I'm can't motivate myself to work


Hello Everyone,
I'm exactly half-way through my 3 year PhD right now and I'm having some serious problems with motivating myself to get any work done whatsoever. It's embarrassing for me to say this but I spend most days watching TV (programmes that I don't even like!) and when my partner comes in from work I get a book out to pretend I've been doing something. Childish, I know, but I'm just so ashamed of how little I am achieving. This has been going on for months now and I'm starting to get really worried. I've spoken to my supervisor about it but he doesn't seem to understand how badly this is effecting me. I'm becoming very anxious and sometimes a bit depressed. My confidence in myself as well as my work has really taken a blow.

As an undergrad and masters student I always performed best under the pressure of an approaching deadline, but even this doesn't work anymore. The last conference paper that I presented was essentially unfinished. I've set myself a writing plan for the time I have left and if I don't start to meet those goals and deadlines then I am heading for serious trouble, as my funding only lasts for three years so I can't afford to go over.

It's not that I don't want to do the work, every night I go to bed saying 'tomorrow will be different' and, instead, every morning I stay at home moping about instead of going in to my office and getting some work done. I know it sounds ridiculous but it's almost as if I'm intimidated by the work so I stay at home where it's 'safe'.

I'd really appreciate the advice of anyone has had a similar experience and successfully come out the other side.

Also, if anyone has any general tips on self-motivation that would be welcome too.

Many thanks x


Hi there,

I'm not doing a PhD, I'm doing a Masters, but I can completely empathise with you because I've been going through the same thing recently. It's totally normal to put off a task because it seems so huge and intimidating, that's a natural response. I went through two weeks of complete apathy shortly after Christmas after I completed my first (very stressful) essay and once I'd got on to that path of surfing the internet and watching TV all day instead of working it was very difficult to get out of it again, especially when I knew how much work there was and felt that I just couldn't face starting the process of writing an essay all over again.

For me, it's about habit - if I can force myself to work hard all day one day, I'm more likely to do it again the next day, because it feels like I have something to live up to, and it makes me feel better about myself. Forcing myself to work is the *only* thing that makes me feel better about myself, and I do it because I know how I will feel if I don't do it. It's worth it to work all day, with gritted teeth if necessary, because at the end of the day I won't have to feel guilty or anxious and I can allow myself some time off which I know I have earned. Surfing the net or watching TV feels so much more enjoyable when I know I've earned it. What you need to do is just break the habit of procrastinating and build up the amount you work each day until it becomes habit. I also make a list of all the fun things I want to do, and then I do one of them each night after I finish working and it gives me something to look forward to.

I also find it helps if you break your task up into smaller ones, and at the end of each day write down exactly what you're going to do the next day, so that when you sit down to work you have ready-made instructions and can just go for it, rather than staring at all the piles of books and paper and wondering where to start.

What it comes down to is, even if you really don't want to work, do it anyway, make yourself do it, and after you've done it you will feel so much better about yourself. It's a bit like exercise for me - while you're doing it, it's horrible and sweaty and exhausting, but afterwards you feel energised and it all seems worth it. Hope that this helps, good luck :)



Yeah well...I think we all go through this. I have just finished my 'doing nothing' period. It lasted for quite a while. I worked really hard before that and perhaps it would not end badly if I didn't let myself get involved in other things related to what has been going in my Institute. I ended up not being able to spend ANY time inside of the building. I felt exhausted, frustrated, totally unmotivated and for a while I even thought of quitting everything all together. I knew it was time to take a break. And I did. I went away to visit my family and stayed there for 2 weeks. I took no books, no notes, no nothing related to my research. I promised myself not to give a single thought to it. And I did. It really helped. So what I'm trying to say is...sometimes you really need to take a break and I mean a total break. If you take a break but keep on feeling guilty and thinking of your work then it won't work. You need to take a break and accept it that for sometime you won't do anything. When you allow yourself do that soon (er) or later:-) you will feel the need to go back to your research and you will find your motivation again.
Don't sit infront of TV though. Go for a walk. Read the 'no requirement of thinking' book lol Watching TV will make you feel even more tired.
Don't know if it helps. All I can say is that it happens to everyone, at least all PhD students that I know. My friend, who is a Dr already, told me that once he had a period of three months where he did nothing, couldn't look at his laptop, was sick of everything that reminded him of his research but he let it be and when it ended he worked with new found energy and confidence and soon after that completed his research.
Good luck and all the best!


Hi there

I am the same - I came on this forum because I know it is a common problem (am just over 2 years into my PhD so have been on and off this forum a lot throughout that period!) and thought it may make me feel like less of a loser. And it has! And I decided to buy the Joan Bolker book 'writing your dissertation in 15 minutes a day' (heartily recommended on another thread on this forum and where peeps who have followed it over the last year are now at viva stage...) - apparently it is brilliant at (a) making you feel better for not being able to work 24/7 and (b) giving tips and tricks to getting back into it i.e - 15 mins is better than nothing; and builds up your self confidence again. Hopefully it will work!!! (Is v. cheap on amazon btw!)

I am going to grit my teeth tomorrow and make myself work, without any radio, for an hour. Then I can do anything I want, (and will probably stay at my desk and work for three...) Once you break the cycle of bouncing up from your desk every ten minutes to do something 'really important' it gets a million times easier (though not getting up is really very hard I find!) - and you even start to enjoy it! bizarre but true - let's do it! (It worked for me last week after weeks of procrastinating - but then I went away for a long weekend and broke my routine! so it all went to pot today :0( But will rebuild it tomorrow!)

Good luck - this work will be yours!


ps. never think of the whole thing/chapter/day - only teeny goals, like ten pages of reading/half an hour of work... much more manageable!


======= Date Modified 21 Apr 2009 22:12:28 =======
hi there, i can totally totally relate to how you're feeling, and everyone has given brilliant advice!! well done to the peeps below me. good advice indeed :-)

i am currently trying to prepare for my viva, and it seems like an enourmous mountain! and i also have long periods of time where i do absolutely nothing. but like Janey said, its all about routine. and what others have said, its about setting yourself small targets. and how the first postie said, you sometimes just have to FORCE yourself, and you WILL feel better afterwards and enjoy watching tv all the more for it, after you've done some work. you feel like you earned it.

when you've been out of it for so long, its really hard to get back into it. and it is intimidating, believe me i know! i feel like im drowning and all the revision im doing i feel like i keep forgetting all the stuff i read. but i keep at it, day by day, thinking one day it will all stick in my head.

whats working for me at the moment, is keeping a study diary. and i also printed out a month planner and stuck it on my wall. and everyday i write down how many pages of notes i've made. these are just notes from papers, from my thesis etc.

at first i set myself a target of just writing 1 page of notes, and then slowly built it up.

so tommorow morning when you wake up. i want you to sit down. print out this month planner. and then sit at your desk, and glue yourself for at least 15 minutes. and either do some free writing about your thesis, can be anything, just put the main subject in the middle and make a spider diagram. or read a paper and make notes from the paper. and then afterwards take a break if you feel like it. or carry on. but try to take a break after 40 minutes. as attention spans seems to waver.

we're all rooting for you. all you have to do tommorow is 15minutes, and then we can take it from there. good luck buddy, we know you can do it :) and you're not the first to do this nor will be the last!

believe me. i've spent months and months not doing anything. so i know how hard it is to get back into it. but you will be suprised how much you can learn and accomplish in just a day, or even an hour.

"wherever you are, it is the place to start, the effort you expend today does make a difference" "one day plus another has an accumulative effect"

month planner: http://www.year-planner-calendar.wanadoo.co.uk/2009-month-week-day-planner-calendar-diary-wall-chart.htm


Hi Fircklesnarp, MeMaggie, Jayney and Lara,

Firstly thank you all so much not just for your excellent advice and tips, but also for your kind support and encouragement. As you can probably tell I was in a pretty bad place when I posted yesterday, and to start the day today by reading your posts has had such a positive impact on my mood.

It’s a massive relief to know that you all go through similar ‘doing nothing’ periods too, and that you all ‘force’ yourselves to work as a way out of it. Forcing myself, and I mean really forcing, has been the only way I could get any work done in the past, but I think I was feeling that this was wrong somehow, and I ended up convincing myself that it shouldn’t be so difficult and that I should ‘want’ to work and enjoy it which just whittled away at my confidence. However your posts have shown me that forcing is quite normal, effective even, so I’m going to embrace the ‘force’ from now on!

Another thing that you were all very observant in pointing out was that I’ve been concentrating too much on the big picture and not enough on the small tasks and achievements. This has given me a bit of a eureka moment because now I can see that’s why I’ve been finding the work so intimidating. I’ve taken your advice this morning by writing up a to-do list for today (I’ve already got two tasks complete), and before I go home I’m going to make a record of what I’ve achieved and make a new to-do list for tomorrow.

I’ve also printed off a monthly planner so I can keep track of deadlines and other key dates (thank you Lara) and I’ve ordered the Joan Bolker book off Amazon (thanks Jayney). So watch this space!

Posting on here has been such a weight off my shoulders and when my partner came in from work last night I admitted how difficult I was finding things and he agreed to change the password on our home PC so that I can no longer fool myself into thinking I would get any work done there. So I’m happy to say I’m typing this from my office space at university and feeling quite pleased with myself. I don’t even miss the TV!

Once again thanks a million, your advice and encouragement is already helping. May the ‘force’ be with you all in your own work! x



hi LUH1983! I had EXACTLY the same problem as you, and sometimes I still fall back into my TV habits.
I watched lots and lots of it, and yes I still watch. Sometimes I just get lost in my tv and its running on my faithful computer, this sounds silly but I love my computer very much. I sit with it everyday, I communicate with my family on it everyday, I eat with my computer everyday as well!!!! AAAAAAARGH

But theres still this phd to do..so what I have done is to allocate a couple of hours (starting with 2hrs) per day to sit and write, or sit and work, and slowly increase that day by day.


I had the same problem halfway through my part-time PhD. What me got out of it in the end was a shift in motivation: suddenly I was motivated to move on enough, and got on with things. Maybe terror kicked in, maybe deadlines. I'm not sure, but suddenly I started working again. I found that drawing up lists really helped kick me into productive mode: lists of what to do, where I'd pick the least unappealing options. Basically don't worry, it will resolve itself, but keep in mind your deadlines and draw up some to-do lists to help the process along.


Thank all you guys for the good advices. ...looking forward to working with all these excellent tipps.


Everyone has given good advice. Another thing that helps keep me going is using a timer - see http://www.mytomatoes.com. This runs for 25 minutes, then you're allowed to have a break. I can motivate myself to keep going if I know I've only got up to 25 minutes to do, then I can surf the net or whatever for 5 minutes, then back into it again. You also list here what you've done, so can see progress, and this helps too.

When I'm really lacking motivation I use the chat room at http://www.phinished.org/. People work together there - again for 25 minutes with everyone working, then 5 minutes of chat. It makes you accountable to others you're virtually working with - also really helps, but don't procrastinate reading the emails on this site!

Just start with a little bit, and keep going. Good luck!