Six strategies for staying motivated during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Emily Elia: I'm sharing some simple tips for staying motivated during this unusual time.

Six strategies for staying motivated during the COVID-19 pandemic

As social distancing and stay-at-home orders are extended throughout the country, many graduate students are coming to terms with the fact that we will be working from home and learning remotely for quite some time. The changing reality of this pandemic makes focusing on research and classes extremely difficult for many, but it also makes it clear that we will be in this “new normal” for the long haul. For most of us, the responsibilities of grad school continue, and we are trying to stay on track as best as we can. Below are some simple tips for staying motivated during this time.

1. Set small daily goals.

It is important to recognize that these aren’t normal times, and your productivity is likely not at its peak right now. That’s okay. Setting daily goals can help you to make your day as productive as possible, but be realistic with the goals you set. Big goals may seem insurmountable right now; instead, focus on small goals for each day that you can cross off your list. Get through the assigned articles for your upcoming class. Finish the first draft of a paper. Make progress on your data cleaning. Setting smaller goals that can feasibly be tackled in a day can help you stay on track. Try to make a short list of manageable tasks to get through every day.

2. Carve out time in your day for work and for relaxation.

Working from home can make it much harder to get through your daily tasks when the temptation of Netflix is quite literally right in front of you 24/7. For others, working from home can actually lead to a serious case of overworking now that we are no longer dependent on an office or lab space to restrict work hours. Scheduling when you will work and when you will relax can help you to manage a healthy work-life balance at home. For some, a conventional 9 to 5 schedule with a lunch break in the middle helps them to stay focused. After 5 pm, put down the work, make some dinner, and relax for the rest of the night. For others, their most productive times of the day may be less conventional. One pro of working from home is that you can fully embrace when it is that you work well. If you’re most productive in the early hours of the morning, get up early and work during the first half of the day. If you’re someone who works best at night, then spend time relaxing in the morning before jumping into work later on. The most important thing is that you can dedicate a chunk of your day to work and then keep your work out of your relaxation time. Plan out a schedule of work and play, and try to stick to this schedule Monday through Friday, like a regular work week.

3. Try pomodoro study sessions — social distance style.

For many graduate students, working from campus provides time to socialize with peers in the office or the lab. Being surrounded by others doing work can be very motivating, and so working from home can be hard when you’re sitting alone at a desk. Thanks to platforms like Zoom or FaceTime, you can still work with friends virtually! Try a pomodoro study session with your friends via Zoom. Pomodoro sessions, based on the Pomodoro Technique, prioritize working for 25 minute bursts with five minute breaks in between. Various apps, such as Tomato Timer or Focus Keeper, measure pomodoro sessions for you. Get a group of friends together on Zoom, and have somebody be in charge of the pomodoro timer. When the 25 minute study session begins, work “together” silently on Zoom. When the study session ends and your five minute break begins, take the time to chat together until the next study session starts. You’ll be motivated to stay focused with everyone while the timer is running, and you’ll get a chance to catch up with friends on your breaks.

4. Schedule virtual get-togethers with friends.

Social distancing can be the hardest aspect of this pandemic for many people. Not getting to spend time with friends can be emotionally taxing. However, social distancing does not mean you have to totally say goodbye to a social life. Schedule virtual get-togethers with your friends, and have them often! The promise of a set time and date to get together can be something to look forward to. Plan Zoom Happy Hours on Friday evenings to celebrate getting through another week, or have a virtual game night on Saturday with the use of different multiplayer apps, like the UNO app.

5. Prioritize your mental health.

Staying motivated can be near impossible when your mind is filled with anxieties. No work technique is going to keep you motivated when stress is unmanageable, and there is a lot to be stressed about right now. Taking care of yourself can help you to better manage your mental health during this time, so make sure you aren’t letting the basics fall through the cracks. Try to move a bit each day with a walk around your block or an online yoga class. Take time to eat balanced meals, and try not to work through lunch - step away from your laptop and take a lunch break. Don’t stay up until two in the morning. Maintain a normal sleep schedule, and aim to get at least eight hours of sleep a night. Allow yourself time to enjoy TV and social media, but try to reduce how much time you spend listening to pandemic news. Limit yourself to reading pandemic-related news for only a short amount of time in the morning, and then leave it alone. Stay informed from reputable sources, but avoid getting wrapped up in constant news coverage that will only heighten anxiety.

Please remember that if you’re struggling and need to talk to someone, there are resources available. Student Health Services, the Wellbeing and Counseling Center and SAFE office services continue to be available to students; click here for more information on all health-related services available.

6. Be okay with not being highly productive right now.

Some days you may not have much ability to focus at all, and that’s to be expected! Nobody’s life is normal right now. You may find that you have good days where you’re highly motivated to get through work and bad days where your motivation is nowhere to be found. When work seems impossible, prioritize what you must get done that day — what has a deadline tomorrow, what emails need to be sent before the evening? Get through high priority tasks, and then let yourself have the rest of the day off. And don’t beat yourself up for not getting through your entire to-do list! It’s okay to expect less from yourself right now.

As this new normal sets in, everybody is learning how to best adjust to working from home and being isolated from friends and family. Staying motivated can be tricky, but you can help make it a bit easier for yourself by setting realistic schedules and taking time to care for yourself. Though this pandemic can feel like it will be endless, it will eventually pass. Staying motivated can help refocus our attention away from these stressful changes and towards a more hopeful future.

About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a second-year Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.