Maintaining Motivation to Study & Desire to Learn
The most common question I get from readers is about maintaining motivation to study. It’s entirely normal to start a new learning quest with a bunch of excitement, only to find that weeks or months later it’s hard to continue.
Thankfully, these lapses in motivation are largely avoidable. Everybody has “on days” and “off days,” but there are useful strategies to make the good ones outnumber the bad.
There is so much written on the topic of motivation it is hard to know where to begin. There’s a lot of great research out there these days, so much that I could not begin to cover it all in one blog post. Instead, here I’ve collected my favorite techniques for keeping myself motivated to learn.
Every once in a while, when I tell someone about this blog, they point out that each person “learns a little bit differently.” They’re right, to a degree. But when it comes to things like learning and motivation, there are more similarities in how we each operate than differences. These techniques on this blog mostly have some sort of research supporting them, meaning I focus on the similarities in how we all operate.
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I think you’ll find that some of these techniques seem silly, while others end up being useful. That’s okay. Ignore the silly ones and focus on the useful ones. If just one of them works, you’ve gained a valuable tool.
Since this blog is about effective learning, I’ve used that angle to approach the topic of effective motivational tools:
Allow Yourself to Fail
You cannot get better by succeeding.
It’s a fact: the actual act of failure is what causes us to learn. More specifically, it’s the process of correcting a mistake which trains the brain how to do things correctly. I bring this up first simply because so many people get so hung up on perfection that they do not allow themselves to simply try. Check out the post on maintaining concentration while studying and deliberate practice for more about why failure is necessary.
This is just the art of balancing something challenging with something enjoyable (the temptation). The paradigmatic example is watching TV while on the treadmill. The idea is that the two balance each other out.
I’ve done this with the guitar, coffee, and running. When I wake up, I drink my coffee while practicing the guitar for 30 minutes (the number is important). I play upbeat music, and by the time I’m done I’m excited to run to the gym. On the way home from work, I bundle walking with listening to podcasts and thinking about a blog post to write that night.
It’s not about being perfect. It’s about making progress whenever you can.
Anything done to excess has diminishing returns.
It’s a simple law of human psychology. Fatigue sets in more quickly than we expect, but can be beaten by switching tasks on regular intervals. Researchers are finding more and more benefits to simple things like standing during the work day and walking around whenever possible (not particularly surprising, when you think about it).
There’s an old proverb about an experienced lumberjack who chops a tree faster than the younger, stronger lumberjack because he spends longer sharpening his axe. When you work with your mind and learn, you must spend more time sharpening than swinging. This is a form of metacognition: investigating why something is hard or easy for you. If you can articulate the challenge (“the F-maj chord on the guitar is a stretch” or “the third tone in Chinese is hard to pronounce”) you are much closer to overcoming it.
Planning and Journaling
Most people I’ve met have very intense reactions to these tools. Either you love checking things off a list and writing about it at the end of the day, or the thought gives you shivers.
Still, if you’ve never tried it, I challenge you to try each of them. The sense of progress any of the three can provide is immense. It can quickly become addictive to hear the simple “chime” sound in Wunderlist, or see a calendar fill up with journal entries in DayOne.
You can focus on recapping your day (journaling) and/or planning your next day (checklists). I like waking up to a checklist of things I can dive into and am excited to complete. Journal entries can be useful to record small victories, though. Each provide their own form of motivation.
As it turns out, there is more than one kind of daydreaming.
This surprised me, to say the least. I guess it makes sense when you think about it, though: there’s the sort of “drifting” daydreaming, but there’s also a sort of “planning” or “strategizing” daydream. Research is showing that the latter inspire action and growth.
The idea is that “right” daydreaming is a sort of mental simulation of overcoming obstacles. It bears similarities to visualization exercises an athlete might do before a big competition. Using this kind of daydreaming is a form of practice which prepares the dreamer for the real world.
We are what we do repeatedly.
If that’s true, our habits define us. So why not pay attention to them? The Power of Habit (by Charles Duhigg) opened my eyes to this. It helped me to quit habits like biting my fingernails, and develop new habits like running that have served me well.
I mention this because I believe good habits are self-reinforcing. The more of them you have, the easier each one becomes.
Frustrated or Stuck?
If you feel frustrated or stuck with your learning, you might have found a practice plateau. Surprisingly, practice plateaus can actually be good things!
Okay, so it’s cheesy. Still, though. The things that work for my best friends might not work for me, and vice versa. We’re all special snowflakes and such.
Competing against other people sucks for motivation because they’re coming from a different place than you are. It’s an unfair comparison for one of you. Instead, focusing on being better than yourself each and every day is a way to keep up motivation and feel a sense of progress.
This post is a collection of ideas, nothing more. They work for me, but your mileage may vary. I always find it interesting to hear what works for other people, though, so if you have any thoughts please drop me a line.