How to increase your motivation and tackle procrastination
HOW TO INCREASE YOUR MOTIVATION AND TACKLE PROCRASTINATION:
A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR STUDENTS
[Although primarily aimed at high school and university students, many of these tips and suggestions might
help you too.]
An external stimulus, such as a teacher telling you to get on with it might encourage you to try a bit harder but
is rarely as powerful as self motivation. If you are to do well in life, finding ways of increasing your own
motivation is a key element.
By increasing your level of motivation we mean developing or increasing your desire to work harder in order
to achieve your needs, wants, goals and ambition. In other words, you are trying to increase your enthusiasm
and drive. If you are to succeed at this you must really want to do better and not merely feel that it would be
good thing to do. You are going to have to make an effort and introduce some permanent changes in your life.
It is not likely to work well if you only try for one week then stop and expect that things will be different and
better from now on
With dieting to lose weight, or giving up a drug habit, if you are to succeed you need a change of lifestyle.
Stopping for a short time and hoping that will be enough tends to result in failure. In the end, one just drifts
back into old habits and the problem returns. Similarly, if you want to increase your long term motivation it
means a permanent change in some aspects of your lifestyle. You will have to develop willpower and gain
new attitudes to help you develop the determination to achieve and succeed in life. There are many tips listed
below but do not let the size of the list daunt you. If you try only one or two tools to improve yourself and
stick to them you should find that you gradually do better and achieve more. So do not be afraid to start.
Going for you, is that once you develop an increased taste for learning, it becomes a habit and can become a
desirable thing to do in itself. So it is easier to stick with the new regime and not slip back into routine
When you decide to work on improving your motivation to study and learn, you can see this as an investment
in your own future; you will be choosing to do something now that might be a bit difficult - and then reaping
the payoff down the line and, of course, for ever.
You can also see this as a trade-off. You are giving up your not very valuable present time, and ways of
spending this time, and making the decision to study more. In return you will get much more valuable things
in the future: the income, the good job, a high standard of living, running your own firm, enjoying the freedom
that wealth can bring, or whatever you would like out of life. These future things are more valuable to you –
you selected them after all – than what you are giving up. This almost makes it a no-brainer. All you need is
to put in the effort and keep on putting it in. Once your new ways become a habit, then less effort will be
needed and you might be able to cruise to success.
That is for achieving a long term change in your behaviour. By contrast, short term motivation, or dealing with
procrastination, is usually easier. It does not require such a major change in lifestyle, only something to
encourage you to put your head down and come up with a quick burst of effort. If you are already attempting
to increase your long term motivation, or have actually managed to achieve this, then it is easier to produce
the quick burst of short term effort when you need it.
There are many tools, described below, that can help motivate you. However, we are all individuals and not
everyone responds in the same way to pressures and events. Of the many ways of trying to build up a person’s
self motivation, not every one will work as well for you. Some ways might turn out to be excellent; others
merely reasonable; while a few may not work at all. I suggest you try all the different tools below, or at least
as many as appeal. Then concentrate on those that work best for you personally. They are unlikely to be
exactly the same as those that work for your best friend and this does not matter at all.
Long Term Motivation
There are two main approaches to increase your self motivation: these consist of the traditional stick and carrot.
The stick consists of a “push” away from what you have now and the carrot is a “pull” towards what you want
for the future. A lot of people benefit form trying to strengthen both of these. Working on one of them is good,
but managing to do both would be better for increasing your general motivation (but see the warning and
recommendations below if you are unfortunate enough to be one who tends to sadness and depression).
1. The Stick – Using Your Existing Situation to Improve Yourself
You have to want to change the situation you have now – you might feel that it is not good enough, or maybe
it is holding you back and you want to escape; you might even have come to despise it. If you are dissatisfied
with your current situation and are determined to find something better, you are on your way to increasing
your motivation and developing ambition. It is not recommended that you dwell on your unhappy existence
and brood about it, for that can all too easily reinforce any unhappiness and possibly steer you into depression.
However, if you do have feelings of dissatisfaction, you can at least use these for your benefit and get
something out of your unhappiness.
A sudden change in your habits as you start to study and work harder can surprise people around you, and some
of them might well react in ways that will not help. It is particularly hard to settle down to studying, and
continue even if you start to feel a bit bored or tired, while you are being criticised by family and friends. You
might even get jeered at – a lot of us have the occasional enemy in our peer group. Bullying is all too common
at many schools and “swots” and nerds are a natural target for those unfortunate individuals who are thick in
both body and mind. Unless you really need to succeed, you are unlikely to make much of an effort.
So what is wrong with your life? What sort of things might you focus on that you want to get rid of? You might
pick on your current level of poverty; not having any fashionable clothes; maybe lacking the latest gadgetry
in computing, hi-fi, or motor cars; perhaps living in a tedious area of the country, or in an inadequate flat or
house; or there may not be enough interesting things to do locally, so you hang around with friends feeling
bored. Think about it! Whatever seems drab or unpleasant to you goes on the list. And I mean a list: grab a
sheet of paper and start writing down all the things you can think of that you would like to change in your life.
Keep this list safe; it is a valuable piece of paper and reading it later can help stimulate your motivation. That
list will be a permanent reminder of what you wish to move away from. Making a list of what you want is a
powerful process in itself – it gets you thinking about what you want but simply writing things down seems
to help strengthen the motivation for many.
Then spare a thought for people you know or you’ve read about who have problems. Maybe they are stuck in
a dead end job; or having to work at more than one job in order to earn enough to survive; or perhaps they get
by, but lack the fashionable possessions that so often are needed to define a person as a fully paid-up member
of a group. You probably do not want to follow in their footsteps. Add these if they seem relevant, and put
down anything else that you can think of that might apply to you. You want this list to be a powerful tool to
encourage you to do better.
You may already find pleasure in working to complete an assignment for reasons of self satisfaction, of
achievement, or of meeting a short term goal. Perhaps you just like getting the darn thing out of the way. If
not, see if you can develop such feelings, reinforce them when they arrive, and harness them to help you. Next
time you are supposed to sit down and study, write an essay, or whatever, remember how good finishing it felt
last time – think about it for up to a minute then tell yourself “Let’s do it again!” An attitude of “A bit of effort
now and I can feel good about myself” can only work for your benefit.
2. The Carrot - Your Hopes for The Future And Your Preferred Lifestyle Can Help
Increase Your Motivation
Your second line of attack is that you want an improved version of life. This is probably the better of the two
ways of motivating yourself and does not require much self analysis or depend on your feelings of discomfort
or unhappiness to work. The sort of things that appeal to you could be almost anything. You might want
riches; or power; or a better and more interesting job than you currently have; or to travel and see the world;
or to work abroad; or to own your own business; or simply to enjoy yourself in ways that appeal. Again make
a list of whatever you personally want out of life. Make sure it is your own personal list, not simply the
possibilities above. Put in a few details of about what and why you want such things. Then keep this list and
glance at it regularly particularly if at anytime you find your motivation weakening or you feel the need to
strengthen your resolve.
Down to Practicalities: Here Are Some Tools You Can Use to Improve Your Long Term
These ideas can help you to shift your gears, change your life, and increase your effort at studying. These are
all ways that have helped somebody to do better, but as we are all different individuals, not all may work as
well for you. It is suggested that you try them all, or as many as you like the look of, and stay with your choice
for some weeks. It takes time to change habits and patterns of behaviour and little can be expected to be
achieved in a day or two. You have the rest of your life before you. Isn’t it worth a little effort now to improve
your life for ever?
· Make list of why want to get to university (or wherever you are aiming at) and put down as many
points as can think of. Look at this list regularly as it can motivate you, particularly if you notice that
you are slackening off and feel the need to try harder.
· Make list of why want a degree and what you can do with it; put down as many points as can think of.
Again look at this list regularly, as it too can help to increase your motivation.
· Keep reminding yourself that if you work hard, get good grades, and finally get a good degree, you
will avoid those awful dead end jobs you read about. You might even know someone in such a job. Is
shelf-stacking or cleaning offices really for you? And for ever?
· Consider the time you are putting into studying, and think about the job you could have now instead.
OK, the job might suck but it’s a job with a wage. You are giving up this income in order to have a
better future. Don’t waste this time!
· Think how you will feel if you slack off a lot and do badly, or even fail. Your family and friends will
learn about it – if you would feel an element of shame about this, harness this feeling to help you work
· Put up small printed notices to remind you of your goals (“I want to get to the university of my first
choice!” “I want a really good degree so that I can get that job I want!” “I’ve got to get out of this
town!”, “A yacht, a yacht, my kingdom for a yacht!”, or whatever you personally want.) Stick the
notices on the wall, on a bookshelf, sticking out from behind a mirror, or anywhere else you will notice
it regularly it. Leave such a notice in any desk drawer that you open a lot, as this will help remind you
and reinforce the message. If you start not to notice the notes as they become familiar, switch them
about and so introduce an element of surprise.
· Put up photos and pictures of what it is that you want in life. This can encourage you to study that little
bit harder and longer (if you want to work in Italy a photo of the leaning tower of Pisa; if you want a
fantastic sports car, a photo of your favourite one cut from a motor magazine; whatever turns you on
might work.) You can add words of encouragement on a yellow sticky, such as “A good degree will
get me this!”, again whatever words you feel will help you most. Always be positive and use
encouraging words. You might try changing the words now and then: some people find the new words
jog their brains into a more positive attitude.
· Think about that great new job you will get when you finish studying – and what you can do with the
· Make a weekly timetable of your lectures, tutorials, lab sessions, and the like; then allocate the
remaining time to studying for your particular subjects. Dig out the timetable and look at regularly –
it helps to focus your mind on the job.
· Find yourself a study-buddy, someone that you can work with on a regular basis. There are various
learning games you can play with them, such as choosing a topic in one of your subjects, reading it up
for, say, five minutes, then explaining it to each other. This is a valuable learning technique in its own
right, as well as being a good motivator.
· When at university you will have a lot of free time in which you have no lectures etc. Don’t fall into
the trap of idling away your day but tackle this seductive freedom directly, using any of these tips that
help you. The union bar might be a good place to relax, but it is a bad place to spend all your time!
Working in the library will serve you better.
· If you have faith and believe in a God, talk to him, or her, and ask him to help you to be enthusiastic
about studying and achieving. Any time you feel like giving up on an assignment, or not even starting
it, remind yourself about your earlier conversations and ask for help again now. It works for a lot of
people - but you do need to believe.
· If you are unlucky enough to fail an assignment, do not despair! Instead, use it as a spur to help you to
achieve more in the future. Ask yourself why you failed: are there comments in the essay or at the end
that can shed light on it? Think about how you could tackle any weaknesses mentioned or criticisms
made. Then make a short note to yourself about where you need to improve and the different things
you could try in order to succeed in that aim. Should you happen to enjoy puzzles and quizzes, treat
this self-examination in a similar way, for this could make the task more enjoyable. If you can, go and
see the marker concerned, take the essay etc. with you, and ask them how they think you could improve.
It’s best not to criticise their comments or mark but instead you could flatter them a bit about drawing
on their experience to help you improve. Most teachers and lecturers are delighted to find a student
who actually wants to improve and wishes to seek their advice.
· Consider your friends and the people you hang with: think about them objectively. If you think that
they put you down in some way, and perhaps treat you in a negative fashion, or that in general they
despise learning and hard work, they are probably not the friends you need. They are holding you back.
See if you can branch out and find more supportive friends – ones who can help you feel good about
yourself and encourage you to work hard. Even one such friend is worth a lot more than a bunch of
no-hopers who are influencing you to follow their example. If you are trapped in such a negative group,
try to ease away from them and find or develop a new set of friends.
· Try not to dwell on failures in your life, unless you are using the examples as a personal spur to change
and improve. Learn your lesson(s) from sad events and move on. A glittering future beckons, but a
gloomy past must not hold you back.
· The self-improvement ideas of Émile Coué work well for some people. Try standing in front of a
mirror each day and repeating “Every day in every way I get better and better”. Do this several times
a day. Try it! You might feel a bit embarrassed at first, but, heck, if it works for you, you’re winning!
If it seems too weird to say it aloud, then saying it in your head, “shouting” this thought if you can,
might do the trick. If you can envisage seeing the words as you say them in your head, so much the
better. You “read” the words as you hear them. If you can do this, try changing the colour of the words
you see – bright yellow, shining sparkling white, or fiery red might help. You might find it helps to
keep to one colour for a few days or weeks – it’s up to you.
· You might be better off going through this mental process but repeating your own personal phrase
rather than the “Every day in every way” on. It can be valuable to invent your own, as it is thrown up
in your own conscious mind along with help from your subconscious. In a real sense this is you; and
this is more effective than using somebody else’s words. As an example, “I am confident and want to
study hard to get into university” might do it – but remember: use your own words! Again, say it in
your head if you prefer. After a time, you could invent a new phrase to use if the old one has either
already worked or you decide on a new goal as a way of improving yourself.
Short Term Motivation
Even if you have good long term motivation, sometimes it can still be difficult to summon up the effort to start
work, or maybe go back to finish a task already started. Fight procrastination now! Determination and
stubbornness can play their part in forcing yourself to get down to it and there are ways of trying to increase
Here Are Some Ways to Improve Your Short Term Motivation and Tackle That Pesky
· Dig out your list of what was wrong with your earlier existing situation and read it carefully. Ask
yourself if you really want to maintain these earlier problems and isn’t it worth working hard to follow
your escape route?
· Then turn to the list you made earlier of your hopes for the future. Wouldn’t you really like to enjoy
that fascinating scenario you mapped out? You now have some clearly defined goals, a good thing.
Chase them! It’s your life! Get on and do something with it! Repeat in your head a few times “I can, I
can, I really can!”
· Put that list of goals up where you can see it both easily and regularly; your subconscious mind can
kick in and help you to do things that will help you to achieve those goals.
· Each day, make a list of what you intend to do that day. Put any lectures etc. on it first, plus their time
and place, and fill in the gaps with all your study-related intentions. Look at it regularly – and cross
off each item as it is done. It can feel really good to do this and that feel-good factor can encourage
you to do more. Make sure your daily goals are realistic: it is no good saying you will win the lottery,
or write a complete play before dinner.
· If you have a wall calendar, you can set yourself a rule, such as “When I went to all the set sessions
and classes, plus managed to cross off one study-related item, I can put a big red cross through that day
on the calendar.” As you watch the red crosses mount up, it can make you feel good and this can inspire
you to continue to work hard. If that is too easy for you, make it “two study related items”, or even
· If you have an assignment to prepare, do not ignore it, or sit and worry about. Instead, grab a piece of
paper and make a plan of what you will do first. This might be something like “Read lecture notes on
the topic and jot down any ideas I get”; “Look up the text book”; “Find a few more text books and
check them over”; “Go to the school or Uni. library and talk to the librarian about what I could read
about the topic”; and so forth. Just making the list can help your motivation - and now you already
· When you have done this, make another list of whatever comes into your head about the topic itself.
Maybe this will consist of a few relevant points that could go in the answer; the name of a famous
person associated with the topic, perhaps an academic, a philosopher, or a politician; the title of a book
that you’ve heard of that could be relevant to the question; the name of a person that you could talk to
about the issue – or indeed anything else at all that you can think of. The process is valuable and the
list you develop is invaluable.
· Walk around your room, reading all the little notes you put up and looking at those gorgeously
attractive photos of stuff you want to own or places you wish to see. Then see if you can knuckle down
· Tell yourself that you will study for 1 hour, take a break and then do something else for 15 minutes.
Adjust this time to suit own personality and style – maybe 45 minutes study and a 20 minute break.
But go back to studying at the end of the break! This mental timetable might stimulate you just enough
· Give yourself little rewards and treats (“If I finish reading up so-and-so, I will make myself a cup of
coffee and sit and drink it”; “If I study until 9.30 pm I will then ring my best friend”; or whatever.)
· When faced with an assignment that is frightening you, try to tackle it on your own by first just
thinking about it; then look up your lecture notes; check the course textbook and a few other books;
and grab a pen and jot down whatever you think or feel about the issue. The next stage could be to ask
for help: your study-buddy is a good place to start; talk to a few friends if they have the same question;
after that you could try a teacher or lecturer; and some Internet forums can supply good advice. You
are better off avoiding assignment writers you find on the Internet, whether they charge for their
services or not. Why? You get no personal development out of it; you are unlikely to remember much
about the answer later because you put in no effort; and you are learning and reinforcing personal bad
habits that will not serve you well in life. It seems weird to pay someone to do you so much harm!
· Learn how to relax quickly and empty your mind, using a relaxation technique or a meditation process.
If you find you cannot concentrate on something you have to do, use your preferred technique and then
go back to studying in a more relaxed and open frame of mind.
· If it is really serious, maybe you need to take a break for a day or two – get away completely if can. A
complete change of environment can work wonders for some. In Northern Europe and elsewhere, the
winter blues can be bad for some; maybe you need to chase the sun for a long weekend if you can
afford it. If you can’t afford it – well, with your good degree you will shortly earn enough to be able
to afford it! Go, go, go!
· Read over the tips to improve your long term motivation – use any of these that you think might help
you get started now.
· Ring up your study-buddy and talk about the question or topic. Try to help each to get back to work.
Maybe you could meet up shortly and play a few learning games together, based around the
assignment topic. This can make learning more fun and raise your level of interest in what you are
doing or have to do.
· If you have not got a study-buddy (get one!) then talk to anyone around, tell them what you intend to
do next (e.g., start reading for your new essay assignment and thinking about what might go in it.…)
Just explaining to someone what you are about to do can help kick-start your energy levels. If it only
makes you feel you had better keep your word and not look like an idiot by failing to keep it, this can
motivate you to begin.
· Make a start with some small and simple step. This can often lead to continuation of your simple start
and cause you to develop a growing interest in what you are doing.
· If you have a complicated question to tackle, break it into small segments and tackle each chunk of it
one at a time. A little reward after finishing a draft of one segment can spur you on to the next piece
to tackle. The thought of a major task might daunt you, but a tiny piece of it should look manageable.
There is a Chinese saying about doing something “Like ants gnawing away at a bone”: many tiny
pieces get removed one after another and the job will be finally done.
· Cultivate the attitude that the job must be finished – you can take breaks but your efforts should
continue until the whole job is done. This might take several sittings or days, but that does not matter.
Focussing on tackling and finishing tasks is a real benefit for you as you are developing your
perseverance. If you learn to quit it can become a habit – not good! When I worked in a factory as a
student working through college, it was drilled into me that “The job isn’t over until you’ve tided up
afterwards!” I have never forgotten these good words of advice.
· Unless you are using it to study from, turn off your computer and open your lecture notes or text book.
Read and think about what you are reading. Turning off your computer is strongly recommended if
you tend to spend a lot of time in chat rooms.
· If turning off your computer seems too painful, use it as a reward: “I shall study for one full hour, then
turn it on again for half an hour. After that, I’ll do this whole process again!”
· If you have a habit of spending hours on your mobile phone, the same advice applies. Ditto for
· If you cannot get down to a task, a new and better environment might help. Try moving to a different
place in the house or flat to study – or go to your local library, or try the Uni. or school library. If the
weather is good, maybe sitting reading in the garden or a local park would help you settle down to
· Remind yourself that the sooner you start, the sooner you finish. And as you are studying or revising,
be aware that you have just done some and that much is now behind you – so there is less left to do.
You are winning!
· If you have an assignment due on the 12th of the month, it might help if you put it in your diary for the
8th as a target for the first draft. Too many students finish an essay on the day it is due or the night
before and this first attempt then goes in as the finished product. You get better marks if you do a first
draft and put it aside for at least 24 hours before going back to polish it. The fake-early-date approach
allows you a few days to read over your essay, correct any errors, and generally improve it. Perhaps
more importantly, this fake deadline gets some people started working on it earlier. And starting is
what it is about! You cannot finish anything unless you begin it first. If you are the sort who works
best under pressure, faking an early date might work well for you. Don’t forget to put it in by the real
· Similarly, you can pretend to yourself that later in the day you will have a test on the material you are
now reading and you want to do well in it. It sounds sneaky, but it helps some people to focus their
minds on the job in front of them. If you have found that study-buddy, knowing that you will actually
have to explain later to him, or her, what you are currently reading can work wonders for your
concentration and memory.
· If you have a personal rival – don’t you just hate them? – use this fact. Tell yourself that if you start
now you have a better chance of beating them. That’ll show them!
· Count the weeks to the end of term, or to the next test or exam, and write this on a piece of paper and
put it up in a prominent position. The shock and fear of “Only 4 weeks to the test!” can help you buckle
down and study, especially as it seems only yesterday that it said “6 weeks”.
· Boost your energy levels in whatever way works best for you. Go to the gym; meditate; take a vitamin
pill; sit in bright sunlight for half an hour – OK, if you can find any in winter where you live; drink a
bit more coffee as long as that does not make you suffer in other ways; cut down on sugar. If you think
such things might help you, try the lot. Cutting out junk food might help too.
· If you feel sad, lonely and depressed, and this feeling goes on for more than a few days, go and see
your doctor. You just might be suffering from clinical depression and he or she can help you to tackle
this. It is a false move to try to tackle chronic sad, negative feelings on your own.
· If you tend to sadness and depression, it could be a serious mistake to dwell on the negative side of
failure in order to motivate yourself and try to achieve. You do not want to damage your health. You
are probably better off avoiding the “fear” tools, like counting down to the next test. Accept that, like
everyone, you have swings in mood, as well as “up” days and “down” days. This is normal, so try not
to worry. You should know that when you are down in the valley and feeling low, there is another peak
ahead that you will surmount and feel happy again. You should concentrate on the benefits of success
as your main motivator.
· If you are prone to sadness, try making a list of all your achievements and successes so far; keep this,
take it out and read it regularly; and add to it whenever you remember something else you have
accomplished in the past, or when you achieve a new success.
· Finally, remember the words of Vince Lombardi, talking about those already in a job: “If you aren’t
fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.” So see if you can build up your drive and
motivation, learn to enjoy the challenges, and generally love life.
Copyright Kevin Bucknalll 2010
The author’s latest book is Going to University: the Secrets of
Success, Second Edition, revised and expanded. This aims to help
students at high school or in a sixth form college to improve
results in essays and exams and in this way to improve their
chances of getting into the university of their first choice. It is also
designed to make the transition from high-school to university
both easier and more enjoyable. It can be obtained from
Amazon.co.uk or it can ordered in any bookshop.
For more details please go to www.keweipress.com