From Procrastination to Productivity

How I Found Motivation in a Remote Semester
July 2021
Linguistics and Philosophy

A few months after receiving the exciting news that I’d been admitted to MIT, I was informed that my semester of grad school would be fully online. Little did I know that it would turn out much worse than I could’ve ever anticipated. Don’t get me wrong, remote learning has many advantages. There is no commute to worry about; you get to sleep in more often; and there isn’t as much worrying about things like what to wear or when to eat. But we’re also familiar with the negatives: the back pains and eye strains from sitting in front of a computer for hours, the ‘unstable’ internet connections, and having your professors and colleagues reduced to little two-dimensional boxes on your screen. 

The worst thing in my case, however, was how remote learning affected my mental acuity. Before the shift to remote learning, I considered myself a conscientious and highly motivated student; someone who would make multiple drafts of papers, for instance, and ensure that I had a final version ready well in advance of the due date. But a few weeks into the remote semester, I found myself lacking in motivation to study and do work, before blaming myself for not being productive enough. “I don’t feel like doing this assignment right now,” I’d think to myself as I hopped into bed, “I’ll probably work on it when I wake up.” But at the end of all my procrastinating was nothing but regret; I spent many late nights working on the first draft of a presentation or a paper due the next morning, cursing myself all the while for not working on it earlier. And yet, the same was repeated for the next assignment and the one after that.

And I wasn’t surprised to learn that I wasn’t alone. A study from the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium revealed that a lack of motivation was the most-cited problem that undergraduate and graduate students faced with remote learning ahead of the Fall 2020 semester. Finding that statistic got me thinking: Given that online learning is unavoidable in these unprecedented times, what are some ways to motivate myself and escape the cycle of procrastination and regret? Via the advice of a few mentors and friends, I discovered two keys to solving my predicament: the first to ease my anxieties and the second to help me rebuild my motivation levels.

The key to easing my anxieties, I learned, lay in recognizing that I was going through what almost everyone else was going through; that it was normal to feel unmotivated and unproductive during these trying times. As one of my professors rightly admonished me, feeling anxious and regretful about being unproductive was only adding to my lack of productivity; after all, all the worrying about being unproductive also ate up the precious time I could be using to do my work. Furthermore, the constant worry and anxiety I put myself through was worsening my mood, which in turn led to additional worry and anxiety, not to mention a further loss of motivation needed to finish my work.

Instead, I had to admit to myself that not wanting to work at certain times was OK and did not automatically mean that I was a ‘lazy’ person. I had to remind myself that the ‘old normal’—the circumstances I was able to stay motivated as a conscientious student—were no longer around, and that I should accordingly adjust my expectations to fit the ‘new normal’, one in which I wouldn’t always feel motivated, just like everyone else. Modifying these expectations and implementing a more lenient attitude toward myself took time, but over time, I noticed a gradual decrease in my levels of stress and anxiety.

But reducing my anxiety wasn’t enough to rebuild my levels of motivation. For this, I needed to identify what it was that kept me motivated during the ‘old normal’ and find an analogous motivator in the ‘new normal’. One of my pre-pandemic motivators was the clear routine that I had for my days, with a well-defined period of time to do work. After getting home from school, eating lunch, and taking an afternoon nap, I had a window of four to five hours every evening to finish my work for the day, before dinner and retiring for the night. With the switch to remote learning, I no longer had this routine to structure my day. Without a commute, I found myself spending more time in bed, and with Zoom classes scattered at odd times throughout the day and week and no longer forcing me to complete my work during small windows of time during the day, I found myself less motivated and more prone to procrastination. 

The solution, I discovered, was to create my own routine in the absence of one naturally created by in-person learning, and this would serve as a motivational structure to ward off procrastination. It involved three steps: constructing a well-defined timetable, setting attainable goals, and earning rewards for myself by meeting these goals. For the first step, I set a time at which I would wake up everyday, before splitting up the rest of the day into well-defined work periods of an hour or two each, followed by a break, with my Zoom classes counting as work periods too. For the second step, I divided up my work for the day into chunks that could be completed during the work periods that weren’t class times. Finally, for the breaks that followed my work periods, I planned out ‘rewards’ that I would give myself if I successfully completed the work assigned to the preceding work period; these could be anything from grabbing a cup of hot chocolate, playing a video game for a while, to taking a short nap. These rewards ensured that I stayed motivated to reach my goals for my work periods, which further ensured that I completed my work for the day as planned. Putting the routine into practice was incredibly difficult to begin with, but as I got used to this new structure over the course of several weeks, I noticed that my motivation to work had increased significantly, and my tendency to procrastinate had declined as well.

I do often wonder about how I will re-adjust to in-person learning, given that I have gotten used to my new motivational model that was tailored to remote learning. Perhaps the pressures that come with commuting and attending classes will naturally force me back into that old routine, or perhaps I might have to take active measures to adapt back into the ‘old normal’. Either way, I hope to face that challenge when it comes along, rather than worry about it right now.