How to get things done and stay motivated

Do you struggle to get things done and stay motivated in your research career? Learn how to efficiently set goals and reflect on your work!

Staying motivated and productive while working in the research environment can be quite challenging.

This is mostly because as researchers and academics, we’re trusted with a broad range of responsibilities, from doing research and securing funding, through teaching, developing course material to mentoring others. 

And on the top of this, we’ve got to share our research with the world to ensure it reaches beneficiaries that can potentially use it. 

This is a lot! It’s extremely easy to get overwhelmed, especially if you don’t have a specific plan on how you can get things done. 

As a result, you may lose motivation and your drive to pursue your innovative research. Or even worse, you may burn out, as I explained in my previous article on maintaining sustainable motivation.

As academics and researchers, we’ve to deal with rejection and uncertainty. Even if we give our best, things may not always go exactly as we want. 

So how you can ensure you’ll get things done and stay motivated? 

Well, we need a good plan! 

At the beginning of my PhD, I had prepared had a plan for my PhD project. At that time, I considered the main areas and activities I wanted to explore in my PhD programme. This took a very generic form of the aim and objectives for the project. These were fairly flexible, but I thought it was OK given the exploratory nature of my work. 

However, I neither really make daily or weekly goals nor used to-do lists that would give me a way to measure my progress. 

All that mattered for me was to meet the aim and objectives of my project – as you can expect, I got overwhelmed from time to time. 

Looking at it from the perspective of a couple of years spent in academia, I believe I could’ve achieved much more in my PhD had I set, at the very least, weekly goals. 

I say this with high confidence, as since I started setting daily and weekly goals a couple of years back, I’ve seen a dramatic increase in my productivity. 

Such weekly and daily goals enable me to really focus on what I’ve got to achieve in a given timeframe. I noticed that I don’t get distracted so much as well. 

Want to know how exactly I do it? 

In this article, I’m going to tell you about how I stay motivated and get things done, regardless of the variety of responsibilities you may carry. 

Set your daily, weekly and monthly goals

This may seem obvious, but you really need to take a pen and write down your goals. 

Why should you write them down by hand? Well, the study led by Dr Gail Matthews showed that you’re 42% more likely to achieve your goal. 

That’s right, 42%! 

So write down your goals now, as you read this article! 

Take a piece of paper and just write 3 main goals for next month. These should focus on what you want to achieve and by when you need to achieve this. 

From there, you can derive weekly and daily goals. 

It’s important you set goals and targets. Otherwise, you’re just working towards the massive goal of completing your project that may seem as something unachievable. You may feel that you haven’t actually made any progress over the past week or month. 

If you don’t see progress in your work, you may get demotivated pretty quicky. We all need small wins to keep us going! 

Set goals for your work week and write them down. These will enable you to track progress, stay motivated and get things done!
Set goals for your work week and write them down. These will enable you to track progress, stay motivated and get things done!

Ask yourself a question – what is important for you now? 

What are the activities that you really need to focus on that will enable you to progress in your career and completing your PhD/postdoc project? 

In my case, for example, I focus on:

– building relationship with stakeholders for my research and course;

– writing proposals for new research projects;

– developing the MSc course that I lead;

– disseminating my research via publications and other communication channels; and

– leading and developing my research team. 

This seems a lot, right? But it’s possible to manage it with clearly defined monthly, weekly and daily goals. 

I encourage you to use SMART goals framework when setting your goals!

Create a to-do list 

Once you set up your goals, it’s actually very easy to list the tasks that you’ve got to achieve on a monthly, weekly or daily basis on a piece of paper or specific software

Such a to-do list will help you track your progress, which in turn will drive your motivation. 

To-do list will help you track your small wins and, subsequently, you'll stay motivated to get things done
To-do list will help you track your small wins and, subsequently, you’ll stay motivated to get things done

For example, at the time I write this blog, I’m working the research proposal. I know exactly what tasks I must do develop an appealing application. Using the weekly and daily to-do list helps me to monitor the progress I made and enjoy the small wins. 

Such to-do lists enable you to reflect what the satisfactory outcome would be. Remember, we can finish a manuscript or report up to 90-95% in a reasonable time, but it gets significantly more time to get to from 95% to 100%. 

 Remember, done is better than perfect.  

Prioritise your work 

Now that you set up your goals and tasks that you need to complete to complete your project, you need to prioritize these that will lead to the highest gain. 

You can, for example, use the Pareto principle that is also known as the 80/20 principle. This means that 80% of your progress comes from 20% of your effort. 

You can also use the visual tools, such as impact-effort or action priority matrix

Such tools will help you to identify the tasks you should prioritize in your schedule. Of course, you need to remember that some tasks will have a deadline, and these need o be prioritized. If you don’t have a specific deadline, you may want to start with the most difficult task. 

Remember, if you undertake a very difficult task, it may take some time to see progress and get something out of it. Therefore, you may not feel the progress.

By prioritising your work, you can achieve your set goals and progress in your research career faster!
By prioritising your work, you can achieve your set goals and progress in your research career faster!

I found it useful to schedule 1-2 small tasks per day, along with a big task, per day. These small tasks will give you a sense of progress each day and will keep you motivated for a longer period.

Don’t even try to multitask 

We all think we can multitask. But the reality is that we can’t multitask

This is because we get distracted pretty easily when we switch between tasks. We start thinking about too many aspects of our work at the same time. As a result, we can’t properly focus on one specific task, and it’ll take us more time to complete it.

Busy woman eating, drinking coffee, talking on the phone, working on laptop at the same time. Businesswoman doing multiple tasks. Multitasking business person. Freelancer works at night.
Multitasking is definitely not the way to get things done in your research career. To be productive, you need to focus on one task at a time.

Therefore, once you set 2-3 tasks to complete a day, make sure you assign a specific timeframe within which you need to complete these tasks. 

For example, one of my typical days includes doing research and writing, having some meetings and developing the course material. 

To be productive, I assign 3 hours for writing and research in the morning. I try to arrange my meetings within specific slots in the afternoon. And, finally, I’ve got about two to three hours to focus on the course material. 

Remember, such a change won’t happen overnight, as we need at least 21 days to develop a habit

Importantly, it can be very difficult to stay motivated and focused on a task for 2-3 hours straight. You may want to use a technique like Pomodoro where you actually focus for about 45 minutes, then you take some a break just to get refreshed and take care about your well-being. 

Reflect on your work 

We always plan activities, develop to-do lists, plans, daily goes and so on, but we tend to forget to reflect on how it actually went and take some lessons from our performance. 

It’s really important to understand what works and what doesn’t work for you to progress in your research career. 

I found using the reflection cycle, such as plan-do-check-act, to organize the process. 

Using reflecting cycle, such as PDCA, will have you to maintain focus in your research career and get things done more easily.
Using reflecting cycle, such as PDCA, will have you to maintain focus in your research career and get things done more easily.

Developing the reflection skills now will help you to understand how you work best how you can improve your productivity and how you can stay motivated in your research project. You’ll also improve your self-awareness and understand what kind of activities you enjoy the most. 

Minimise distractions

Right, you’ve got your plan ready. You know what you have to do to progress in your project, you know that you need to reflect after you work. 

Yet, getting down to work and staying productive can be very difficult, especially now in the era of social media and very short attention spans. 

Being productive in research career depends on how well you can handle distractions. Try to avoid these as much as possible to get things done.
Being productive in research career depends on how well you can handle distractions. Try to avoid these as much as possible to get things done.

The very best way to get yourself to work is to block the time required to complete a specific task in your calendar. 

You should also switch off any distractions, such as social media and email notifications. You may even want to use specific apps and plugins to block your feed. As a result, you’ll get undisrupted time to focus on your activity. 

Once you take a break, you can reward yourself and catch up with your colleagues and friends via social media or email. 

Importantly, if you working in a noisy environment or shared office, it’s a good idea to use your headphones. This will help you to isolate yourself from the distractions in your environment and focus on your work. 

If you work from home, you may want to consider rearranging your home in a way that supports productivity, as Magda wrote in her article on staying productive while working from home

To remove distractions, you may want to leave your phone in a different room or at least switch it to silence. You should switch off the TV or radio off. 

Maintain a healthy work-life balance 

Finally, if you want to stay motivated and stay productive over long periods, especially now when we work from home, it’s really important to consider your work-life balance. 

To stay healthy and productive, you need to get enough sleep. This will give you sufficient energy to actually do your tasks and complete them on time. 

It’s also a good idea to exercise regularly or just go for a walk daily to get some fresh air. 

This will help your brain to relax a bit from the groundbreaking research you’re doing! It will really appreciate it in the long term and may subconsciously give you solutions to the most challenging issues you’re trying to solve! 

A final word…

As researchers and academics, we can easily get overwhelmed with the amount of work we’ve got to complete. 

It’s easy to lose track of your priorities and, even, lose interest in your work. 

However, by applying simple principles listed in this article, you may improve your productivity, stay motivated and, more importantly, get things done! 

Remember, planning your work and reflecting on your progress is crucial not only to achieving success but also to grow as an academic. Understanding what works and what doesn’t work for you will help you to become more productive and enjoy your work! 

How do you get things done and stay motivated? 

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Academic Coach at Motivated Academic, senior lecturer at Cranfield University, UK.

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