Playing Mind Games with Yourself… and Winning

Cultivating Motivation for Doctoral Students, Small Business Owners, and Other Self-Starters

Few things can be as liberating and terrifying as working for yourself. It is self-evident that this is what small business owners and freelancers working from home do. Less obvious is the fact that psychologically this is what Ph.D. students and most academics must do, almost regardless of what field.

When you work for yourself, you are your own greatest ally and worst enemy. Here I hope to outline some practical recommendations for cultivating the desire to listen to the better angels of your nature.

Those of us in charge of our own schedules all struggle at times with the twin and seemingly opposite dangers of laziness and burnout, of trying to do too little and of trying to do too much. Much laziness is the paralysis of perfectionism or burnout in disguise. Many talented and visionary individuals have faltered because they struggled to stay motivated to get the nitty gritty of the work done.

There are many solutions. I do not assume that these are one-size-fits-all. I present the following steps as things that have worked for me. These include strategies for tackling the Big Picture and tactics for coping with the day-to-day, honed during the process of writing my dissertation and subsequently editing it for publication.


1. Discern the Big Picture… and the Pieces that Make It Up

Have a list of your long-term big projects. That will help you prioritize, coordinate timing, and not let anything get lost in the shuffle. If you only have one long-term project in mind, you need to think bigger!

Develop a shorter-term list of the various elements that make up the most pressing long-term projects as well as other things that need to get done. One week’s worth of work for the list is probably plenty.

Here’s the beautiful thing about making lists: you see the Big Picture and can develop a sense of progress as you check things off.

Make sure that your lists reflect both what you need to do and what you want to do professionally. Some days may be more defined by your sense of duty, while other days by your free and earnest desire. Part of your challenge is to know every day which kind of day you should be having.

I have found it helpful to decide the night before what one big thing or 4-5 smaller things I most need to do the next day. At night during a brief window right before bed, my thoughts are clearest, though I am out of time to get any significant work done. The opposite is often true in the morning, when I have time but lack comparable clarity.


2. Do Your Duty

Many days it is critical to simply do what needs done. Prioritize the least appealing aspects of what you need to do. Get the worst stuff out of the way. Eat your vegetables.

This is good for you. By doing what you need to do, you become better at your job. Writers need to write – and study grammar and expand their vocabularies. Teachers need to teach – and this includes teaching their students through thoughtful and thorough grading, such as writing concise but specific comments on papers. Musicians need to practice their scales and other drills. Such time consuming efforts stand at the heart of us improving our technical skills (or helping others improve theirs, as the case may be for the educators among us). Studies confirm that these kinds of hard work help define the difference between true virtuosos and the merely highly proficient. (See also.)

When done in moderation, doing your duty should, ironically, also cultivate a sense of freedom. Now you are free to do the work that you want to do. You no longer have some guilt-inducing unpleasantness looming over what should be a joyful task.

Be sure to intersperse the pursuit of duty with days defined by the pursuit of what brings you the most joy, professionally speaking.

3. Follow Your Heart

Some days it is best to simply do what you want to do, at least in terms of the tasks on your professional docket. The trick is to discern the balance. A sense of duty alone is not enough to sustain one’s motivation in the long-term, especially not in terms of producing quality original work for those of us whose work involves some degree of creativity. At the same time, without a sense of duty it is easy to lose perspective.

Of course your average work day can include a mixture of freedom and duty. On days when you are attempting several tasks, you should start with the one that you most want to work on. This provides a sense of control and freedom. You may also find yourself “sidetracked” from the thing you wanted to work by a sense of heightened urgency to work on something that you must work on anyway. Congratulations: you just tricked yourself into getting work done.

It is even possible to reward yourself for having done the work you must do with an opportunity to do the work that you want to do. Maybe stay up a little late working on that one optional side-project that brings you delight. Mine is this blog.

After a significant period of structured time, say several weeks, it is often helpful to spend a few weeks working more haphazardly.


4. Pray or Meditate or Something

If you are a person of faith, pray. Pray about your work, your priorities, and your heart. Pray that you would serve God and others through your work, no matter how unclear it may seem that this is even possible.

Whether you are a person of faith or not, take time to reflect and to meditate. Such time is critical in maintaining a sense of your priorities and your identity. As your own boss, if you lose yourself in your work, you may truly lose a sense of what should matter most to you in life.

Such prayerfulness, mindfulness, and self-awareness are also critical in maintaining the discernment necessary to successfully juggle duty and desire.


5. Work Meditatively

Don’t lose yourself, but embrace opportunities forget yourself and the world around you. Tune out all distractions: phone calls, email, Facebook, and your awareness of everything else that needs to be done. Focus on the task at hand. I have done my best work during such moments.

Some light sensory stimulus may actually help you tune everything out. I prefer music, and not just any music will do. It needs to be something rhythmic and uplifting, sometimes dramatic, if I’m feeling down, but more likely something light. Though I usually opt for classical, I wrote most of my dissertation with single tracks from Simon & Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell on repeat. The repetition helped my fingers find their rhythm as I typed, entranced by their messages of hope in the midst of frustration. My wife, whose work is visual (graphic design), prefers podcasts.

In terms of stimulus, too much variety can be unhelpful. The danger is that the stimulus could become a distraction rather than an aid. For this reason, I am skeptical of the usefulness of having a TV on in the background in most cases.


6. Take Regular Breaks

Eat well in terms of quality and moderately in terms of quantity. Sleep sufficiently. Nap when necessary. Exercise regularly. Invest in rich quality time with your family and friends. Bathe. These are non-negotiable. You cannot sustain your physical, mental, and emotional health without such things.

Be sure to intersperse your work day with breaks in which you take good care of yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day. No one ran a marathon the first time by sprinting, except for maybe that first guy, but he died. Alas, Pheidippides.

At least every hour, I get up and stretch my legs. Every two hours I eat a snack. Yes, I’m a hungry man, but half of the point of the snack break is to return to my work with a clearer mind.


7. Know When to Sprint

There are some times when the end of a project or one of its key elements is so close that all sense of drudgery fades into the singular desire to be completed. This is time to sprint for the finish line. You might have more peace if you stay up an hour late in order to finish than if you went to bed on time with lingering unfinished business. The trick is learning to tell the difference. As in distance running, it is also possible to “hit a wall,” where all energy dissipates and there is nothing to do put shut down the computer and go to bed.


8. Reward Yourself

In addition to taking breaks as part of regular personal physical, mental, and emotional self-maintenance, it is critical for you to reward yourself for making significant strides in your work. Such rewards primary include spending time having fun.

Pick a hobby. Reward yourself after significant steps in your work with hobby time. Learn to play a musical instrument. Learn a foreign language. Maintain the languages you already have… by watching movies you love in those languages (dubbed if necessary).

Do chores while watching TV or listening to music. Doing the dishes was a special treat for me for a number of years because that was when I usually watched “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Fold laundry while watching “Breaking Bad.” If you have succeeded in tricking yourself to enjoy such tasks in the context of breaks from your full-time job, that is progress indeed. The laundry needs folded anyway.

No matter what, though, don’t forget to waste time. On purpose. It isn’t procrastination once a significant step in your work is done, provided that you know when to stop. Spin your wheels on Facebook, Xbox, Buzzfeed, (seriously!), without guilt and without shame. Because you can. This is a helpful break for your brain and a good chance to relax your iron grip on your sense of responsibility. Remember: the only difference between procrastination and responsible leisure is timing.


9. Know When to Ask for Help

You may often feel isolated. In a crisis, this can yield a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. This is why it is critical to develop a network of trusted associates to whom you can turn for advice, prayer, and words of encouragement, as well as more direct forms of work-related help.              

Thanks to the internet, it is now possible to sustain a broad network of connections. While this is true of friends and colleagues whom you have known face-to-face, it is also true of strangers. You can make the acquaintance of likeminded people, most of whom you will never meet in person, but who can nonetheless be critical in your career development. You cannot do it all on your own. But you know people or can get to know people who can work together with you so that you can, in fact, do it all in the context of a competent team.

I am a historical theologian who is not well-behaved in staying in a particular narrow sub-field. My training is in the modern era. This means that if I write a comparative piece dealing with medieval and early modern texts, I may need to call on friends with sub-field-specific expertise to answer some of my questions and correct my Latin. My wife, a web designer, sometimes contracts out aspects of her work. She is a technological Jill-of-all-trades, but sometimes a specialists’ touch is what a project demands.

It also helps to be part of a symbiotic professional relationship with your significant other. I owe this website to my wife’s expertise and generosity. She proofreads every piece I submit for publication. Because her English is impeccable, she has averted many stylistic disasters on my part; and because she is not a theologian, she is able to assess how intelligible my work is to non-experts. I, for my part, have contributed to regular brainstorming for some of my her marketing and organizational branding campaigns. My ideas are numerous and though often of marginal quality, there are occasional gems. My work would be lesser without her help. I hope she feels the same way.


10. Give Yourself Credit

Track your progress. Be sure to conceptualize your projects in increments. Forecast what steps you will need to take and recognize the steps when you have taken them. Be sure to count steps that, strictly speaking, don’t leave you much to show for them. Brainstorming, getting organized, applying for grants and fellowships, networking, sending emails – these are all time-consuming and can contribute to your work. Don’t pretend that you haven’t been working and feel bad about a lack of substantial immediate results. All progress is progress, even if it means sometimes feeling sidetracked because you have not worked on a major project on any given day.

Be sure to count any time you spend doing anything productive as progress. This includes time spent not doing your “work work.” House work, medical check-ups, sorting out personal logistics, whatever happens at the DMV: these are all things that need to be done. It is critical for your mental health and job satisfaction to count such tasks as work. You’re not wasting your time. You’re clearing your schedule and taking a break so that your real work can resume soon enough.

The alternative is bleak. If you are under the impression that you have wasted significant time, your sense of stress and urgency when you return to tackle your “work work” may be unnecessarily high. Be fair to yourself.


11. Surround Yourself with Symbols of Victory

Especially for those of us whose work is not tangible, it can be helpful to have visible signs of the hope that we have. I do not suggest having a cabinet cluttered with mementos, but I do recommend having some way of chronicling past victories, demonstrating present success, and visualizing future goals.

This can include reminders of defeat, which can serve as symbols of what some future victory will have been a victory over. I have two files, one physical and one in my email account. They contain every rejection letter I have ever received. Every job, fellowship, grant, publication, and conference presentation for which I have applied and been rejected is in there. I believe in the likelihood of my ongoing success. I look at such misfortunes as snags on the path to success, rather than as pitfalls.

During the final month or so of the original composition of my dissertation, I felt completely demoralized and lost. I felt the need for some out-of-the-ordinary form of encouragement. Though I am not Eastern Orthodox, I took a trip to the local icon shop and returned with a replica of an icon of Saint George slaying the dragon, the hand of God blessing him from heaven. It was a helpful reminder for me that there are metaphorical dragons to slay, including my own self-doubt. And any true dissertation is a behemoth task, a monster indeed.


12. Go on Vacation

At least once or twice a year, you need a big break. It doesn’t matter where you go or what you do. It does matters what you do not do: work.

The temptation for those of us in charge of our own workloads, whether academics* or the self-employed, is that there is always something we could be doing.

*Side note: Yes, academics are in charge of their own workloads to a large extent. I do not control how much grading I have to do, but I do control when I grade and with what degree of scrutiny. Especially over academic holidays, I do decide which research and publication projects to juggle. Most of the academics I know work overtime during the semester and few take proper vacations during the off-season. There is too much other work to do. That is when the books get written.

Just because there is always work that you could do does not demonstrate that there is always work that you should or must do. In fact, it is in your long-term best interest personally and professionally for you to step away from all of your projects for a few days or even few weeks and return to them with a fresh pair of eyes and refreshed zeal.

While the U.S. in general has an impoverished culture of vacation – most other developed countries require employers to provide a few weeks of paid leave each year – you, by virtue of your distinctive work situation, have the privilege of keeping yourself sane with the gift of time.



The purpose of all of this isn’t simply that you would maximize your productivity for productivity’s sake. Rather, the above suggestions are methods for cultivating your contentment. The goal is for you to live a more fulfilled life. Your work is only a small part of that, but it is a part.

You do what you do because you are doing what you love – or what you used to love before it became a drag. Cultivating focus and desire are a significant part of sustaining that vocational love. None of us is the master of their own destiny, but a few of us have significant sway over how we spend our days. Let us spend our time wisely and with joy.

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