You've been working hard all semester, no doubt, between projects, tests, labs, and whatever extra-curriculars and other obligations you have going on. Maybe you're still as starry-eyed, impassioned, and ready-to-roll as you were at the beginning of the semester (in which case, all the more power to you!), but chances are that you're starting to feel a little run down and a little less motivated to put down school-related keystrokes. You're not lazy or a bad person for this--burnout happens to the best of us, however studious and hard-working we may be. Those essays still have to be written, however, motivation or not. Take a break (as you're probably doing right now), take a breath, take whatever below works for you (most of this you've heard before, but maybe you need the reminder), and then get on to it!
Break it down into small, manageable steps.
You really don't feel like writing that 2000 word term paper with ten outside sources and proper citations right now...but do you feel like, say, finding five of those ten sources right now? Do you feel like writing your introductory paragraph right now? Your outline? Your thesis statement?
Going from a blank document to a journal-worthy publication can feel like going from Netflix and nap to the Boston Marathon, but going from Netflix and nap to 15 minutes on the treadmill twice a week, then from 15 minutes on the treadmill twice a week to 30 minutes on the treadmill three times a week, then from that to an hour on the treadmill 4 times a week, and so forth until you hit that marathon burns a little less.
Likewise, your finished, final essay is a marathon that's 6 months away (okay, maybe a week or two), but today, right now, your goal is to walk for 15 minutes. What small task do you have the time and energy to do right now? Just one paragraph? Just one outline? Just one source?
Whatever you can do right now, even if it doesn't seem like a lot right now, is one less thing that you'll have to do the next time you sit down to work on this. If you work on your essay for just 15 minutes a day, you'll have put in a whole hour's worth of work in four days (which, okay, doesn't sound as accomplished put that way, but that's an hour more of work than not having done anything for a week out of dread and the lack of wherewithal).
The even better news is that working often begets working. Maybe you only set out to do a brief Roman-numeral outline, and maybe that's all you really needed to have done for this moment. But maybe you're making that outline and you realize that you don't really know what you want to say in paragraphs 1, 3, or 5, but you know exactly what's going on in paragraph 2, so you put so much detail into that part of the outline that you start writing in sentences with transitions and all of that, and, before you realize it, you have a fifth of your paper typed out.
If you need help breaking it down, try Pomodoro (or any similar technique).
Named after the Italian word for "tomato" (the shape of the timer that the original practitioner used), the Pomodoro technique is a way to structure your work time and break times.
Work for 25 minutes with no distractions; finish as much as you can. Mark an "X" on a log for working for 25 minutes. Take a break for 5 minutes; do something fun, do something relaxing, but don't do any work.
Work for another 25 minutes. 5 minute break.
Work 25. Break 5.
Work 25. Break 20 (after having done four "pomodoros," or 25-minute productivity sessions, you deserve it).
Repeat for as long or as little as time and willpower permit. Of course, feel free to modify work times and break times to match you--if you need to break every 10 minutes, go for it, and if you work better powering through in hour-long increments, go for it. Just remember that breaks reset the mind, and the promise of a break resets your will to keep dragging through that work time.
And, yes, there's an app for that, for both Android and Apple (and probably any other interface with an app store, too). In fact, go to the "Productivity" section of any app store and you'll find timers, planners, lists, mind-maps, brainstorming tools, and calendars galore. Some of these may work well for you; some that get 5 stars from 3 thousand reviewers may not do you, personally, an ounce of good.
Find what works for you, whether that be an app or any other time management method.
Remember your end goal.
The end goal of writing that paper is to write about everything that the professor and/or rubric mandates while meeting any word or page limit and following the style guide for your course, yes, but there's a larger reason why you're doing this. This essay is a step towards completing a class, a class that hopefully is helping you develop the skills, knowledge, and connections you need in order to perform in that dream career or hobby that you'll pursue once you pass enough of these classes and obtain that coveted sheet of paper known as the degree.
So while you might not be able to muster the give-a-dang about an essay analyzing [Insert Socio-Historical Context Here] in [Insert Literary Work Here], you might find it a little easier to care about, say, paying off your parents' debt or saving lives with a scalpel or changing the world with your ability to reach others through words, television, music, art, education, what-have-you. Remember why you were so excited to get accepted into your school and your program; remember what you wanted to be when you were in kindergarten and how much of that kindergartener was still in you when your high school guidance counselor asked you the same question. Remember why it's worth it, and remember that this essay in front of you, while by no means as important as whatever comes next, is crucial to you getting to that place you want to get to.
But don't worry yourself numb.
Maybe what's burning you out isn't that you find it hard to care; maybe you care so much that you want everything to be the absolute best, and you know that you're tired and that you don't do your best work when you're tired, so maybe you're waiting for more energy, more motivation, more inspiration to come around so that you can put your absolute best into that essay and into whatever that larger dream entails.
The problem is that you don't have the time to wait. By all means, if you're so tired that you can't keep your eyes open, go get some rest, and if you're so overworked that the room is spinning and your head is throbbing, please take a break, but you eventually have to get started, even if you don't feel as confident or as eloquent as that final essay needs to be.
It's a lot easier to carve a good essay out of a not-so-well-written rough draft than it is to carve a good essay out of a blank document. You can edit later, but you can't edit something that doesn't exist. A rough draft doesn't have to be perfect--it just needs to be there.
The final draft doesn't have to be perfect, either, though it's admirable to want it to be as a good as possible. Remember that while this essay is a part of passing your class, it is (probably) not the whole class; unless you do something silly like plagiarize or steal (don't do that!), this one essay isn't going to make or break your future. You want to do as well as you possibly can, sure, but remember that a shaky essay you've been shakily writing for a week typically does better grade-wise and content-wise than a frantic essay that you threw out the night before because you waited for the "right moment" that never came, and even that last-minute essay is better than no essay at all and, given steep Late Work policies, is probably better than turning in your essay late. One essay does not a scholar make...and chances are that it won't come out as poorly as you fear it might, anyways. Breathe in, breathe out, and just try your best. That's all you can really given.
Look after your mental health.
Everything above is easier said than done, but if you absolutely, positively cannot bring yourself to work on the essay out of paralyzing fear of failure or having zero ability to muster any give-a-dang whatsoever, then it may be time to check in with a counselor and see if there may be some underlying anxiety or mood disorder or another mental health condition that's influencing your ability to be productive. Some degree of worry, some degree of lethargy, and some degree of slipping up from time to time is to be expected, of course, but if your grades are suffering or if it has become a lot harder for you to function, then this is something that needs to be looked into, and your school's counseling department or another trusted mental health professor is a great place to look into it. Mental health conditions tend to peak around college age--around 1 in 5 college students (if not more!) are currently dealing with a mental illness. It's not a sign of weakness; what it is, though, is treatable, or at least manageable, and this management can make the day-to-day things like essay writing a lot easier to deal with.
So, after you evaluate your need for mental health services and act accordingly, reflect on what your end goal is, and get to work. Maybe "work" is just a few small tasks for a few minutes each day, but little progress is better than no progress at all. Writing essays aren't always fun or easy, but you're writing them for a reason, and it's easier to get to writing if you actually, well, get to writing.
Seriously, though, you got this.
A guest Post by Annabel Candy of Get in the Hotspot
Have you noticed how easy non-writers think writing is? When you’re a writer that can be frustrating.
There are three main things about writing that make it lack the social proof people expect of professional activities.
- It’s intangible – Many people don’t seem to consider writing a proper job, maybe because often writers type away for days with apparently little to show for it. Yes, there may be the occasional article in a newspaper, possibly even a published book you can actually show people. But even then that small book, an object you can hold in one hand, isn’t a good indication of the many hours, months or possibly years of work that went in to actually writing it.
- It’s unpaid – This is true even of successful, established and published writers, people like Zen Habits and Write to Done founder Leo Babauta who still regularly give away his writing on his own blogs and elsewhere. Many writers have blogs they write unpaid and if you’re not paid for something then other people tend to see it as a hobby and an unnecessary indulgence when for most writers creating a blog is a carefully planned career move.
- It’s intellectual – People see hard work as being physical like laboring, or stressful like being a fighter pilot. They don’t realize the kind of mental determination that writing calls for, the inner motivation that’s required to get you writing and keep you going until you actually finish the work.
No wonder writers often struggle with motivation.
Writing is a common dream for people. Yet most people who dream about writing don’t actually do it. Some of them hardly even read. Meanwhile writers who do actually earn a living from their work still struggle to stay motivated and keep writing.
Faced with all this opposition, both external and internal, how can we motivate ourselves to get writing and keep at it?
Here are six ideas that work :
1. Get motivated
Accept responsibility for you own actions. Acknowledge that you’re the only person who can do this. That if you don’t glue your backside to the chair and first start, then finish writing your article or book, no one else is going to do it for you.
2. Create tight imaginary deadlines for yourself to spur you on.
Try pretending you only have one hour to write today and that can be a good incentive to get on with it. Or ask yourself what you’d start or finish writing if you only had a month to live.I motivated myself to write a 70,000 word manuscript by telling myself that if I didn’t write it that year I never would. These scare tactics do work and best of all no one has to die in the process.
3. Commit to your writing.
Work out how much time you can give to your writing and when. Schedule it in your diary it. Make it a part of your routine and keep at it until it becomes a true habit.Now stay focused. If it’s a book you need to be able to maintain your focus for months. For a shorter piece like a blog post or an article you need to focus for one or two hours.
4. Remove all distractions.
You know what they are. Unplug the phone, turn off your router, find a place where you can write away oblivious to the household duties which are being neglected.Try using a kitchen timer to keep you seated and writing. Set the timer for an hour and write away. When the time’s up have a five minute break then repeat until the piece is finished.
5. Use motivational tools.
Don’t dismiss Twitter as a waste of time waster or, at best, a simple networking tool. I’ve found it a powerful way to motivate myself and other people. It surprised me too but here’s how it happened.I followed a well known novelist and journalist called John Birmingham @johnbirmingham on Twitter.I noticed that he constantly tweeted how many words he’d written on a project and how many he was about to write. He’s prolific and his word count put me to shame so I decided to try his tactic and see if it helped me.First thing in the morning, I’d tweet:”Three jobs: edit chap two of fiction manuscript, finish short story for the competition, write blog post for Get In the Hot Spot.”Then I made updates on my progress via Twitter, as the day went on, such as:”Chapter two edited and looking good. About to update my blog now. Hope you’ve had a productive morning too.”I know this sounds ridiculously simple and unnecessary too, but if it works as a motivational tool, that has to be a good thing.
6. Try co-motivation
Sometimes on Twitter I’ve challenge other writers or bloggers to a word race if I know they’re in the same boat as me. As we both write more than we would have otherwise, we both end up winning. I’ve found that innocent bystanders who’ve seen my word count tweets are motivated and inspired by that just as I was by John Birmingham.This type of motivation even has a proper name. Appropriately enough for writers it’s called “bookmarking”.Basically, you tell someone your goal and then update them regularly on your progress. It may be a friend, but it can be anyone, and it can also be done on the phone, with a text message, face to face, or on Twitter where you don’t even need anyone specific to report too.One brilliant side-effect of this is that as well as John Birmingham motivating himself and me, my progress reports have motivated other people too.One man told me that my tweets about writing and my word count have inspired him to start writing again. Another Australian writer Peter Moore @travdude who’s published six travel books, emailed me saying”I’m impressed that you’re knocking out those kind of numbers in a family environment.”
Final word on motivation
Who cares if writing’s intangible, unpaid and misunderstood? We mark our progress in words written and don’t worry that most of them will be removed in the end. We pay ourselves a favor each time we put pen to paper and practice our craft. We wage a war against lassitude and writer’s block on a daily basis and we win.
We just sit down to write no matter how hard it is, because no one else can write it like us.
How do you start writing and stick to it even though it’s easier not to? Please share your tips in the comments.
On the Internet it’s just the same as in real life ~ if you spend time with positive, inspiring people, you’ll be motivated to improve yourself and work harder.
Brrng, Brrng! Got to go now, the timer’s ringing. Have a super duper and highly productive day everyone.
Annabel Candy writes about self improvement at Get In the Hot Spot. She runs a web design company with her husband and manages to stay mostly focused on her writing despite the general mayhem created by their three children. To have as word count race or boast about how much you’ve written, tweet her @inthehotspot
Image credit: Photo by CarbonNY