and hasn't had a negative impact on my mental well-being when I fail to meet my self-imposed deadlines.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Johnny: Thanks for sharing! I agree with you and Peter, and so does Goal-Setting Theory. Time-commitments aren't good enough. You can set aside 5 hours to write per day...but then get nothing done. The critical thing, according to Goal-Setting Theory, is to set substantive goals (2 pages of writing per day, etc.).

Marcus Arvan

Hi Trevor: Cool - I'll be curious to hear what your different approach is like!

In terms of specific daily goals, that's a nice point. It is easier to have exact daily goals during the summer, as more things come up during the school year. What I do, though, is have a few basic goals each day during the school year (e.g. Monday: write a lecture & draft 2 pages of a new paper), leaving other time aside for the random stuff that comes up. In other words, I think the daily-goal thing works (or works for me, at any rate) only if the daily goals a few, concrete, manageable, and leave room for other stuff. I definitely don't "micromanage" my days, planning everything hour by hour or anything like that. Just one or two clear goals per day--that's all.

In any case, like I said in the OP, I don't expect the same strategy works best for everyone. Curious to hear what you do!

Marcus Arvan

UK reader: Very interesting. I think it might be good to devote a new post/discussion to the issues you raise (motivation, procrastination, follow-through, etc.), as I suspect they are pretty common issues.

I have some thoughts/tips, and hope to write up a post early next week! Hopefully we'll hear from other people too and have a good discussion. :)

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