Thing 14: Wellbeing and Staying Motivated

We’re just over halfway through the programme, so it seemed like a good time to think about ways to keep motivated and to stay healthy during the stresses of thesis writing, employment precarity, or the broader complexities of life. Despite its many challenges, research can be incredibly rewarding, especially when part of a supportive community. We have Nikki Fahey, Graduate Wellbeing Coach at the University of Otago, giving some expert thoughts on managing stress, and Elaine Hickmott, Career Energiser, on finding what’s important for you and keeping going.

cat and dog cuddling
Look after yourself!

Nikki Fahey

As Graduate Wellbeing Coach at the University of Otago, I have the privilege of hearing about many a research journey. It is safe to say it is a rollercoaster of highs and lows, especially now, during a worldwide pandemic. I have been in the role long enough to have seen students struggle through rough patches (some even contemplating leaving their candidature) proudly submit their thesis.

I am an occupational therapist (OT) by background, my postgraduate qualifications are in mental health, an OT is interested in your productivity, performance and lifestyle balance. OT’s want to know what you love to do (or want to do) and what roles or occupations give you purpose and meaning. OT’s know that the activities you choose to do influence your health and wellbeing either way, that occupation organises time and bring structure to living.

It’s not a secret academic staff have significant pressures and responsibilities, encountering factors that are outside of their control. Despite the stressors many people have worked hard to have the opportunity to do research and some to turn it into a career. This is because humans love a challenge and to meaningfully contribute.

Trying to do quality research during a pandemic adds layers of stress. Candidates and staff alike have had to manage extreme uncertainty, Covid-19 restrictions and cope with personal difficulties and tragedy.

So many people I see wonder if their responses to stressors are normal and appropriate given the situation. Looking at others around them, they compare themselves, feeling like everyone else seems to have it together, and believing something is wrong with them in some way because they are struggling with the pressure or finding it hard to cope with what life is throwing at them. Especially now, perhaps it is due to the nature of academia where I see a tendency for candidates and researchers to be hard on themselves.

Much of my role is providing a safe and confidential space for people to share their vulnerabilities. There are common themes such as feeling like an imposter, feeling inadequate, feeling overwhelming pressure, discomfort speaking up, difficulty navigating relationships, miscommunications, exhaustion. During the pandemic, I have seen more burnout, more anxiety, and more grief. I work to normalise the human experience, and help a person untangle their thoughts, get appropriate help and figure out an action plan.

In a 2018 study Sverdlik et al, found that a work/ life imbalance is the strongest predictor of psychological distress in PhD students. In my sessions I see this time and time again. You are allowed to take time for leisure, (in fact, the research says lack of leisure is correlated with high levels of burnout, depression and low wellbeing). You need play, relaxation, fun, meaningful leisure time to support your energy, productivity and performance. Even more so when under pressure and stressed. A very wise PhD student I know told me she schedules in the staples of her sanity. Exercise, social time, time with a loved one, down time etc and generally sticks to it. The other end of the spectrum is when self-care and leisure tasks become procrastination so finding a balance is an ongoing process. In these times, when lockdown may be a factor, it is about doing what is possible safely within your means.

Often on the research journey things may not go to plan; there are many factors outside of your control. What you do have some control over is how you look after yourself. Looking after your wellbeing is a necessity for performance. When life is pressurised and demanding, leisure and self-care can be the first to go, so sometimes we need other kinds of support to help us to cope.

Online resources can be low cost and accessible and there are plenty out there to meet all kinds of needs. I am going to highlight a few. Anything I suggest is just that, a suggestion; it may just be more clutter and noise, so the most important thing is finding what is right for you.

If your work/ life balance is poor or you feel disorganised, go back to basics. Prioritise sleep. Schedule your time. Using an online calendar app to not only include your work commitments and responsibilities but also your strategic leisure/ social and self-care activities may help you to stick to them. For example, the Google Calendar app will shows you lovely images of where you need to be and syncs with Google maps to give you directions (although it might be from your living room temporarily).

In terms of mental health first aid, a breathing app may help you to manage the biological response to stress by guiding you to do deep breathing, have a look at Breath ball or Take a Breath (some in-app purchases may be required).

For a place to capture what you know about yourself and your mental health, a place to plan your coping strategies and record your support systems so you can refer to them when you can’t think of what to do in the moment, the Wellness Recovery Action Plan app may be for you. Another option is What’s up? –A Mental Health App (Available on iOS and Android) based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

If relaxation is what you need, Insight Timer is a free library of guided meditations of various length and focus. If you are happy to spend money Headspace or Calm are very popular and if you are looking for an app that is holistic and inclusive, take a look at Shine.

When the pressure is on or you are not feeling the love, give yourself full permission to work in short bursts. Working in shorter bursts may help you focus intensely because you know a short break is coming. Using an app like Forest to structure your work time/ break time could be helpful (with an added positive environmental impact to motivate you). If using social media is your thing, use it as the reward after doing the work. Do not torture yourself using social media as a procrastination tool because we all know that does not end up feeling good! Remember productivity is not linear, and there will be some days that are more processing and thinking days, and some will be more doing days.

Whatever stage you are at in your career, dedicating your time to self- care and meaningful leisure will help keep energy in your tank. Now more than ever before, this is necessary. I also encourage you to talk to trusted people and ask for help early. Best of luck with whatever you are working on right now.


Sverdlik, A., Hall, N. C., McAlpine, L., & Hubbard, K. (2018). Journeys of PhD student and Unaccompanied Minors. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 13, 361-388. (The PhD experience: A review of the factors influencing Doctoral student’s completion, achievement and wellbeing).

bears in a river catching salmon
Remember to leave time for your hobbies

Elaine Hickmott

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.

DRIVER (image by 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 -

three women in a landscape
We're not lost, we just have very ambitious targets

96 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All