Update (January 2018): I have since written a number of other articles on strategies to help motivate yourself to study boring subjects. Check out this article on 10 ways to boost your motivation.
How do I motivate myself to study? is one question I am constantly asked by students.
Having just completed my honours thesis (which turned out to be the hardest, most stressful and rewarding project I have ever done) I am happy to say that there are many ways to motivate yourself, but it may involve some pain, frustration and overcoming mental barriers to begin with (at least this was the case for me!).
Unfortunately, there are no quick and easy solutions to have you feeling totally inspired and energised about studying a subject or completing a project that may not be all that inspiring or interesting.
Here are some strategies you can apply to motivate yourself to get started with the work you need to do.
1. Make every thought serve you and move you forward
During the initial phase of my honours project I spent a lot of time in my head but it wasn’t time well spent. I would worry constantly about whether I’d be able to pull this project off, whether I’d get the response rate I needed, how I’d start writing it, etc.
In hindsight, this was a complete waste of my time and energy. It was only towards the end of my project that I tightened up my thinking. I heard Dr Sharon Melnick state that we have 60,000 conscious thoughts a day. Now for those of you who just thought What’s a conscious thought? that’s exactly what a conscious thought is. It’s a thought you’re aware of. Dr Sharon Melnick states that each of these thoughts are going to either be bringing you closer towards achieving your goals or further away from your goals.
After hearing this I decided to carefully watch what I was telling myself. I replaced negative thoughts, such as I can’t do this and My writing sucks!, with positive thought, such as I’m making progress and I’m doing the best I can and my writing will evolve and get better. This is a work in progress!
2. Visualise yourself taking action
Studies have found that visualisation makes a difference to professional athletes’ performance. so why don’t students practice doing it, too?
Visualise yourself taking the actions that need to be taken (e.g. see yourself typing up your work on your laptop, organising your files and being able to access the articles/materials you need with ease).
This simple strategy helps you to stay focus on what needs to be done. As Jesse Jackson said:
“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it”.
3. Small actions add up
My mum recently said to me:
“Every action is a cause which has an effect! If you put in the action, you’ll get the results!”
What great advice. Thanks mum!
Often we can get bogged down and feel overwhelmed/stressed by the enormity of the things we need to do (e.g. writing an 11,000 word thesis). I had to regularly remind myself that even if I wrote only one sentence each day, eventually all those sentences were going to add up to something really solid (my 11,000 word thesis).
But I was really committed to finishing my thesis on time and doing a good job. So in February I set myself a goal to write 500 words a day. This meant that if I stuck to my goal then my draft thesis would be written in 22 days. I said to myself:
It doesn’t matter how bad my writing is, just type up those 500 words!
This was an extremely empowering activity as it forced me to be in action. Every day.
Worry disappears in the face of action. So next time you start worrying about an assignment or exams, force yourself to do something (anything!), however small it might be.
4. Remind yourself that this won’t go on forever
I see a lot of students that are really overwhelmed and want to throw in the towel at this point in the year in regards to their studies. If you’re a student, remind yourself that this won’t go on forever, that everything changes and all you need to do is just keep taking action.
5. Get some supportive comrades and spend time with them
There’s something really comforting and energising about spending time with others who are going through or have gone through the same painful experience as you.
I found that it made a huge difference to be able to talk to other students who were doing their honours projects or had completed an honours project in previous years. A lot of these people gave me motivating pieces of advice such as You’re going to feel so good once you finish this project! We know it’s tough but just stick at it! as well as practical advice/tips (e.g. Make sure you don’t leave your referencing until the last minute!)
One of my lecturers suggested getting together with other honours students and having regular writing sessions each week (where you would all sit around at a table and write for an hour or so). While I never did this for my honours project, I have done this in previous years with friends when preparing for really difficult exams. Getting together with others can turn boring, stressful tasks into a fun, playful ones.
Update: Shortly after writing this post, I quickly forgot how painful writing my honours thesis was and I decided to do a PhD. That was even more challenging than honours but I got there in the end! I ended up joining a writer’s group to help me push through the pain barrier and get words down on paper. It made all the difference. You can read more about this here.
To sum up
Now it’s over to! What strategy will you test out to help you complete that boring project?
I recommend you start by picking just one strategy (only one!). Test it out and let me know how you go!