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  • Writer's pictureStudent Wellbeing Service

Understanding Motivation


When we say we feel motivated, what do we actually mean? Often we mean we feel enthusiastic, driven, inspired, stimulated, in a positive mindset, and probably even looking forward to doing whatever it is we are planning to do. If you think about these descriptions in relation to a time when you were procrastinating and trying to find the motivation to start an essay, to study, or to complete a task that you were in the process of avoiding would any of these words have described how you were feeling in that moment? Probably not.

We often wish for ‘motivation’ to show up and give us the focus and drive to do what we know needs to be done but, more than often it doesn’t show up. Why? What is it about motivation that seems so elusive when we would really benefit from its presence, yet we can feel motivated when we least need it?

Have you ever noticed when you are in bed at night, for example, thinking about your tasks for the next day how easy it can feel to get into the right frame of mind to complete them? Come the morning, the motivation we felt the night before has usually gone, evaporated into the ether whilst we slept. As the day passes and we intersperse our time with distractions and less important things we find ourselves searching for it again. If only ‘motivation’ would come back and inspire us to make those tasks much easier to tackle.

The point here is that our understanding of motivation is misinformed. Motivation doesn't appear when we really need it, look at those words we identified above - driven, enthusiastic, inspired, these aren't words associated with how we feel when we are faced with challenges and difficult tasks. What helps us to deal with challenges is our drive to reach the end goal, the bigger picture. For example, athletes who train for almost four years to get to the Olympics don't always feel motivated for those daily 5 am training sessions, however their drive to get to the Olympics, that bigger picture, is their motivation which keeps them focused.

Difficult tasks don’t give the brain that hit of dopamine that makes us feel good and enables us to think, plan, strive, focus, and find things interesting - which explains why we struggle to fight our drive for instant gratification over longer-term reward. How we think about motivation is the key, our conceptualisation of motivation, recognising our purpose - the reason why we are doing what we do and how it will help us achieve our bigger objectives.

Remembering your long term goals can be very helpful but that can only take you so far. Long term goals are just that, a long way off, which conversely, makes us more prone to procrastination. It’s also about the here and now, and keeping it simple and easier from a day to day perspective.

Ask yourself…

How do you want to feel when you sit down this evening to watch a movie?

How will you feel after you’ve been for that run, done work on that essay, finished that job application?

How do you want to feel when you climb into bed tonight at the end of your day?

We all know the answers. We want to end our day feeling calmer, a little less stressed, more content and with the knowledge that we have ‘moved’ something forward and made some progress. Knowing how we want to feel at the end of the day and achieving that feeling is the key to self-motivation.

So, "to feel more relaxed at bedtime, I know I need to get a couple of hours work done on my project".

"Once I’ve been for my run I know I will feel a sense of pride and satisfaction, rather than feeling guilty for skipping it".

It’s not about trying to create enthusiasm and drive for those challenging tasks it’s about acknowledging the truth that the task is challenging, but that knowing you will feel better, happier, less stressed, and have a greater sense of contentment within yourself once you have faced it.

Now you are starting to understand how motivation works and how you can use it actively, for yourself.

Best wishes

David Barrand

Student Wellbeing Advisor - Faculty of Social Sciences

For practical tips to help improve your motivation here's a link to Emily's webinar - (Emily is one of our Wellbeing Advisors in the FoSS):

If short YouTube videos are your thing, have a look at The Science of Productivity (it's 3 minutes long and has some good tips) and here's a short video about how you can use your values as a source of motivation The Happiness Trap: Motivation

And to help develop your understanding about why how we speak to ourselves is important and helpful in managing motivation, amongst other things, these two articles give a great introduction:

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