Lots of long term projects...how can I keep motivated/ making progress?
February 26, 2010 8:30 PM   Subscribe

Lots of long term projects...how can I keep motivated/ making progress?

I'm starting to fully understand that I have a ton of work that I should be doing both in school and professionally, but I'm not making as much progress as I need to be. What are some strategies that can help me stay motivated on all of this stuff even when I don't get any immediate rewards for doing more than the bare minimum? What have you done to stay consistently productive during long workdays?

Stuff on the list of things that I should be doing:
-Class work (this usually eats up most of my motivation)
-Writing 1-2 page summaries of every research article that I read for classes for future reference (usually 8-10 articles a week)
-Studying for a comprehensive examination spanning the breadth of my field--graduate-level social sciences.
-Planning a survey to give an area police agency before April.
-Writing an article (not related to the survey) for a journal.
-Learning how to use several mapping and database programs that I'll eventually need to use for work.
-Thinking about a dissertation.

I've been hitting a wall lately not getting too much beyond the classwork part of this list done. I need to spending an extra 3-4 hours a day outside of class work and real work making real progress on this other stuff too. Help!
posted by _cave to Education (14 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
What are you doing instead of the work you should be doing?

I find that if I put myself in a place (physical) that I am forced to do work in and I make myself stay there until it is done then I will actually do the work. So, if you should be doing work but find yourself killing Zombies instead then go to a library.

I also find that blocking my time and actions out into segments works well, i.e. making a long term list and then breaking that down into smaller lists that need to get done to get the entire list done. That makes the entire list a little less intense, it also helps with getting things done ahead of time which will help out your list of things in future days.
posted by zombieApoc at 8:43 PM on February 26, 2010

Sorry, "What are you doing instead of the work you should be doing?" seems to come off harsh. What I mean with that question is are you spending those 3-4 hours doing things you shouldn't be? Or are you so drained from classes that you find yourself unable to devote yourself to further work?

I also find that removing myself from poisonous people helps, i.e. friends who are bad influences or who make decisions that can negatively impact your life.
posted by zombieApoc at 8:45 PM on February 26, 2010

Well, there's this website called AskMeFi...
But seriously, it's more that I end up doing a lot of reading that is generally related to my field because it's interesting, but basically unrelated to the things that I should be working on. Or I end up feeling drained at the end of the day and don't want to think about everything else that I should be doing.
posted by _cave at 8:51 PM on February 26, 2010

One thing that helps me is to take some time and carefully go through all your tasks and break them down into EXCRUCIATINGLY detailed step-by-step lists, so every action you'll need to take, no matter how small, is an item on the list. Then start with step #1.

I recently discovered an awesome project management interface called the Big Picture. It is the best thing since sliced bread. I would check it out - it lets you manage many projects each with many tasks and subtasks, and check them off, and put them on a calendar if you wish.

Thanks go to The Winsome Parker Lewis for posting the Big Picture on MeFi.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:30 PM on February 26, 2010 [7 favorites]

A little trick that works for me is to assign yourself a really small amount/duration of work, but make sure you do it consistently. For example, if you know you have x amount of pages of reading to do, it's far less painful to do two pages every hour (or whatever) than lump it all together in one big chunk. It's more approachable to just start in the first place if you know you'll only be doing 10 minutes of work. And often times you'll find yourself doing half an hour of work where you only intended to do 10. If not, at least you did some work, today, just like yesterday.

But the point is, if you are doing a lot of little chunks of work on a regular basis (this is key, obviously), you'll get more progress than putting everything into these huge piles and trying to tackle it all at once.

YMMV. Works well for me.

I can also confirm that making lists helps me, although I don't go to the level of insane detail that Salvor Hardin is talking about. Again, whatever works for you.

Also, a friend told me a while ago that it actually makes more sense, if you are making lists, to deal with the easy stuff first, because it both decreases the size of your list as well as gives you a sense of progress. I think he may have gotten this from "Getting Things Done," but I'm not really familiar with that (although a lot of people are really into it, check it out...) so I can't say for sure.
posted by dubitable at 10:07 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

What I do:

Set a timer for 15 minutes. During that time, do whatever it is you "feel like doing," including Ask MeFi, etc.

When the 15 minutes is up, do anything at all that is on any list. No priorities -- just pick something.

This was already mentioned, but when I make lists, here's what's changed:

1. Work on paper X
2. Do dishes
3. Go running

NEW LIST: (Same projects)
1. Open up latest email from professor about paper X. 2 minutes total
2. Throw away any garbage in the kitchen. 1 - 2 minutes total
3. Take off pajamas. 30 s. total

Each item on the new list is literally the next step in each project.

I do not prioritize things, as this just makes me feel guilty and usually results in me doing things in reverse-order anyway, leaving highest-priorty stuff for last. I give myself permission to work on ANYTHING first, as long as I am doing something that I want to get done.

Even then, with all this stuff I've learned, I sometimes go days or weeks without making much progress in the big stuff. I try to tell myself that I am such an incredibly talented person that my body is demanding time off from awesomeness. ;-)

P.S. You mentioned workdays...that is a traditional problem in this area. You might find you get the most done just after 5 p.m. because your fears pushed you to procrastinate until then as sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy (I'm going to waste another day...yeah, see, there it goes! Wasted). Try not to sweat it too much...good luck.
posted by circular at 10:27 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

There is also always the issue of you might have too much on your plate for the type of person you are. My wife is the type who can take on 20 course hour credits of work, but if I tried to do that there would be big trouble in little ZombieVille. My point is that you can only do so much, so know your limits. Even with great organization/list-making skills you can hit a brick wall

Good luck
posted by zombieApoc at 7:06 AM on February 27, 2010

I've started using Joe's Goals (http://www.joesgoals.com/) and putting up a whole mess o' goals with different point values. Things like a load of laundry or dishes (which I'm perpetually behind on) get 1 points each; things like getting a paper set of grading done gets 2. Each 10 minutes of exercise gets 1 point. Emptying my voicemail and returning calls, which I hate doing, gets more points.

Then, and here's the key for me, if I don't get X number of points (I kinda did it for a couple weeks first to get an idea of how many points I got in a normal day, and then increased that by just a couple), I ban myself from my favorite procrastination the next day.

It's amazing how looking at the list, seeing I'm 4 points down for the day, and saying, "Well, I could do Thing I Hate to Do but Is Very Necessary, or I could do four loads of laundry," suddenly the Thing I Hate looks real good.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:47 AM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Excuse the length

I'm in the exact same enigma as you are. I tried GTD and it worked well but then I fell off the wagon and reconfiguring it seems is taking a whole lot of time. Hence, I just sort of go on, on a daily basis and that doesn't work out as well.

Part of GTD involves listing projects and then listing next actions but not necessarily to the level of detail mentioned of taking off pajamas. [When I did list to that detail it was fun to accomplish and eventually wore me out checking off so many things because often I would bulk many tasks together] Progressing in work becomes basically a combination of more than one strategy or tool. So you can't just use a calendar and have it work for you, you can't just use a task list without keeping track of your appointments.

The key for me when I was acting out the GTD practices was that it was a multi-pronged approach.
1st approach was routine, routine, routine, routine, routine, routine.
2nd approach was taking notes during meetings, making sure next actions that are there.
3rd approach was gym, gym, gym.
4th approach was dealing with issues that emotionally were troubling by giving myself dedicated me time that was thinking time that allowed me to deal with issues easier. If I could deal with an issue more easily, it would get done a lot faster and better.
and I can keep going on and on and on..

Apart from the 2nd approach being the GTD basic strategy, two involved my own work towards my goals, and one was just a consequence of a really good routine implementation.

I went off lists of projects, but that was hard to manage when I didn't have the tools that worked best with me.

I suppose whatever it is you want to accomplish can be done in multiple ways

Some items work better as goals
Some items work better as routines &/or calendar appointment guarded ferociously from other appointments and meetings
Some items work better as when seen through a big picture lens
Some items need periodic check ins
Some items need specific rewards in order to make them tolerable.

Putting all that together is where it's exceptionally hard because no software has been implemented to integrate lots of other softwares, and that's where we have to use the brain in combination with the tools that we have to use strategies to help us work.
I'm still working on my own answer, I hope this helped a little bit.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 11:35 AM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Quick tidbit to add here: maybe you are working on tooooooo much and expecting too much frequency. What about just doing less? Giving yourself a little bit of break and doing a little less? Trust me I know the feeling, I keep trying to over extend myself ALWAYS and am still dealing with it but my performance also gets better over time.

It's great to work that much but are you doing other basic things like socializing and taking proper care of your food etc?
posted by iNfo.Pump at 11:40 AM on February 27, 2010

A few months ago I got the book Self Discipline in 10 Days and it has been terrific. Simple, easy to follow and it works great.
posted by trinity8-director at 12:05 PM on February 27, 2010

My motto is "1 hour slots."

I create a bunch of flashcards, 1 for each project. I write the name of an active project on each card.

Then I identify some work time, e.g. 10am to 1pm. That's 3 slots, so I pick 3 cards. Those go in a separate pile once done.

Next time I work, I have to pick from the remaining cards, not the new pile. That way I get the element of choice but also discipline -- I have to eventually work on ALL the projects.

I find that it's easier to get 1 hour done on a project that I'm reluctant to work on than skip the whole project card scheme altogether. So far this has helped my procrastination quite a bit.
posted by teedee2000 at 8:41 AM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

It seems to me your real challenge is working on tasks that seem urgent rather than tasks that are important (I think that's a concept from Covey). I fell into that rut with classwork as well and now that I'm past classes, I still respond to urgency too much and it pays off even less. I'm also a PhD student in the social sciences.

I have a couple of methods to keep myself going. One is to start with distant deadlines and work my way back setting milestones that have to be met. This often creates the urgency I need. So, you want to submit that survey on April 30th. Do you want to have someone look it over first? Well, then you need to have a full draft by April 15th. Do you need to compile some data before you can write? Well, you have to start writing by March 15th, so you need to request that data now so you have it in time. See? Now you have some that urgently needs to be done. That is how I've finished my dissertation (defending next month!) It also worked well for comprehensive exams.

Second, I keep a master list of projects (journal articles, dissertation, job apps, etc.). The problem is that I always have ten things I could be working on and that are important, but not urgent. If I leave it at that, then any spare time I find tends to get frittered away with a little bit of progress on ten different fronts that won't get me anywhere. So what I do is I take two or three projects from the list and give them priority certain weeks out of the coming months. This creates artificial deadlines (because in X number of weeks I have to switch my attention to another project) for multiple projects that come due around the same time. It also focuses my energy on certain projects so that I think about them a lot and make more progress than if I spread out the work over months of time. I find it especially useful in the summer when I have three solid months of free time. I divvy up those 13-14 weeks across my 5-6 goals so they actually get done. Just having 6 major goals on the docket at week one would be too overwhelming.

The other thing I do is to frequently update my CV and think about where it's headed. This helps me create some urgency in combo with advice #1 for long-term goals. If you want to have x number of articles on your CV at graduation, given the time to publication in your field, you may realize that you need to publish now, not later. Doing this also helps you remember what's really important for your career goals. You want to reduce the time you spend that on things that don't help you prepare to get a job (i.e., that don't go on the CV) or adds to a section that's already sufficient (i.e., teaching or service for some people).
posted by parkerjackson at 9:21 AM on February 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I started using the Big Picture yesterday, and am really happy with how awesome it is (and finished with my weekend work before 10:00 pm on Sunday, for once!!! Including progress on all that other stuff!!!). The combination task list/ hour-by-hour schedule is so key.

Point taken on the "doing too much" comment. I was starting to take that idea a bit too far, though, and avoiding the work instead of making a plan to get it done.
posted by _cave at 2:37 PM on February 28, 2010

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