How to self-motivate in quarantine: Tips from a Cambridge humanities student

The alarm clock is not your friend


Have you found that since being outside the confines of Cambridge, that snooze button is looking more and more appealing? Is ‘mandatory’ work being more and more overlooked in favour of mindless phone scrolling? Are you finding that the only structure in your day comes from eagerly anticipated meal times?

I feel you. Since embarking on my Cambridge journey in October, I have spent a disproportionate amount of time contemplating to what extent the words ‘obligatory’ and ‘deadline’ are up for interpretation. Having carefully cultivated a routine of self-motivation that relies primarily on denial, I feel it is my duty to share these truths with my fellow students, during these “strange” and “unprecedented” times.

This image isn’t photoshopped – I just have an oddly flat head

Getting up in the morning

Let’s get one thing straight. Only superhumans and rowers willingly get up before 7am. Only people who really have their shit together get up before 8am, and only people who have enough self-control to resist the snooze button get up before 9am.

If you fall into one of these categories, I salute you. If not, accept it. Stop lying awake for hours every night planning how you’re going to get up at 7:30 and have the most productive day ever. Accept the fact that you’re going to lie in bed until 10:30, daydreaming about the nobel prize acceptance speech you might one day be making if you were one of those superhumans that got up before 7:00.

Stop setting yourself unrealistic expectations, and instead think about how you can make the most of the narrow window in which you’re out of bed.

The truth behind the to-do list

I love a good list. For one thing, when you write down all the things you need to do, you can show it to your STEM subject friends and prove to them that ‘I do actually have lots of work guys!’ Another benefit of the list is that you can spend more time writing it than actually doing the things on it, giving you that false sense of productivity that temporarily wards off the ever present imposter syndrome.

In true humanities student style, spend more time colour-coordinating your to-do-list than following it. Once it’s done take a heavily filtered picture of it next to a cup of coffee and some pastel highlighters, and post it on instagram to maintain your facade of productivity. 

To read or not to read? That is the question

Coffee is *not always* your friend

Despite having the least contact hours to stay awake for, many of us humanities students are defined by our love of coffee. There’s nothing that gives us quite as much pleasure as sitting in a trendily shabby cafe, wearing clothes that, if anyone asks, we can smugly say we thrifted, and classily sipping a cappuccino while pouring over an equally shabby copy of Plato’s symposiums. This combination gives false productivity feels like no other, and can be replicated easily at home with the help of a lot of espresso powder and background noise apps.

Unfortunately our love of coffee is often detrimental. As an experienced survivor of the coffee overdose, I must warn you that, while coffee can provide that often needed buzz to stay on track, it should be approached with caution. One time at brunch I drank 6 cups of (I would like to emphasise FREE) coffee, and spent the rest of the day lying on my back convinced that my racing pulse was a sure sign that death was imminent.

A love story as intricate as Romeo and Juliet

Staying focused

Perhaps you’ll set yourself challenges – work for two hours and then have a hobnob, finish this question and then have a nice little cry with the dog. 

With our contactless free days, humanities students have to navigate staying focused without immediate time pressures. The secret? Bullshit of course…

Procrastination is going to happen, but when it does, find a way to work it into your degree. Did you spend an hour watching Too Hot to Handle when you really should have been learning about medieval witchcraft trials? Impress your supervisor by going on a tangent about how modern dating shows can illustrate the ways in which these chauvinistic attitudes are still alive and rampant today. Put those creative thinking skills that you’re paying £9K a year for to good use, and wriggle your way out of your procrastination related problems.

Jokes and grossly exaggerated stereotypes aside, what I have learnt from two terms of an extremely self-motivation heavy degree is that you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself. Not every day is going to be a success – that pretty to-do-list won’t always end up as depleted as you’d like. While it’s important to have a routine, it’s also important not to make it the be all and end all. Slip ups are going to happen, and just because you spent the majority of the day re-watching Peaky Blinders doesn’t mean that you’re a complete failure. 

All photos are the authors own