Robert Neubecker

How I motivate myself to complete boring job tasks—and have fun in the process

About 10 years ago, I sat in my office, struggling to muster up the motivation to write an annual progress report for my dean. I enjoy writing grant applications and scientific papers—tasks that engage my creativity and further my research. But report writing doesn’t come with any reward apart from the momentary satisfaction of crossing something off my to-do list. Like other routine paperwork, I find it hard to get through. So that day, I offered myself a reward: When I finished the report, I’d give myself 2 hours to examine slides under the microscope—a task I’ve always loved but never had much time for as a faculty member.

Over my 40-year academic career, I have learned that I need to give myself special projects as a reward for completing onerous paperwork. I retired from my faculty position 3 years ago, so thankfully I don’t face much paperwork anymore. But I still break out this reward system every so often. It’s a strategy I call “just for fun.”

The strategy was born out of challenges I experienced in grad school. I could handle failed experiments, equipment malfunctions, and other hiccups. Bureaucratic busywork was a bigger hurdle. I usually delayed putting together reports for grant agencies and university administrators until threatening letters arrived—or the deadline was so close that I became gripped with panic. I never felt that paperwork was advancing my science, but rather sapping my energy and time for research.

One of my committee members recognized and understood my difficulties. He asked, “If a day is going badly, what might you like to do at work—just for fun?” I must have looked confused, because I didn’t see how his question was relevant to the problem at hand. Then he told me about his strategy of rewarding himself with a fun project when he completed a task that he didn’t particularly enjoy. He advised me to think about doing something similar. I immediately liked the idea, but it took me a few years to fully implement my own system. It also evolved over the course of my career.

As a Ph.D. student, I did not see labwork as a special reward because I already spent most of my time in the lab. So, I devised a different kind of reward: I’d let myself attend seminars on topics I was curious about but that lay outside of my immediate field. For example, one day I remember telling myself, “If I get this report submitted on time, I am going to that seminar on pathology.” I got better at meeting deadlines—and I had some fun in the process.

When I became a faculty member with a lab of my own, my “just for fun” strategy began to shift. I was at my microscope less and less, and I started to miss it. At the same time, my need for fun rewards multiplied because bureaucratic tasks started to clog up my to-do list.

I … give myself special projects as a reward for completing onerous paperwork.

So, as my laboratory grew, I started to jealously guard some small projects—such as microscope tasks, simple experiments, and data analyses—that I could complete myself. Sometimes I even sought out those projects. For example, a collaborator told me that he was having problems staining liver tumors, so I told him: “Send me the slides; I can do that!” At that point in my career, my role in research mostly took the form of advising students and technicians. The research didn’t feel like my own anymore, and when it was done, I certainly could not say, “Look what I discovered!” But with the “just for fun” projects, I had full ownership. I felt as though I’d done real science.

Over the course of my career, this strategy helped me complete and move past the parts of my job that I didn’t particularly enjoy. The rewards I gave myself provided a way to relax and reminded me why I love being a scientist.

As for that annual report, I spent an uninspiring morning on it—but got it done. Then I hurried over to the microscope, eager to inspect a series of slides that my collaborators had sent a couple weeks earlier.

To others, it may have looked like work. But to me, it was just for fun.

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