Wait, What am I Doing? How to Stay Focused

During the first year of grad school, I learned a lot of valuable lessons and helpful skills (and of course illuminating research), but one thing I didn’t learn was how to stay focused on the big picture. You know, the reason why you’re pursing a Ph.D. Sure, it seems pretty clear when you’re writing your Statement of Intent, but when you’re drowning in readings and seminar papers sometimes you lose sight of the big picture and start focusing on the details. And let me tell you, those details are at times discouraging, overwhelming, and depressing. You absolutely must have a clear understanding of why you’re in graduate school; your own personal ‘So What’ or ‘Why’ for your Ph.D. You already have the skills necessary to complete the program or else you wouldn’t have gotten into grad school but the motivation . . . it can waver. (For why I think worry is a waste of time, click here.) So, a focus on the end goal is vital.

Ok, so how do you stay focused? I have some suggestions but unfortunately no fail proof plan. Here’s what I’ve been doing to stay focused on the purpose behind the Ph.D. endeavor. Hopefully, you’ll find these ideas helpful.

1. Write down and/or create a visual representation of your ‘Why’ and put it where you will see
it everyday.

2. Build a rock solid support system comprised of both academics and non-academics. It’s crucial to have both sets of people because the perspective of other academics is going to very different from those who are not involved academia. Trust me, you’ll want to have encouragement from the point of
view of people who could care less about grad school but totally care about you.

3. Keep a list of your accomplishments big or small – the end goal can seem so far off in the fuzzy future that it doesn’t even seem attainable. A running list of your achievements will remind you how far you’ve come and that you ARE making progress towards your goal.

4. And in line with #3, give some applause to the person in the mirror. Seriously, you have to encourage and cheer yourself on. The Ph.D. process is totally a life of the mind, and your mind must be on your team. Yep, it’s time to head up your own cheering squad.

5. Remember your initial excitement – you know the feeling you had when you realized the door to your dream opened. This was the moment your state of want transformed into a state of ownership. The feeling you have when you want something is different from the feeling you have when you first get it which is different from the feeling you have when you get used to owning it (i.e. when you oftentimes start taking it for granted). So visualize that moment when you first got the acceptance letter/email/phone call – Where were you? What were you doing? What were you wearing? Etc. (To see what mine was like, go here.)

6. Pin, Bookmark, or however you want to do it but keep a file of motivational and inspirational stuff – Maybe it’s images, poems, newspaper articles, TedTalks, blog posts but whatever it is store them in whatever way is easiest for you to access.

And finally, 7. You have to have a daily Maintain Focus ritual. Something you do everyday to remind yourself of why you’re doing what you’re doing. Maybe it’s just a one-line mantra you repeat every morning. Maybe it’s an inspirational image. Maybe you reread your letter of acceptance or your Statement of Intent. But find something that will focus your thoughts, actions, and energy for the day. If you don’t actively remind yourself of your purpose, you can inactively lose focus.