Motivation: Reflecting On What To Do When It’s Not There

The issue of how to motivate students is an essential one for educators and parents to explore and one that’s core to the success of our children. We all know that if students aren’t motivated, their journeys will be long and hard. As with so much, sometimes if we start with ourselves — with reflecting on our own issues with motivation — we can gain useful insights. I hope to offer some thoughts that may provoke personal reflection and suggest strategies for helping kids to gain motivation.

This blog is inspired by my own lack of motivation right now to write this. This blog is (right now) overdue and I’ve procrastinated long enough. As I lie on my deck this morning contemplating my lack of motivation and mounting guilt that it isn’t done, I start remembering how many times as a student I didn’t want to write something, or how many times as a teacher, I felt no motivation to lesson plan or grade papers. “I’m just not feeling motivated,” I kept thinking, and then a more useful thought came into my mind: “It doesn’t matter. Get it done.”

That’s Lesson Number One that I wish I knew as a student: Sometimes you aren’t going to be motivated but do it anyway — such a simple lesson that has propelled me into action. Maybe motivation is overrated. Maybe in order to be successful we don’t really need a whole lot of it.

Really it’s just a shift in perspective: I’m not feeling motivated to write right now. I’m just returning from vacation where I devoured mystery novels, (I’m halfway through one now and it’s calling to me to finish it), I hiked and hung out with my husband and son, slept a lot, and worked diligently on my “Play PD.” I’ve started a photography course and a sketchbook class and I’m honoring my commitments to myself to play and create and relax. And then there’s this blog — and other things I’ve got to do.

Here’s the shift in perspective: I’m not particularly motivated to write right now, but I am motivated to honour my commitments (such as this blog). I’m motivated to get it done. And when I say that, I feel a little jolt of energy. Let’s do it.

I learned this a long time ago (I just forget it a lot). Some might call what I think I’ve learned “time management,” or “discipline,” or something to do with motivation. I call it, “getting things done.” As a writer, and someone with a full time job and family, I learned that I might not often feel super motivated to write, the muse is often nowhere to be found and sometimes I might even hate writing. But I do it anyway. I show up, close down my Internet browsers (deadly distractions) and I put my fingers on the keys and I write. I also set a timer for 45-minute blocks and during that time I don’t allow myself to get up or do anything other than what I’m supposed to do. After the time is up, I can have a 15-minute break and then I’m on for another 45. That’s how I get things done.

Sometimes I think that in schools we focus too much on building intrinsic motivation for learning, or we’re working too hard at it. Learning is rewarding and we’re all going to feel a certain amount of motivation and reward in different content areas and with different tasks. Sometimes I think it would be useful if teachers helped kids find motivation in getting something done. In balance, of course — I’m vehemently opposed to all learning being about memorization or rote learning or just getting things done. But sometimes you need your students to just write a persuasive essay and maybe it’s not something they really care much about but they could be motivated to just do it. Add it to the list of things they know how to do and that they’ve done. And if they can do it in a reasonable amount of time, and the quality is decent, then that’s fantastic.

Another thing I know about getting things done (Lesson Number Two): They don’t always have to be done really well. I am grateful that I’ve never been plagued by perfectionism. If I’m tasked with doing something for which I struggle to feel motivated then I’m quite satisfied if the outcome is satisfactory or decent. If it’s something I pour my heart and soul into, then I hope the outcome is really good. But I’m the judge of this; I evaluate my own input and product. I don’t get caught up on “Is it perfect?” I ask myself, “Is this good enough, right now, given what you’ve invested?” And usually the answer is “Yes.”  And so, if this blog isn’t amongst the best I’ve ever written, I’m okay with that. Sometimes you just got to get something done.

This is liberating, this idea. You don’t always have to feel inundated with creative juices and motivation. You just have to honour your commitments to yourself and others. Agonizing over what you have to do and how you don’t want to do it and how you just want to wait until you feel motivated is a waste of time and energy. Just do it. Set a timer, think about how great it’ll feel when you’re done, and do it.

And with that, I’m done! And I feel good! And now I can return to my mystery novel and enjoy!

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