My first blog post for 2020 listed several goals I had for this year. With finishing up my dissertation, defending my dissertation, and COVID-19, I certainly have not kept up with all of the goals I set for myself. I have been stretching, but not every day like I wanted. I have read for pleasure, but I haven’t worked it into my routine so well…yet. I have been so focused on my dissertation that I haven’t made time to work on other projects. Worst of all, I haven’t been writing (other than dissertating). My goal was to write one blog post a week and here we are 4 months later, and I have only written two posts since.
Several people have asked me to write a post on how to stay motivated and productive when working on a big project. I’d like to preface that what I am sharing is what works for ME—not all of these tips may work for you! I am also going to offer some advice that I should be practicing more myself. Also, I know that we are in a challenging time right now and maintaining productivity and motivation can be quite difficult with shelter in place. Hopefully, this post will provide ideas and encouragement rather than pressure to be productive and motivated. I will be re-highlighting some of the points I have made in my previous posts and will link those!
The most important thing, to me, is maintaining a positive mindset. I will be the first to say I know how difficult this can be especially when there are pressures from deadlines and expectations from others to deliver a product/project that is above and beyond. However, I try to reframe those pressures and expectations as positive motivators and not see them as something negative. I could easily attribute my “not keeping up with my goals” to being so focused on working on my dissertation, but I really want to hold myself accountable. Instead, I have been trying to get into the habit of saying “I didn’t MAKE time to XYZ” rather than “I didn’t HAVE time to XYZ”. I feel by saying that “I didn’t MAKE time” puts the responsibility on myself and doesn’t leave room for blaming or excuses. I think it’s a habit that we should all try to practice more!
Some things are certainly out of our control, but recognizing what you can control—like your mindset, attitude, behavior, what you read, what you watch, who you surround yourself with, how you manage our time—can make such a big difference. It is important to be self-confident no matter what. It is so easy to get in a slump and question your success and abilities—trust me, I’ve been there! But I always try to remind myself of the purpose of the project, my goals, my abilities, my strengths, and all of my accomplishments to not be so hard on myself and to stay motivated and confident (I just realized how many “ands” I just used in that sentence! Sorry to all of the grammarians out there!)
Using a Planner & Making To-Do Lists
Maintaining a positive mindset is the most important, but organization is a close runner-up for me. Whether electronic or paper-bound, using a planner to organize your monthly, weekly, and daily tasks can help you to stay motivated and on top of things. I always write in important dates as soon as I know them in the page-wide calendar and in the daily spot for each week. What works for me is on Monday I write all of the things that I need to get done that day. This not only includes my work tasks, but also things like call the doctor, laundry, eat lunch, stretch, read, etc. Beside each item, I draw a square. If I complete that item, I put a check beside it. If that item is not completed, I color the square in (I use teal). Then, I move the teal items to the next day as the first item on the list. Basically, having daily to-do lists for me helps me to hold myself accountable for meeting my own mini deadlines and goals. For me, making lists gives me such a great feeling of control and it is so rewarding to check off an item on my list! Most importantly, using a planner and making lists is tangible evidence of your progress and nothing is better than seeing how much you have accomplished! I will talk about how creating and completing smaller goals is beneficial next!
In my previous post “Materials for Organization”, I talked about the different planners I have used. I prefer a paper-bound planner and I really love using the planners from Lilly Pulitzer because they come in a range of sizes and the colors and stickers are so fun. Lilly Pulitzer also just came out with To Do Planners with write-in dates with sections like: To Get, Top Priorities, Calls & Emails, Appointments, and, or course, To Do. I also use different colored pens to differentiate the items in my planner. For example, I use pink for personal (e.g., birthdays, trips, etc.) and red for meetings or appointments. For different classes I use different colors, too. So, for one class I will write the due dates all in green and for another class it will be in orange. You can use whatever color code scheme you want!
Break Your Project into Smaller Goals
When you’re assigned a big project, it can be quite overwhelming. There are so many parts and, if you’re like me, you want every piece to be the best it can be. For me, it’s important to break projects into smaller parts. I usually start off by outlining everything that needs to be done. I typically don’t write the introduction to a manuscript until I have finished the main content and body! Unless it’s imperative to go in order, you can start on any of these parts in whatever order you choose. Whichever piece of the project you choose to work on, just focus on that piece and try not to get distracted by or worried with the others until you are ready to dedicate time to those other parts. In my previous post “Managing Projects and Studying“, I talked about creating a work “pipeline” by organizing all of the tasks you need to complete, but not allowing that pipeline to get clogged. Always keep the pipeline moving, but don’t take on too many things at once. Along with my previous tip of creating daily to-do lists, creating and completing smaller goals helps to build consistency in your routine.
Establish Time Periods & Schedule
Along with the two previous points, for each small item it is important to set specific time goals for those items and schedule when you want to start on those items each day. For increased and effective productivity, for every hour you work, you should have 50 minutes of work time and 10 minutes of break time to do a mindless activity. You can work for either two 25-minute intervals with 5-minute breaks or one 50-minute interval with a 10-minute break. This forces you to be the focus your attention and time to the task at hand and be the most productive you can be in those worktime intervals without distractions. During breaks, you are allowed to be distracted by your phone, Instagram, emails, online shopping, etc. Taking regular breaks will help to reset your brain and boost your mental focus! It helps to break up your worktime so you can be most efficient rather than working tirelessly for hours at a time and getting burnt out.
One of my favorite artists shared how she uses the Pomodoro Technique to manage her time working on her projects (Riley Sheehey – @cestriley). I like this, specifically, because I can write it down in my planner beside each task and have evidence of how much time I worked on that task each day. First, indicate how many hours you would like to dedicate to a task and draw a circle for each hour. For every 25 minutes, draw a slash through the circle. At the end of the hour, you should have an “X” in the circle. Pomodoro is named after the Italian word for tomato and the circle with an X is supposed to look like a tomato! I usually work in 50-minute intervals and draw an “X” at the end of every 50 minutes, then take my 10-minute break. Also, on the first tomato, I write the time I started above.
There are several apps on your phone or laptop you can use to help you manage your time and intervals. Typically, these will log your intervals for you, and you don’t have to write it down, but for me I like to write it do because having it on paper motivates me more. I use the Be Focused app on my laptop and I really like it! I found a post from JotForm that lists 15 of the best Pomodoro apps you can use for your phone and laptop that is very informative.
Eliminate Distractions During Work Time
Using the Pomodoro technique will help with eliminating distractions. However, it is important that once you start on a time interval, to remove common distractions from your workspace. Turn your notifications for emails off, put your phone out of reach and on silent, close the door to your office, etc. You will be surprised by how much screen-time on your phone you will eliminate!
I know that some distractions are out of our control. The dogs love to start barking at the mailman or squirrels or they like to get into things while I am working, and it interrupts my thought process and drives me crazy! Although we can’t control the crazy in our life completely, we can manage our access to common distractions. When you are on your break interval, you can use that time to scroll through Instagram or respond to emails. However, I would actually suggest setting aside a specific time to respond to emails and work-related clerical work because that is actually doing work and not taking a break. If you’re like me, I find responding to emails and taking care of “busy” clerical work quite exhausting. It is important to identify what are common distractions for you and if those distractions are work-related and can be worked into your schedule as an actual task.
I hope you found my tips helpful! I would love to hear what works for you! Comment below any questions or things you do to help you stay motivated and productive!