What can we teach students about motivation?

What is motivation?

Motivation is a feeling that leads to action. It helps us overcome our innate tendency to conserve energy. When we are successfully motivated, we feel motivated enough to take action.

However, ‘motivation’ only works when we feel like doing something, and feelings are generally fickle. Additionally, motivation is of limited supply. A phenomenon known as ‘decision fatigue’ means that we have a limited amount of energy over a given day for making choices; including motivating ourselves into action.

It is for this reason that ‘motivation’ is over-rated as a stand-alone strategy to inspire action.

So, how can we help students think about other ways, in addition to ‘staying motivated’, to help energise their behaviour and persistence for the long term?

A look at high performers

Considering what high performers do is a great starting point for discovering other strategies.

Regardless of profession or discipline, being ‘successful’ is perceived as glamorous and seemingly complex – yet most high performers will tell you that the pathway there is unglamorous and quite simple in philosophy.

High performers often attribute their success to many things, although in my view, there are two key attributes they commonly share;

  1. A willingness to identify the ‘effective’ actions and habits, no matter how ‘small’, and
  2. Consistency with repeating these actions & small things so they become habitual.

Clearly, mindset and feelings do play some role, but they are secondary to the actions. In the end, it is about repeating the ‘actions’ day in and day out – irrespective of feelings – that leads to long term success.

In particular, boredom (as opposed to just effort and exertion) is arguably the most under-rated unpleasant feeling that high performers learn to tolerate.

So what can we teach students about motivation?

Perhaps most vital is that students are aware of the realities of motivation.

Encouraging students to harness their motivation when it’s there (i.e. like at the start of the school year) is helpful advice, but encouraging students to learn to tolerate the boredom when motivation is absent is more helpful.

Perhaps students need to appreciate that “motivation is useful for getting started, but it’s habits that will keep them going”.

 

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