Seven tips for staying motivated when working from home on your PhD
During COVID-19 we all pivoted to working from home, almost overnight. As we are nearing the 1,5-year mark of this global pandemic, we know that the nature of work has changed. Many companies will adopt a hybrid model, allowing employees to work some days from home and some days from the office.
PhD candidates may find that they will shift to working more from home to avoid long commutes. For other PhD candidates, ongoing COVID-19 restrictions mean that work from home will remain the norm for more months ahead. And, those PhD candidates who work on a part-time schedule, may find that working from home on their research is something they can combine better with their day job.
Regardless of the reason why you are working from home on your PhD, the solitude that comes with working away from friends and colleagues is real. You may feel that it is harder to remain motivated. In today’s post, I give you seven tips on how you can work productively on your research from home.
1. Communicate clearly with your supervisor
When your supervisor doesn’t see you in the lab or in your office, they may be wondering if you are still making progress on your research. The key here is to make sure you maintain good communication with your supervisor. Set regular meetings: either weekly or biweekly to discuss your progress. If you are working from home and caring for others at the same time, understand that your time is more limited than before, and let your supervisor know about your situation. Work on setting clear expectations with your supervisor: discuss how you will meet, how you will collaborate, and set targets and goals together. You can find an example template for productive meetings with your supervisor here.
2. Roll with the punches
If you are working from home as a result of a university closure, then develop realistic plans. Change your research plan so that you can take into account lab closures, cancelled field visits, delayed conferences, and summer schools that did not happen. Take stock of the situation, and return to your research question. How far are you? How large is the impact on your work? Where can you pivot in your research? Which opportunities are there? Make sure to discuss this with your supervisor as well.
3. Beat procrastination
It may be hard to work productively when you are all by yourself. You may be tempted by the distractions of the TV or your smartphone. You may find yourself going down rabbit holes online, or randomly clicking between email messages without answering or getting anything done. If that’s the case, it’s time to beat procrastination.
There is a myriad of productivity technique out there for you to try. You can try out the Pomodoro technique, in which you focus on a single task for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break. You can timeblock your day, focusing on one task at a time for a certain period (i.e. your time block). You can set word count goals to achieve within two hours. You can gamify your pending tasks. Make sure you plan your days and weeks, so that you know what you should be working on. Then, be very specific about what you want to achieve. Compare “I am going to work on my paper for 2 hours” to “I will write a paragraph about my experimental setup for my paper and will develop the figures to illustrate this paragraph. I will finish this work in two hours.”
4. Plan rewards
To keep yourself going, day after day, it is important to plan rewards. What do you really enjoy? How can you celebrate a day that went well? This strategy requires you think about two things: when you will end your day, and what you will do after your workday. Just like you would be going for a social activity after work, find things that you can look forward to at the end of the day – this strategy helps you avoid that work bleeds into the evening and weekends when you work from home and there are no physical boundaries anymore. Decide in advance for yourself how you want to celebrate: a nice home-cooked meal shared with your family, a walk to the ice cream parlour, or maybe a long soak in a hot bath?
5. Stay in touch with colleagues
Working from home means that you are physically distanced from your colleagues, but it doesn’t need to mean that you are isolated from them. If you are on a hybrid schedule between working from home and working from the office, make sure you use your time in the office or lab to hang out with your colleagues. It may be tempting to just use your bench time as efficiently as possible, but put in the time and effort to maintain the relationships with your colleagues as well.
If you work exclusively from home, try to find ways to keep in touch with your colleagues. Take advantage of all the online networking tools. You can set up a recurring coffee meeting, or you can be more adventurous and try out playing a game together online, joining a virtual yoga class together and meeting for virtual tea afterwards, or cook something “together” in the comfort of your own house.
6. Connect to your “why”
When your motivation is sinking, connect back to your original motivation for doing your PhD in the first place. Remind yourself of your “why”, even when the “how” is different than you had originally envisioned. Write down your reasons for doing the PhD, and read them frequently. If you are going through a rough patch, check in to see how you could strengthen your main motivation. For example, if your “why” is strongly related to the cause that your research serves (for example, potential applications to find a cure for cancer), find ways to connect more directly to this cause (for example, showing your work to a group of oncologists and getting their practical feedback, or connecting online with others who are working on finding a cure).
7. Take care of yourself
You can’t work productively if you are not taking proper care of yourself. It may be easy to drift away from regular habits and schedules when our work routines have been uprooted. I would encourage you, though, to put self-care front and centre in your days. Working from home is not easy, and it requires that you treat yourself well: by getting enough sleep, by putting in the time to go outside and get some fresh air, by consciously scheduling time for exercise, and by making sure you eat nourishing and balanced meals. By the same token, make sure you can work comfortably from home – if necessary, get the right furniture and gear to be able to work in an ergonomic manner.
Working from home can be a challenge, and it may be difficult to keep going when you are not seeing your lab mates and supervisor. However, with the seven tips outlined in this article, you should be able to find a schedule that works for you, and that helps you keep your research moving forward while remaining healthy and balanced.