Finding the motivation to persevere through lengthy tasks with no end or reward in sight is a major part of being an academic: the process of writing a thesis is metaphorically compared to training for a marathon for a reason, and both certainly result in plenty of pain before the pay-off. I use running as my main strategy to counteract many hours spent at the computer, and I’ve found that signing up for a race and committing to a training plan is the only way I make any progress. It’s not unlike the rush I get knowing I have a deadline for a project -- I have a lot more trouble starting something that I don’t know what I’m going to do with than I do writing something where I know an editor is expecting it on a deadline.
I’m writing this post tonight in part because I’ve joined a writing challenge run by a campus research group, and I’m feeling behind in my time on task goals for the day. This might not sound like the best reason to write at a particular time, but it’s not that different from when I park on the outskirts of campus to get closer to my 10,000 step goal for the day on my pedometer. I recently invested in a watch-style pedometer for the first time precisely for its instant feedback: it buzzes when I have gone for too long without moving, and I can check at a glance whether I’ve been anywhere near my goal activity for the day. Seeing my progress (or on some days, lack thereof) recorded in front of me is enough to get me to sit down and focus, and usually that results in at the very least forward motion.
The pedometer gives me immediate accountability to myself, and added motivation through a social ecosystem where friends and family can see and comment on the days when I’ve only made it the 500 steps between couch and bed. Adopting a similar system for major projects can provide the motivation to keep going forward. Depending on your temperament, self-accountability or public accountability might boost your summer productivity--something many of us depend on given the difficulty of finding uninterrupted time.
Unfortunately, there isn’t yet an equivalent to the pedometer for academic productivity, but there are applications headed in that direction. For recording time on and off-task, I highly recommend choosing a time-tracking app. I use HoursTracker on iOS, a straightforward system for setting a timer and tagging time spent on different tasks. I particularly like it because it exports in a range of formats, and it has settings for handling billable time and freelance / consulting work in the rare cases where I have that type of project.
Even committing to a public goal and reporting back can be a great way to get started. As I posted on earlier this summer, I’ve been doing a grids-gesture drawing exercise a day without a break for several weeks now -- all thanks to participating publicly in the one-week challenge Nick Sousanis started. This type of challenge-based accountability mostly relies on illusion: the feeling that someone is watching, or expects you to follow through. I find that it doesn’t matter if anyone besides me is actually paying attention to that goal: placing it in public keeps me moving forward.
What are your strategies for keeping motivated and accountable to yourself on large projects? Share them in the comments!