Juggling graduate school, motherhood, a social life, practicing self-care, and everything in between can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Prior to graduate school I used a few tricks that enabled me to retain my motivation when it began to slump, but none of these strategies continued to be beneficial long-term. Lucky for me, the knowledge I have gained from my master’s program has enabled me to come up with new ideas that show positive long-term results on my academic behaviors. Below I have listed four of the strategies that have proven most beneficial to increasing my motivation and some of my highest quality work.
- Take breaks: This is probably one of the oldest tricks in the books and I am sure this is not the first time it has been suggested to those looking to change their academic behaviors. What I was not aware of, was that I had been taking breaks completely wrong, which is why I was lacking in the motivation department. I’m sure “how can you possibly take breaks wrong?” is running through your heads right now so let me explain.
My previous concept of the term break was that if it wasn’t longer than 30 minutes then it wasn’t a break, WRONG. Five out of seven days a week my schedule is so insanely packed that I couldn’t find 30 minutes to set aside and unwind, so I wasn’t taking breaks at all. My thought process was hindered by this belief that anything less than thirty minutes wouldn’t show positive results, so I would just be wasting my time. As the days began to feel longer, I began to realize my focus on things as simple as reading an article for school was dwindling. I decided to experiment and incorporate short five to ten-minute breaks into my day and the results were astounding. Taking a deep breath, counting to ten, closing my eyes, and clearing my mind for just five minutes not only allowed me to refocus and finish the work, but the quality of my work has also shown improvement.
- Reward yourself: Assignments, tests, due dates and life can quickly begin to pile on top of each other and the overwhelming feeling of defeat can creep in at any time causing all the motivation you have left to suddenly disappear. In my experience, lack of motivation makes it nearly impossible to keep up with all your schoolwork. To keep my head in the game and my GPA on track for a 4.0 I have begun to incorporate rewards into my academic work. For example, when I complete all assigned readings for the week, I reward myself with my favorite candy bar. When I have a project due or test coming up that requires a lot of my time, I break down my tasks into sections and will reward myself with a five-minute break or a coffee after I have finished all the work in each section. On weeks that I have a significantly higher amount of school assignments and tests I set a goal for the amount of time I will devote to school that week and if I complete all the work and get the grades I am expecting on it, I will reward myself with a trip to the beach or nail salon. Incorporating goals and rewards into my academic work keeps me motivated throughout the week, while also giving my mind and body the breaks it needs to keep producing high quality academic work.
- Use resources to stay on schedule: For me, one of the most important parts of life is knowing what you need personally to make life flow smoother. As I stated before, there is an overwhelming amount of responsibility that comes with being a mom and a graduate student. The way I keep up with all my tasks without feeling overwhelmed is using a visual reminder. You know those huge wall calendars? Those are my lifeline for success. Assignments, due dates, tests, class meetings, a last-minute change of due dates, and required readings are color coded to help designate tasks in each class. In addition to this calendar, I keep a second one on hand for all my other non-academic responsibilities such as my son’s appointments, play dates, grocery list reminders, and even my dog’s appointments. The use of two calendars helps minimize the overwhelming visual factor that may coincide with six to ten tasks written into one box. Then I prioritize what tasks will take most of my time that week and fit them into the days that are open in terms of non-academic responsibilities. Designating certain days for each class helps keep me on track and focused instead of jumping back and forth between assignments, which has led to confusion and poorer quality academic work in the past.
Imagine, you spend countless hours completing a project or studying for an exam only to find out you’ve written the wrong date down and missed the due date by one day. When I first started graduate school, I came extremely close to the above scenario, and it wasn’t because I’m a bad student, I was just simply overwhelmed and underprepared. The alarm clock on my phone was the quick fix to this. The second that my progressor posts their syllabi for the semester, I set alarms for project due dates and exam dates to ensure I do not forget about these important deadlines amid life’s everyday chaos. Two weeks before an exam I also set an alarm to remind me to start studying, which has greatly improved my exam scores. Calendars, color coding, and reminders have simplified that way in which I complete my weekly tasks and I firmly believe these tricks have also improved the quality of my academic work.
- Find a supportive group of peers: this part may get a little sappy, but I could not have gotten through the past three months without my amazing cohort group behind me. As I’m sure all of you know, having individuals cheering you on through every aspect of your life just makes it that much better. When a group of individuals share the same goals and work together to achieve those goals a bond is created that cannot be denied. The immediate connection that was formed in the cohort group that I was blessed with in my Master of Special Education program is something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. We all share similar career and academic goals so you would think we would be competing against each other, but the support that each and every individual in my program gives is so much bigger than any competition.
There has never been a time that I felt embarrassed to ask a question in class or scared to wrongly answer a question, because I know either way I’ll be supported. When my focus is else where during class, usually because my three-year-old decides class time is the best time for a tantrum, I know I can ask a classmate to fill me in on anything I missed. The best part about this amazing cohort group is the fact that I look forward to group projects. Each time we have had a group project I have worked with a different group of individuals and there has never been a group member that has not gone above and beyond to contribute to the project.
Apart from actually doing work, we check up on each other, post motivating or funny memes to our Facebook group, we’ve formed a group text just for support, and these are the parts of this experience that will impact my life far beyond the classroom. This group of individuals reminds me that there are people out there that want success for me as much as I want for myself, that there are people who will make an effort to positively impact your day with a funny quote or text despite any hardships going on in their personal life, and those kind of people are what I believe this world needs more of. The most impressive part about these people is that our program is exclusively on-line and I have never met a single one of them in person, but they have still been able to impact my life and support my dreams in a way that people I physically see every day are unable to. We are a team and together we are achieving some of our life’s biggest goals. So, go out and find your team, reach out to individuals in your program, start a group chat or Facebook page, I promise working towards your goals with individuals supporting you and working with you is a totally different experience than doing it alone.
These are all tips and tricks that have significantly improved my success in graduate school this far, and my hope is that they will help improve your journey as well. To close, I feel it’s only appropriate that I leave you with some words of encouragement that my cohort groups uses for motivation, “when you’re feeling overwhelmed, look at how far you have come.” Have a great weeks Ags!
Thanks & Gig’em
Kelly Cockrum is a masters student in the Department of Educational Psychology