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How to Self-Motivate During Your PhD

One of the hardest parts of being a PhD student is learning how to self-motivate.

For most grad students, we're lucky to get a weekly meeting with our PI. And for most PIs, they've got so much on their plate, the last thing they have time for is keeping their students on track. This makes academia different than most work environments. In normal-people jobs, you're given external constraints to keep you on track: deadlines, bosses, teammates, etc. But as a PhD student, it's pretty much up to you to keep the productivity train moving in the right direction.

Speaking for myself, if I don’t get something done, it might be a cause for minor consternation in someone else’s day—but it’s mainly on me. When I fail to get something done, no one makes a fuss about it. That makes it really easy to not get things done.

I first realized how difficult this was when I was a lab manager at Harvard. I was essentially thrown into the deep end of a completely unstructured environment. I had very few responsibilities and my PI was super hands-off. So I had PhD-level freedom, without PhD-level pressure. That meant that I had a couple years to develop skills around the ability self-motivate and be productive without the expectations of having to do everything required during a PhD. It allowed me to focus on this important meta-skill before I really had to dial in the domain-specific skills that one hones over the course a doctorate.

When it comes down to it, my future success depends almost entirely upon whether I can motivate myself to get to work and execute on what I’ve set out on my plate. So I've had to develop strategies to maintain that motivation in the absence of external constraints. The trick is both to be the boss, raining down abuse and encouragement in turns as required, as well as the knocker-out of tasks. It's a hard balance.

And at first I was really shit at it. I tried a lot of tactics that didn’t work (I don’t like to be told what to do, even if the person giving the orders is me). It took me a while, but eventually I found some strategies—one for my calendar, in particular—that yielded massive improvements in my output. These are some of strategies that I've found most helpful in maintaining my motivation and productivity:

1. Systems versus Goals

In general, there are two different ways to think about the structure of progress over time: systems and goals. Systems are the repeatable steps that define good work. Goals are milestones that your work is designed to achieve. In short, goals define where you're going; systems define how you'll get there.

Systems are for productivity. Systems define progress in terms of inputs, not outcomes. If you're putting in what the system says you should, then you're hitting the mark of success. Another day in the system is a day well spent.

Goals are for motivation. Goals define progress as something tangible to strive for. You're not just doing work for work's sake—what would be the point? No, you're in the game because you want to accomplish something. You need to be explicit about what exactly that is.

Most people have a sense of what their goals are. But goals alone aren't enough. A goal is only a destination. Defining a goal doesn't tell you anything about how you're going to reach it. It also doesn't tell you anything about when you're going to reach it. If you're setting challenging goals, they are going to depend on something out of your control. Examples of goals you might have as a PhD student are: get an academic job, publish a paper, finish an experiment. Even for something simple like "read a paper," you don't actually know how long it's going to take to do it well. Systems are necessary because you need something that (1) specifies what you're going to do and (2) minimizes your dependence on outside forces, like the timeline on which something will happen.

Systems are the replicable steps you need to take in order to achieve your goals in the long term. A system says do x, y, and z every week; if you stick at it for long enough, you'll get to where you want to go. In theory, systems and goals are totally independent. If you get the system right, you could just stick at it and eventually achieve great things without necessarily having planned to achieve them. But in practice, you need a balance.

Here's an example about how I think about the "system" for my podcast, Cognitive Revolution. It is essentially a definition of when and what I am going to work on. In terms of time, this consists of two blocks I have set aside every week for the pod: Tuesday mornings and Sunday afternoons. Every week, I use this time to invite guests on the show and to edit the interviews that I've already recorded. I also schedule at most two hour-long recording sessions at other times throughout the week, which I fit in around the schedules of my guests. So the system is that I have about 6 hours per week dedicated to the pod for my three primary tasks: invitation, interviewing, and editing. I know that if I do that week after week, month after month, year after year, then I'm going to produce a stream of quality content. If I take the process seriously, I'll also get better over time and reach a wider range of people. No explicit goals necessary.

So in a sense systems are more important than goals. But goals are motivating, and they also help you determine which areas of life and work you should develop systems for. The key is to develop systems that will lead to your goals.

But it turns out that figuring out how to articulate a good goal is difficult. This leads to my second point.

2. Create a Good Road Map

The course of your life is fundamentally unknowable. It doesn't matter how much of a "planner" you are. It's outside your control. You simply don't know what's going to happen to you to in the future or what parameters you'll be working with. You can't control if a paper if going to get rejected or accepted. You can't control if the department at your dream university is going to have a faculty position open when you're ready to apply.

That means it's irrational to over-specify your goals. You are setting yourself up for failure if you commit yourself to outcomes that are overly narrow, because you have to expect that things will change while you're immerse in the process of working toward them. And you don't know what the consequences of those changes will be until they happen.

But though you can't predict exactly how your path will look, it's almost always possible to know the big milestones you have to hit along the way.

This is especially straightforward if your goal is to become a career academic. Your milestones are: PhD, post-doc, pre-tenure professor, tenured professor. If you're going to be a career as an academic, you are 100% going to have to hit those marks in some form or another. Everything else you do is in service of hitting those milestones.

A good road map has two attributes: (1) It get the hierarchy right, and (2) It allows for multiple-realizability.

Goal structures should be hierarchical. At the top of the hierarchy should be an overall mission. This should be some state of the world that you want your life's work to help achieve. Examples might be "to contribute to knowledge" or "to help children get the best education possible." Personally, I can say that I've spent a lot of time getting worked up about trying to articulate my "overall mission." But ultimately, I think it's more of a useful exercise for contemplation than something you need to go out and get tattooed on an ass cheek. There's no doubt that it's something you develop over time. It's something that becomes clearer in retrospect, as a unifying thread loosely connecting everything it occurred to you was worth doing at the time. The way I currently think about my overall mission to "connect psychology with everyday life." I love ideas, and I believe that ideas should (1) describe what really exists in the world, and (2) make an impact in that world as it is experienced by everyday people.

Then your next level of goals should be a slightly more tangible realization of that overarching goal. For me, I could "connect psychology with everyday life" by either being a professor or writing books for a general audience. Both of those tracks could be reasonably well-aligned with my mission. But if it turns out that my dissertation research sucks and I don't get an academic job, well, there are still plenty of ways that I can keep after that animating passion.

To keep going with the hierarchy, if I want to be a professor then I need to finish my PhD and get a good post-doc. It's also rather easy to break down this goal into component parts: I need to write a dissertation, publish some papers, etc. And it keeps going. The point is that any higher-level goal is multiply-realizable at the level below it. There are a number of ways I could go about setting myself up for a good post-doc (e.g., write a bunch of papers that look impressive on my CV in a job application, or pick a couple profs I really want to work with and position myself to be an especially appealing candidate to them).

The point is to respect the nature of goals on either end of the hierarchy. You are not in the scientific game just because you want to publish a lot of papers (unless that explicitly is your overall mission). You are in the game because there's a problem that you care about, and whatever you happen to be working on right now is one of making a contribution. If it works out, great. If not, there are plenty of other ways to keep going.

To paraphrase organizational psychologist Adam Grant, move up the hierarchy for motivation (the "why" behind what you're doing); move down the hierarchy to break things down into executable steps (the "what" you're going to do). Don't get too caught up at either end.

3. A Tale of Two Calendars: Planned & Actual

My calendar is probably the most important aspect of my self-motivation productivity regiment. I've spent years calibrating it into something that works for me. The basic idea is that my Google Calendar has two calendars for my work schedule: "Planned" and "Actual."

My “Planned” calendar is what my optimal schedule would look like for a given day. My Planned calendar is the Platonic ideal of what I hope to get done in a day. In some far off heaven of perfect focus and unmolested flow, I would spend exactly this much time on that activity.

My “Actual” calendar reflects how I actually spend my time that day. I update it as the day goes on. By the end of the day, the two calendars resemble each other; but they’re never the same.

Here is what this looks like in practice:

This is my current morning. The Planned calendar is in pink. It starts with breakfast at 7:00am, meditation at 7:30, then working on this blog post at 8. It's Monday, and I usually feel pretty fresh on Mondays, so my Actual calendar, in green, lines up pretty well with my plan. As I keep going, I'll extend the Actual calendar to 11am or whenever I stop working.

Here's an example of when my day doesn't go like I planned it:

This was last Friday. Pretty much all last week I had a terrible time getting out of bed. And so my ambition of getting up at 7:00am to have breakfast and read didn't work out. Instead, I got started at 9:30, got the work done that I wanted to, and then made it to the gym slightly behind schedule.

So here's the logic behind it: The Planned calendar is necessary because you have to have some specification of when you're going to do things. This is what a system is: you're going to plug away at the work on a regular basis. The problem is that you're never, ever going to live up to the exact plan for a day: you'll sleep in, or get distracted on Twitter, or get in the zone coding when you should be writing.

And, for me, whenever I fall short of getting done what I could have, I get down on myself. It makes me feel like a failure, like I'm not living up to my potential. Because there's so much to do and limited time to do it in, it's all too easy to be aware of everything you're not doing.

The psychological benefit of the Actual calendar is that it gives you credit for the things you actually got done. Sure, you may not have been as maximally productive as you could have been in theory. But now you can look and see exactly what you did get done. It shifts the focus from what you didn’t do to what you did do. Even if you have an off day, you can still point out at one good block of time and feel like you at least got something done.

You expect that the two calendars will be different (if you didn't, then you wouldn't need the second calendar), and so it takes some of the pressure off of feeling like you fell short of your plan. It’s built to accommodate the distractions and imperfections that inevitably arise on a daily basis.

You can also observe qualitative patterns in what you plan to do versus what you end up doing. If you plan to get up at 7am every day and after two weeks of keeping your Actual calendar observe that you didn't get up until 8:30 on any single day, then there's an obvious mismatch here. You either need to change your expectation or modify your strategy for achieving it. I'm constantly making little tweaks to the way I set up my Planned calendar in response to my recent behavior and current projects.

I have two best practices for keeping these calendars:

- The Planned calendar must be finalized before you start work for that day. No takesies-backsies once the day begins. This might be the night before. This might be the morning of, as recourse to some email you received while you were asleep. But the point is that once the working day has started, there’s no opportunity for revisionist history. Even if you were way off, that forecast is set in stone. This way, if you’re dramatically off on a regular basis, you’ll know it and be able to adjust your forecasts accordingly.

- The Actual calendar must be accurate to within fifteen minutes. This is partly because Google calendar allows you to easily shift things in quarter-hour increments. But it also allows for some wiggle room between being a stickler and lying to yourself. If you’re five minutes late to get started because you were browsing on Twitter—hey, that’s fine. But if you were ten minutes late because your ass transitioned from browsing to straight-up time wasting, then it’s only right that the Actual calendar reflect that by starting at 10:15 instead of 10:00.

Once I started keeping my two overlapping calendars, I experienced an instant increase in productivity. I no longer got discouraged when I failed to live up to my expectations. Hell, even if I got nothing done in a day, I could look back on all the good progress I had made earlier in the week and not get down on myself. I also got more likely to hit my goals, at least in the broad strokes. I no longer had to worry about spending time getting back on track. I just record the track that I’m on and keep moving a long it.

And for additional reference, here's my Planned calendar so far for the upcoming week:

And here's one from a reasonably representative previous week:

Derive from it whatever insights you will.

4. Capitalize on your natural rhythms

Part of the great thing about being an academic is that you're completely in charge of your own time. However, this is a waste if you let social norms dictate the flow of your day instead of your own natural rhythms. Set up your work day around what is honestly going to make you most product, not what people expect a normal workday to look like.

For example, I've noticed in talking about to successful researchers on Cognitive Revolution about their productivity regiments, there is a pretty even split between morning people and night owls. It's possible to have a natural inclination toward working in the morning or the evening and still get everything done. What's important to know is which periods in your day are your most sacred, when you’re most focused and least likely to be interrupted.

For me, it's between 8am and 11am. I call this the "first fruits" of my day. If I set aside that time to work on something, chances are I’m going to be in the zone the whole time. However, if I set something in the afternoon, there’s a good chance I’ll be distracted, change my mind about what I want to work on, or have to entertain some schmuck who wanders into my office solicit my attention on some matter. For most people the afternoon is full of distractions—as it should be. Afternoons would be lonely if everybody wasn’t poking their heads in other people’s business to see what they’re up to. The point is that you have to know which parts of your day you have the highest probability of focus, and position your most important work during those times.

There are also a couple other non-standard routines I've developed which might make me appear less committed to my office-mates (who gives a shit what they think?) but ultimately make me more productive. For one thing, I work from home in the morning. Since I'm most productive in the AM, I try to place as few obstacles between getting up and sitting down at my desk as possible. If I try to work out, shower, get ready for work, commute, and get settled at my office, that eats up almost two hours of my highest potential time. No way. So my first fruits are savored at home.

The second thing is that I put a big break in the middle of my day, right after my morning productivity session. I go to the gym (three days a week) at 11:00am. Not only do I prefer to have my workout come after a work session, it's also the time when the gym is the least crowded since everyone else is at their normal-person job. I also often make lunch my big social activity for the day. It's a nice time to hang out with friends—especially in a setting that doesn't require you to drink coffee or alcohol. And so after this big two-hour break in the middle of my day, I'm ready to go to the office and hit my work again. If I don't take that break, I crap out on work at four in the afternoon. If I have that big break, I can happily keep going until seven.

There's all sorts of ways to create a weird schedule that works for you and only you. For example, Paul Bloom has this whacky routine in which he only works on projects for six-minutes at a time before moving on to another one. He can do this for hours. Apparently, it keeps him focused and engaged in whatever he's doing, since he's never working on one thing for long enough to get bored.

The crucial thing is to constantly be trying to find an alignment between your schedule and your natural rhythms. Be honest with yourself about what's going to make you more productive. Don't try to fit yourself into a conventional box if you think a more non-standard approach would work better for you.

Remember, your PhD is not going to go better just because your peers are impressed with how much time you spend at your desk. However, your PhD will go better if you can find a few tweaks that make you 10% more productive over the course of a few years.

5. Maker versus Manager Schedules

This is an idea outlined in an essay by Silicon Valley V.C. Paul Graham. It applies to any domain that requires a balance between creativity and execution, but especially academia.

At a first approximation, a "Maker's" schedule is one with long blocks of time set aside for making something. As you saw in the Tale of Two Calendars section above, I'm writing this as part of my usual three hour writing block on Monday morning. A full-on maker's schedule for me would consist of one big block in the morning and another in the afternoon. Though depending on your own natural rhythms, it could be one block throughout the whole day or even across multiple days.

A "Manager's" schedule has a bunch of small blocks—essentially for meeting with people and sending emails. Traditionally, these are in one hour increments.

A typical PhD student has a maker's schedule. A typical P.I. has a manager's schedule. But each should probably have a mix of both.

To some extent, I divide my day into a maker's morning and a manager's afternoon. This is still a work in progress for me. But basically, I find that, because I have increased concentration in the morning, I can put all my energy into one big-chunk project. Then in the afternoon, because my attention is more diffuse, it's easier for me to break up into smaller-chunk activities: read a paper, code a bit, analyze some data, have a meeting, send a round of emails, edit an essay, etc. To some extent, it makes sense to organize a maker's schedule around large time slots. A manager's schedule works better with a to-do list, which I go into detail about below.

The main trick here is to understand which of your tasks are best done in a maker's schedule and which are best done in a manager's schedule. Plan your time accordingly.

6. To-do lists are for execution, not creativity

I tend to use to-do lists for my afternoon work, which I do mainly on a manager's schedule. I like to-do lists for these smaller tasks because you can break your work down into bite sized tasks.

I don't really use to-do lists for creative work. For example, it's not clear how I'd fit this essay in a to-do list that I'd check off. I could segment it into sections and put each of them into a to-do like, as in "write section 1." Then there'd be a round that says, "edit section 1" etc. But I find it's better to just set aside a big chunk of time and let the project work itself out.

Tying this back to systems versus goals, to-do lists are essentially the bottom-level of the goal hierarchy: the smallest bite-sized pieces you can break a project into. Systems are more time-oriented. If I don't finish this essay in my three hour chunk, then, well, I'll just work on it another time.

The main problem that people run into with to-do lists is that things go on there and they never get off. It's a classic forecasting bias. We always think future-us will have more time to get shit done than present-us. Not the case. If you're not going to have time to something now, or sometime close to now, you're probably not going to have time to do it in the future.

7. Fill up Before Pouring Out

How successful you are depends on what you produce. How successful you have the potential to be depends on what you learn.

It's much harder to quantify your progress in learning because there are no deliverables. It's easy to get caught up in producing new work because that's what you get credit for. And there's definitely something to be said for productivity. But in the long term your knowledge is your greatest asset. Remember to invest in learning, even when you're trying to get a bunch of other shit done.

For me, it helps to think of it as a cup that gets filled up. In order for me to have something to pour out, I first need to make sure I'm filled up.

8. Enjoy the process

Remember that you have the coolest job in the world. You figure things out for a living. Your time is your own. You can follow your interests. You're making a huge impact in the lives of those you mentor. The problems you're working on are interesting and important. You're here for a reason, not among the least of which is that you're really good at it.

Take a second to fucking enjoy the ride!

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