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Laura B. McGrath is a PhD student in English at Michigan State University. She tweets at @LbMcGrath

I’m in the middle of comprehensive exam preparation, a process familiar to many graduate students. Day after day, I read in preparation for my exams. It’s been a months-long process, with an end only distantly in sight. I’ll be honest: after a long day reading, say, Derrida, it’s hard for me to stay motivated.

I’ve tried lots of productivity methods: I love the Pomodoro method, and even more simply, turning my cell phone on Do Not Disturb to eliminate distractions. But after 6 months of comp-ing, the Pomodoro is overripe. “Do Not Disturb” has come to mean, “Has Anyone Disturbed Me? Better Check!” Household chores start clamoring to be done. right. this. second. It’s really quite shocking how many ways I can get distracted. In other news: my kitchen floor has never been cleaner.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, friends. I’ve shamelessly turned to tried-and-true methods of extrinsic motivation: bribery. Or, as fans of Parks and Recreation might prefer to call it, the Treat Yo Self Method.

For those of you who do not visit Pawnee, IN on a regular basis, Treat Yo Self is an annual holiday celebrated by Tom (Aziz Ansari) and Donna (Retta), low-level bureaucrats in the Pawnee Parks Department. Tom and Donna work (kinda) hard all year, in anticipation of this one day of lavish self-pampering. Among Tom and Donna’s purchases are “clothes, fragrances, massages, mimosas, [and] fine leather goods.”

A friend of mine who recently finished comprehensive exams employed a version of the Treat Yo Self method. She purchased a designer bag as her exams approached, but promised herself that she would not use her new bag until her exams were complete. You better believe she’s been rocking that purse ever since she passed. Following Tom and Donna’s example, Treat Yo Self can be a fantastic happy ending to a long-term goal. Reward yourself with something that you love, something that makes you happy, something you don’t often make time for. Go someplace new, or try something new. Celebrate in style.

We’ve written quite a bit about the benefits of rewards here at Grad Hacker. They’re a great motivator, particularly when productivity is a challenge. Treat Yo Self to these big things, but also find small ways to Treat Yo Self. In 2011, straight-laced Ben (Adam Scott) joined Tom and Donna for the Treat Yo Self extravaganza. Rather than pampering himself with an acupuncture treatment (like Donna), or not one-nor-two-but-three Burberry trips (like Tom), adorably nerdy Ben treats himself to white socks and a Batman suit.

The Batman suit was awesome and all, but don’t forget about those white socks.

One reason why I’ve found myself getting so bogged down in the comps process is the nebulous quality of my goal: finish comps. The best goals, psychologists tell us, are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. “Finish comps” might be all of those things the weekend of my exam; it’s not really helpful while I’m in the middle of The Dialectic of Enlightenment. When goals aren’t timely, the reward is always deferred—it’s hard to believe the finish line is there, let alone on the horizon. Setting achievable goals, when working on a long project, means setting smaller goals. Why not reward them, too? They took time and effort, didn’t they? Own those accomplishments as a way of empowering yourself.

So I propose that you Treat Yo Self on a daily basis: you will retain your sanity amid unbearably long research projects, and you’ll allow yourself a respite from regimented self-discipline. It will help you avoid the pitfalls of sucstress by finding fulfillment outside of academic achievement.

After you meet a large goal, you may buy yourself a designer bag, a fancy new gadget, or a meal at an expensive restaurant: a Batman Suit kind of reward. But don’t skimp on the small rewards! Finish a chapter? Treat Yo Self. Finish reading a book? Treat Yo Self. Write some new code? Treat Yo Self. Analyzed the heck outta that data? Treat Yo Self.

A caveat: management experts suggest that the best sorts of rewards are contingent. For your personal rewards to matter, you have to be willing to withhold them. In other words, if you don’t finish that chapter, don’t eat that cupcake. You Treat Yo Self because you’ve earned it.

How do you like to Treat Yo Self? Do let us know!

[Image by author, courtesy of quick meme.]


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