I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that pretty much everyone we are engaging with at The Professor is In right now is struggling with motivation.
It’s hard to find a reason to work in the face of uncertainty, and far too many things are uncertain. This is especially true for those on contract to universities as we face a fall semester with more things unknown than known and those on the job market.
That may seem like a pretty discouraging start to a column on how to access motivation, but like all things at the Professor Is In and in my productivity coaching, the path to improved outcomes starts with telling the truth.
And the truth is: These are very hard times.
And hard times, for many people, mean less productivity. And that’s ok. We need to normalize doing less when simply maintaining your mental health demands so much energy.
Still, I know that many of you have work that needs to be completed in order to keep your jobs. So, let’s talk how to manage that, how to find the motivation to Just Do It. (Nike slogan reference intended.)
Much of the reading I do to inform my coaching is focused on working with elite athletes. Their experience has always struck me as similar to those of academics: intense training, a very narrow area of expertise and rigidly prescribed areas in which to test that expertise.
So, I was interested to read a presentation recently on how Olympic coaches build sustained motivation for training. Please note the goal is “sustained” motivation. That should tell you right away that motivation is not in itself permanent. It comes and it goes based on our attachment to our goals.
The good part is that if it’s missing, you can find it again. The challenging part is that you have to consciously create the environment to get it to stay as long as possible.
A quick aside:
Motivation scholars, who predominantly work in corporate productivity, contend that motivation requires two key factors.
1) You have to believe that you can do it.
2) You have to believe that it’s worth it
More recent work argues for a third requirement
3) You have to believe that you can tolerate the cost.
Two and three might seem like the same thing so let me clarify. All of the hard work to finish a dissertation might be worth it, if the only marker is putting you in position for an increased salary. But, if the cost of finishing the dissertation is exceptional student debt and battered mental health, you not you might not be willing to tolerate the cost.
Now, let’s get back to those elite athletes.
In the presentation, the authors made one key point. Sustained motivation is tied to needs.
Basically, human behavior is never random. We are all motivated to fulfill our needs. Like, when we’re hungry we go seek food. Simultaneously, we all seek rewards and satisfaction for what we do.
The argument then is that motivation is enhanced — easier to maintain — when we meet the basic needs we were trying to fulfill in joining our profession.
Here are the needs they identified as central to an elite athlete:
The need to:
1. Experience stimulation and challenge.
2. Be accepted and belong to a group.
3. Gain and demonstrate competence to feel worthy.
Sound just a little bit familiar?
It also should not be too hard to see why for academics, motivation might slip right now around Need One: stimulation and challenge.
Where you once might have been looking mostly to your work for stimulation and challenge, right now the job might instead be overwhelming in one more problem to solve, one more idea to think out. The decision fatigue may just be more than your brain can take.
That doesn’t mean the solution is to not work. The solution is to make the problems much, much, much smaller. Shift your goal to sitting down and writing a sentence rather than 2500 words. Create a very, very low barrier to entry to make room for solving a problem and not being overwhelmed by it.
Then there is Need Two: Wanting to belong to a group.
If the people I work with and follow on Twitter are any indication, the disillusionment with the Academy is at an all time high. The bullshit responses by administration regarding the Movement for Black Lives, the horrifying responses to the pandemic by administration, and the collapsed job market are more than enough to make most people rethink their desire to be in the club.
If you are feeling profoundly alienated from the institution, remind yourself that the institution is not the group you were trying to join when you started the PhD; the scholars in your field are. Look to your fellow academics for connection and meaning making. Take the time to refill your intellectual pantry.
And finally Need Three: Gain and demonstrate competence to feel worthy.
Ironically, I think this is the place where academics can most easily find and maintain motivation: accruing knowledge and demonstrating said knowledge. With one big caveat: You cannot look outside yourself for the whole “worthy” thing. Motivation will stay if, and only if, you can keep your comparison to yourself. If you can mark each new sentence read or written as a step toward competence, ignoring what you think everyone else is doing, you can move yourself forward at a steady, equanimous pace.
And just a reminder: Motivation does not stay. It waxes and wanes. Take advantage when it shows up and allow yourself to creep your way back to it when it fades.
And one more reminder: You are amazing. #MondayMotivation