Keeping Motivated on your Research during Lockdown

Right now, along with several other countries around the world, Aotearoa is in lockdown and people are confined to their own homes. Maintaining motivation to work on your research can be challenging.

Thankfully, this is a situation people have encountered before. From astronauts on the International Space Station, to defence personnel on deployment, to academics on sabbatical, working in isolation and in an unfamiliar environment takes some special skills and tricks to survive. We can use these now to help us during the lockdown, and continue to use them in the future if we’re suddenly working from home or cut off from our usual support networks.

The following are tips and tricks distilled from opinion pieces and Twitter posts where people are crowdbuilding ideas based on what has worked for them in their own context. Not everything works for everyone, so try them all and see what works best for you!

Firstly, don’t beat yourself up if you’re not as productive as you’d like. We’re all going through a lot right now. If all you can manage are a couple of hours a week, that’s okay. Do what you can. Aisha Ahmad states: “Know that you are not failing.” She advises to let go of ideas about how productive you should or shouldn’t be during this time, and focus on what you need. Clinical psychologist Desiree Dickerson warns of piling too much pressure on yourself and raising the bar of the amount and quality of work you’re going to do right now: “This is unlikely to be the writer’s retreat that you have long dreamt of.” Adaptation will take some time. At first you won’t be very productive at all as you settle into this new level of ‘normal’, but as we settle into a new rhythm of remote work and isolation, it is important to be realistic in the goals we set.

Keep things tidy. Generally tidy up as you go. Get out of bed and make it every day. A cluttered space makes for a cluttered (and distracted) mind. Tidy up those dishes, do some laundry. While you’d maybe normally clean the house once a week, you aren’t usually home so much, so consider cleaning more frequently. I had to make a chores list for our flat!

Exercise. Something. Anything. Perhaps a “tour de maison” in lieu of a grander activity? If you have a garden, walk around that; if you’re in an apartment building, try walking the corridors/stairwells. I’m lucky enough to have 10 different parks within 500m of my house so have been going for daily fresh air on (solitary, isolated) walks, listening to some great podcasts. I have also been doing yoga in the middle of the floor (following the myriad of great options on Instagram and YouTube), and ballet barre against the kitchen bench. Find something that works for you and do that. It might mean finding a set of stairs and sprinting up and down it, or engaging in that daily tour de maison (see if you can set a new record!).

Stretch. This is related to the exercise bit. Listen, this is a very stressful time. You’re going to be more tense than usual. Plus you’re probably not working in the most beneficial position. You’re probably hunching a little, and you’re moving less than you usually would. For me, my keyboard is a little high and the screen a little low, and during the day the sun glare is on my screen. So I’m probably hunching and squinting and doing all sorts of things that make my physio scream “WHY?!”

via GIPHY

Get up and stretch. Stretching daily helps maintain comfort and range of motion. YouTube has some great resources for basic or beginner yoga. If you’re a bit tight at the moment, they’ll probably have modifiers for you too.

Maintain some kind of routine. Everyone seems to strongly recommend this. Build up some kind of routine, just like when you’re on campus. One of the best ways you can do this is to have set meal times, and eat 3x a day. I’d actually recommend setting an alarm. Designate the time as a meal time, and go and do it. It’ll build a routine and create some stability in your life. Dickerson comments that this helps reduce anxiety and aids quick adaptation to your new environment.[1] Ahmad adds that this is going to be a new routine, and however similar it appears, it is different from your usual routine. Bite off some easy things in the morning to give yourself a sense of accomplishment early in the day. Online exercise is usually easiest at this time of the day (in my own opinion this is handy because you can get something done while you’re still waiting for your brain to wake up).[2]

On that note, if you can help it, don’t work or eat in bed. Sanitise your sleep and keep work in a work area, and sleep in a sleep area.

Get dressed. That little moment of the day of putting on some fresh clothes helps set you up for the day. It’s harder to lie on the couch eating chocolate watching Netflix in your sleep clothes if you’ve gone and showered, put day clothes on, and are sitting in your work area.

Some have even suggested you wear the same clothes you’d wear to campus, and never trackpants. That’s up to you. I’ve happily worn trackpants to campus, especially if I’m on my way to or from a dance class, but others find that it just distracts them from the task at hand.  Of course, if you won a pair of the Swarovski trackpants, you’d probably wear them wherever you wanted!

A snapshot of a shawl I’m weaving on my loom as part of my self-care

Self-Care. Take some time every day to care for yourself. For me, that’s having some time to do some crafting, chat with my fiancé, play with the cat (her name is Michelle Obama btw), and look at social media (and draft guest blog posts like this). For my fiancé, that’s play video games and watch YouTube videos about food. Colouring in was a very popular suggestion on Twitter. A friend is making daily goofy Instagram videos of himself doing jazzercise on his apartment balcony. Find what works best for you.

Michelle Obama (the cat, not the person)

Dickerson advises that you need to try to set a solid foundation for your mental health and wellbeing. You can do this by practicing good sleep hygiene, prioritising sleep, eating well, and exercising. She adds that exercise will lower your stress levels and help you to better regulate your emotions and improve your sleep.[3]

Sleep. Sounds simple enough, but we can always try to do it better. If you’re like me, then usually you’re getting less than your recommended number of hours of sleep. I function best on 6.5-7.5 hours of sleep per night, and I usually get 6-6.5, so I’m usually behind on a good day. Right now there is a lot going on, and as I said, things are stressful right now. So you probably need more sleep. Listen to your body. If it feels that it needs more than your usual amount of sleep, let it have it. Sleep earlier if you can. Some on Twitter have said that they’ve taken to mid-afternoon naps when they can, and feel great and are feeling highly motivated and energised in their research. 

Make a to-do list each night before shutting down for the evening. This doesn’t have to be immediately before you go to bed. When you finish research for the day, write down where you’re up to, what you’re thinking, and what needs to happen next. Make a list of next steps. That way, when you wake up the next day (or whenever you next get to your research), you won’t sit there for 4 hours trying to think of what to do (while actually daydreaming) and feeling a little lost. You’ll have a focus point and be able to jump straight into where you left off yesterday. AUT’s Prof Marion Jones recommends recording yourself over a written list. You can play it back and it’s more immediate, plus you can listen to it while you make your morning brew.

Maintain social interaction. Humans are social creatures and have been for a very long time. Even introverts. It is tough for us to be in lockdown like this and isolated from each other. Maintain your social interaction as best you can. I have a Microsoft Teams catch-up with my GRS colleagues; a WhatsApp group with my Bellringing friends; Zoom meetings with fellow charity committee members; Facebook messenger groups each for my dance friends and my whānau; a discord group with some other friends; and other one-on-one interactions across social media. Find what works best for you. You can use chat-based services (as I’m doing) or use voice messaging or video chats. Don’t despair, and keep in touch with your fellow students, friends, and family.

However, our second to last suggestion is minimise social media and current affairs time. Right now most of social media and the press/media are filled with doom and gloom. Too much time in this space leads to increased anxiety, depression, and stress. While it is important to keep up with what is going on, limit how much you consume. Perhaps set yourself a portion of the day to look at this, and then have a set time to switch off and participate in some self-care (especially if you can do something that allows you to focus on the positive). Dickerson adds that compulsively checking the latest COVID statistics adds to your red flags and contributes to your cycle of distress and feelings of being overwhelmed.[4]

The last suggestion by Flying Kiwi Cliff Tait (who became the first to circumnavigate the world in a single-engine aircraft), who says that this too shall pass. This is temporary, and the isolation won’t be forever. Trying to remain positive is certainly the best policy!

What about you? Is there anything you think I’ve missed? What works for you?

Special thanks go to Dr Héloïse Stevance and people tweeting to @AcademicChatter for their suggestions, and to Desiree Dickerson, Aisha S Ahmad, and Rebecca Hendl-Smith for their articles. Follow Dr Stevance on Twitter: @Sydonahi


[1] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00933-5

[2] https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-You-Should-Ignore-All-That/248366

[3] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00933-5

[4] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00933-5

About Scott Pilkington

Scott is a Postgraduate Coordinator and Health, Safety & Wellbeing rep at the Graduate Research School. His hobbies include museums, campanology, history, anthropology, cats, dance, fibre crafts, science communication, and gin. He’s a graduate of University of Auckland, University of Otago, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, and of course AUT. His current research projects include how we use museums to communicate science, and the form and function of doctoral academic dress at New Zealand universities. Past research includes the Albert Park tunnels, taphonomy of burnt human skeletal remains, and the sex-politics-law dynamics of 13th C England. He is weirdly passionate about palaeoecology and urban spaces. He uses the pronouns he/him. You can often see him at GRS events being our resident photographer.

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