Creating Habits to Complete Your PhD

In an earlier blog, I wrote about maintaining motivation during your PhD. However, motivation only gets you so far. What happens when you lose all motivation? You still need to be able to make progress. You still need to be able to do experiments, analyse data, complete reports and write your thesis. What do you do when your why, fun and accountability are not working for you?

Firstly, if you are at that point it may well be too late. You may need to ride out your funk. Or do something that snaps your mood so you can get back into motivation. Once you are in motivation, they key is to move beyond it. To get to a point where you no longer need motivation to continue to make progress. A point where, arguably, your PhD is a habit. Where the work necessary (or a large part of the work) becomes a habit. Something you no longer require motivation for.

Take, for example, tying your shoelaces. For most people, motivation is not required. Whenever you put on shoes, you tie your laces. It is not something you need to feel like doing. Or something that you feel like not doing. You just do it. Same with brushing your teeth; or making your bed (okay not everyone makes their bed – but for those who do it’s a habit).

As I mentioned in the earlier blog one of the things to help maintain motivation is to create accountability. To use the fact you will let someone else down, to ensure you get work done. Like having a jogging on training partner helps get you to the gym, having a writing or analysis partner helps you get your PhD done. Competing in some sort of regular accountability practice can help shift from being motivated to do the work, into making it a habit. So, although you’re now writing as a group once a week, you show up because you’ve done so for the last three or four months.

Building on this idea, you could set a date with yourself. That might mean setting aside a day per week to write your thesis. For example, every Thursday might be thesis day. No meetings. No experiments. Just reading articles, reading your notes and writing your thesis.

You could also try if this, then that. So, you might not be allowed to check social media for the day until you have read at least one research paper; or written some analysis. Or, if you have written 500 words a week for 6 months, you might reward yourself with a movie, dinner or some other treat. In the first example, sticking to the rule is important to turn the motivation into a habit. In the second example, achieving the goal will help turn the motivation into a habit.

Of course, you could combine them in different combinations to achieve your desired result. But the aim is to make the same activity happen at the same time and place, such that it is automatic. Take away the reward, punishment or structure and you still do the work. This requires:

  • Discipline to make it happen regularly (why starting form motivation is important)
  • Duration (habits take months to form)

Thus, for success. To turn making meaningful progress on you PhD into a habit. You need to make habits that can be sustained. If Thursdays are also the day you meet with your supervisor, have journal club or lab meetings, it will be too easy to break Thesis-Thursday.

Don’t set target of writing 10,000 words a week. Even 1,000 per week is excessive. If a thesis is 50,000 words and takes three years, then you only need to write 416.6 words per week for 40 weeks per year over three years to get to that number.

Remember, you’re trying to create a habit. Something that occurs regularly and is (mostly) repeated subconsciously.


Raven Consulting Group specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research and government sectors. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His strategic approach to collaboration and research translation has been making the impossible possible for more than seven years. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality. To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email ( or subscribe to our newsletter.