Staying Motivated After Achieving a Goal
Ahhhh… there is no greater feeling than completing a huge task which has been taking over your life and destroying your soul for a long time. The satisfaction, the sense of accomplishment and, best of all, the relief. These are the euphoric feelings you are imagining in caffeine-fuelled moments of procrastination; envisioning when the time will come for you to enjoy the green grass on the other side of slogging. But what happens after these initial feelings fade and you have to start on the next project? Demotivation and sluggishness replace the buzz and you find yourself in a bit of a slump. That delightful meadow you were dreaming about lying in feels just like any other patch of grass. This emotional pattern is common with both personal and professional goals and personally, it gets me every time.
My latest professional milestone was completing the first presentation of my PhD research, and the fact it was the ‘first’ piled on the pressure. This would be the first time I was introducing myself as an academic, introducing hours of background reading and introducing my own ideas. As well as these worries, I was also stressed about just getting through the 20 minutes without getting tongue-tied and saying ‘ermm’ or ‘like’ every other word. The voice in my head kept saying that if this presentation did not go well, every future talk of mine would be accompanied by a bag of nerves and an uncomfortable audience.
But thankfully... it went well. I got through it relatively unscathed with only a few nonsensical words escaping my mouth. All the stressing, the long hours making sure every text box was lined up and slide colour schemes maintained were blissfully behind me. And I was really relieved, as I always am in the hours following an accomplishment. A few nice conversations and pats-on-the-back made me relax and I thought I could finally take my foot off the gas and get my life back on track. I had dreamt of doing boring organisation and planning new experiments for weeks, and finally, this work could get under way.
And then I crashed.
The afternoon following my talk, I was raring to go. I sat back at my desk ready to get cracking on the huge to do list which I had accumulated during my presentation prep. But 10 minutes in, my eyes were closing. Physically, I could not keep them open. I convinced myself that I was exhausted from a 5am start, so closed my notebook and treated myself to an early finish.
I arrived into work the next day full of motivation, ready to be super organised and work harder than I have ever worked before. This feeling all but lasted until I sat at my desk and realised I had to actually start using my brain. Even my self-prescribed remedy (a walk to Starbucks to buy an iced oat latte) could not kickstart my productivity. Demotivation was really creeping in. I didn’t want to go into the lab, I didn’t want to plan ahead, I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. And these feelings continued throughout the week; ending each slow day promising that my work would really take-off tomorrow.
When I have my attention on a huge task for an extended period of time, anything outside that task feels like a luxury I am being deprived of. I long to clean the dishes, put my washing away and organise my lab book. But once the big task is completed, I feel at a loss. The rhythm I had found myself meticulously working in is left without a metronome and I have to build a new routine from scratch. The heaps of energy I imagined I would have is instead a constant tiredness with everything taking even more effort than usual.
This crashing has happened throughout my life. With exam periods at school, I would dream of the amazing days I would have away from revision. But once these days came, I realised the lack of structure made me restless. When working hard at the gym before a holiday, trying to exercise again once the plane has landed back home is unthinkable. And now, when an important work task has been completed, getting back into a productive routine is like pulling teeth.
So, I am writing a few points to myself to remind myself and maybe help others that although demotivated or in a slump, you are capable of bringing that productivity back.
1. Remind yourself of the long-term goal
Why did you start doing what you’re doing? What is the bigger picture? When I think I have over two years until my completion date, I can be quite overwhelmed. Not because 2 years is a long time, but the opposite. In science, time moves fast. 2 years is not long to get through all the experiments I proposed at the start of this year, so the sooner I get back into the lab, the closer I am to smashing out them results.
2. Start with small achievable tasks
It is easy to accrue a huge ‘to do’ list whilst working towards a big project. Your mind is so focused on the task at hand that other things get scrawled on post it notes and stuck with 20 something others. Coming to sort through this pile of incoherent instructions can be daunting. The best thing to do is start small. What tasks can you complete quickly with relatively little effort? Ticking these off the list will give you a sense of satisfaction and your motivation will start to pick up. Before you know it, you will be completely those huge tasks and realise the thought of doing them was much worse than the actions themselves.
3. Look at all aspects of your life
Whilst working towards a deadline, it is easy to let other aspects of your life slip. Once you have reached your goal, look at how you have spent your time over the past few days, weeks or months. Did you sacrifice spending time with your friends to work on your project? Did you give up your free time? Has your exercise routine gone down the pan? Well, now is the time to correct that balance. Make plans to go somewhere fun in the days following your deadline, get your endorphins pumping in the gym or just go and sit in the park with the book you have wanted to read for months. Take back some of those hard-earnt hours and let both your mind and body reset with no guilt.
4. Reflect back on your achievement and work ethic
You done a thing. WELL DONE! Say this to yourself. Look back on those hours sank into getting you through a really challenging task. If you feel a bit demotivated, remind yourself of how capable you are at being able to work your socks off when it is needed. That cannot be taken away from you, even if your brain is not allowing you to work to that capacity currently. You will be able to smash more goals because you just have done. And that is something to be celebrated.
It can be frustrating going from crossing the finish line in record time to find you are at the start line of an unknown track. But just breathe. Even if you aren’t 100% of your exact next steps, just know you can take them at your own pace. New opportunities will present themselves in this next run, just like they did in the last. And you will end up in a completely new place. Having this acceptance of not being in complete control gives you a sense of freedom and you can enjoy the next steps.
Writing that post felt like a therapy session and was a good way of telling myself the thoughts I need to practice to get out of a slump. The main take home message is that if you don’t feel like you’re on top of the world once you have achieved a goal, that is okay and normal. You are more than likely exhausted and adrenaline-depleted. Also, as humans, we are never quite satisfied, even when we should be. We will always look towards the next mission to complete or trophy to earn. Admit to yourself you may need to take a bit of time out or slow down the work pace, and this will give you the control to bring your focus back for your next big goal.