Self-motivation is a difficult thing to maintain. Getting yourself into a healthy and productive work cycle without the stability and boundaries of a 9-5 job takes considerable planning and willpower. In particular, resisting the urge to procrastinate can sometimes be downright impossible.
For self-employed and freelance creatives, being your own boss can be an empowering and freeing experience. But there is a difference between being your own boss, and having no boss at all. There will come a point where you have to start working, and without an office environment, or co-workers, or the self-censoring and omnipresent spectre of the manager, it can challenging to snap into a ‘work’ mindset when needed.
For PhD students, it can be a similar story. Although some students work on campus in labs or communal offices, others, including myself, spend the majority of time working at home or in the library. What with meetings with supervisors typically organised weeks or even months apart, and a deadline to meet in three or four years, all the usual support systems, pressures, and structures of undergraduate study are stripped away. Postgraduate study is by and large a solitary experience, and students face the gargantuan task of planning, researching, writing, and editing up to 100 000 words into some semblance of a published thesis. Is it any wonder that everyone falters and lacks motivation at some point of their journey?
Through trial and error, and nearing the end (finally) of my PhD candidature, I have discovered several tools which effectively increase my productivity, and keep my tendency to procrastinate to a reasonable level. Although these might not work for everyone, they are definitely worth trying out if you would like to boost your productivity levels.
1. The Pomodoro Technique
I discovered this technique recently while trying to find a time-based method of keeping myself on track during writing sessions. The Pomodoro Technique was invented in the 1990’s by Francesco Cirillo, named after the tomato-shaped timer he used as a university student. The Pomodoro Technique trains your mind to focus for short bursts by allowing you short breaks and limiting the impact of any distractions on your work. The Technique involves focusing on a task for 25 minutes, then allowing yourself a 5 minute break. Each 25 minute burst is one Pomodoro. Every four Pomodoros you complete earns you a 15-30 minute break.
I have only recently begun using this technique but have already noticed how it helps me prioritise, plan, and complete tasks without being overwhelmed by the immensity of the overall task or nearing deadline. Marking off each Pomodoro you complete (with a tally mark, or in my case a terrible drawing of a tomato) gives you a sense of accomplishment at the end of your work period. If you would like to know more, there is a great article on the Pomodoro Technique on lifehacker, including a video. If you would like to try it out yourself, there is a webpage version called TomatoTimer, and a free mobile app called Pomodoro Timer Lite.
2. Ambient Sound
Over the past few years there has been a flood of ambient sound apps, websites, and YouTube channels claiming to boost productivity, creativity, abstract thinking, and concentration when studying and working. The case for the relation between ambient sound and creativity was made by Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu, and Amar Cheema in their 2012 article ‘Is noise always bad? Exploring the effects of ambient noise on creative cognition’ in the Journal of Consumer Research Vol. 39, No. 4. The full article can be read here. In summary, the article claims that moderate sounds of 70 decibels ‘enhances performance on creative tasks’ and promotes ‘abstract processing’ which leads to ‘higher creativity’. Sounds of 50 decibels or below are too low to trigger this creative high, while noises of 85 decibels or above are too distracting and ‘impairs creativity’.
Examples of ambient sound include Coffitivity, Rainy Café, Noisli, Soundrown, Rainy Mood, and Thunderspace for your computer/tablet, and Ambiance, Windy, and A Soft Murmur for mobile devices. On YouTube, there are channels such as Relaxing Soundzzz, The Relaxed Guy, and Relaxing White Noise, to name a few, as well as one of my personal favourites, ASMR rooms, where you can be transported into magical surroundings such as the Hogwarts common rooms, the Green Dragon Inn from The Hobbit, and Newt Scamander’s suitcase of magical creatures from Fantastic Beasts. Coffee shops, storms, and rain are some of the most popular ambient sounds across these apps and sites, but once you start searching, you’re sure to find something that works for you. Ambient sound is also great for relaxation, stress relief, and insomnia.
When it comes down to it, there is nothing that boosts productivity like being organised. I am an unashamed list-maker. I like to plan out the day or night’s work, breaking down each task into sections. For larger tasks, working out a weekly or monthly plan to get the piece finished by the deadline is also useful. I also find that planning out your task before you begin helps with organising your thoughts, prioritising your workload, and easing your mind into ‘work mode’. Whatever doesn’t get finished for that day becomes the first task of the next day’s list. The only thing you have to be careful of is making your lists yet another way to procrastinate. Keep away from the highlighters and fancy writing – it’s a slippery slope!
There are plenty of options for journals and planners; you can pick one up in any office supplies shop or newsagency. Although there are online calendars and planners, I always prefer to write out my lists by hand because I find I can organise my thoughts with more clarity on paper. One printed journal that I will recommend for freelance and creative writers, particularly prospective novelists, is the Pilot diary for writers by Pilot Press. The diary contains writing motivation, advice from industry professionals, tips on getting published, writing prompts, a list of writer’s resources, and (Australian) writing competitions. I bought one for myself and for a writer friend at the beginning of 2017 and tragically haven’t used it much yet. After I submit my thesis, I’m definitely going to check it out. These diaries come out annually, so watch out for the new Pilot diary in 2018!