I was lending my ear to a friend recently who is coming to the end of their first year of university, and my advice-giving caused me to think back to my time as a student and the whole self-motivation thing.

When I was coming to the end of my final year at high school I was given a “National Record of Achievement” folder, basically full of empty pockets waiting for all my final certificates, and the task of writing a sort of Personal Statement to go at the front. For this we were given a template; a list of questions the answers for which should form this Statement. One of those questions was about motivation.

I proudly stated that I was a well motivated individual, basking in swathes of self-motivation. OK I didn’t quite word it like that, but I know that I naively thought as such. I wasn’t lying, because as far as trying to portray myself positively to prospective employers or college professors, I honestly thought I was being accurate. Little did I know.

Skipping ahead now to my first years of further education, one of the books I had chosen for personal reading reveals I didn’t know all I thought I did, otherwise, why did I choose such a book? That book in question was titled ‘Self Motivation’ and it had a bunch of tasks in it which I noted, while chuckling to myself, I couldn’t be bothered to do.

So where am I now, some 15 or so years later, on the motivation front?

To be honest I still feel that I beat myself up about my lack of motivation at times, which is why I was racking my brains to give good words of advice to my friend who seemed to be feeling exactly how I felt all those many moons ago when I found myself drowning in a similar sea of stuff to learn.

You see, high school was a whole other kettle of fish compared to college. At school I was in the swing of things; I did what I needed to do in class, I presented myself as a polite and well spoken lad who was quietly intelligent (or so I think), while come homework time I would be briskly telling my mum “done it!” or “no!” to the question “have you got homework?” as I rushed out of the house the minute I got home from school, to go and build dens. Only then, at the last minute on a Sunday night would I rush through that homework and later hand it in to receive an OK grade.

That’s what I sort of beat myself up about to this day, I feel like I was lazy when it came to homework, although I thoroughly enjoyed my childhood of den building*. The reason I regret it somewhat is that it didn’t put me in good-stead for college and university, by which time I had grown out of den-building likely through a need to knuckle down with my studies, but instead I found myself playing on the internet (which was quite a new cool thing back then), and an easier past time/distraction to get away with since I could shut myself in my room, at my desk, again, giving the impression to all who cared that I was doing my homework… and as was the case at high school, it seemed no one really cared; I look back and think no one really took an interest in my school work, certainly not college work, I think getting into your teenage years and shutting yourself away while giving the impression that you’re on top of it all, when you think you are, is kind of the norm, but not a good place to be.

You see, entering further education took me away from that environment where I worked well in, the one where you’re (or at least I was) in school from 9-4, 5 days a week, with a packed schedule for those hours. In college I had empty boxes on my schedule, which were for private study time, but I had the freedom to be where I wanted, and doing what I wanted, in those boxes, as long as I did the study that was supposed to be in that box at some point.

And I didn’t.

Too much freedom. Too much reliance on that wonderful Self Motivation I exuded in. Yeah.

After years of playing out and den building in my spare time my brain wasn’t geared for the art of self motivation. Now I had even more spare time, and to this day I have even more. It’s not like I was or am “lazy” in my “spare time”, I don’t think so; I seek constructive things rather than settling on passive entertainment. Back then in my college and university years I was doing some creative and intellectual things with my spare time; I started my website when I was at college, and I was reading books about… well, aside from the one about self motivation, ones about ancient history, artificial intelligence, and astronomy. Nerdy stuff.

I didn’t see it then but there was a strange link, or lack of a link, between what I was reading in my spare time and what I was supposed to be doing at college, and this link or lack of, certainly showed itself during my first year at university.

Strangely I just about scraped through my first two years of college but that second year was tough. By “scrape through” I mean I got a grade in two of the three and found a place on a university course. Sadly this university course had a fourth year bolted onto the beginning to enable me to catch up to where I needed to be, and that first year gave my self motivation (or lack of) a severe whack; it pretty much repeated all what I done, and could remember, from high school and college; I felt like a sheep and I was lacking in the same areas as all others on the course: key skills. I wasn’t, and if learning stuff that I find hard is tough, forcing my way through stuff I find trivial and repetitive, and mindless, is even more tough. I made it through that first year, in some ways “just” because I was really slacking in my “private study time” (thanks to a schedule that was much the same as college) and in other ways laughably because for one segment I had given up on the course work and not even shown up for some of the classes, but yet breezed through the final exam; I really had learned stuff back at college and I think that was my way of giving the system my finger, because it was that system that had made me waste a year of my life re-doing all what I already knew; “well it will be easy then, so no you can’t skip it” I was told. Really I was annoyed with myself for the motivation I seemingly lacked.

I quit after that first year of university; that course wasn’t for me, it was just a shame that no one had seen it (probably not even myself) since one of my lasting memories of my time there is one of irony; I would go into the university library to study (probably on days where I had a course in the morning and then one in the afternoon, so no point in going home) and as I made my way to the empty tables, I would trail off into between the bookshelves and come out with a book or two on actual fascinating topics that were nothing to do with the course I was on. I can’t remember exactly what they were, but they were probably way over my head, like the ones I still read today on quantum mechanics. Even if they have more than a palatable share of mathematics, they beat books on algebra and Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs; I find them intriguing.

So this is where I am with motivation today: I lose motivation doing things I’m not really interested in; I can plough my way through things for so long, but then that’s it, and this is really debilitating when you have to think “but I need to do this to achieve my goal” like study W, X and Y to get a job in Z. At this point I start questioning my goal, and what it is that I really want to be doing.

There is something about motivation for those long term goals, and the urge to seek short-term fulfilment. I’m not a smoker, and I rarely drink alcohol, and I don’t do drugs, or gamble my money away, but I think if I did, I would be like such people that do that; turn to those things for that short-term fix, because that’s what they are. Instead I turn to other short term fixes and distractions, like writing this blog post is a distraction from something else that I might consider to be a long term goal in my life, and this is what I have always done; distracted myself from what I “should” be doing. But what are those “should”s, and why are they “should”s? This is where I was trying my best not to give my friend bad advice; the worst thing I could tell someone, or myself, is that perhaps they should give up on their long-term goal if they are feeling so demotivated by the process of getting there, maybe it’s not for them. Instead I told them something I have kind of picked up on more recently, and that is to mix up things you do want to learn with the things you find so tough that you can barely face them, but kinda need.

You see, where I kind of went wrong in those first years of college way back when was that I would distract myself with something completely different. I would call it “taking some time out”. The problem is that, sure, it gives you some breathing space, but it takes you completely out of that learning frame of mind. Yes, we all need some fresh air, but it’s that short term fix that people like me need to avoid, OK not “air” but you get what I mean; I didn’t have a clue about such things back then, but I see it now; I see me turning to the coffee machine (I started drinking coffee back when I was at college), I see me turning to the internet for distraction (I began my life online when I started college) – the link I see now with those avoidance but stimulating tactics is as clear as day, but ever so hard to break after it has gone unchecked for so long. If only I had actively sought to study a little more of what I did enjoy to give me a little rest-bite from the harder-to-digest-stuff, it might have kept me focussed and my brain in that learning gear.

My friend’s worry was that there was no time for even learning more of the enjoyable stuff, but I countered that with my reason for the suggestion, and that is, if you’re depressed then you’re not in a receptive state, you’re not going to learn half the stuff you’re beating yourself around the head with, so what you need is to keep your spirits up while remaining in that learning frame of mind. If doing that makes you twice as receptive then even if you spend only half as much time on studying what you “should have been” studying, you’re not going to be in any worse a situation, but as long as you don’t beat yourself up about it being “time wasted” then you’ll be all the happier for it. Plus, you keep yourself away from quick but short-term motivational fixes. Win-win-win.

Then, while I’d left this post on the back-burner for a while I experienced something today, something I experience a lot with my work, and I pondered what it was I was feeling. To cut to the chase it was anxiety; I’d had a few quiet days then all of a sudden work started flowing in, people were leaving me messages about their computer problems for which I had to phone them back and arrange to sort things out. All of the juggling in my head about what I needed to do, W, X, and Y, to achieve that end result of Z made me instantly anxious. Even that first step of picking up the phone and getting the ball rolling I struggled to do; I was getting stressed out and irritated and I didn’t want to speak to a client while I was in that mood. It all seems quite bizarre because the jobs lining up were no big deal, I knew how to do them, it was just all coming together in my mind in an unsettling way.

When I was new to my job many years ago I would get anxious about phoning people. I put it down to a shyness, and after some procrastination, pacing about, and a cup of coffee (not a good choice here) I would get my act together; these days it’s not so much a problem, but today when I recognised my anxiety I saw how that and motivation can get mixed together and the outcome is a distraction seeking, and I think we all know how easy those are to find.

So, in conclusion I don’t have a magic fix for a seeming lack of motivation but in light of what I have been pondering here, this is what I suggest:

  • mix in some fun things with the not so fun things, but
  • avoid distractions as much as possible; phone off, internet off, focus on one thing at a time
  • try and schedule in a mix of all things you want to be doing, even if some of those things you “shouldn’t” be doing, rather than “binging”, but don’t use them as rewards, because…
  • be aware that binging builds a reward system in your brain that is not linked to the thing you really want to achieve; in the case of your studies you need enjoy the feel good factor of achievement (rather than enjoying the coffee you’re allowing yourself to drink prior to getting on with your revision).
  • don’t reside yourself to the idea that you don’t have time for fun things, because if you force your morale too low then you’ll be so unproductive and depressed it wont matter
  • break those challenging things down into chunks and focus on a small chunk at a time and try and avoid worrying about the rest; this will help reduce the anxiety; trust that things will fall into place. W, X and Y will = Z, if not, well you did your best and perhaps Z really isn’t for you, but at least you have absorbed W, X, and Y and they can be put to good use somewhere
  • speak to your tutors or helpful people that will listen and support you. I failed to do this; I just thought I needed to knuckle down, but had I spoken up, I could have possibly found some help with my focus.

*den building was a topic on the Jeremy Vine show last week and I’m a strong believer that kids need the freedom to be building dens.

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