How to increase your motivation and get things done

Are you finding it difficult to maintain your motivation to complete assignments?

It is likely that during the busy academic term you have several assignments to work on and that need to be submitted soon. Are you finding it difficult to get started? Are you waiting to feel like writing your assignment, or do you feel you need to do more research? Perhaps you have several tasks and not sure which one to do first?

Do you feel that you 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 why you go to lectures, go to your part-time job, watch a TV programme, or read this blog post. 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, and we can see that we are making progress and as a result we can derive a sense of achievement (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

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 derive a sense of achievement.

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).

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. So, if you want to increase motivation identify those factors that are of interest and meaningful to you.

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 have to do. If we think our intelligence is fixed and therefore not able to develop, we are more likely to feel stressed by the grades we get. This maybe due to viewing them as evidence that our academic ability is not as good as we would like it to be. Therefore, if the grade is low (or not what we were hoping for) we are likely to feel disappointed and concerned about our ability to manage the academic demands of the course.

Research shows that our brain is plastic, therefore we are capable of learning new things at any age, that we are capable of developing our abilities by making dedicated efforts. This is called the growth mindset (Dweck, 2017). To continue to nurture our interest in developing our knowledge and experiences we requires a flexible attitude and being willing to put the effort into learning new things.

So by maintaining a flexible attitude, an open mind, and reflecting on what is of value to us, we 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.

Another dimension that can influence our level of motivation is our perception of control: whether we can decide how to manage the task, and whether we have the resources to do it.  If we notice that our efforts are producing the results we expect, and we notice progress, our motivation will increase. If the task is of value to us, and we can see that our efforts are making a difference, we are more likely to persevere until we complete the task.  By doing deliberate practice, where we persevere with our efforts, practise each step to learn to develop our skills and in time learn to master a skill (Ericsson & Pool, 2016).

We are also motivated by social rewards, such as having a sense of belonging and having a sense of approval from others (Usher & Kober, 2012). Often we are distracted because we do not have confidence in our capacity to complete the task well enough, and our perception of how others may view our work can prevent us from exploring our potential, in case we may not do it well enough. Our self-judgement prevents us from persevering with the task. To manage these feelings it can be helpful to keep in mind that each person learns at their own pace, and rather than compare with others focus on your unique contribution.

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.” (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? Consider what you can 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 you to shape your future. By reflecting and developing your self-awareness you will be more in tune with what your interests are, and what is important to you. Now is the time to plan and decide what goals you want to focus on. This will guide you to identify your priorities so that you can decide where you put your time and efforts. Be open to possibilities, and adopt a flexible attitude (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 need to make decisions every time that require effort.

By repeating your routine it will allow you to increase the opportunities to work on your tasks, and this in turn will increase your motivation as you notice you are making progress.  To deal with new tasks break them down into smaller steps and start with one task and if it does not appear to be interesting at first glance, search for something meaningful. If you find you are feeling stuck, explore what facotrs may be blocking your progress.

Developing self-awareness

When reflecting on the meaning of the task you can build your confidence in your ability to do that work. Think about what things you are interested in, what you’re curious about, as knowing what grabs your attention you can increase your efforts to work on a task. As you notice progress it is likely to increase your interest as you derive a sense of achievement.

It is normal to have a sense of doubt, particularly when learning new things, and to feel some 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. We’re putting ourselves outside of our comfort zone so not knowing about the subject can challenge our confidence in our skills, or we may be unfamiliar with the strategies to complete the assignment (Molinsky, 2017).

Developing our understanding of our unique way of learning can enable us to improve our study strategies. By reflecting on what influences our mood and decisions to study we can identify when we work better and more effectively. By on our indunderstanding how we learn we can identify when we work better and more effectively.

How to get things done: Strategies to increase productivity

Luck happens when preparation meets opportunity” (Seneca)

1.Be curious: identify the areas that draw your attention, what do you find interesting? How does it relate to what you know? How can you apply the knowledge?

2.Make a choice: Decide what task you’re going to focus on, break it down into smaller tasks. Plan study periods, you may already have a method of working, or perhaps you would like to try the pomodoro technique (https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique).

3.Set goals: make them very specific so that it is clear what you need to do. Visualise the steps to take, and identify a way of monitoring your progress.

4.Take breaks: to restore your energy, and prevent symptoms of stress, so that you can maintain your motivation and increase your concentration.

5.Manage thought patterns: notice negative thoughts, observe them without judgment. Be understanding or yourself as you would be of your best friend. You can use mindfulness techniques to notice the thoughts without attachment, instead, let them go by and practise bringing your attention back to the task again.

6.Maintain your energy level:  maintain healthy habits, eating well, do some exercise, go outdoors, and establish a good sleep routine.

7.Develop an optimistic attitude: 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.

References:

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