Struggling to find motivation?

Jo Baker

Jo Baker is a psychotherapist, clinical supervisor and educator specialising in student wellbeing and learning.

Sometimes finding the motivation to start or complete a piece of work can be difficult.

Even if you really want to do it or want to get a good grade. This can be very frustrating and feel stressful which then makes studying even harder. This cycle is actually quite common, and it is possible to break free from it. By adopting some of the following strategies you can learn to build long term motivation and overcome short term blocks so you can get your work done.

What is motivation and where does it come from?

Motivation is the driving force behind our actions. It initiates, guides, and sustains goal-directed behaviours. It is influenced by personal desires, individual needs, goals, values, incentives and rewards and cultural and societal norms.

It plays a crucial role in determining the level of effort and persistence we put into achieving our objectives, whether they are short-term tasks or long-term aspirations.

Motivation can stem from internal rewards such as:

  • Finding the assignment interesting

  • Enjoying the subject

  • Satisfaction of developing ideas and understanding

Or driven by external rewards such as:

  • Recognition of achievement

  • Avoiding possible risk of failure

  • Getting a good grade

We all have a balance of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but research shows that students who are more intrinsically motivated learn more, engage in deeper, better-quality learning, are more creative, have better problem-solving skills and experience better mental health and overall wellbeing.

Barriers to motivation

Several common barriers can block motivation and whilst this varies amongst individuals they can include:

  • Procrastination

  • Over-preparation

  • Boredom

  • Writer’s block

  • Loss of confidence

  • Perfectionism

  • Competing priorities and distractions

  • Fatigue

Strategies for improving motivation

Improving motivation requires a holistic approach. It can help to integrate the following strategies into your daily life:

Set clear, achievable goals

Set short-term and long-term goals, ensuring they’re specific and relevant. Having clear objectives provides direction and purpose. Connect your goals to your values, passions, and long-term aspirations. Understanding why you want to achieve something can increase your intrinsic motivation.

Your goals should be achievable and take into account how different parts of your life may take time away from your work. By doing this you can plan accordingly when and how you will [manage your time] to ensure you can achieve your goals alongside any competing priorities that may come your way.

Plan out a process for completing your assignment

Identify a date when you have to move on from research to actually producing the work. You can begin by reading widely to generate ideas and as you become clear about what you need to do or want to say your research can become more targeted. Don't forget to keep notes to help build your evidence.

Break tasks down into smaller steps

Sometimes, motivation follows action rather than the other way round. Divide large tasks into manageable chunks and break down your work routine into smaller blocks of time. For example, you might promise yourself you'll work for just 15 minutes. If you find you're in flow, keep going and if you're not then you have still done 15 minutes more than you would have done. As this becomes easier you can gradually increase the target time.

Find emotional connection

Both the terms ‘emotion’ and ‘motivation’ come from the same Latin root ‘movere’ which means to move or incite to action. Try to establish an emotional link to the assignment, connecting it to your personal values, passions, or future aspirations. Perhaps it frustrates you or maybe you disagree with it. See if you can find some research or informed opinions that agree with you. Sometimes, if the subject matter just doesn't engage you, it might be better to connect it to future plans that you care about. For example, you might want to ask yourself the following:

  • How will learning about this prepare me for the career I want?

  • Will the knowledge or skills that are required help me to perform better in my future role?

This might help you to create those positive associations with the subject and make it easier to work on.

Maintain a routine and structure

We need to be aware of the impact of our day-to-day routines and activities. Human beings are creatures of habit, and some habits can be more beneficial for us than others. Structure your day to maintain balance between study, free time, and self-care to avoid overwhelm.

Fatigue and motivation share a complex relationship, making it essential to address underlying causes. Prioritising your physical and mental well-being by eating a balanced diet, taking regular exercise, getting quality sleep and managing stress can help maintain energy levels and motivation.

It is easy to be thrown off your daily routine when you feel stressed, you just want to solve the problem that is making you stressed out. But planning out your day and sticking to it will help you be productive in your ‘work’ times and relax during your ‘non-work’ times.

Create a positive environment to support your goals and boost your motivation

This could involve organising your workspace, removing distractions, or surrounding yourself with motivational quotes or images.

Reward yourself for making progress towards your goals

This can be as simple as giving yourself a break, indulging in your favourite hobby, or treating yourself to something you enjoy. Rewards can reinforce positive behaviours and keep you motivated. Breaks are important as it allows you to step back from your goals, giving you a chance to return to them feeling refreshed.

Surround yourself with support

Surround yourself with friends, family, or university staff who support and encourage your goals and provide encouragement. Sharing your goals with others can help to hold you accountable and provide motivation.

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Remember that improving motivation is an ongoing, life-long process, and it's normal to experience fluctuations in motivation over time. Be patient and kind with yourself and keep experimenting with different strategies until you find what works best for you.

Page last reviewed: April 2024