motivation and unstructured time: successes and failures

Fri 10 January 2014 | -- (permalink)

Around this time two years ago, I had just finished my graduate coursework and was transitioning into full-on research mode. All of a sudden, school was a LOT different than it had been for the previous 18-ish years. I was faced with the odd problem of having a big workload consisting of major, long-term projects, and also having tons of free time to do that work. For me, the biggest challenge with that setup was motivating myself to do work on a daily basis without the deadlines and self-contained tasks typical of homework assignments and exams. With so much less urgency and so many fewer negative consequences of procrastination, it was unexpectedly difficult to make myself sit down and work on my research.

Now I have two years of experience with this type of workload/schedule, and I've been feeling pretty motivated lately, so I thought I'd write down some of the tactics I've tried to get myself into "working mode." My hope is that it will be useful for people who, like 2012 me, have suddenly found themselves with lots of unstructured time. I'm definitely no expert - all of this is totally anecdotal - but if you're looking for ideas, here's what I've tried:

Stuff that didn't work

  • setting "task-oriented" goals: "I'm going to get X, Y, and Z finished before I leave my office today." One problem with this strategy is that I'm not very good at predicting how long X, Y, and Z are going to take. Part of it is the nature of research...since nobody's ever done what you're trying to do, X might fail spectacularly or it might not, and you can't know that until you try it. Also, getting Y done often depends on already having X right, and if X takes lots of fine-tuning, I might not get to Y for a few days or weeks. I barely ever succeeded at my task-oriented goals, which made me even less motivated to work on them the next day.

  • giving myself fake deadlines. A REAL deadline can be a decent motivator (see last bullet in next section), but I don't have quite enough willpower to keep self-imposed deadlines with self-imposed consequences.

  • working from home. Sometimes it doesn't sound all that appealing to me to go work in my windowless, gray-walled, shared-between-5-people office. I've come up with every excuse in the book: I'm tired, there's traffic and the bus is going to be super slow, I don't have anything to bring for lunch, I have windows in my apartment, it's too hot, it's too rainy, blah blah blah. BUT. The fact of the matter is that for me, there are too many distractions at home. And it's even more dangerous because if I work at HOME, nobody will ever KNOW if I have a 10-hour Netflix marathon instead of working on my research -- but I (and possibly the people I'm working with) will pay that price sometime later. At my office, there may not be windows, but there is social pressure to be working. (Coffee shops are alright, but unless I go with a friend, I feel pretty free to leave whenever I want, so I think the office is the best motivator.)

Stuff that worked

  • setting "time-oriented" goals: "I'm going to work on this problem for the next 2 hours." This strategy has worked SO MUCH BETTER for me than the task-oriented goal strategy I mentioned above. I feel a lot less pressure and a lot more freedom with this approach. I feel like I'm allowed to take the time to make 800 exploratory plots, or write good code, or automate a process that I know I'll have to repeat later, etc. I find it way easier to get into the so-called "zone" when I'm less focused on the finish and more focused on the process. And even if I don't finish the thing, I know I've put in a solid couple hours of work, so I feel a lot less guilty.

  • working when, but not only when, I feel like working. In other words, if(in working mood): do work; AND AVOIDING if(not in working mood): do not work; (more on the latter in a moment). What I mean here is that If I get some strange, magical second wind at 5pm, or 7pm, or 11pm, and I have that time free anyway...I just roll with it and work outside of "working hours."

  • If I'm completely wiped out (i.e., I've just been staring at my computer, glossy-eyed, for the past 30 minutes, or I'm switching back and forth between my code and my Twitter feed every 7 seconds): I give myself 3 options: (1) switch to a different problem, (2) take a coffee break or a focus walk, or (3) call it quits for the day. I usually only choose (3) if it's late-ish in the day or if I'm facing some obstacle today that won't be there tomorrow (e.g., a headache) -- but I never take (3) off the table. I often choose (1) if I have "administrative" things to do, like grading, or documenting/refactoring code. I find that this less research-y stuff doesn't require quite as much brainpower, since it doesn't involve coming up with like 20 new ideas per minute, but it still needs to get done. Option (2) is also surprisingly effective for me: taking what I call a "focus walk" -- a ~20-minute walk, perhaps with some sweet jams on the ipod -- usually makes me a bit more productive when I get back to work. I also have extroverted tendencies, which means I get energy from interacting with people (and also from coffee), so the grab-a-friend-and-get-a-coffee strategy has also gotten me refocused several (hundred) times.

  • If I'm unmotivated because I'm STUCK, i.e., I'm not sick of working but I've hit a wall on a particular problem, I try to follow this advice -- try for 15 more minutes, record everything I did (which is good practice anyway), and then find somebody to ask for help. My advisor has a great stop-by-and-ask-questions-any-time policy, so I usually go there first, but if he's not around, I'll certainly ask fellow students or postdocs, or at least fire off an email or two.

  • becoming accountable: Sometimes I call up a work friend and ask them on an early-morning breakfast date: let's get bagels at 8am and then head in to work together! Or sometimes I make plans with a friend to go to a coffee shop at 3pm - together we can fight temptation to call it a day at 2:30!

  • finding a real deadline: I've written two papers amazingly quickly because I was entering them into student paper competitions for travel awards to conferences. These were real deadlines, so there was definitely pressure to finish, and it forces me to do the hardest part of paper-writing: getting words on the page. There isn't enough time to fret about every little detail - just get the ideas across, then edit later. (As they say, "write drunk, edit sober" - while I don't advocate writing drunk, I think letting go of some inhibitions while writing a first draft is important.) SADLY I didn't win the awards - but I did get a lot of work done in the days leading up to the deadlines :)

Ideas I've heard from other people but haven't tried myself

  • Reading a book about productivity: I've heard a bit about Getting Things Done, but the only actual experience I have with it is looking up that Amazon link for this post.

  • Collecting or recording data on how you spend your time (thanks John for this idea). Maybe with GitHub, if you write lots of code? Ask yourself, "have I pushed code today?" (we asked ourselves this A LOT at Hacker School). The data might be able to help you learn things like what time of day you work best.

Final thoughts

Know thyself, as they say. If you're more introverted than I am, coffee with a friend might not be as energizing for you as it is for me. If you excel at working under a lot of pressure, maybe task-oriented goals will work for you. It took a long time for me to figure out what worked for me, and I'm still learning - I'm ALWAYS looking for new strategies that have worked, so if you have a brilliant motivational idea, please share!

{update, 1/22/14:} Peter Hickey shares! Here's his follow-up post with some more suggestions.

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