Educational Psychologist

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How to Get Unstuck Like an Educational Psychologist

I have been super unmotivated lately. I’ve been giving less important things top priority and not moving forward on some crucial work things that need to get done. I’m on a tight timeline. I’m in my first year of a postdoc, which means I need to beef up my CV NOW so that it’s ready when I hit the job market again next fall. That’s the whole point of a postdoc, right? So why can’t I get my ass in gear???

I’ve literally been struggling with this for weeks. Finally, today I thought to myself, “Hey, I’m a motivation researcher. Let me use my research on myself.” I was reviewing an article that used Self-Determination Theory (SDT) by Ryan and Deci so that presented itself as an appropriate theory to use for my self-analysis.

SDT holds that individuals will be intrinsically motivated if three basic needs are met: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Competence, just as it sounds, it the experience of being good at something. Relatedness has to do with connection and personal relationships. Autonomy is about choice and freedom.

In my job, I have a TON of autonomy. I work from home 3 days/week and my postdoc mentor basically lets me do whatever I want as long as I am moving forward on projects. Additionally, he encourages me to work on my own projects. However, because I work at home I am very low on relatedness. Even on the days when I work at my local coffee shop instead of my home office I rarely talk to people in my work. I commute to Maryland 2 days/week to meet with my team and those days are great! I always feel way more motivated and inspired to do stuff. Plus, the people on my team are brilliant and motivated as well so I like being in good company. Competence is a tricky one for me. I have a PhD, the highest attainable level of education. And yet I frequently question and doubt my competence. My field, the field of academia, is built on peer-review. While it has its flaws it is a system that we rely on. However, we are constantly being judged and criticized by our peers. You aren’t regarded as a good reviewer if you only praise a piece. You have to find flaws, mistakes, or areas of improvement. There are also always more manuscripts written than journal spots available and more proposals than conference spots. Maybe it’s because I’m still early in my career but I have experienced WAY more rejection than acceptance with my work and from conversations with more senior colleagues that will continue to be the case.

Nonetheless, I can use this theory to get myself more motivated by creating more relatedness, competence, and autonomy.


I spoke to my postdoc mentor about this and he was extremely supportive. I’ve started having weekly meetings with him in addition to the bi-weekly meetings with our research lab. He took me out to lunch one day and helped me come up with a list of people in the department to meet with. I also started scheduling phone meeting with colleagues from other projects on my work-from-home days to make them feel less isolating. I do these over Zoom when possible.


Competence is tricky because its absence can be so debilitating, yet without turning out work products, it is difficult to ever acquire a sense of competence. My solution to this has been to 1) distance myself from my work. I don’t mean that I don’t care about it but to disidentify with my work as an extension of my own identity. It is something I do; it is not a reflection of who I am. 2) Adopt a growth mindset – Another theory from educational psychology, a growth mindset is about holding the belief that I am always learning and that I can always work to improve my knowledge and skills. (This stands in contrast to a fixed mindset which holds that I am born with innate abilities and I cannot do anything to change them. These beliefs are maladaptive for motivation.) For more information about mindset check out the incomparable Carol Dweck at 3) Seek feedback – this one requires some courage. Before submitting new proposals for journal articles, I will begin to seek feedback from my fellow colleagues. I have found that when seeking feedback from personal connections they can be more much supportive and gentler than anonymous peer reviewers.


Like I said, I already have quite a bit of this and I am very grateful for it. However, if you’re reading this and NOT in a position where you have a lot of autonomy, here are some suggestions for how to experience more. 1) Use your creativity and come up with a new project that really speaks to you. Not only will this give you a greater sense of autonomy, your supervisor or boss will probably appreciate your initiative. 2) Ask your supervisor or boss for a piece of a project (or a whole project) that you could take on your own. Again, they will probably appreciate the initiative.

Now that I am feel so related, competent, and autonomous I have so much motivation to get back to work!

Let me know what struggles you’re having around your own motivation or strategies that have worked to get you out of slumps.


Annette PonnockComment