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How to Gain Motivation When You Are Not Feeling It

With midterms piling on and exams just around the corner, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed. There is so much to get done, yet you cannot bring yourself to work on it because of a lack of motivation, or maybe you’re feeling burnout. Here are a few tips to help you get through a successful school day, even if you do not feel up to the task.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

The first step to work on your level of motivation is to analyze the driving factor for how you get things done. For example, do you put in the effort for a class because you love learning about it? Or are you hoping to get an A? The former is an example of intrinsic motivation, while the latter is extrinsic motivation. Now there is nothing wrong with striving for an A and having goals for your progress in a class but finding an intrinsic motivation will help carry you through the overall process of studying, despite what your grades or schedule looks like. Intrinsic means something that is valuable on its own and is not motivated by external rewards. If your reason behind studying is related to your genuine interest in the subject, you are more likely to put more effort into it.

There are many ways to cultivate intrinsic motivations, and this depends on the subject and individual. For classes like human evolution and psychology, I find that I am genuinely interested in learning about it, so I look forward to attending class and going through my cue cards. However, for my more challenging courses like chemistry and math, my motivation to study is the satisfaction of completing a complex problem and enhancing my skills.

Of course, intrinsic motivation is best when put in practice. So, as you study today, try to reflect on what aspects of each course makes you excited and enthusiastic to learn.

Activation Energy

Not feeling motivated hinders our performance in school. While motivation is important in the long run, especially in terms of getting through the semester, it becomes less vital when it comes to smaller, daily tasks. There are other techniques to help us overcome the burden of getting started – in science, this is termed activation energy: the minimum amount of energy required to start a chemical reaction. If you think of completing schoolwork as a reaction, it is that boost of energy needed to get started.

It can be daunting to get started when you have pages and pages of homework questions, or an endless number of topics to review for exams. However, it becomes easier when you consider the minimum amount of work you need to get done. You can think of your activation energy in terms of time or work, like five to thirty minutes of an activity or completing two to ten problems. Chances are, after overcoming the initial burden of starting, you will continue working past the original standard you set. For example, I set a timer to write this article for thirty minutes, and even though the timer finished, I am still working.

Growth Mindset

You may find that your motivation slips when you are faced with a difficult task or set of problems. On one hand, it may feel rewarding to finally solve those hard practice questions, but on the other, it is discouraging when you find yourself repeatedly answering a question incorrectly. If you find this happening to you, try adopting a growth mindset. If you think to yourself, “Calculus is hard… I will never be able to do it,” you subconsciously begin to believe that and will eventually stop trying. An alternative way to think of it is, “While calculus is hard, I cannot do it… yet.” The subtle word yet changes your whole perspective – it implies that you can grow and learn. If you keep working on these problems, surely, you will get the hang of it. Additionally, reviewing your notes, re-watching lectures, and asking for help are all great strategies.

Make a study plan

This may seem like an obvious idea, but with midterms and exams approaching, it might relieve some of the pressure if you knew when and what to study. It is best to plan as early as possible and take advantage of spaced repetition. So, studying for your math class every three to four days or even a few times a week leading up to the test is much more beneficial than cramming all five classes at once. You may find it helpful to list all the topics that you would like to cover, create flashcards, find sample questions, and practice under a time constraint.

Prioritize your mental health 

At the end of the day, if you feel that you are struggling with your mental health, it is important to recognize that. Not prioritizing your studies to rest is perfectly understandable. If there are other things going on in your life that you need to deal with, allow yourself to do that.  Habits like journaling, meditating, and regularly exercising are simple tasks that can make the biggest difference in your mental state. Also, make sure to set some downtime for yourself to recharge. No one can be productive 24/7. If you find that you are really struggling, do not be afraid to ask for help – whether that be from a professional, or even a friend or family member.

Lastly, it is important to be kind to yourself when experiencing burnout. It is a clear sign that your current process is no longer working. Perhaps you need a break or a reminder of why you are putting in all this effort. Focusing on the positive and rewarding aspects of learning and practicing self care will prevent burnout. Sometimes all it comes down to is simply biting the bullet and getting started.

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Susan Verdes

McMaster '25

I'm a first year student at McMaster University, in the Life Sciences Program. I am passionate about science, writing, and wellness. In my free time you can catch me writing, watching Netflix, and playing music.
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