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What is motivation?

Motivation literally means ‘that which sustains our action’. It’s made up of the processes of our emotions and mind which initiate, guide and maintain goal-oriented behaviour.

We’ve all had some experience of having a task to do and yet feeling like we can’t get going on it as if we can’t be bothered. Sometimes, though, the very reverse is true. We are so driven to do a task that we are anxious, exhausted and frightened by it. Therefore helpful motivation is about a balance between being driven to complete a task well enough and being so driven that we become mentally and emotionally exhausted.

Motivation is particularly important to those in the academic world. Students and staff have to maintain their independent sense of purpose, direction and confidence in both short- and long-term tasks and goals. If you struggle with this, you are certainly not alone.

There are two sorts of motivation:

Motivation can either be intrinsic or extrinsic.

  • Intrinsic motivation comes from within us. It feels more like what we really want to do. However, it’s rarely a straightforward desire to act. We can both want to relax and really want to work, all at the same time. Extrinsic motivation is imposed on us from outside. Sometimes it can just be a practical matter. For example, my tutor tells me to write up the report, so I have to, but I may also really enjoy it. However, there is a darker side to this. If someone else insists that I do something, and even suggests that I have to do it to win their approval, then I can become conflicted, confused and even depressed.
  • Intrinsic motivation makes, in general, for a happier way of working. But it’s not possible to only do the tasks which we really want to do.
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    What are the symptoms of not enough drive?

    • I feel lethargic, and do little, but am not rested by this.
    • I keep trying to begin a task, but manage to distract myself time and time again.
    • I am not sure that I can do the task well enough, so I put off beginning it.
    • Putting my thoughts onto paper terrifies me, so I am paralysed.
    • I can’t get up, or stay awake. It is like having to hide under the duvet.
    • I imagine everyone else can do what I can’t.
    • I get more and more behind. Sometimes it feels like I don’t care. At other times I panic and so I can’t work.
    • I might hide away in my room, or I might get stuck in front of endless DVDs, or I might do nothing but socialise.
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    What are the symptoms of being too driven?

    • Very high drive can be treacherous. “It has always worked for me. I succeed. I get stuff done. So I had better keep going like this at any cost!” The problem is, I am exhausted.
    • I can lose any sense of life having a purpose outside of work.
    • Work inhabits my mind whenever I am awake, and often when I sleep too.
    • I am on the verge of giving it all up. Life has no meaning.
    • Sleeping can be very difficult, even though I am so tired.
    • I have to do everything perfectly. Otherwise I fail!
    • I have lost any sense of perspective on what is realistic for me.
    • Every failure is a total disaster, even though I can recover from most of them.
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    How can you recover the balance in motivation?

    At a practical level, live healthily and do not try to cover the problem up:

    • Take exercise. A thirty to forty minute brisk walk helps, especially when you feel anxious.
    • Moderate your intake of caffeine. It can also make you more anxious.
    • Eat well and regularly.

    Here are some key ways to improve your motivation:

    • Take regular breaks. Use them to enjoy some form of relaxation, be it a cup of tea, a book or a DVD or a walk.
    • Value your friendships and try to socialise a little in order to connect with others.
    • Decide in advance how much work you really need to do.
    • Make a work diary. Make it out in two hour slots. Have at least a half hour break between slots, and an hour for a meal time. (Eat well; eat regularly.) Write into each slot what you hope to do. Congratulate yourself if you stick to the plan, or adapt it well. Don’t punish yourself if you do not stick to it. Each slot is a new beginning. Then monitor whether you need to increase or decrease your drive.
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    How can you help to reduce your sense of drive?

    Be suspicious of “insurance policies”. For example, “If I work hard enough, I am bound to succeed”. There is no rule in the Universe that makes this the case.

    Spend some quiet time reflecting or meditating most days.

    Reflect on what is so awful about imagined failures. Often the fear of failure is making a total catastrophe out of a mere problem. Ask yourself some searching questions, such as: 'If I don’t succeed, who am I afraid of letting down? Why? Do I work too hard just to gain approval?'.

    Listen empathically to the part of yourself that really cares for yourself and may want to scream: 'I can’t go on like this!'.

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    How can you help increase your sense of drive?

    • Set yourself a daily routine. Get up when you mean to and go to bed at such a time as will let you rest enough.
    • Be aware of using your bed as a place to hide. If you can’t get up, can you work out what fear you want to avoid?
    • Monitor how you are when you begin to write (or whatever activity is difficult). Does it feel like being afraid of committing yourself to paper?
    • Be wary of the idea that it is safer to do nothing than face a feared situation. (If the fear is of work, this is almost always a false belief.)
    • Reflect on what is so awful about imagined failures. Often the fear of failure is making a total catastrophe out of a mere problem.

Who wrote this content?

This content is produced in partnership with the University of Warwick Counselling Service. The University’s Counselling Service was ranked 1st against all participating Russell Group institutions in the largest independent survey of student experience, the International Student Barometer (2012).