Best Practices: staying motivated and focused

The end of the semester is fast approaching for many of us. Homework assignments and projects are due amid the last round of exams before finals. On top of that, we’re expected to continue making progress on research — including getting papers written and presentations put together. How do you maintain your focus and get everything done in a reasonable amount of time?

If you’re done with your coursework and are purely focused on research and/or writing your thesis, perhaps you’re faced with the lack of motivation to do either?

Perhaps you’re in the middle — like me. I’m almost done with coursework, and have all the projects, homework, and exams associated with classes. On top of that, I’m deep into research with the goal of wrapping things up over the summer and starting to write my dissertation in the fall. And yet, I find that often I experience a lack of motivation or focus to get any of it done. My classes are pass/fail, and so there is a lack of interest in doing any more work than is required to pass the class. But when I’m not working on coursework, and I have plenty to do with research, I sometimes just get overwhelmed with how much I still need to do. It seems counterintuitive to not want to do anything. And yet, this is a common problem in graduate school, especially when pursuing a PhD. The road to graduation is long and arduous, and many of us get burned out during our time in graduate school.

So how can you push through this lack of motivation and avoid burn out? This is the current concern on my mind. Here are some of my best practices, as well as some tips and other resources. Feel free to comment with techniques that work for you!

Motivation/Focus techniques:

  • Make to-do lists!
    • Semesterly — keeps you on track for overall goals
    • Monthly — breaks down overall goals into manageable pieces per month
    • Weekly — focus on what needs to get done that week, adding one or two things that will help you accomplish your monthly goals
    • Bi-daily — break down the weekly tasks into tasks you can accomplish in 1-2 hours
  • If you have broken tasks down into items you can accomplish in 1-2 hours, frequently switch between tasks ever 1-2 hours when you finish a given task. While it may feel that you’re not getting things done, your mind is more refreshed when you switch between topics frequently. In the end, you’ll have accomplished more in any given day.
  • Find a workplace where you can actually get work done
    • Do you need music as a distraction? (I need classical music, or in general, music without words, otherwise I focus on the words. Additionally, sometimes, if it is music I’ve performed in an orchestra, I start listening to the music more than focusing on my task.)
    • Is it too loud in your office / lab? Get distracted at home? Take a day and work at a Panera or another coffee shop
  • Get up every hour for 5 minutes to exercise your legs and give your eyes/mind a break
    • Go to the restroom
    • Get a drink of water
    • Walk around the building
    • Go talk to a friend
  • Treat graduate school like a desk job
    • Work the hours necessary to get the job done (that may fluctuate between 9-5, and 7-7 depending on what you have going on)
    • But don’t take work home with you — your brain needs to relax and recharge
  • Find activities you like to do that are not research and fit them into your schedule
    • Play an instrument? Join a community band or orchestra
    • Play on an Intramural sports team
    • Exercise at the campus gym
    • Go hiking or walking around on city trails


Five tips for Staying Motivated according to

  1. Focus on High-Impact Activities
  2. Create New Challenges
  3. Set Attainable Goals
  4. Find a Social Support Network
  5. Acknowledge your Accomplishments

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