Get Sh*t done (when you feel like shit)

How do you motivate yourself to work on those un-motivating days?

Since the PhD track seems like a long grueling journey, it is CRITICAL to prioritize each day to make sure you are as effective as possible to get your degree as fast as possible. However we are only human and everybody has those “down” days where you are unmotivated to do anything. Unfortunately you will see many, many, MANY of those days and it does not help when you have experiments failing for weeks and months.

So, how do you keep pushing though those rough days without crawling back into bed?

Here are our top 3 key advice to help motivate yourself to get sh*t done and push through those gloomy days:

1) Get to know yourself and your work habits.

Everybody has different work ethics and schedules. This is very important to know about yourself to schedule your days, weeks, and month efficiently and to avoid burnout. Here’s the secret: Do the hardest, most energy-draining tasks when you are most productive, alert, and energetic. Duh, common sense right? For example, if you are the most energetic and alert in the morning after downing your cup of Joe, take advantage of the morning to complete the most grueling tasks and work. Since I consider myself as an energetic early bird, my typical morning would go like this:

-Drop my bags off at my desk (peek at e-mails only!)

-Down my coffee

-Head to the lab

-Do experiments all the way up until 1:00PM


Once the afternoon hits, I know that I will get groggy and tired around 2:00-3:00PM. That’s just the way my body functions. When that time comes around, I switch my gears and complete easier tasks such as doing some reading, answering e-mails, or planning experiments the next day. Once 6:30 or 7:00PM rolls around, I can leave the research lab feeling productive and ready to go the next day.

Unfortunately, I discovered how my body and work ethics function in this manner during the end of my 2nd year. Just imagine how much work I could have gotten done if I had known this about myself from the beginning!

2) Plan, plan, plan & lists, lists, lists! (you will thank me for this tip)

The more time you take to plan out your days, weeks, and months, the easier it will be to do those tasks knowing exactly what to do. When I was a Ph.D. student, I would take my “easy” day (which is Friday) to thoroughly plan out every single thing in my mornings, afternoons, and early evenings throughout following week. This includes: experiments I need to complete, people I need to follow-up with, meetings, and blocking periods to write manuscripts or grants. Now, this may seem like a no-brainer but this sometimes takes me 1-3 hours to plan out! The best way I found to do this is to list out the days Monday through Friday in a “grocery-list” format and jot down things you MUST complete that day in order for you to have a fruitful week. If you are a organization-freak like myself, color-coding is key! If you are interested in learning how to efficiently structure your day, make a note in the comments below for a future blog post.

Now, you may be wondering: “Man that is so much time! Why would I do that? Shouldn’t I be spending time reaching papers, finishing up manuscripts, or doing experiments?” Well, let me ask you this: Wouldn’t you be wasting your time doing experiments and reading papers without a set goal in mind?

For example, one of my lab mates (who is ABSOLUTELY not a morning person at all) thought it was a good idea to come in the lab at 6AM to finish the 10th step of his 11th-step chemical synthesis that takes 3 weeks to complete. Sounds pretty productive? Given his half-awake and zombie-like focus, he accidentally poured his reaction and product down the waste bin! Bye, bye to that experiment!

By taking a couple of hours out of your week to structure and plan out your following week (or even month) in a very detailed manner, this is an EXCELLENT way to give yourself a mini-check to ask yourself:

  • Am I planning the correct experiments that will help me answer my hypothesis, lead to a paper, or complete a chapter of my thesis?
  • Am I getting side tracked and spending my time wastefully?
  • Do I have questions on how to perform a certain step experiment that I should look into before next Thursday? Do we even have enough reagents in the lab to finish that assay or should I put an order in today so I can do the experiment next Friday?

As you plan out your week, make sure to plan out when and HOW you should do each experiment as detailed as possible. Check the lab to make sure all reagents are there since waiting for materials to ship and arrive kills your ability to get sh*t done in a timely manner.

I HIGHLY advise to make these lists when you are within your alert, awake, and energetic state so you can focus on making the best list of all time. Once that week comes along, you may get hit with a couple or even multiple of those groggy, un-motivating, tired-some days. However, thanks to your special list, you can just go into work and do what you get done without thinking much about it! In that way you can still be productive and get sh*t done when you feel like a half-asleep zombie or a robot a to work. That’s great!

3) Sometimes you need to take some “me-time”

So what do you do during those REALLY “down” days when experiments keeps failing, hope is running out the door, and those gloomy rain cloud decides to follow you everywhere you go? During those really (really) dark moments/days, it may sometimes be best to just take that time off. The worse thing you can do is to spread that gloomy mood throughout to your laboratory peers. Or even worse, an accident is just waiting to happen in the research lab since you are not 100% focused.

As a pretty health-conscious person as I try to be, when those days hit I go straight to McDonalds for some fries and a cheese burger. Because you know what? Sometimes McDonalds can solve graduate school problems too (that’s a hack!).

As a Ph.D. student, it is very easy (and sometimes highly encouraged unfortunately) to work 80-hour weeks so that you only eat, sleep, and work on your thesis project. This can become very unhealthy and stressful very fast. To avoid burn out and to minimize those sh*tty days as best as possible, make sure you schedule some “me-time” and socializing time with friends and family throughout the week. All work and no play makes Ph.D. students very frustrated and cranky!

Hit the follow button and check back for our next post soon.

-the Grad School HACKERS


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