We all know how it feels to be motivated. It’s a state characterized by clarity, focus, and boundless energy. We’re willing to run through brick walls to achieve our goals. Yet for many high schoolers, it can be hard to tap into this feeling. And many parents who want to help operate under false beliefs about motivation. These beliefs can lead to actions that are counterproductive and ultimately de-motivating. And yet, self-motivation for students is important.
During my work at The Spike Lab, I’ve seen firsthand the huge benefits available to students who can successfully self-motivate. The good news is that the ability to self-motivate is a superpower that any student can learn and practice. Whether the goal is launching a Spike or earning a stellar GPA, high schoolers can improve their odds of success by understanding the basics of motivation.
In this article, I’ll dispel some common misconceptions about self-motivation for students, use an example from science to help us better understand motivation, and offer practical tips for young people looking to stay motivated.
What motivation is…and what it isn’t
Because motivation is something we feel, a precise definition can be hard to pin down. Just because we know how it feels to be motivated doesn’t mean we know what causes this feeling.
Generally speaking, motivation is a force that wills a person to do a task. It’s the drive that underlies most of our behavior. More specifically, Nir Eyal claims that motivation springs from a desire to avoid discomfort. Echoing this idea, writer Steven Pressfield (paraphrased in this article by James Clear) defines motivation by saying that “at some point, the pain of not doing something becomes greater than the pain of doing it.”
Before getting more specific on our definition of motivation (and discussing strategies for conquering discomfort), let’s start by clearing the air on what motivation isn’t.
Becoming a motivated person isn’t an end goal in itself.
Being motivated isn’t like being a certified scuba instructor or being a tennis champ. There’s no course you can take to become motivated. It’s not the final destination of a trip – it’s the fuel that powers many cars.
Being “motivated” isn’t a constant state.
Even in high-performers, motivation can wax and wane over the course of a project. Motivation definitely isn’t something that some people are just born with.
Motivation can’t be imposed.
Rewards and punishments (extrinsic motivation) can be especially dangerous because they often work in the short term. But studies have found that too much extrinsic motivation can leave kids unprepared for the real world.
Any of these misconceptions can lead to unproductive behavior. With regard to the last point, you may wonder, “is all extrinsic motivation bad?” The answer is no. It’s unrealistic to deny extrinsic motivation as a major factor in our world, as many of us work hard to pursue the school or career of our dreams. Good self-motivation practices for students should balance extrinsic and intrinsic forces.
The basic mechanics of self-motivation for students
How can parents tell if their student is motivated? Physics gives us a useful metaphor for understanding how motivation acts upon a person. According to Newton’s laws, all bodies in motion have direction, speed, and acceleration. Each of these three properties reveals a basic truth about motivation.
Direction. For an object to move, it needs to travel in a generally consistent direction for a sustained amount of time. Any object that is constantly changing directions will ultimately not travel very far. Likewise, any motivated person will be able to tell you what single goal they’re working toward.
Speed. Unsurprisingly, a moving object must also move toward its goal. The change in position over time is known as the object’s speed. How quickly is the person approaching their goal? Are they closer today than they were last week? Simply describing the goal isn’t enough. A student who can self-motivate will demonstrate progress toward that goal over time.
Acceleration. Direction and speed are crucial, but the most important property of self-motivation is acceleration. This is also known as the rate of change. We can know a person’s acceleration by asking a simple question: is their speed increasing or decreasing over time?
People who are feeling motivated will usually be able to tell you where they’re headed, how fast they’re going, and how quickly they’re speeding up. So how do we master this superpower?
Self-determination and self-motivation for students
When we talk about motivation (especially for students) we should always talk about self-motivation. This framing turns motivation into an ability that we can practice through specific techniques, just like time management. Becoming a great self-motivator requires an understanding of the basic conditions that cause someone to become…yes, motivated.
According to Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory, deep down we are all motivated by a desire for growth and fulfillment in life. We want to improve. Deci and Ryan argue that growth happens when we practice self-determination. We can become more intrinsically motivated, more self-motivated, by increasing our self-determination.
We cultivate our self-determination when we pursue goals that meet our needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy is our perceived ability to exercise freedom and control over our work. Competence means feeling like we have the skills required to get a job done. Finally, a task’s relatedness is its perceived connection to our social circles and the broader community.
Let’s return to discomfort for a moment. If motivation springs from self-determination and from discomfort, then the two things must be related. For high school students, discomfort often arises when trying new things or doing work in subjects that they’re not “good at.” These moments can motivate students to retreat from new experiences. But instead of shrinking away, these are moments when students can flip the script and own their self-determination. Discomfort should come from staying stagnant, from not increasing self-determination, from not growing.
So, how does one increase their self-determination? Students who want to increase their self-determination should focus on their goals, attitudes, and habits.
Goals on self-motivation for students
Because motivation is the means to an end, one of the most important things we can do is choose the end that’s right for us. The best goals are the ones that align with the principles of self-determination. We must choose the goal for ourselves, the goal must make use of our specific competencies, and we must believe the goal will have some impact on the world around us.
Sometimes we don’t know if a specific goal is right for us. In many cases, we hesitate to start because we don’t know if we’ll be sufficiently motivated. The best thing to do is set a general direction, and just get going. Then, ask yourself why certain aspects of the project are more motivating than others and use findings to hone down on a specific direction.
Attitudes and habits to build self-motivation for students
Just having the right goal isn’t enough. The truth is that many of our tasks aren’t directly related to our goals in life (chores, perhaps?). And even if we have an excellent goal, the path won’t be entirely smooth. Therefore, it’s important to adopt the corresponding attitudes and habits in order to increase motivation.
Having the right attitude can simply mean shifting your perspective. Dr. Tsz Lun Chu suggests that we can help motivate ourselves to perform tasks that are low in relatedness and autonomy by framing them in a new light. Great examples of this shift include expressing gratitude for having the opportunity to do something.
Good habits can also dramatically increase our chances of staying motivated. James Clear writes that “motivation is often the result of action, not the cause of it.” When things get tough, we can fall back on habits as basic as waking up at the same time every morning. Often, all we need to do is start a task in order to follow through.
More strategies on self-motivation for students
Ultimately, motivation is a feeling that arises from certain behaviors. In my career as a teacher and cofounder of The Spike Lab, I’ve noticed some common strategies that can help students motivate themselves. Use these tips to break through discomfort and become more self-motivated.
Have more “why” conversations.
Self-motivated people are willing to assess their motivation. They take an honest, nuanced view and figure out which aspects of their current project they’re motivated to work on and which aspects they aren’t. If your motivation to learn a skill or take a step forward is low, you can help yourself understand the bigger picture.
Be intentional and specific with your goals.
Another example from James Clear. Saying that you’ll go for a run tomorrow is one thing, but saying you’ll go for a run tomorrow at 6:00 AM through the Maple St trail is another. People who set the second kind of goal are more likely to follow through.
Break goals into subgoals.
Sometimes we lose motivation because we’ve broken off more than we can chew. If a goal seems too big, break it down into a smaller task and set your sights on that.
Using peers, family, or a coach for support can also be incredibly powerful. These people can hold you accountable and help you when motivation inevitably starts to drop.
Practice different self-motivation techniques and figure out what’s right for you. In addition to the techniques I’ve mentioned, some people like to reward themselves for completing different goals.
Don’t forget to rest. You don’t have to burn the candle at both ends all the time. If you have a plan, trust that it will carry you to success. If you know how to manage your time and self-motivate, victory is assured.
For parents: How to motivate your child
Just like misconceptions about motivation can damage a student’s ability to self-motivate, healthy involvement from parents can make a big impact for the better. Rather than imposing extrinsic motivation, help your child practice self-motivation. Parents can do this by providing support rather than criticism, and inspiring rather than controlling. One of the best things parents can do is to model the curiosity and wonder that leads us to form new interests and hobbies.
At The Spike Lab, we’ve noticed that strong social connectivity can make a world of difference in a student’s Spike. Students benefit from having a person around them to spark curiosity and provide encouragement.
How TSL can support your family
With all the self-teaching resources available online, we might just be living in the best time ever to be a motivated person. But practicing self-motivation for students is still hard. Students need guidance from experienced coaches. At The Spike Lab, we give students the guidance to launch a long-term project that is the perfect training ground for developing the skill of self-motivation. The inner fire that students develop during a Spike will last them through college and into the rest of their lives.
Are you a curious person willing to try new things? Are you looking for a reason to grow your self-motivation? We’d love to hear from you. Just schedule a consultation here.