Strategies to increase your productivity, maintain your motivation, and achieve your goals
Welcome back to the Spring term! Starting a New Year is when most people make New Year’s resolutions to make positive changes and achieve their goals. Why is this time so significant for change? It may be because starting a new calendar year can feel like turning a page allowing us to make a fresh start. This is the opportunity to let go of thoughts about what we didn’t do last year.
This is the time to review what is important and decide what goals to focus on. For example, focusing on making changes to daily routines and prioritising those tasks that will lead to achieving your goals.
It can be hard work to get back into studying and working on assignments after the break. It may be that you spent a lot of time trying to complete an assignment and you may feel that you did not get to have a break. If this is the case, it is important that you give yourself credit for your efforts to complete the assignments.
We may look back and think that we didn’t do enough, or that we should have done things differently. Letting go of these thoughts is necessary to move forward. It is important to reflect on our approach to work and modify our strategies so that we can improve and make progress. It is essential that we do this with self-compassion, and seek to understand what prevented us from achieving our goals. This can provide us with ideas of what to do different going forward. Now is time to focus on what are you going to do next, and decide what steps you will take to achieve what is important to you.
You may be wondering how you can make progress with so many things that you have to do. How to prioritise your studies while also wanting to spend time catching up with your friends or making new friendships?
How to achieve your goals
Here are some strategies you can experiment with to develop habits that support your goals. Whether these are familiar to you or not, the key is in the application and doing so consistently over time. To create new habits we need to start with very small steps, and practice the new behaviour regularly until it becomes part of your daily activities.
When you have a lot of things to do but do not know where to start, identify a criteria that you can use to assess their importance. For example, list all the tasks by deadline or by degree of difficulty and then work your way back from them.
When starting to create a study routine, rather than expecting to go to the library for 5 hrs in a row, start with a half-hour session, followed by a 5 minute break. Increase the number of sessions gradually so that you can sustain your efforts over time. Regular practice will enable to build the capacity to manage these study periods. To develop a structure you can create a weekly plan, that is flexible, including blocks of time dedicated to writing, reading, experiments in the lab, to exercising, housekeeping tasks, etc.
It is important that you maintain daily contact with your subjects so that you can build familiarity with the topics so your understanding increases and enable you to remember the material. In addition to building your knowledge of the subject it will allow you to maintain the momentum to strengthen your productivity.
2.Set specific goals:
Identify the steps required to complete each task, and if they are too big identify smaller steps within each one. Then start with one step at a time keeping in mind the long-term goal, and the short-term goal. For example, you may have to submit a report or an essay for a module (short-term goal), and preparing for the exam (long-term goal). Smaller steps may be taking some notes while researching your topic for the essay, developing your ideas by writing a draft, discussing the topic with others, or asking questions to develop your understanding of the subject as well as finding out more information from Study Advice.
Setting specific goals makes it more likely to achieve them. Small steps are easier to do, particularly when tired or you have multiple deadlines. A specific goal, that clearly outlines each step to take will focus the mind. It also allow you to summon the energy to work on it. As you notice you are making progress with the task it will create momentum so that you can continue persevering with the task until you complete it. Starting small, and making gradual progress is rewarding.
3.Create positive habits:
One of the most important things that we can do to increase productivity is to create habits that enable us to achieve our goals. Habits are effective because they allow us to engage in behaviours that support our goals. A habit is in effect a decisions that we make initially and that with regular practice become easier to implement. This is because once the behaviour that becomes routine, and it requires less energy to apply it as we already made the decision to incorporate it in our routine behaviours (eg. eat healthy foods, exercise, sleep better, etc).
To develop a new habit first notice what are the cues in your environment that may prevent you from implementing your new behaviour. For example, if you want to get sleep better it is important to stop using digital devices at least an hour before bedtime. Notice the distractions in your environment, what can you change to reduce them? Then notice how you are feeling, do you find that you are distracted by thoughts or feeling uncomfortable?
To reduce internal distractions you can write worry thoughts down and review them in the morning. If you are concerned about an assignment make a note of what you need that would enable you to make progress with it, and make a list of small steps that you can take in the morning. Having a better picture of what you can do to manage the situation or problem, it will ease the internal tension making it more likely that you can get to sleep.
Knowing what are the triggers that can distract or prevent you from applying your habits will enable you to prepare in advance what you can do to overcome these. These are called implementation plans. To strengthen the new behaviours it is good to acknowledge your efforts and dedication to your goal. Having a reward can help to maintain your motivation to persevere. It could be making contact with friends and family during a short break (10 minutes), going for a short walk (the movement will restore your energy), and by focusing on the sense of satisfaction derived from making progress and learning something is reward in itself.
To learn any new skill requires practice, although not mindless repetition. To develop skills and improve it is necessary to pay attention to what we are learning and focus on understanding. When practising a new skill we inevitably make mistakes as part of the learning process, so it is essential to understand the mistakes to learn what needs to be done different (Ericsson & Pool, 2016). For example, when learning to play a sport such as tennis we need to repeat each element a lot until we learn to get the ball across the net, and then to direct it to a specific spot on the court, and then we move on to other techniques. This way we build our knowledge and confidence through practice.
The same approach can be applied to learning to write academic essays or lab reports. If something is not clear then pause and ask questions or review the material to find an explanation. By tolerating the discomfort of not knowing it is possible to move past the frustration that can lead to a feeling of being stuck. When this happens, remind yourself that learning new things takes time, and a lot of practice.
5.How to learn:
To make progress with studies it is important to develop the habit of ongoing learning. In fact, this is a key professional skill for now and the future. As technology becomes more widely embedded and the world of work changes continually, being able to adapt to new ways of working will be critical (Staats, 2018).
Sometimes what prevents us from learning is the fear of failure. It reduces our ability to take risks and therefore limits our potential to achieve goals that we could aspire to, but we do not consider them because we are unsure of how things will turn out (Ericsson & Pool, 2016). If you notice mistakes or you’re feeling disappointed with the gradings you’ve got so far look at the feedback, and view it as information to improve your work. This approach can help to turn things around.
To manage this change your perspective: when thinking of your studies view them as your investment in yourself, increasing your knowledge and as preparation for your future self. Identify what is meaningful for you and what you value. While at university you are discovering and developing your way of working, and learning about an area of knowledge as well as developing your strengths in the process. As you encounter new material and experiences it will stimulate your ideas and strengthen your motivation to persevere with your efforts. As you develop your skills you will be better prepared to take the opportunities that open up for you in the future.
Adopting a flexible mindset is another essential skill as it allows to adapt to new circumstances. Being flexible allows us to develop mental agility, a necessary skill to manage uncertainty (David, 2016). Rigid thinking prevents us from dealing with change, therefore by keeping an open mind and nurturing our curiosity it is possible to consider alternatives that in turn can lead to new ideas and solutions.
By developing these skills and a positive attitude towards learning, you will increase your ability to adapt to changes and be prepared for the changing nature of work going forward.
Nurture your curiosity and desire to learn to keep motivated and interested in the work that you are doing. If you notice that your thoughts are on anticipating receiving results that disappoint you, or perhaps thinking that improving them seems too difficult, and then noticing your thoughts jumping into a dark future of poor outcomes. It may be that the focus is on the importance of grades to complete a degree and feeling that there is a lot riding on achieving high marks. However, these thoughts can cause tension and reduce productivity.
To restore your confidence and motivation notice the thoughts that come into your mind, without judgement. Pause, take a deep breath to centre yourself. Notice the thoughts and then let them go by. These are not predictions of future outcomes. Bring your attention back to the present moment. Then, allow space for your feelings of disappointment, frustration or worry. By taking a deep breath with mindful attention you can restore your balance (Cottrell, 2018).
Focus your attention on something that makes you feel comfortable, or brings you positive memories. This will restore your determination to keep going. By maintaining a flexible attitude and being curious will enable you to see alternative options. For example, when feeling stuck on a written assignment look at what you are writing and consider it from different perspectives. Go back to the previous page (or previous chapter) to review the material and see whether new connections or ideas emerge. Topics or concepts tend to build on each other, therefore to understand the concept/task you are working on may depend on having understood a concept explained in a previous chapter.
We can all feel our mood fluctuate depending on how things are progressing for us. And for many the lack of sunlight during the winter months affects their level of energy and mood. Being aware of the triggers that have an impact on how we feel enable us to make some changes to reduce the impact of these on our mood. By focusing on what we can do in the present moment we can increase our motivation and sense of optimism (Seligman, 1998) . This refers to the concept of self-efficacy: the belief that we have the resources to get on with the tasks we have to do, and skills to manage challenges (Bandura, 1997).
Whenever we are in the middle of something that requires effort and dedication, it may feel harder to keep going when the end feels too far away. In fact, this feeling is an indication that your brain is working hard. Contrary to what we think, this is when our brains are processing ideas and making connections to increase our understanding. So if you find it hard it is because your brain is doing its work. By learning to tolerate frustration and self-doubt you can build your strength to persevere, and as you make gradual progress your motivation will increase.
To maintain motivation we need to manage our emotions. By being understanding of ourselves, using self-compassion and kindness as you would treat your best friend. Rather than focusing on the problem, identify what you need to develop or change, without self-criticism. Consider what one step you can take to make progress, right now.
10.Looking after mind and body:
In order to work effectively and maintain mood stable it is essential to maintain healthy habits that support our body and mind. Keeping active is the most effective natural way to keep our mood stable, sleep well and feel well. Identify the type of exercise you like to do, or you may prefer going for a walk, and exercise regularly. It is also essential to have a healthy diet that supports your body and mind. Healthy nutrition and exercise promote good sleep, and are excellent strategies to reduce stress, worry and low mood.
What tends to get in the way of achieving our goals is attempting too much in a very short period of time, and if we do not achieve our goal by the prescribed time we then become discouraged and give up. For example, if your goal is to exercise more, start with short periods of time and build it gradually so that your body and mind get used to making the effort, and at a level that you can sustain on a regular basis without straining your muscles. As you practice regularly your body will start to get stronger.
As you work on your tasks notice the progress you are making, even if it is only writing a couple of lines for your essay. What matters is that you have done something. Keep in mind that learning takes effort, and it takes time. Allow for moments of doubt, and mistakes. These are all part of the learning process. This work requires patience. One of the best ways to make progress is to focus on the process – what you are doing each day. It is better to do a little at a time with regularity, rather than wait until you feel motivated, to create momentum. This in turn, sets the expectation that working regularly is what you do. As you notice progress the more motivating it will be, and the goals will become more achievable.
When working towards goals that are important it requires a lot of energy, focus and determination. If we focus on outcomes only we can feel easily discouraged when we notice how much there is still to do, or lose courage as when tired it can feel less achievable. Instead, redirect your attention to the process – what you are doing, so that you can make progress and get things done. This takes effort and perseverance. Take breaks to restore your energy, and identify rewards to acknowledge your efforts. This will restore your energy and motivation to keep going, until the task is done and the sense of achievement will also be rewarding.
All the best for your studies this term!
Bandura, A/ (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Cottrell, S. (2018) “Mindfulness for students”. London: Palgrave
David, S. (2016) “Emotional agility. Get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life.” London: Penguin
Ericsson, A. & Pool, R. (2016) Peak. Secrets from the new science of expertise. London: The Bodley Head
Seligman, M. (1998) Learned Optimism. How to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket Books.
Staats, B. (2018) “Never stop learning” Stay relevant, reinvent yourself, and thrive. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.