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Group of colorful star stickers

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In a “Carpe Careers” article that I wrote last summer, I discussed how digital badges can be an effective tool for distributing career and skill-development content for Ph.D. students. In it, I argued that badges, which are essentially digital stickers, are proven to be motivating for earners in a variety of ways. As it turns out, physical stickers are motivating, too! I’ll explain.

Recently, in a weeklong writing retreat I was leading for Ph.D. dissertators, I required everyone to close their laptops during the lunch hour. I put ice-breaker questions at tables around the room so that participants would chat with their colleagues and enjoy an actual lunch break—rather than scarfing down food while responding to emails. They split off into little groups and happily chatted for 45 minutes each day; I had to call them back to writing each time.

I have them do this because taking cognitive breaks from writing and work is an important behavior to develop when working on any long-form and substantive writing project. Joan Boelker’s classic Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day and Trisha Hersey’s The Nap Ministry taught me this, and so much more, when I was writing my dissertation. Since then I have found an additional wealth of research that supports the importance of resting and taking breaks to care for ourselves and resist mental blocks, boredom and burnout.

At the end of each day of writing, I had students reflect on the SMART goals they wrote out for themselves at the beginning of the day and decide whether or not they had achieved those goals. If they did, I gave them a sticker. If they didn’t reach their goal, but they took a break to have lunch with their colleagues, I also gave them a sticker. The purpose of the retreat was to give them a space to make progress on their writing, but my goal was for each of them to learn to take breaks and to lean into that practice. To my mind, they met my goals for the retreat every day by showing up, working toward creating a healthy writing practice, engaging with colleagues and building a writing community. And that deserved a sticker!

But on the final day of this retreat, I realized that despite issuing a stop-work order for everyone else, I myself hadn’t stopped working during lunch on any of the retreat days. Granted, I wasn’t a participant, I was the facilitator, so it wouldn’t have been appropriate for me to participate in the casual conversation I was hoping to engender among peers during the lunch hour. But I could have walked around the block, listened to a podcast or even scrolled social media mindlessly. Instead, I had worked through lunch as I do on many days.

I counsel my graduate students and postdocs to work on setting goals, to cultivate skills of self-advocacy, to build resilience by setting boundaries and to prioritize self-care. I encourage them to take breaks and to acknowledge the challenges of the work they are doing. But how many days, I wondered, have I taken my own advice?

Early on, I pivoted from pursuing an academic career in my field into a career in administration, because I felt strongly that I could have a greater impact on students by doing this work than I would have if I had continued doing research and teaching exclusively in my discipline. I fundamentally believe this work is worth doing. And yet more and more higher ed professionals, particularly those in student affairs and student support roles, are feeling demoralized and burned out, especially in the face of the mounting challenges the students we serve and the universities we work for are grappling with. Perhaps, in part, that has something to do with not taking our own advice or giving ourselves the care we give to others.

Building in Rewards

The primary program I oversee at Boston University is a microcredentialing program called PhD Progression that awards digital badges to Ph.D. students for completing short learning modules in seven skill areas: self-awareness, career development, communication, teaching, discipline-specific knowledge, management and leadership, and research. These verifiable badges can be shared on public profiles like LinkedIn or personal websites. We elected to use a digital badging platform for delivering the skills-development content we offer in part because it relies on the research behind the gamification of learning. Studies have shown that the use of digital badges, especially for competency-based education, enhances engagement, motivation and completion outcomes. In other words, as adult learners, we are motivated by stickers, just as we were as kids when we received gold stars for completing chores.

This may not come as a shock or a surprise; many of us use various extrinsic motivators as tools in our own work or to help incentivize the work and progress of the students we support when they need a boost. Although extrinsic motivators can have diminishing returns due to the overjustification effect, I venture to say that, like our students, most administrators aren’t receiving as many rewards as they could for the work they do or taking as many breaks as they should.

Stickers don’t work for everyone. But it’s likely you are giving your students and colleagues a lot of practical advice about taking breaks or setting goals that you aren’t taking yourself. Here are four recommendations that I often share with students in workshops or meetings that I am trying to incorporate in my own work habits.

  1. Take more breaks than you think you need to. Don’t wait until your body tells you that you need a break. Schedule one every hour (at least) and stick to your schedule. Mini breaks work!
  2. Track your time. Knowing how much time you spend on things can not only help you set goals but also let you see how much you accomplish every day. I use the tool RescueTime, but many of my students prefer Toggl—lots of time trackers are out there. Find which one works for you and use it.
  3. Focus on the short term. Every morning, I make a list with my absolute must-dos for the day. Before I leave work for the day or shut my laptop, I check that list to reflect on what I’ve done. (I’ve also resumed the practice of giving myself a sticker for completing this list.) If you accomplish your goals, don’t add more to the list—take the time back for yourself. And if you are consistently having trouble achieving your goals, reflect on how to make them SMARTer, and revisit your time-tracking data to better understand why you aren’t meeting them.
  4. Build in rewards. It may seem that I am frivolous with stickers, but they work for me. I have a monthly calendar where I put my stickers—one for each day that I complete my goals. Reflect on what motivates you and build rewards into your daily, weekly and monthly schedule as well. We often plan what we need to get done, but we should also make sure to plan ways to celebrate our accomplishments, small and big.

So let this serve as a reminder to listen to some of your own advice. And to give yourself a sticker.

Sasha Bianca Goldman is the director of Ph.D. resources at Boston University.

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