When Enough Is Enough: Meeting goals and staying motivated in your PhD

I’ve often found myself in the library late at night, feeling unproductive and guilty about leaving. I often will have gotten a late start and done a fair bit of procrastinating. Even if I’ve gotten quite a bit done, it never feels quite like enough. It leaves me feeling like the day has been wasted and I’m still there because I’m trying to justify the time. Thinking to myself, If I just finish this or do that in the next hour, I can redeem this day and allow myself to call it productive.


At the recent SGSAH summer school I went to a workshop that got me thinking about this feeling differently. It was a great workshop done by Dr. Melissa Reid. The workshop was focused on writing, but from the perspective of caring for the writer. She had us write down our experiences of times we wrote well and times we wrote poorly and then looked for patterns. She has us focus on locations, moods, time of day, or anything that seemed to distract or encourage the writing process. She encouraged us to journal about our writing sessions regularly to keep refining our process.


The other piece of wisdom she gave us that really stuck with me is having an idea of what enough looks like for the day. We all have days where writing or work just doesn’t seem to happen and if you’re like me your expectations for what you can get done in a day are, to put it nicely, a little over zealous. The idea is to have minimum goal at which point you can say that the day has been productive, maybe not as productive as you would have liked, but productive enough.


This idea has really changed my thinking and I’ve been experimenting with turning this idea into a daily habit. I now start the day by writing out three goals, or maybe more appropriately: levels of goals. I start with my enough goal as a minimum, then add a few more tasks for my regular goals, and finally, I add a few more for my ideal. I find this does two things for me: one, it gives me permission to leave if I achieve this minimum and work just isn’t progressing well, and two, it gives me the opportunity to try and exceed my expectations. I think many of us doing PhD’s are over achievers and find the opportunity to go above and beyond really motivating.


In the past few weeks this process of journaling and setting daily goals has also taught me a few things. It has helped me see when and where I work best, but it has also shown me how outlandish my goals have been. Tasks that I had thought I could accomplish in 2 hours I was finding in my journal entries were really taking 6-8 hours. The journal entries also helped me see that my slow pace wasn’t a one-day thing, but that the task, whether it was writing, editing, or reading, was regularly taking me that long even on my best days. This really helped me recalibrate my own personal expectations and definition of a productive day. I’m sure I haven’t sorted out all the kinks, but it has provided me with some initial insights about setting good attainable goals, meeting them, and feeling productive in the process that I thought would be helpful to share.


  • Break up bigger projects into the fundamental tasks that they require. Often, I find I misjudge the amount of time something will take because I forget about all the individual tasks and extras that go with it. I also find that since they were unexpected, accomplishing them doesn’t feel productive.


  • Set goals that are measurable and well defined. It could be word count, number of pages edited, pages read, or specific tasks to completed.


  • Record each session in a note book or document. I find it helpful to record the time, place, what I accomplished, and how I felt it went. That is whether I felt focused or working at half speed. I find it helpful to do this throughout the day when I stop to take prolonged breaks like stopping for a meal.


  • Recalibrate your goals. Use the data you’ve gathered to set better and more realistic goals the next day. Don’t slip into expecting yourself to do significantly better tomorrow. If it took you 4 hours to edit 8 pages today, expect it to take the same amount of time tomorrow. Use your ideal goal to keep hoping and working towards that improvement.


  • Make your enough goal reasonable. I found when I started working with this idea my enough goal was really closer to an ideal goal. I found that instead of pushing me to work harder, it was just disheartening. It made everything feel unattainable, like I could never get it done, so why try? This is where setting the bar low can really be helpful for your progress and mental health.


I’m sure I’ll keep developing this daily routine, but I have found it helpful. For the first time in a long time I left the library the other night at a reasonable hour, feeling productive, like I had accomplished what I set out to do. It helped me get back to work the next day motivated with hope that I could get my work done and to even leave with some energy and time at the end of the day to do something fun without feeling bad about it. My hope is that it works for some of you as well or at the very least it stands as a reminder to be kind and reasonable with yourself. Good luck and happy writing!


*An update – Dr. Reid has informed me that the ‘enough’ idea comes from Jennifer Loudon and you can read more about it here: https://jenniferlouden.com/conditions-of-enoughness/


We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with David via email at d.peters.2@research.gla.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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