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Backsliding


We've all been there: things are chugging along fine, until everything grinds to a halt. Your productivity measures aren't working anymore. Your writing goals feel more and more out of reach. Unhelpful or challenging feedback makes you doubt yourself. The emails are piling up, as is the marking. It's even more frustrating when you've devoted energy over the years to building systems for getting to work, getting things done, and keeping yourself accountable, and things are still not progressing.

For me, the low point was a few years ago. I was working on a major paper and I'd utterly lost momentum. I hadn't written a thing in days, and I barely had the drive to open a book. The project was so big and unwieldy that I didn't feel like I could make a dent. I realized how bad things were when the most I could muster the energy to do was take out the garbage. On the walk back up the steps, I realized that the pride I had in accomplishing such a minor task was lacking in my academic work, and I took steps to make sure that the remainder of the project would break down into manageable chunks. I also drew a thermometer-type graph to track my progress and stuck it on the fridge. That worked for me, but here are a variety of ways to get back to work.
1. Reflect
It's time for some self-reflection aimed at figuring out how things got to be the way they are. How do you think you got in this jam? Do you have too many tasks piling up, or one giant task that seems insurmountable? Are you missing a dedicated workspace? Are you missing information or documents from others that you need in order to get started? Some problems are easier to resolve than others, and you may find that a small, concrete step is all that's required to turn the work back on. If you're facing a more complicated problem like a lack of motivation, a need for more accountability, or flexible deadlines, it may take more effort to solve.


2. Do Something. Anything.
Send one email. Write a sentence. Get a book out from the library. If your problem is that you are paralyzed by having too many things, or one giant thing, ahead of you, then that first chip away at the amour of work in front of you is much more powerful than the tiny amount you actually accomplish: it lets you know that yes, you can get something done. And it will be the first step in the right direction, which is a huge deal when you've been standing still.


3. Evaluate Your Systems
Could you use GTD? Pomodoro? Do you sit at your desk until everything gets finished, regardless of the time it takes? Could you use a boost from Timeful, the cutting-edge productivity algorithm, or do you to get back to basics with a notepad and pen? It may seem like too much effort to worry about implementing a productivity system, but anything that helps you get to work when you're most likely to get things done is useful. You might need to try a few things to find a system that works, or keep things flexible to take advantage of your different moods.

4. Give Yourself a Break, or Many
You can't work all the time, and burnout is a real risk of having too much to do and feeling that all of your deadlines are urgent. This isn't to say that you can't put in a full day, but if your work (and worries about the work) is bleeding into other areas and times of your life, that can interfere with your well-being. Give yourself permission to relax when it's time to clock out, and to enjoy your hobbies, activities, and free time. Take regular breaks during the workday to stretch, drink water or coffee, or go for a walk. You'll be calmer and better able to tackle the work in front of you.
A friend can help keep you on track

5. Team Up
Friends and colleagues often face the same challenges we do, and are a hidden source of accountability. Get together for writing or research days where you work in the same space. This offers the same benefit as a workout buddy, where you don't want to let the other person down (or look like a slacker if you don't show up). Another idea is to meet with a "support group" either in person or virtually, where you all share your goals for the week or describe your progress and hurdles. This works especially well for dissertation-stage students who are looking for a little more structure in their work flow, for a sympathetic ear from someone who's in the trenches with you, or a regular weekly lunch date to vent about trying to get things done.

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