Like one of my earlier posts, the musings below were inspired by a tweet. Sara, a PhD student, asked, “Anyone with tips on how to stay motivated while writing your dissertation?!“

Anyone who has ever written a manuscript, funding application or PhD thesis knows that writing is as much about motivation and persistence as writing skills or subject-specific knowledge!

The tweet reminded me of the advice I got from a writing coach when I was writing up my PhD thesis. “Action leads to motivation leads to action.” I heard these words 10 years ago, but they still ring true to me! With writing, like with many other things in life, we often wait until we feel motivated or even inspired. I would probably not write any funding applications and fewer manuscripts if I did that.

What does “action leads to motivation leads to action” mean in practice? To me, it means forgetting about the bigger objective and focusing on a tiny piece of work to get into action. For example, I am writing this post at an airport lounge on a Sunday at 7 am. I have a 5-hour flight ahead of me and want to work on a manuscript. Currently, this future manuscript is just a 1-page document with notes and dot points. The thought of turning this into an entire manuscript feels overwhelming. Motivation is at subzero. I try to forget about the manuscript and find a tiny and accessible piece of writing I can focus on—for example, the method section. I also find that focusing on other people’s work helps me forget my manuscript, so I start by writing a short paragraph summarising a paper. Another way to trick my brain into writing action is to work on a graph or plot. This often gets me thinking about my data, and then the activation energy to write a small paragraph about the data is much lower.

In my experience, once I get going, my brain kicks into gear, and I start coming up with ideas for other sections or start thinking about how the different parts of the data or story relate to each other. Action leads to motivation leads to action!

What if you can’t get a sentence on paper even if you focus on a tiny piece? Try free-flow writing. In my other post on writing, I mentioned how this writing tool helps me organise my thoughts and ideas, but it also works well for those days when you can’t find the motivation to get started.

I hear you say, “What if you still can’t get going?” That’s ok. Some days are just not meant for writing. Be kind to yourself, or as my yoga/meditation teacher says, “Be ok with what is.” There are other ways you can progress on a manuscript, funding application or thesis chapter. Work on your figures and clean up the references.

So, take some (small) action. Maybe forgetting about that manuscript is the best way to get that manuscript written 🙂

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