Summer has arrived and you may notice your motivation to work on your research is diminishing. No doubt you have had a busy and challenging year developing your ideas and making efforts to make progress. Some of you may be at the writing stage and finding this a challenge.
Are you finding it difficult to get started? Are you waiting to feel inspired to write? or you may want to get your work done, but wonder whether your efforts will produce the results you want?
It is common to have these questions when doing academic work, particularly when deadlines are approaching.
Take a moment to consider the activities you do and why you do them. You probably will notice that you have a variety of reasons underlying your decision to engage with any activity. So, how do we decide what to do with our time, our capacity to pay attention and our energy?
What is motivation?
“Human beings have an active will toward health, an impulse toward growth – the actualisation of human potentials.” (A. H. Maslow)
Maslow (1971) believed in people’s fundamental drive to want to learn and develop their abilities. He called it the drive towards self-actualisation. He was concerned that people might not make efforts to develop their potential and therefore leave their abilities unused. He thought it was a missed opportunity and that it could lead to feeling unhappy, so he focused on encouraging people to engage with activities to develop their potential.
“To be motivated is to be moved to do something.” (Ryan & Deci).
Our motivation can be influenced by what we focus on, where we put our attention. When we are motivated, we are more likely to sustain our efforts because we are interested in the subject. When we can see that we are taking action we derive a sense of achievement (Ryan & Deci, 2000), and this boosts motivation.
When we are interested in the topic, and it feels relevant to our lives, it is called intrinsic motivation. We can develop it by focusing our efforts on making progress, and this promotes the desire to continue persevering as we want to complete the task and feel a sense of satisfaction.
When we are motivated by external factors it is called extrinsic motivation. For example, if we want to meet others’ expectations, or for a specific reward, or we are thinking about specific grades and their implications for the future. We can produce behaviour change in the short-term provided we are interested in the reward. However, it may lead to loss of motivation once the reward no longer is of interest.
It can also lead to surface learning, and it can reduce taking risks particularly in situations of uncertainty. This is likely to be due to wanting to avoid making mistakes or avoid having a sense of failure (Ryan & Deci, 2000). In addition, when we compare with others it can feel as if others are doing better than us and this can reduce our motivation and confidence in our ability to do the work.
We all use these two types of motivation at different times. For example, we get up early to go to work as we know it is necessary to fulfil our obligations, or we do the dishes because we need clean plates for dinner. And we do things for our friends and family because it is meaningful to us, even if the task may require a lot of effort, or time. Therefore, to increase motivation it is useful to identify the aspects of the task that are of interest and meaningful.
How motivated we feel is influenced by our mindset. This refers to our mental attitude, how we think about our abilities and about the work we must do. If we think our intelligence is fixed and therefore not able to develop, we are more likely to feel stressed when we are working on something that feels too difficult, or cannot find a solution. Sometimes we may view this as evidence that our academic ability is not as good as we would like it to be, and our motivation decreases.
The good news is that research shows that our brain is plastic, meaning that it is flexible and that we are capable of learning new things at any age. Dweck (2017) called it having a “growth mindset”.
We can develop our capabilities by maintaining a flexible attitude, an open mind, and reflecting on what is of value to us. As we do this we also can maintain our motivation to learn.
We need to maintain our energy level to sustain our efforts and to tolerate the frustration, or disappointment, when we don’t meet our expectations. The key is to continue to make consistent efforts so that we can make progress, and monitor that the tasks we do lead to achieving our goals.
Our internal perception of how we feel about a task can be influenced by our sense of self-efficacy. This refers to our belief in our abilities and our capacity to get things done (Bandura, 1997). As human beings were fundamentally curious, and it is curiosity that leads us wanting to explore new interests.
So what can we do to increase motivation?
“If you are open, flexible and creative in trying out new approaches, you will develop into a more rounded personality and effective learner.” (Stella Cottrell).
To increase your motivation and confidence focus on building your sense of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997). Think about what you want to achieve. What does doing well look like? How will you monitor your progress? What can you do to improve your skills? What resources will you need? What experiences can help you to develop your strengths?
Keeping these questions in mind can enable to move forward when feeling frustrated, or stuck. By reflecting and developing self-awareness you will be more in tune with what your interests are, and what is important to you.
We need a sense of direction to feel motivated to take action. Identify one task you can focus on and plan the steps it will take to complete it. Having a plan can help to identify priorities so we can decide where to put our time and efforts. Being open to possibilities, and adopting a flexible attitude contribute to building our motivation and confidence (Cottrell, 2015).
Consider the context in which you plan to study: perhaps you work better in the library, in a classroom, your room, or a different part of the house or flat. Identify your preferences and look for an environment that allows you to study. Then, plan your study time so that your mind and body get used to a routine. The routine will allow you to develop the habit of studying consistently, reducing the effort require to make decisions freeing up mental energy to focus on the task.
Develop a routine
Having structure, achievable goals, and energy to focus on tasks will boost your motivation. Include brief focused research periods as this will allow you to increase the potential to focus on the tasks. Perhaps you already know about the Pomodoro technique.
Strategies to look after yourself
When reflecting on the meaning of the task you can build your confidence in your ability to do that work. Think about what you find interesting, what you’re curious about, as knowing what grabs your attention can increase your motivation and energy to work on a task.
If you experience feelings of self-doubt, this is normal, particularly when learning new things. It often is due to being outside of our comfort zone, and dealing with the uncertainty about how well we’re doing. We tend to be very subjective in our evaluation of our work as we aspire to do well. Keep in mind that when learning something new it takes time as we develop our understanding of the topic.
As as we venture into unknown territory we are challenging our confidence in our skills, or we may be unfamiliar with the strategies to complete the assignment (Molinsky, 2017). So, if you notice negative thoughts, observe them without judgment. Be understanding of yourself as you would be of your best friend. Self-compassion is a useful approach to reduce tension and clear our minds so that we can focus on looking for alternative options to move forwards.
You can use mindfulness techniques to notice the thoughts without attaching to them. Instead, let them go by and practise bringing your attention back to the task again.
If you feel you have made a mistake, or things don’t work out the way you hoped, give some space for your feelings of disappointment or frustration, and then focus on what you can learn from it.
Then, reframe the situation and consider what steps you can take next to make progress. What matters is to keep moving forward.
“The man who move a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”
Bandura, A/ (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Cottrell, S. (2015) Skills for success. Personal development and employability. (3rd Ed.) London: Palgrave, Macmillan Education.
Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Updated edition. New York: Ballantine Books.
Ericsson, A. & Pool, R. (2016) Peak. Secrets from the new science of expertise. London: The Bodley Head.
Molinsky, A. (2017) Reach. How to build confidence and step outside your comfort zone. Great Britain: Pengui Random House.
Pintrich, P. R. (2003) “ A motivational science perspective on the role of student motivation in learning and teaching contexts.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(4), pp 667-686.
Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.” American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
Usher, A., & Kober,, N. (2012) “What is motivation and why does it matter?” (pp 3-5). PDF download retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED532670.pdf