Inside Higher Ed has recently published two related (in my mind, at least!) articles on motivation in academic work.
The first is a short interview with the author of a recent book on procrastination: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/05/06/author_discusses_new_book_on_procrastination (if you read the full article, try not to get distracted by the YouTube video of the stalking cat – the irony was not lost on me as I put off reading the rest of the article to watch it!)
The article suggests that we all suffer from procrastination to some degree or other, but that there are reasons why academics and PhD students might find it more of a problem than people in other jobs. For academics, long deadlines and the delayed gratification that comes with publishing processes taking so long can be lethal: “Academe can be best described as giving people enough rope that they can hang themselves. With long deadlines and huge delays between writing a paper and acceptance, you need some other way of getting motivation other than what the environment naturally supplies to be a successful publishing academic”. Interestingly, the author, Piers Steel, also suggests that “We lack motivation and put stuff off when we doubt our abilities”, and that’s certainly something that’s been reported as a cause of writer’s block too. For PhD students, doubts about their ability can also be exacerbated by the fact that: “Doing any major task for the first time is extremely hard motivationally as you don’t have a firm mental image of what you are supposed to be doing. For a Ph.D. thesis, initially it is almost exclusively an abstract endeavor and this does not provide motivation”.
While Steel does offer some tips on over coming procrastination, as well as a few suggestions for how supervisors of PhD students might help their students, another article in the same edition might also provide some inspiration…
Two junior faculty members at Western Carolina University made a pact that they would both publish at least five articles by Memorial Day or eat ‘livermush’, “a combination of pig liver, head parts, and cornmeal”. If that doesn’t help them to overcome their procrastination, I’m not sure what will.
While the main idea behind the bet is clearly providing a strong incentive to keep their noses to the grindstone, they also outline other ways in which the wager has helped, including setting clear goals (with an accompanying timeframe) being accountable to another person and introducing an element of competition.
You can read the full article (and find out how they’re getting on with only a few weeks left until their deadline) at: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/05/06/western_carolina_assistant_professors_motivate_each_other_with_livermush_bet