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Research rewards and relapse prevention

Coming from a psychology background we are always interested in behaviours across population, organisation, individual and personal levels.

We had been trialling a number of different reward options to focus our personal and professional behaviours, to keep us motivated and to acknowledge our successes. Originally this began with a packet of peanut M&Ms in celebration of a particular event/action but when we realised that we were consuming M&Ms to celebrate (or commiserate) the fact that it was Tuesday (or Monday, or Wednesday, sometimes Thursday, and almost definitely Friday), we decided something had to change. While teaching medical students how to guide a patient through a behaviour change, we decided to conduct a similar intervention on ourselves.

Why: to prioritise work-life balance, increase personal meaning and improve our academic research status.

How: reduce problematic research-related behaviour and/or increase beneficial behaviours by the development and application of our tailored Health Researcher (ECR) Psychobehavioural Framework.

We identified that there are numerous Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) across personal and professional domains that needed to be included for a relevant and practical framework.

Points system: identify rewards which were personally meaningful and professionally relevant and allocate points to each goal.

table 1

Box 1

So how are we doing using the framework?

Six-months into implementation; points have been scored, rewards taken- and ideally behaviours reinforced.

There have been some rewards taken including movies, regular lunches, a trip to IKEA, an afternoon of shopping and lunching in the sun, and we’ve accumulated a total of 607 (+ the 200 points we’ve already used) points to date. Accumulating these points has come from things like submitting 7 papers (2 published, 3 under review, 2 to revisit); an application for a Category 1 grant (our first ever, yay!); creating a successful blog; getting promoted; conducting a workshop; reviewing for new journals; regular(ish) gym attendance and very regular lake walking; completing lots of small and medium sized tasks at work (part of our core position descriptions).farm

Some challenges have arisen. The first is to remind ourselves to keep a record of our actions and the second is finding time to enjoy the rewards – why? Let’s reflect on this…

– we’ve had trouble remembering to engage with the framework (maybe because LB wrote it up and has ridiculously tiny writing, perhaps we need a bigger sign so the rewards are always in our faces!)

– the points need to be the reinforcer, so we need to make sure these are scheduled to occur as soon as the behaviour happens (this usually happens in hindsight, on a calendar, on Friday afternoons when we’re struggling to remember what we were doing at the beginning of the week)

– we’ve dropped our smaller rewardable tasks like daily writing KPIs and instead have focused on KPIs which get big rewards. This is a problem because the small ones are effective but are the first to fall off the radar when there are big projects on.

– mentality that should be doing more, better, faster – expectations, cognitive assumption – all or nothing, etc. We need to get better at saying no and sticking to it (earning those 20 points!)

There have been some great benefits – seeing the number rise each week is very rewarding and the reward times we have spent together have been fantastic fun!

Accountability: Because there are two of us engaged in this we feel responsible for earning points (i.e., accountability and encouragement from peers)

Relapse prevention: Need to rethink smaller behaviours – JOB’s suggestion has been a glass jar (not too big) when we engage in 40 minutes writing before any other task first thing on a work morning (one of the most effective things a writer/academic can do) we could add a stone to the jar. Once the jar is full this is a can be rewarded (not sure of the points allocation for this). It might actually be quite a decorative feature for our (new location) office.

Advice for future implementation: Stick with and support your research buddy. Design KPIs that are specific to your role and goals and are relative to opportunity (e.g., if we only work three days a week we are likely to only write three days a week). Reward often and sufficiently – make sure the intensity of the reward matches the intensity of the work. Have fun with it!


When no news is good news in health research (and life generally)

1. School or childcare have not contacted you before midday

2. The manuscript submitted has not been returned to you within 24 hours of submission – good chance its gone for review

3. Error messages – SPSS, Endnote, Word -you name it – no news is good news

4. The mechanic hasn’t called you soon after you dropped your car off to announce that your credit card is going to be sad today

5. Health isn’t mentioned in the budget cuts news article

6. Research isn’t mentioned in the budget cuts news article

7. You’ve requested co-authors to make any final edits to a manuscript prior to submission – and silence

8. The ethics committee’s initial approval notice is the only correspondence with this committee across the course of the project

9. Grants submission portals – either crashing due to last-minute research enthusiasm or when they are up and working they request some left-of-field pieces of bio information from a co-investigator who’s on leave and uncontactable for an extended period in a remote location – happy days when these messages don’t appear!

10. No email calendar meeting requests for an entire day.


Research Sucks: A snapshot into the lived experience of health researchers

To say we are feeling weary is an understatement. Currently there are 4 manuscripts in some stage of draft, rejection or reform, 1 rejected grant that needs reworking, at least 2 fledgling grant ideas which require substantial development if they are ever going to see the light of day, an intellectual property dispute, job uncertainty, authorship conflicts, a raft of new tasks and several collaborators who aren’t on the same page for several projects which require completion in the next month.

The work: wins ratio seems out of whack… and we are only in the 2nd week of the working year!!

Sometimes research is really hard work with minimal returns.

The research rollercoaster is full of ups and downs and while we realise you have to experience the lows to appreciate the highs, we sometimes wish that they wouldn’t all happen at once! The most important thing is how you deal with these challenges and so instead of reaching immediately for the M&M bucket we are trying to be both mindful and pragmatic in our approach.

Strategies to rejig the mindset:
• Catastrophise – yes it’s ok, let it out, cry, yell, carry on, good if you can do this in a safe space, preferably with a closed door and with someone you trust (aka workBFFs). Warning catastrophising with another catastrophiser will result in chaos!! Try to have your meltdowns one at a time – this can be difficult when you are co-authors on a lot of the same projects but take turns melting down and being the sounding board.
• Write a ranting blog but don’t post it (just yet) – very cathartic process, smash it out on the keyboard or in a notebook. It takes a lot of the chaos out of your head and allows you to reflect back on it at a later time. It can also allow you to build a journal/history of when you have found things difficult but kept on striving no matter what – ‘I got through that horrible patch so I’m sure I can get through this too’. Great as a resilience reminder – ‘it might just be okay’.
• Lake walk or the equivalent. On the grounds of our university we have a lake walk which takes about 15 minutes per lap. Some issues take more than one lap! Some laps walks are solo, others with the boss, or with close colleagues.
Note this process may take an hour, a day or a week but it’s important to go through the process.

Practical work-specific strategies can then follow …

Strategies to suit the tasks at hand:
• Step back and make a list of all the separate tasks which were compounding into the meltdown moment. We’ve delegated tasks and we’ve accepted that this is going to be a big year of challenges and exciting new adventures.
• Journal rejection – We have managed to find another journal to submit our paper to (and didn’t receive a rejection within an hour unlike the first time we hit submit!).
• Grant rejection – We’ve signed up for a grant writing workshop to help us navigate the submission process.
• Collaborations – We’ve had a really productive meeting that sorted out the intellectual property issues without any drama and with the other projects we’ve made sure that even if our collaborators aren’t on the same page as us we are all now reading from the same book.
• Authorship challenges – We’ve found authorship guidelines to support our actions.
• Most importantly we’ve promised to strive for awesomeness in the face of uncertainty!

What kinds of tactics do you use to climb out of the research journey funk?