Dissertation Help: How to Move Past Lack of Motivation When Writing a Dissertation or Thesis?

I find that doctoral students frequently face many challenges with motivation, especially when they come to the end of their doctoral journey and are primarily working on their dissertations. Maintaining consistent motivation with doctoral writing while working on dissertations or theses is especially challenging when your personal life includes family, full-time work, aging parents, health issues, etc. Lack of motivation happens to most people somewhere along the journey. This article is one of a series offering dissertation help to doctoral students faced with the challenges of graduate work and it focuses on the frequently asked question, “What tools will help me move past my lack of motivation?” There are two situations when your work is likely to bog down: when outside life challenges distract you from your doctoral work, and during the writing process itself when you are just bored with it, or think it will never end. Both situations and several tools are considered in this article.

Motivation When Outside Challenges Distract

No matter what lifetime reinvention process people engage in, whether it is professional development, learning new skills, etc. momentum is always difficult to maintain during times when the life you are currently living is full of challenges or distractions. As an example, no parent wants to miss the precious time of their children growing up because they have a paper to write. Similarly, care for an aging parent can often become a daunting task. I see it as a balancing act, and one where the balance is never even but, like a teeter totter, has one side up while the other is down. Picture your dissertation or thesis writing on one side of the teeter totter and the current distraction or challenge you face on the other. Your goal should not be to always have the thesis side in the air, but rather to manage the movement back and forth so that when the life side takes precedence then the dissertation or thesis does not completely hit the ground.

Building a writing habit is the first tool in your motivation toolbox. First consider that it takes 21 days of consistent movement for a new routine to be ingrained in your systems so that you no longer struggle against it. Therefore if you commit to just three weeks of getting up at least six days a week 30 minutes earlier and devoting 15 minutes at least to writing, at the end of 21 days you will have developed the habit of writing a little bit every day. This is the secret on which I see the most testimonials. My students often say it is what got them through. It’s also amazing that you can sit in front of your computer not knowing what you are going to do that day and still have 15 minutes of solid good work develop. Often times you may not want to stop because the work is interesting and you are inherently motivated to do it. You wouldn’t be in graduate school otherwise.

Motivation When Boredom Strikes

Similar to writer’s block, but on a deeper level, boredom or feeling overwhelmed also is a mental/emotional state that is likely to derail dissertation writing. Perspective is the tool that is often needed in this case. At a certain point in the journey, when you feel as though you’ve been doing it a long time, and the daily grind of it is wearing you down, you may feel your motivation just grinding to a halt. Step back from your immediate situation and re-evaluate how this degree will allow you to contribute to your world. You started your doctoral work for some definite reasons. Remember the things you wanted to add to your life. Focus on them again. In another article I discussed how to use mind movies to help increase your daily awareness of your goals, you may want to go look up those articles if you are in a slump where accessing your internal motivation for getting your doctoral degree has become hard.

Another tool to use to get past lack of motivation is to break the work down into smaller quantities. You may be thinking about it like, “Oh my goodness, this is a BIG project I have to finish!” That way of picturing the work is likely to make you feel tired. Try instead to look at what you have to do next, and coming up with three small steps that will help you progress along that specific task. By keeping the whole project out of your mind, and instead focusing on the small or finite tasks you will find it easier to continue. Getting things done is inherently motivating, so it is likely that you will find your internal desire to sit down and get more time increasing as you have sections you have recently finished to celebrate.

Finally, don’t forget the positive outcomes available from using reflection as a tool to get past lack of motivation. Consider for a moment on what you can do, think, or understand now that was outside of your scope a few years ago when you started this work. The doctoral journey, because it is a long one has lots of little curves and turns, some of which you may forget when you all are slogging up the last hill, getting your dissertation done. It should be motivating to think about those other challenges that you have faced and overcome. Also give yourself some time to celebrate how much more you now understand about your field, its intricacies, and what it takes to contribute at a high level. Research shows that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. That is roughly 3 hours a day seven days a week for three years. As a doctoral student you will have completed your 10,000 hours. Celebrate your expertise.

In summary, there are several tools you can use to move lack of motivation whether you are bogged down because of other things in your life, or because the work has just gone on a long time. Probably both of these reasons for motivation slump will occur to most graduate students somewhere along the path of their doctoral dissertation writing. Consider these helpful hints part of your toolbox, and pull out the tools that seem to address the challenge you face, whenever you need them.

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