Motivation in isolation: a SOAS student guide

Motivation at home

We are living in highly unusual and weird times, with most of us having to completely transform our lifestyles. Students and people in academia are in a unique position, and job prospects for students graduating are unclear. All of this puts additional stress on an already stressful lifestyle, and staying motivated can be more challenging than ever. Many students, especially, are struggling to keep motivation to continue studying and working on their assignments, and I am no exception. 

I spent most of the last year before enrolling at SOAS working from home, so I had come up with a few ways to stay motivated – but with added uncertainty it has become more challenging than ever. So I started gathering further advice on how to stay motivated. It is clear that different things work for different people – circumstances might also not always allow you to do what would suit you best. That is why I’ve now compiled a list of a few ways to maintain motivation, and you can experiment with what works best for you!

Plan your day

Avoid multitasking and stay focused. It’s easy to start one project and then bounce to another without finishing the first. Do little at a time, it can be simple as 15 minutes of reading at a time or 100 words of an essay. Set yourself little goals throughout the day and try to stick to them. Create to do lists, even with the smallest tasks. Ticking them off is very satisfying and can give you motivation to move on to the next task. 

Set a routine 

Now you have the opportunity to set your routine however best suits you! Personally, I’m not a morning person, so I don’t start my “working day” until 11am. Depending on the day, I also work in the evenings/night. For other people, it works best to stick to a strict 9-5 routine. 

What has been extremely helpful for me and many of my friends is to make sure to change from your pyjamas and get dressed like you would for work. This already starts to switch your mind to work mode. 

Also make sure to set time for breaks and lunch. It’s good to step aside from your workspace and think about something completely different for a while. During this break you can eat, call friends or watch a Netflix episode – then go back to your workspace with a refreshed mind. One piece of advice I read was to put on shoes while working and take them off during break times to alter the mindset. Personally, I couldn’t wear shoes inside, but it’s worth trying out!  

Have a set work space

If possible, study in a room other than your bedroom. My flatmates and I are all working from home, so we’ve set up a working space in the kitchen where we get together and take turns making coffee and meals. If you don’t have this option, see if you can arrange your bedroom in a way that separates your work space from your relaxation space. Keep the supplies you use often within reach. When you have to leave your desk/workspace to find supplies or files, you waste time and get distracted easily. Keep supplies near the location where you’ll use them.

I’m also lucky enough to have a garden so sometimes I move there for some inspiration and a change of scenery. Two of my flatmates have also left for their hometowns so we’ve used their desks sometimes for privacy, especially when we need to take a phone call or a Zoom meeting.

Avoid distractions

This applies equally to home distractions such as doing the laundry or starting to cook while you are still working on your assignments, as it does to social media. 

Try to limit the number of times you check your e-mail or social media. You can use apps such as Hold, where you can challenge your friends and see how long you can abstain from using your phone, or simply put your phone on airplane mode for a set time. 

Be computer savvy

Now is the time to take all those online courses you’ve been thinking about, or maximise the use of your computer. The SOAS Library also offers a variety of online services that are well worth checking out. Their assistance is still available online, so you can contact them for assistance and training in using them. 

Music and sounds 

For me, music and my surroundings are very important, and I decide a playlist depending on the task that I’m doing. If I’m doing casual research and browsing through websites, I’ll probably listen to Icelandic hip-hop or something casual, when reading I can’t listen to anything with lyrics so I’ll usually put up instrumental jazz, and when it comes to writing I’ll put on some intense classical music like Rachmaninoff or Hans Zimmer to keep me up to pace. Find out what works for you, especially if you can’t maintain the same silence as you would get in the library. 

There are also several websites that imitate every day life sounds, e.g. 

Coffitivity – The background noise of a coffee shop. Allows you to choose between different locations such as lunchtime lounge, morning murmur etc.  

Rainy Café – Combines the sounds of a bustling cafe setting with the sounds of drizzling rain. 

Personal favourite is: Purrli – Purrrr of a cat! Lots of ways to adjust this to your preference.  

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Right now, it’s important to limit trips to the supermarkets as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean that you need to eat straight out of a can. You can use this time to brush up on your cooking skills or learn new recipes. My flatmates and I are taking turns cooking dinner every night for everyone in the house. This both helps us to reduce food waste, and spend some social time together. 

If it’s still allowed to go outside where you are, like it is in London, take advantage of that and go for a walk or run, while maintaining 2m/6ft distance. If there is no park near you, you can walk through smaller residential streets. For me, this has been a great opportunity to further explore my neighbourhood. I live in North London and used to spend most of my time in Central London, but since I haven’t used public transport in over two weeks now, I’ve found a new appreciation for my neighbourhood and look forward to visiting many places I’ve walked past once this is all over.

Many fitness instructors have started publishing their workout plans online and giving tips on home exercises, and many can be found on YouTube. It can also help with productivity to stop every once a while and stretch to get the blood flowing. 

Mostly, decide what works best for you and your unique path. Everyone has their own process. That’s why there’s no “one size fits all” solution for being productive or staying motivated. If you try and follow someone else’s routine, it often doesn’t produce the same results for you, which is why it’s so important to try different methods and see what works. If one day you’re not managing to stay motivated, it’s okay to call it a day and give it another try the next day. 

It’s also very important to remember to take care of yourself and your mental health. It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to not be productive at all times. It’s okay to do the bare minimum. It’s okay  to “just” survive. 

We are all mourning; collectively for the lives that have been lost, and for our previous lifestyles. It takes time to adjust to a new way of living and a new way of learning. Harvard Business Review published a great article about the grief that we’re feeling and how to deal with it. 

Above all, make sure to talk to your friends and family and to not completely isolate yourself emotionally as well as physically. Your friends and family can also help you stay motivated. You can even set a plan with your friends on how to motivate each other! If you feel like you have no-one to talk to, there are various online resources where you can reach out – and even make new friends online! People that you think you’ve lost touch with will most likely appreciate you reaching out as, after all, we are all going through this together around the globe. 

Online resources:

One of the best overall lists of online resources I’ve found is from the Survivors Network. They’ve shared resources ranging from helplines and web-chats, mental health and physical self care, and survivor self help guides, to distraction/soothing games, ambient noises, and LGBTQI+ specific links.

Here are some resources that our team of Digital Ambassadors have gathered: 

Academic resources:


  • BBC Arts: Access to shuttered exhibitions, performances and museums, a virtual book festival and more.
  • WhatsOnStage: Stage shows, musicals and opera you can watch online now for free 
  • Concerts: Live Streams & Virtual Concerts, regularly updated. 
  • The Philharmonie: The Philharmonie Berlin is closed until 19 April to help contain the coronavirus, but the orchestra continues to play in the Digital Concert Hall.  


Make sure to check out the story and highlights on SOAS’s Instagram account (, where we regularly share useful resources!

  • Rut Einarsdóttir is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and Operations Manager for SCRAP Weapons, a project for global disarmament in the CISD Department at SOAS, currently pursuing a MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development.

For the latest campus updates and vital information regarding coronavirus (COVID-19) for SOAS staff, students and current applicants, please visit

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