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Thing 12: Staying Motivated!

After Break Week, Thing 12 concentrates on keeping going. We're over halfway through the programme! We have two expert columns to share. The first is by Carolyn Jenkins, thinking about how postgraduate researchers can address common challenges in completing a large research project. The second is by Elaine Hickmott, an independent 'career adventurer' who works with researchers and other industries to help you say yes to your career opportunities, and in this case harness your 'drive to thrive'.

As the Graduate Wellbeing Coach at the University of Otago, I have heard a variety of postgraduate research experiences. I have a background in Physical Education, Sports Coaching, Tertiary Teaching and Mental Health. I have personal experience of navigating through postgraduate studies, but I also appreciate that every postgraduate journey is unique and contextual.

My role involves providing space for postgraduate students to voice their academic challenges, struggles and concerns and to enable them to figure out what might be helpful for them to progress forward within their studies. My approach is to ask questions and stay curious, and to encourage self-reflection to increase self-awareness to enable students to figure out what keeps them well and productive.

So….the answers to helping you be more productive and looking after yourself are within you:

Here are some questions and ideas for you to ponder about.

I invite you to think about when you are most productive during your day and when you are the least. Do you have specific times each day or not? How come this is so? We are all unique, so you do not have to do what works well for your postgraduate peers. Some students find they are most productive in the mornings, others in the evenings and others in the late afternoons and so on. But some students are unable to pin point any part of the day or they are unable to have the luxury of deciding when might be the best time for them to focus on their studies (due to work or family commitments).

If you can figure out your prime time, do you block this productive time out in your diary? It could be for thirty minutes, one hour or two hours, or whatever works for you. If you block out this time, it might help remind you to avoid scheduling meetings, checking your emails, checking social media and/or arranging social catch ups during this part of the day. You then can let others know that you will be unavailable around this block of time, but that you will get back to them in your breaks. Interestingly, sometimes others think postgrads are available at any part of the day. But in fact, if you treat your postgraduate studies like a job, it helps to give yourself permission to take some time to be ‘fully immersed’ in your postgraduate work. You are entitled to this and it helps you be more productive.

How can you protect this time further? How about turning off your phone or setting it to ‘do not disturb’ or silent, or even put your phone in another room so you can hear if there are urgent phone calls (particular ring sound), but not the ‘ping’ text notifications? Do you turn off all the other dings, pings and notifications from your other devices (emails etc)? Taking time away to respond to these notifications can mean that you can become regularly interrupted and this can affect your ‘train of thought’ or flow within your academic work. To get back to your academic work after responding to your technological friends, can take a while, especially if you were writing or reading something that involves a fair bit of brain power. Sometimes it might pay to negotiate with your supervisors, family and friends/peers, who regularly contact you throughout your day, so they understand that you need some focused time. Anyway, something to think about.

Another question I have, is what is your preferred environment to help you be productive? Do you like quiet or noise? If you like quiet, how about using noise cancelling headphones or ear plugs? If you prefer background music, how about listening to specific sounds (nature sounds) or music that helps you get into the reading and writing zone (download apps or create your own music list)? Whatever works for you, you may prefer to be in a noisy environment and have others around in the background, so being in your postgraduate office or in a library or in a café could work for you! What environment settles you into this productive space? Think also about the lighting, the view, and the temperature of the room. Do you have your door open or closed, or are you in an open plan space? Do you like to study in the same space or in a variety of spaces?

The point is we are all unique, so be mindful of this and if you can schedule this productive block of time into our day and if you can protect this time from interruptions, then do it! If you have a ‘least productive’ time, then how about you aim to take a break around this time each day or do tasks that require less brain power or arrange meetings relating to your research in this time, if you can. Sometimes, postgraduate students have this flexibility, so make it work for you. If you are unable to block out productive times or distractions, then just do your best with the time you have, breaking down your academic tasks into small tasks and focus on achieving one task at a time.

Looking after our wellbeing is paramount to helping us with our productivity habits. Having adequate sleep, doing some exercise, and healthy eating are key to having good physical energy for our postgraduate studies. To little/too much of these aspects (sleep, exercise and eating) can bring in fatigue, which makes it difficult for us to read, write, think creatively and make progress on our studies. To add to this, it is important to take regular breaks throughout your day. So, what are your optimal amounts of these and are you looking after your physical body? Are you able to build in daily behavioural rituals and habits to keep yourself well, to help you be more productive? If you are unable to do your optimal amount, what can you manage within your constraints and commitments?

Performing academic work uses mental energy, so it is important to take brain breaks throughout your day. Just like when we exercise and use physical energy, we need to rest, so we can renew this physical energy store. Interestingly, sometimes the best ideas can occur when the mind is relaxed and having a break. So, take the time to disengage from your work, so you can passionately re-engage after your break. My question is then, what activities relax or recharge you? It might be different each time you take a break. Do you need to relax more or do you need to be more focused and alert? Does it help to take a 10 minute walking break, or do you prefer to socialise with others? Does scrolling through social media help or hinder you, going forward in your day? Only you will know what is right for you. Take some time to think about this. What do you enjoy doing in your breaks? Having a coffee or tea break, listening to or playing music, listening to a podcast, helping others, cuddling a pet, spending time with family/friends, reading, exercising or playing sport. Some find yoga, mindfulness and meditation helpful to relax.

Hopefully this blog has encouraged some self-reflection, to enable you to be mindful of your habits/rituals and to perhaps alter some of these (if you can) to help you be more productive.

All the best with your studies.


TASK: in your next pod meeting, discuss how you've managed to keep going in your projects. What worked for you? What was helpful? What allows you to enjoy your research?

Nurturing Your Drive to Thrive

Ah, motivation, that special ingredient which helps you overcome challenges, step into the unknown, try something new.

And let’s face it, during the doctoral learning experience there are many occasions when you have to dig deep and find that fire within. Working at the leading edge, dealing with ambiguity takes enthusiasm and tenacity. I remember it well.

Even if you’re a naturally self-motivated person, there are times when you can lose your ‘oomph’. It happens to everyone at some time or another. It is part of being human and the natural ebb and flow of life.

For me, it wasn’t until I set off on my entrepreneurial adventure that I really had to re-assess the subject of motivation. Looking back on my time working in the corporate world, finding my motivation to succeed had been relatively easy. This entrepreneurial malarkey, however, was a whole new ball game. Everything changed and I changed too.

The freedom I felt through becoming self-employed was empowering. It was, at the same time, slightly overwhelming. I could do anything; achieve anything; the world was my oyster. Rather than translating this change into new measures of success, I carried on measuring myself against old outdated goals. This created quite a heady combination. Managing my motivation suddenly became more of a challenge at the time when I needed it the most.

I learnt a lot from this experience and consequently there are some key elements which I now use to help me nurture my drive to thrive and stay as the DRIVER of my own motivation.

abstract pattern background, text "Dreams, Results, Inspiration, Visual, Energy"
Image: Elaine Hickmott

Dreams - Having dreams and aspirations are important in the motivation equation. To imagine your future, take some time away from your day-to-day activities. Relax and let your mind wander. Now imagine yourself in a few years time talking to a friend. You are telling them about your life. What will your life be like?

Results - Having an understanding of what you want to achieve by when helps you make decisions and, importantly, know when you have achieved what you set out to do. Help yourself measure your successes and progress.

Inspiration - What are you motivated by; money, responsibility, status, power, challenge? To really motivate yourself add more detail and emotion than ‘I want more money’ or ‘I want to be promoted’ or ‘my supervisor’s an idiot and I need to escape’. Make it more real and powerful by asking yourself why you want them; why they matter to you.

Visual - Making a visual representation of your dreams and goals helps make them more tangible. Doodle, draw, take photos, make a model, whatever works for you. For example, some people create vision boards online or offline. I quite like the portable pocket book you can make from an A4 piece of paper. You’ll find a link to more info below.

Energy - This is one of my biggest motivational challenges. Not because I don’t have the energy to push through and make a difference. Because I find it difficult to switch off and let go. Looking after yourself, taking time to stop, rest and do things which feed your soul are all part of the motivation equation.

Re-group - Change can have an impact on your motivation. Shifting your goals and aspirations is not a failure. Mourning the loss of a changed or unachieved dream is counterproductive and limiting. Letting go and re-focusing help you to move forward and maintain your motivation throughout the many stages of your life and career adventure.

Change is inevitable and life may have its ups and downs. With you as the DRIVER of your motivation you’ll be able to nurture your drive to thrive wherever you are, whatever you do.

Try it Today

Send me you own motivation tips this week and I’ll share them in a special post on my blog (mentioning you of course). You can reach me via

Other Bits n Bobs

Follow this link to find out how to make your own portable inspiration book from an A4 sheet of paper -

"Passion led us here" written on the pavement
...then it skipped town and left us stranded in this dump

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Unknown member
May 05, 2022

The is one of the most important Things for us as PGRs. I loved the idea that everyone is UNIQUE and that what works best for my PGR peers should not necessarily work best for me in terms of productivity times of the day and habits of keeping one's personal motivation(s) for keeping on track. Personally, the best motivation for research is to gain knowledge and get promoted in academia so as to be able to plan for the post-doctoral professional and academic period.


Unknown member
May 04, 2022

Thank you Carolyn and Elaine for your words of wisdom. Thing 12 made me realise though we have two things in common "doing/supervising research" and most of us are bound to face the same challenge(s), it is vital that we understand who we are, how we work and then develop a system that produces the best outcome. It took a while for me to realise all the issues raised and the advice provided as mentioned above however, a game-changer for me was after I read the book "Atomic Habits by James Clear", one of his quotes that I love and it changed my perspective regarding motivation was "Motivation comes after starting and not before...Action produces momentum"


Unknown member
Apr 30, 2022

Thanks for all these tips and inspiration ! I am grateful

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