It’s a boring afternoon. You’re tired after class, and all you want to do is curl up with Netflix and a bowl of cereal. But you really should study, and you know it. It’s just that you just don’t feel like it at all.
Maybe you have a project that’s due soon, a paper to write, or a test coming up. Or, maybe, you just know you ought to study a little every day.
(Gross, I know).
How do you avoid procrastination and build up the motivation to get started?
Well, you’ve come to the right place. That’s what we’re talking about today. Of course, there are some long-term steps you could take to make sure this scenario happens less often, like building more self-discipline and better study habits…
…but what if you need to get started like, right now?
We’ve got you covered. Follow our 5-step process to get the study motivation you need:
Funnily enough, this is one of the most effective steps in the process, and it’s usually the one that you feel the most resistance to. When there’s a bunch of work to be done, it feels counterintuitive to leave it all behind and go outside. So, why should you?
Two big reasons:
- Walking is good for your brain.
- Walking creates productive momentum.
Let’s talk about the brain part first.
Moderate exercise, like going for a walk, does a couple of things:
First, it puts your brain in a prime state to receive and store new information. Research by UCLA found that exercise stimulates the production of several growth factor hormones which promote neuroplasticity, or your brain’s ability to form new neural pathways. This is crucial to your ability to learn and memorize new stuff.
As if that wasn’t enough, exercise — specifically exercise outside — is great for your energy and motivation levels. Here’s why:
- Exercise produces endorphins, chemicals that improve your mood and boost motivation. It also moves more oxygen to your brain, helping to chase away brain fog and lingering fatigue.
- Getting outside for even 30 minutes will produce enough Vitamin D to boost your energy and lighten your mood.
Ok, so science tells us exercise is great for our brains, but there’s another really cool thing that going for a walk does which will help kickstart your motivation. It creates momentum.
Think about it this way: going outside for a walk will make you feel as if you’ve accomplished something.
Instead of sitting at your desk, moping around, and feeling like you ought to be getting something done, you actually are getting something done.
By the time you go for a walk around the block and come back to your desk, you’ll feel accomplished already, and that will propel you forward into your textbooks and notes.
It works for the same reason that making your bed or doing the dishes gets you a good start to your day. It creates momentum. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Going for a walk gets you moving on a productive track without ever touching your studies.
So, you’re back from your walk, and it’s time to sit down and do some work. Don’t get started just yet. First, pick one thing to focus on.
If you pick more than one thing, you’re setting yourself up to be distracted.
When you’re trying to accomplish multiple tasks, you’ll be tempted to hop to the next item of your to-do list the moment the first thing gets boring or difficult. It’s human nature.
Instead, set yourself up for success and pick one thing to focus on at first. Commit to it. Even write it down. Your will must be iron. Like the iron pen referenced by Nicholas Cage in National Treasure. Resolved.
When you write a goal down, you’re committed to it. You have something to look at that will remind you of your main focus for that day.
This makes it a whole lot easier to get that One Very Important Thing done, like writing a research paper or studying for a test. You won’t be worried about three thousand other things. Your brain only has to focus on one task. Be nice to your brain and commit to a single goal before doing anything else.
The very next thing you should do is clear your workspace to neutral.
In his book Kitchen Confidential, chef Anthony Bourdain talks about how a clean workspace is essential, especially in the kitchen:
“Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not fuck with a line cook’s “meez” — meaning their set-up, their carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, back-ups, and so on…
If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in space and calling for back-up…
That’s what the inside of your head looks like now. Work clean!”
Mise-en-place literally means “everything in its place.” Like Chef Bourdain points out, it’s hard to focus when your workspace isn’t clean.
Before you move on, get rid of anything that doesn’t relate to the task at hand.
Throw your trash away.
Give yourself a clear workspace.
Close extra browser tabs you aren’t going to use.
Shut off the internet entirely, if you have to.
Once that’s done, you’re ready to begin.
So your heart rate is up. Your brain is clear. You’ve picked one thing to work on, written it down, and cleared your space to neutral. Now what?
Time to get cracking.
Usually, our brain has a lot of resistance to starting. Maybe the blank page is staring at you, and all you want to do is fire up Pokémon Go and walk far, far away from your computer and textbook.
In response, you need to eliminate as much resistance as possible and make it easy for yourself to choose to start over playing Pokémon Go. This isn’t as difficult as you might think. Here’s how:
If you have to write a paper, then just start word-vomiting. Write whatever comes to your head, even if it isn’t related to the paper. The blank page is your enemy. Fill it up.
If you hit a snag, just make a note of something you need to elaborate on or a piece of research you need to do. Then, move on. You can always edit later, but it’s impossible to edit a blank page.
If you’re studying for a test, have the attention span of a goldfish, and aren’t sure where to start, just take out your notes and stare at them for five minutes. You can do anything for five minutes.
This goes for any piece of homework or studying you have to do. Give yourself stupidly easy tasks at first. Then, increase difficulty as you gain momentum and focus.
Here’s a way to beat your resistance to studying every time:
- Set a timer for twenty-five minutes, and work on just one task during those twenty-five minutes.
- Take a five-minute break after the timer goes off.
- Repeat your 25/5 block four more times.
- Take a longer break.
Not only does the Pomodoro Technique help eliminate resistance, because working for 25 minutes is manageable; it also, over time, can help improve your attention span and focus.
You’ll be surprised how fast that 25-minute block of time goes, and once you get in a good flow, don’t be afraid to ignore the timer and keep going! The whole point of the technique is just to get you started.
While you’re working, keep a piece of paper next to you. When you think of something (say, you need to email your professor, text a friend, or look up a recipe for Skyrim‘s sweet rolls), write it down on the piece of paper and go back to work.
This helps chase distracting thoughts out of your brain. When you write them down, you alleviate your brain’s need to remember them and free up your focus muscles for the task at hand.
So what about some long-term things you can do to help improve your motivation to study? There are a few things you can do:
- Build more self-discipline
- Build better study habits
- Create a good environment for studying
We’ve talked about all of these at length in other articles, but here’s a bit about each:
1. Build Self-Discipline
This is probably one of the most difficult, yet most rewarding things you can do. Self-discipline isn’t the actual act of changing your behavior, but rather the force with which you create behavior change.
As writer Sam Thomas Davies says:
“Self-discipline is about leaning into resistance. Taking action in spite of how you feel. Living life by design, not by default. But most importantly, it’s acting in accordance with your thoughts —not your feelings.”
While it’s definitely one of the harder routes to take, building self-discipline creates a baseline by which you live. It sets you up for greater success later on.
2. Build Better Study Habits
Habits are the key to optimizing your entire life. They’re almost more effective than self-discipline, because once they’re established, they don’t require willpower to keep in motion.
We’ve written an entire guide on how to build better habits, but here’s the short version:
- Come up with a solid reason why you want to build better study habits, like getting better grades, doing well on tests, or having less stress around assignment deadlines.
- Create a routine you plan to follow every time you want to study, like going to a specific place at a specific time.
- Commit to change. Write your plan down. Tell someone. Eliminate as much resistance to that routine as you can and go do it as often and as consistently as you can until it becomes a habit.
It helps to optimize your environment to foster better habits, which brings us to the next point:
3. Optimize Your Environment
The third powerful tool to increase your motivation is to create an environment that’s conducive to getting stuff done.
This goes back, in a way, to the mise-en-place philosophy. If your dorm room or office is messy and disorganized, then how can you expect your brain to focus on your work?
Not only that, but having a space that your brain associates with productivity is incredible. It’s all about context. Just like science tells us to use your bed only for sleeping, you should have a space you only use for studying.
As soon as you sit down in your chair at your clean, organized desk, your brain should know “Ah, this is the studying place”, because you always study there.
If you want to learn more about how to create a study space that’s perfect for you, we have an entire blog post and video on that exact topic. There’s a huge amount of information, right down to the temperature and specific lighting you should be experimenting with for optimal success. So make sure to check it out!
To sum up, if you’re having trouble studying, there are five steps you should take:
- Go for a walk outside.
- Commit to one single task, and write it down.
- Clear your workspace to neutral.
- Use the “Low Effort” Hack to get started.
- Beat procrastination with the Pomodoro Technique.
Combine this with a dose of self-discipline, healthy study habits built up over a period of time, and a well-designed study space conducive to success, and you shouldn’t find it too difficult to feel motivated to get work done.
While you’re here, check out Thomas’s study playlist. There’s nothing like the right music to set the tone for a job well done.
And just in case you’re still procrastinating, here’s your sign:
Stop reading this, and go do the thing.