Skip to main content

Academia and Achievements: Why is it So Hard for Us to Give Ourselves Rewards?

A few days ago, Academic Ladder coach Susanne Morgan wrote an excellent article about the need for writers to create habits, and in particular, to follow a system in which we first give ourselves cues to write, secondly write, and finally, after we've finished our writing session, we give ourselves rewards.  This is a great way to build a consistent writing habit, and rewards, both internal and external, are a big part of Academic Ladder's philosophy.  But if rewards are so important, then why are we so reluctant to give them to ourselves?  Many of the writing participants I work with have admitted to struggling with this concept, and  I often struggle with it too.

For many of us, it comes down to the culture of academia and the value that the academy places on product versus process.  Most of us have spent a long time in a culture where the amount of work we do is never valued or acknowledged; what matters is the end result.  Our dissertation chairs don't really care how hard or how long we've worked on writing those chapters; in the end, they just want to see words on the page. Likewise, when we prepare our dossiers for reappointment or to go up for tenure, we are constantly told to explain what we've done and have some tangible result to point to.  Publications matter, and to some degree student evaluations, but no one is going to value the hours or smaller tasks it took to achieve these results.

This is why we have to be our own auditors in a way, and we have to be very kind to ourselves in doing so.  When we complete our writing for the day, we need to spend some time acknowledging what we have done rather than beating ourselves up for what we didn't do.  It helps to have realistic goals that we can achieve, because then we're going to be more likely to meet the goal, and therefore to believe we deserve the corresponding reward.  It also helps, as one writing participant has suggested, to map out the rewards ahead of time, so that you know going into the writing session what the reward will be, and therefore will be more likely to want to work towards it.

Another way to look at this is instead of viewing the rewards as rewards, to view them as what one writing club participant calls "balancing activities," activities that will provide a balance to the intense, often mentally draining work of academic writing.  This way, even if you don't quite meet that day's goal, you can still participate in the balancing activity.  This is extremely important if you are giving yourself a walk or a physical activity as a reward.  So then if you fall slightly short of your goal, should you not work out?  Of course not!  Make sure that you are still taking care of yourself in the middle of all of this.  And continue to look back at your writing sessions and check for the times that you've been unrealistic or overly ambitious in your plan for the day or the week.  Remember to choose small, achievable goals rather than setting your sights on your own personal Everests that you may or may not be able to achieve.  You can certainly have those Everests, but remember that you won't climb the mountain all at once!  And valuing each step along the way has its merits.

What about you?  What rewards do you give yourself?  How do you work past the feeling that you don't deserve the reward?


  1. Great topic. I agree about the 'product vs. process' mentality. It is omnipresent: one recent example in my own experience is that my dept was developing a points system for measuring workload and all the points for graduate supervision are to be awarded only when the student graduates. Within a system like this, it is crucial (but difficult) to acknowledge the work you are doing along the way. I would also add that with the academy acknowledgment and rewards usually attach only to a very particular list of work that 'counts.' Academics who blog know that this work will probably not count: the rewards will mostly be intrinsic, but they don't have to be! And the same goes for non-academic publications (e.g. non-specialized-peer-reviewed articles and monographs). Just because they won't get you tenure doesn't mean they have no value! I have found that one of the hardest mental habits for me to break out of is feeling guilt, rather than a sense of accomplishment, for work of this kind.

  2. Thanks so much for this comment, Rohan! I want to laminate the sentence "just because they won't get you tenure doesn't mean they have no value!" It's so true, but it's also so difficult to fit in time for anything else when people are so focused on getting tenure. It's hard to feel anything but guilt for doing work that doesn't "count" or for (gasp) actually relaxing or exercising or taking care of ourselves. This is one of the reasons that I started looking at other options besides the tenure track, by the way, because I felt the whole system was not really in line with my values.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

"ABD" -- what does it really mean?

I thought I knew what the definition of ABD was. It was exactly the same as defined here in Carnegie Mellon's University Doctoral Candidate Policies for All But Dissertation (ABD) : After the completion of all formal degree requirements other than the completion of and approval of the doctoral dissertation and the public final examination, doctoral candidates shall be regarded as All But Dissertation(ABD). I have, though, occasionally run into the term ABD being used as a somewhat disparaging designation for one who fulfills the formal degree requirements of the Ph.D. but never finishes the dissertation, and then quits the program. Most recently, I saw it in What They Didn' t Teach You in Graduate School: 199 Helpful Hints for Success in Your Academic Career , by Paul Gray and David E. Drew. Number 9 of their helpful hints is one that I strongly agree with: "Remember that a Ph.D. is primarily an indication of survivorship." They go on to say, "You stuck wi

Academic Exhaustion Syndrome: Four Recovery Strategies

The semester’s over. If you’re anything like the academics I coach, you feel like death warmed over.  Those last stacks of grading got done on sheer will, determination and fumes. And this is before considering your writing deadlines, committee responsibilities, and other demands.  You are suffering from Academic Exhaustion Syndrome.  Academic Exhaustion Syndrome (an advanced, more scholarly state of burn out) is a state of emotional, and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged stress, ending with grading, over the course of the semester and academic year. As the stress continues, you begin to lose interest and motivation to work, you have fantasies of standing up and screaming in the middle of a meeting, and you wonder what temporary loss of reality testing made you decide to become an academic.  This dreaded Syndrome can: Reduce your productivity and saps your energy Make you irritable and have thoughts of strangling an undergraduate Make you feel like you have nothing more to g

The Second Holiday Writing Challenge for Academics

Here's a little boost for those who need a little kickstart to write over the holidays.  I first offered a Holiday Writing Challenge  back in 2005, so I'd say it's about time to do it again. Here's what you do: Post in the comment section: what you'd like to work on (if anything) over the holidays, and the maximum amount of time you'd like to spend on it daily . Please keep this time limit reasonable and low unless you're under huge deadline pressure -- in which case you don't need this challenge in order to get something done! Whether you're a professor or a grad student, make sure you get a copy of the Dissertation Toolkit.  These tools will give you more information and tips for productive and creative writing.  For those of you who have had trouble making yourself write, you may want to start with VERY short writing goals . Even 5 or 10 minutes will be enough to get you jumpstarted.  Don't go more than 25 or 30 minutes withou