Professors: How do you keep working on one article or book chapter when you have other, much more compelling and exciting projects and ideas that beckon? Or, how do you stick with it when you start having self-doubts about how good it is?
Graduate students: How do you keep working on a section of the dissertation, when you feel like you’re going nowhere, when you feel it’s not that good, or when you’re just plain sick of it?
Three words come to mind: anxiety, boredom, and habits.
When you’re unsure what to say next, when you start to think that it may not be such a great argument, or when you can’t decide how to explain your results, it can cause anxiety. This is normal and natural. It’s a problem when you don’t realize that you’re anxious, and you begin to want to avoid the project that is causing anxiety. This will cause anything else (even cleaning out the closet) to seem more interesting. So new ideas that come up have the allure that they aren’t yet at the same sticky point.
What’s the answer to anxiety? Of course that can fill a book, but here are some thoughts:
- Realize it’s anxiety.
- Become aware of the negative messages you might be saying to yourself.
- Dispute those messages
- Take care of your general anxiety and stress level by meditating, taking breaks, taking days off, doing physical activity, or whatever helps you with stress.
- Realize that if you stick with the writing on a daily basis, you will eventually work through the problem.
I’ve found that a lot of professors are highly intelligent, imaginative, creative people, who enjoy the thrill of thinking up new ideas, and who are more bored with the plodding follow-through that comes with staying with a piece of writing that they’ve already throught about ad nauseum.
What to do about boredom?
- Do a little every day (you can stand anything for 30 minutes, right?) Don’t forget to stop, take breaks, and have fun; your brain needs to be refreshed in order not to burn out.
- Intersperse reading and writing. Writing brings your ideas to life and gets you out of the passive rut of reading for days without writing. Reading (in addition to daily writing) gives you some new input.
- Share your work — the input from others can enliven your thinking and makes you more aware of what your audience needs to hear. You’ve probably found this effect after presenting at conferences — the trick is to keep sharing when you’re stuck in your office day after day.
- If you have an exciting new idea about a new project, right it down and store it where you know you can find it later.
- Be aware that anxiety can masquerade as boredom. If you’re not sure which it is, try thinking about where you are in the project; what you’ve been working on or what you will work on next. If you get an unpleasant sensation in your body, it’s probably anxiety. See above.
- Make a note in your calendar to think more about the new idea once your current project is finished, or if you have the energy, during extra writing sessions later in the day. That way you will trust yourself that you will get back to that great idea after you finish the current project.
Contrary to what many think, a daily habit does not necessarily induce boredom. On the contrary, the habit of daily writing on your current important writing project, in short time periods, can take care of both anxiety and boredom. You’ll be more likely to work through difficult spots, and you will be motivated by seeing progress. If you get into the habit of daily writing, you lessen the pain of having to get back into the mindset of what you were working on, so you spend less time overall on something you’re tired of.
The habit of writing down your goals long-term goals will help you keep your eyes on the prize of finishing the dissertation or of publication. Remind yourself periodically of your goals. Writing down your goals for the following day’s work will help you keep up the flow of your work.
Have any of you experienced this anxiety or boredom with ongoing projects? Do you relate to loving to come up with new ideas but getting tired of the old projects? Have you found ways to deal with this?