I've been thinking a lot about my students this week and (to no surprise) the number one thing that I have heard this week is stories about their struggle with continued motivation still when taking online courses.'
Self-motivation comes no more naturally to me than anyone else - but it has been an area of fascination and study for me for at least the last 25 years. Read: yes - I will buy each new book to come out on the topic regardless if it says everything I have already read before and yes - I make countless 'schedules' for myself (and much to their chagrin - my children).
Today marks 30 months from my transition to home and study from home. Here is what I have learned to be working to increase my motivation and productivity.
Create a routine
With a steady routine, you rely less on fleeting motivation.
You don't have to read Mel Robin's 5 Second Rule book to get the core message (unless you want to and it is excellent). All you need to hear and remember is every time you need to do something, don't ask yourself, "Do I feel like doing this right now?" We don't ask ourselves every morning (well, maybe you do, but you get the point), "Do I feel like brushing my teeth right now?" and engage in a lengthy internal battle of indecision. Instead, most of us brush our teeth and get on with our day.
Creating a steady routine ends a lot of the wasted time and energy debating whether we feel like doing that thing at the moment. For example, I love teaching, but I hate marking. (Sorry guys - the truth is out). I'm never going to love it. I'm never going to feel like doing it. But it's never going to go away. So rather than use all that time and energy debating it (and stressing about how far behind I am on it every time I turn on Netflix), I just have it built into my routine that that's what I do every Monday morning.
Why I do it Monday mornings comes from the concept of eating the frog first. As Mark Twain once said, "If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.
Reward your habit creation
A routine is just a collection of good habits.
One of my favourite books is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Favourite, I think to be honest because I really felt for a long time that some people were just better at creating and following good habits, cultivating self-disciple and altogether managing themselves. I thought it was just easier for some people than it was for me. It may be easier for some people because they have a framework to build these good habits.
The framework Duhigg tells us is critical. I also loved the simplicity of this framework: Cue, Routine and Reward. At the end of the day, we are all just new puppies who come when our name is called to get that dopamine hit of a treat.
Set up your routine around what works for you
Honour your energy's highs and lows.
If you like to stay up late and start your work/study day around 10 am, you may be in luck with this new reality. Set your routine and day around what works for you. Creating a routine and healthy habits does not suddenly mean that you will love getting up at 6 am and going for a run before downing your green juice and banging out 10,000 words or 100 emails before noon.
Understand who you are and work with that.
Observe your natural rhythm and build your routine around that instead. Don't let this become a self-defeating exercise in aspirational living.
Tips and tricks do work
It's amazing what you can get done 20 minutes at a time.
One trick that I have loved for a long time and have found myself going back to in the motivational struggle of the past few weeks is the Pomodoro technique. With apologies to Franceso Cirillo, who founded the Pomodoro technique about 100 years ago, my interpretation goes something like this: I can do just about anything for 20 minutes.
When I'm having trouble focusing or motivating to begin a task, I tell myself that I'm just going to do it for 20 minutes. I set a timer and don't let myself get distracted or step away from that task until the timer goes off. Most of the time, once I'm 20 minutes in, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and just finish the job. Or if it's a bigger job, I estimate how many 20 minute sprints it's going to take me to complete the job and set a finish line for each 20-minute chunk.
Plan and anticipate unpredictable events
Master your time without time mastering you.
One of the most valuable pieces of advice that I have implemented is - 'plan' 60% of your time. If we plan out 100% of our time (something that I am very guilty of), the littlest things can de-rail us, and we're behind. If we' plan' 60% of our time, there is always space for the things that just 'come up.' Today for me, it was a call from a girlfriend I haven't connected with for years. I was so grateful to be able to say yes to the call without feeling like it would throw my whole day off.
Combining this tip with the above Pomodoro technique, I estimate how many 20-minute chunks (or pomodoros) each task I want to get done each day will take and 60% of my average workday works out to about 12 or 13 pomodoros.
Schedule in downtime
Give yourself permission for unproductive downtime.
You've likely heard the old axiom, "We are human beings and not human doings." We are not machines. We are wonderful, thoughtful and soulful human beings. To be our best selves, we do need time just to be. Give yourself permission (and room in your routine) for 'unproductive downtime.' If it's in your routine and schedule, there will be no guilt for taking this necessary time.
Guilt-free downtime versus trying to have downtime and trying to drown out that nagging voice inside you that is counting up all the things you should be doing instead is literally life-changing and results in rejuvenating downtime.
Keeping in touch with my family and friends is essential, as is the un-wind time I get from a glass of wine and an episode of Gossip Girl. When it's in the schedule, you can fully enjoy it without feeling like you should be doing something else. Additionally, when it's in the plan, this mindless time becomes contained to one episode of Gossip Girl and 20 minutes on Instagram instead of lost hours in my life.
Map it out in advance
Plan your work. Work your plan.
Plan your week before the week starts and plan your day the night before. You have heard it before, but I promise you, this one little thing will be life-changing. Knowing what you need to before you sit down to work or study in the morning will increase your productivity like nothing else. Mapping out your week and then your day before it starts makes it 100% easier not to ask yourself, "Do I feel like doing this right now?" and instead just get down to business.
Researchers who study self-discipline and motivation have determined that willpower is a muscle that gets fatigued. When you combine that with the research that small wins create and build the confidence to keep the momentum going, you will understand the power of starting your day with a plan ready to be actioned.
Schedule in the small stuff
Acknowledge your time.
When I actually timed how long it took me to get dressed, brush my teeth, wash my face, take the dog out, make myself a cup of coffee and settle in at my desk, I was more realistic about my timing. (Yes, I did actually do that). I am not my best when I feel like I'm in a rush and already running behind 'schedule,' and when I'm not my best, I become more unproductive and unfocused.
Everything starts to feel urgent.
Giving myself space in my day, and being realistic about the time the 'small stuff' of life takes in my day has sometimes resulted in feeling ahead of 'schedule' which is an unbelievably motivating feeling.
Clear the clutter
Close your tabs. Clear your desktop.
It's hard to be focused or motivated when you are surrounded by disarray. And I don't just mean physical chaos. Digital and mental disarray are just as important. I will confess one of the smallest shifts that I have been making is de-cluttering my digital space. My natural tendency is to have a dozen open tabs and countless things saved to my desktop to deal with later, read later, sort later, file later . . .
The realization that later was never coming was one of the most significant boosts to my productivity and offered me so much mental space when I cleared out the nagging guilt of things that needed me to come back to them.
Take five or ten minutes in your daily and weekly planning to clean out your physical space, your digital space and your mental space.
Don't be too hard on yourself
Progress, not perfection.
Strive for excellence and not perfection. Excellence is attainable. Perfection is not. Aim for consistency over perfection. Unrealistic goals of perfection set us up for a spiral of shame. You want to love your routine and feel proud of yourself, not let it represent every time you let yourself down.