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For the past few months I have been doing a lot of thinking.

A lot.

Too much.

I have been so preoccupied with thinking about my plans and what I want to do with my life that I have missed out on taking the action required towards actualising my dreams. I tend to get stuck in loops of thinking about my work → overthinking about my work → being too overwhelmed to do any work → back to the drawing board to think about work.

I research endlessly.

'Maybe I just haven't found the right inspiration yet?'

I start planning a piece of writing to second guess it half an hour in.

'Who would want to read about this anyway?'

I question my own voice and abilities.

'You really don't know enough to be talking about this.'

It is painful. It is endless. And it is fuelled by lack of action.

Our brains are feedback machines. They learn from our environment and experiences and take appropriate action based on said feedback. When not doing anything, this can lead to feeling demotivated. Demotivation acts as a real hurdle to overcome - especially if your work isn't on a tight deadline. Giving into this apathy (which I do all the time) means continuing to not do anything and feeling even more demotivated. It is a viscous cycle which leads to not only a lack of output, but worse, a loss of confidence.

My mind likes to convince me the way out of this cycle is to plan, plan, plan. Think of new ideas, research some more, watch videos to get inspiration. But this is not the way out. While a short session to come up with fresh ideas can be beneficial, if you find yourself spending weeks planning with nothing to show for it, the inaction-demotivation cycle is perpetuated as your brain still isn't getting that much needed feedback to set the ball rolling.

I have found the route out of this slump is to do the thing I am dreading - to start "doing". The antithesis of the inaction-demotivation cycle also exists, meaning by taking action, motivation will follow. By acting on this motivation and taking more action, more motivation will come. Many people - myself included - often wait for motivation to arrive, to knock at the door, as a call to take action. But unless it is a new year or you've just be on the receiving end of an amazing pep talk, this is rarely the case. The motivation many of us desire to drive us towards our goals comes on the other side of taking the action we are resisting. When we push through this resistance and take the dreaded step, we normally find it is not so bad. In fact, we are pretty proud of ourselves. And that can spark confidence and provide motivation to act again.

This weekend I have been saying to myself "stop thinking, start doing" and have managed to move some of my projects along with a lot less mental drama than is normally present when I work. If you are finding it hard to break out of the thinking stage of a project, take the smallest action you can think of. If that is writing a book, write one sentence. If that is trying to exercise, do 5 push ups. If that is wanting to give more time to your friends, send one text. The smallest step in the right direction towards your goals can be the strongest one you take.

Your "doing" will do great things for you.

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

Ahh the summer before starting a degree or going back to school - when motivation is high and brains are refreshed ready to take on the challenges of a new year. I have experienced this feeling 7 (soon to be 8) times throughout my many years at university and one thing I want to say is embrace it. Once you are a few weeks into your busy schedule, the buzz of your new stationary and making hand crafted notes wears off and the reality of full time study kicks in. But you can utilise that drive you have right now to get ahead and ensure your next year at University or college is your most productive YET.

I have had a good think about what I did and what I would have liked to have done before starting a new year to get my brain in gear. So follow these tips to get your next academic adventure off to a flying start, soaring middle and beautiful end.

Read a Recent Review Article

Reviews are summaries by experts of all the research so far in a particular field and they can give you an up-to-date view on the work going on. Not only will you get a flavour for the hottest techniques and big questions in your subject area, but reading this type of article now will help you so much during your degree. Practice makes reading literature much easier! So I suggest picking a topic you are interested in, googling this with 'review' on the end, picking a recently published article and practice reading over a few weeks. One article is plenty - and going over it a few times is even better to get yourself comfortable. Some of these will require your uni log in details but there should be open access ones out there too!

Set up your Schedule and Study Hours

Once you get your timetable (this can be last minute!), fill in these details in your own calendar (I use Google Calendar) and then add in time for study and recapping the lecture in the same week. Putting it in your calendar ahead of time makes it less negotiable (rather than a big blank 'free' space). For a PhD, this is harder to do but plan to be in from 9-5 Monday to Friday as a start and then you can adapt as time goes on. 

Decide on Note Taking and Storage Methods

This is something I wish I had done because I kept changing every year but having an established system of how you take and store notes will help so much when it comes to revision. Some people learn better through writing - myself being one of them - but in lectures, I would get into trap of writing everything which isn't necessary! I would suggest taking slide print out to lecture or laptop/iPad with slides on and annotate. Then in your study time for that lecture, write up the notes in way which is useful for you. Personally, I think doing this electronically is beneficial as when It comes to revision, you can edit, add in sources & information in the right order and then print to have your own ‘mini’ textbook. 

Make Pact About Going to all your Contact Hours

With the freedom a degree brings, it can be so easy to slip into not going to class. So make a pact now! Even plan a reward for the end of term as this should give you an incentive to keep going once motivation dwindles and tiredness creeps in. I find going to the scheduled hours (in person or virtual) helps you stay on top of the work and means you do not have to rely on yourself to catch up. I skipped sooooo many classes during my 2nd and 3rd years of undergrad and suffered so much for it! I now wish I had just turned up and listened instead of lying in bed.

Think about A Downtime Hobby

It is so important to have something to do outside of your course. If you already have something you love to do now, see if your uni has a society for it and plan to sign up on your first week. If you don’t, try to think of something you can commit to a several days to give yourself a break from work. For me, my hobby during undergrad was musical theatre and having that alongside my degree was amazing. Now during my PhD, I go to the gym almost every weekday before heading to the lab to give myself some space.

Start Some Mindset Work:

This is one of the MOST important things you can do to have a good quality of student life. Realistically, you are going to be quite shocked when you start your course and realise everyone is on your level (I did), and it can be really common to slip into imposter syndrome thinking ("I am not good enough to be here, I am a fraud"). On of the most effective ways to stop this from being overwhelming is to work on your own mindset and how you react to your thoughts. Things to do to recognise your thinking patterns include taking time for you every morning, reducing time on your phone, meditation, journalling, exercise and positive self-talk. Trying to make sure you are prepared to find things hard and learn from them, rather that seeing the new effort you require to achieve as a sign you are not good enough is such an important outlook to have!

Make Plan for When Motivation Goes

You may feel super excited and motivated to get going with your degree but let me tell you, that does wear off for most people. When it does, you need to have systems in place to ensure you can still work. This includes a set schedule/routine, meal prepping for the week (changed my life!) and focusing on the good that will come out of you working - I would write a list before you start the term of why you are doing your degree and stick it up!

Enjoy Your Summer!

Enjoy this time now to relax and have fun! Uni is great and you will have an amazing time, but you will have a lot of responsibilities. So take time now to see your friends, read your favourite books and relax. You got this!


Julia x

For productivity tips and mindset advice, follow along with my YouTube, Instagram or subscribe to my blog!

Did you know there are two ways to react to failure? I didn't until very recently.

My whole life I have struggled with perfectionism - a quality which I would always tell people with pride. I would attach this trait to how tidy my desk was, how meticulously I would work on a project and how successful I have been at school. I am in the final year of my PhD in Neuroscience and very much used to thank my perfectionism for getting me to where I am.

But I have been so wrong.

What I have been acknowledging when it comes to my perfectionistic ways are the times things have gone my way. I have not ever been open to the fact that this 'trait' has been holding me back from really trying to pursue my goals and expand my skills. Because to be a perfectionist is to be deathly terrified of failure and therefore this must be avoided at all costs. Not ever trying to do something because I might fail has kept me comfortable; in my bubble of achievement with complete shame about any of my unsuccessful events. Because as a perfectionist, these failures have defined my self-worth, they have stopped me walking before I could attempt to run in so many areas of my life.

Perfectionism is not something you are born with, it is not a genetic trait carried by a set of perfectionism genes which some people have and some people don't. Perfectionism is a mindset. Your mindset - which is a term defining your thoughts and beliefs - is built up over your lifetime through your experiences. Our mindset defines how we react to certain situations - like failure, adversity and challenge. Psychology has described mindsets as being either 'fixed' or 'growth'. A fixed mindset - which is where most perfectionistic thoughts come from - perpetuates the idea that our gifts and skills are innate, something we are born with. Therefore, if you are not talented at something, there is no point trying as you do not have the ability to become good. A growth mindset instead sees 'traits' as skills to be nurtured, practiced and worked on as they believe with effort and time, you can become better at whatever you put your mind to. Although intellectually we know the latter is true; that effort brings results; but putting this in practice in the face of adversity in a fixed mindset can be a real challenge.

As a neuroscientist, I always look to the brain for answers - why would my brain make me act like this? In terms of evolution, mindset has been vital to our survival. If we think about what the brain truly is, it is an organ sat in a dark box (your head) processing the world around us through our senses. The brain takes your experiences to create perceptions about the world in which you are living in in order to protect you. So if you are 'good' at maths and in a fixed mindset, you will likely prefer doing maths work over other subjects where you may feel less comfortable; leading you to self-fulfil the belief of your best subject being maths. However, if you came up against a particularly tough equation to solve, this is where a real dilemma can hit. Your brain has the belief you are a 'natural' at maths - so putting in effort or - even worse - getting a question wrong can lead you to question your ability and feel not good enough. These run ins can prevent you moving forward as your brain does not want to feel the discomfort of failure again. On the other hand, a growth mindset in terms of evolution doesn't make as much sense. A growth mindset likes challenge and requires failure to level up. If this were millennia ago, many of these failures would have undoubtedly ended in death. So whereas a fixed mindset keeps you safe, a growth mindset could potentially put you at risk. And we know which one of these would more often survive.

Nowadays, with the cushiness of our sophisticated society, a fixed mindset does not serve the purpose it used to. The protection it once granted us now serves as an entrapment to our individual advancement. Therefore, attempting to perpetuate a growth mindset is one of the best things to do to propel yourself forward in your career. An amazing book to read on this is Mindset by Dr Carol Dweck; who highlights leaders in business, sports and arts with growth vs fixed mindset. Seeing these comparisons side by side really emphasises which is more consistent in bringing success. This is the book that showed me my own fixed mindset, and that I am holding myself back to avoid the potential failure. After reading, I decided to work on my own thoughts in order to get myself into a growth mindset as it is definitely a key to success.

As a first step, I have started to incorporate personal development work into my daily life including establishing a morning routine to focus on me. This is something I have never intentionally done before - I normally only get up early to hit the books before dawn when a deadline is looming - but I did used to go to the gym in the wee hours during my PhD as central London workout space is limited and packed during rush hour. Although this routine was purely based on fitness, upon reflection I have realised when I did this consistently during my second year it was the most productive time of my PhD. So I am now getting up early again, but to do a mental workout. I have started to meditate, journal, write my future goals (affirmations) and exercise before I open an email. One week in, and I can already feel a difference in my motivation and focus.

But is this down to actual changes in my brain? What is going on there? My itch to know the neuroscience behind EVERYTHING is no different in this situation. So that is what I am going to do - use my knowledge of the brain to find the science behind all these techniques. I will research what information is already out there and report on new studies coming out in the field of personal development neuroscience to give you a backstage pass to your brain. I find personally knowing the science behind an action makes me (1) more likely to try it and (2) less likely to give up. If you are already into personal development, I hope I can give you an insight into the biology behind these practices and if you are how I was about two months ago - aka not about any of this stuff - then this information might allow you invest some more time in yourself.

I'll be reporting back with my findings on the regular so make sure to check back here, subscribe to my YouTube and follow my instagram if you are keen to know more about your brain on personal development.

Julia x

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