How to get your motivation back as a scientist
Updated: Aug 24
Motivation. What do you feel when you read this word? Are you like “Yes, please, give it to me!!! I need it!!!” Or do you feel like, “I’m loaded; do you want some?”
I’m an “It depends.”
Whenever I start a new project, I feel fully loaded with enthusiasm. I have all these ideas in my head and all kinds of plans about what and when to do things. And also lots of expectations.
These could be about how smooth that experiment will go (and then it ends up being full of unexpected disasters). Or about how good this manuscript will be, with the associated fantasy of finally publishing in a really high-status journal! (Not happening, by the way). Or about how this new project will fill all kinds of scientific gaps (which is sometimes the case!).
So then, after my initial push, where does my motivation as a scientist go?
The problem with motivation
I used to say that I get bored of my own research. While I keep finding my colleagues’ research fascinating, I’ve always lost interest in my own work.
This is common in those of use that are “starters.” As time passes, you may lose interest in those projects that you were excited about. This can be for a few reasons:
You set unrealistic goals or had expectations that were too high
You’ve gotten rejections or negative feedback along the way that put you down
You’ve stepped into a difficult moment that you don’t know how to process
Whatever the reason, the motivation is suddenly gone.
And it’s at that point when finishing your project becomes a nightmare—writing that paper with a ton of data going all sorts of directions that you have no clue how to bring back together. Finishing that collaboration that you said yes to, but that’s no fun anymore, and every meeting leaves you exhausted. Or finishing that poster for a conference, where what you wanted was to give a talk.
2 types of motivation to know as a scientist
There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.
Extrinsic motivation is when external forces are helping you reach a goal. Those forces (not star wars style) can be finishing a paper because you want to publish it in a very high journal. Or doing an experiment because your supervisor has asked you to do it (but you don’t think it makes sense). Or finishing your Ph.D. on time so you get a bonus check.
Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is when those forces that help you reach a goal are coming from within. When you want to achieve a goal for the pleasure of feeling fulfilled while enjoying the process.
The problem is that often we search for extrinsic motivation. And it doesn’t work. At least not in the long term.
Both types can help you get things done in different situations. For example, extrinsic motivation is okay for manual, shallow types of work. Think of finishing processing a batch of samples, watering your plants, or putting some data in excel. But for deep work that requires extra mental effort, like writing the discussion of your paper, doing statistics, and coming up with novel research questions is deep work. And requires intrinsic motivation: motivation that comes from you.
So, let’s help you right now when you need to gather all the motivation you can to finish that project. But also, spend some time working on this before you even start your next project, big or small.
3 ways to get your motivation back as a scientist
Here I want to share some of the ways I teach my students to find their intrinsic motivation in my online course Mindful Productivity for Scientists (which includes time management training, among other topics!). You may find other ways, but my examples of intrinsic motivation include:
1. Start with your why
This is what people sometimes call “find your purpose,” “define your mission,” etc. Don't worry about these terms; this is an exercise for yourself. You don’t need to share it with anyone. If you want further inspiration to let go of labels, I highly recommend this TED talk by Simon Sinek (yes, one of the most-watched talks ever!).
Here’s what to do:
Get ready to write in your notebook, maybe on one of the last pages, where you can go back easily and read it. Think of 3-5 reasons WHY you want to finish this project, whether it’s a paper, a class, or a research project. And the most important thing is that I want you to get emotional (tears are welcome). To the point that you feel it in your heart.
For example, for me, writing blog posts isn’t easy. My imposter syndrome kicks in every single time, and I’m about to never publish one again. Then I tell myself, “Ana, there’s at least one person out there who needs to read THIS. One person that’s struggling and will feel motivated again to do their science and make a contribution to the world.”
That’s it: the drive I needed.
2. Fall in love with the process, not with the result
As a scientist, you’re what’s called a “high achiever.” You probably set goals (even if you don’t call them such…) and try to achieve them. Setting goals properly is key to getting things done on time and with the overwhelm under control. And if you don’t do goal setting at least once a year, please start doing it! I have a workbook to help you go through a goal-setting process that you can download here, or if you prefer to read more about it, don’t miss this blog post!
The problem is that we get so focused on the result that we forget to have fun along the way. We forget to enjoy those small steps that’ll bring us wherever we want to go! And sometimes you may end up pushing yourself to the limits of exhaustion (clearly not enjoying the process) by telling yourself things like “when I finish this experiment, things will slow down” or “when I get a permanent position, I’ll stop worrying about the future.”
And you may end up reaching your goal and wondering, what now? Without motivation and without energy. This often happens when you reach that next level: the Ph.D., the tenure, the published paper. And I want you to start working on avoiding this situation.
3. Say NO
Why this? Because a key element of staying motivated as a scientist is to have autonomy. The independence to work on what you want to. To feel that you have the freedom to decide for yourself what to do.
And what I see more and more often is that most scientists constantly feel like putting fires out—working on urgent tasks instead of your priorities. And if you look carefully, very often those urgent tasks are important to someone else’s career, but not really to yours.
What to do? Slow down (I know, sounds easy...), and think about the urgent tasks on your plate. If you’re like many of my students and like me, you probably see many things you should have said no to. We all have them.
Become a motivation master
There’s a last, key component of intrinsic motivation as a scientist that we shouldn’t forget: ENERGY. Because you may be full of purpose and know the steps to get there, but if you’re exhausted and don’t have the energy… it’s not going to work.
Energy management is also a key component of the framework in my Mindful Productivity for Scientists course. There we also have three mantras that you may want to repeat to yourself ;)
Do less of things that aren’t key and more of the things that are important for you and your career.
Rest is productive, and so is having fun, having naps, taking days off!
You do you. Because we’re all different, you need to do things that are aligned with your values, your strengths and your why.
If you want more motivation as a scientist and design a productivity system that works for you, stay tuned! I’d love to have you in the next FREE webinar where you can hear more about the 5 blocks identified by that Mindful Productivity system! Just sign up here to my email list, so you don’t miss any details!
With all my love,
Note: a lack of motivation is one of the signs of burnout. Don’t hesitate to search for a professional therapist that can help you.