Monday, 8 April 2013

Getting to it

She's cute, but she doesn't make for a good study companion
Sorry this post is a little late, but after that lovely lazy long Easter weekend, I just couldn't get myself motivated last week.  So what better topic to write about than motivation?

How do you get yourself motivated to do coursework?  What gets you hitting the books when you'd much rather be hitting the couch?  There's the big picture stuff, of course, the long-term goals and dreams you'll be able to realise when you finally get that degree, but I find they're a bit too vague and distant to really get me inspired when I'm tired and just can't be bothered working.

What works in those situations is different for everyone, of course, but for me I've found three things are key: the time, the place, and a plan.  Once I've got those in place, just getting on with it becomes easy.

First, the time.  I work best with a regular schedule, so I work out a study timetable around my other commitments and try to stick to it.  I also really like to keep my weekends free of study when I can.  So last year I wrote two two-hour study blocks into my diary for straight after work on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.  I knew I didn't normally have anything planned those nights, and that straight after work I'd still be in productive mode so it would be easy for me to switch from work-work to study-work.  After a couple of weeks of always getting into study at the same time on the same days it became my regular routine, so instead of sitting there saying "I really should get on with that essay", I'd just say "Right, Wednesday 5 pm, time to get started."

The key things in finding a study time are to find a regular time that works for you (Are you a morning or an evening person? What regular commitments do you have? When are you least likely to be disrupted?), and then stick to it.  Be realistic about how much time you need to block out.  For me last year I found 4 hours a week was about right (with the occasional extra evening or weekend session when a deadline loomed) - I could almost always get everything done I needed to, while still leaving myself enough free time for home and friends - but, as they say, your mileage may vary.  In other years when I was taking easier lower-level papers I found two hours a week more than enough.  When I was taking a language paper, I needed more like 5 hours.

Next, the place.  To work well, I need to have no distractions around me.  So I always spend the first 5 minutes of my study time cleaning my desk and arranging the books and papers I need.  I find that physical clearing of the decks also works as a mental clearing of the decks - once my desk is ready to work, so am I.  It also helps to get rid of distractions of the human kind - much as you love your family, you might find it easier to work when they're out the way, so designate a room as your "office" (even if it's just a temporary designation for a room that has another name like "kitchen" or "bedroom" for the rest of the week) and ban everyone else from it while you're working. Or take yourself out of the house and work at the library or in a cafe - anywhere you can get a good uninterrupted couple of hours.

The other thing I find helps make a location good for study is the associations I have with it.  My favourite place to study is actually my office at work (I'm lucky enough to have building access outside office hours), because not only is it quiet and distraction free in the evenings, but it's a place I associate only with working, so when I'm in there my mental state is immediately productive.  If I sit in my lounge at home, on the other hand, I'm tempted by the TV and the books and the cats and getting a snack from the kitchen.  And if I'm actually so foolish as to sit on the sofa, all is lost - I'll end up falling asleep with a cat on my lap.

The last key to my motivation is a plan.  I like lists, and especially lists I can tick items off of, so the first thing I do when I get an assignment is to break it down into tasks and subtasks.  For example, writing an essay might be broken down into four main tasks: finding sources, reading, planning, drafting, and polishing. Each of those is then broken down further - for example, planning might break down into decide main thesis statement, list supporting arguments, structure sequence of arguments.  Once I've got my list of tasks, I work out roughly how long each task will take me (adding in a little wiggle room for unforeseen problems), how long I've got until the assignment is due, and divide up the tasks accordingly, so that I've got a complete to-do list that tells me what I need to have achieved by the end of each study session to stay on track.

Of course, I'll keep updating and changing my plan as I go along, according to how the work is going.  I might find more useful sources than I expected, so need to add in extra reading time.  Or I might have a particularly productive night and be able to start on some of next week's tasks early.  But having a plan in place means that as soon as I sit down I know exactly what I need to get done and can get on with it, without having to try and remember where I'm up to or what I'd been thinking about.

So that's my technique for motivation.  I have a regular time I always study, a place that's conducive to working, and a plan so that I know what I need to be doing.  That removes any excuse I have not to just get on with it, so that's what I do.

And if all else fails, there's bribery.  I keep a bar of really good chocolate in my desk, and promise myself a piece once I finish a significant task - reading a research paper, writing an essay draft, digging up x number of good references.  Of course, you have to have enough willpower to keep yourself to the original terms of the deal - no suddenly deciding you're allowed chocolate after every page :-)

What motivational tricks work for you?  Are you able to find time and space in your life to optimise your work habits?  Let us know in the comments.

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