Eight Ways to Motivate Yourself

Lesson 2: Motivation that works in learning has to come from inside of you.

Posted May 31, 2020

Do you remember my story in the Introduction to this short course about how motivated changed me from a D student in the 4th grade to an all-A student in the 7th grade? We don’t all have a Miss Torti in our lives to motivate us to be effective learners, but we all have something. If you can’t find a source of motivation, make one up. It can change your life.

In my book for parents and teachers, The Learning Skills Cycle, I made it a point to begin the cycle with motivation. If motivated to learn, a student not only acquires the knowledge but, in the process, can become more learning competent as learning skills develop. As a student realizes that such skills have been acquired, confidence about the ability to learn grows and this in turn stimulates more motivation to learn. This positive feedback cycle does not occur if students do not acquire learning skills.

The basis of the motivation does not have to be particularly inspiring or honorable. My physical attraction to Miss Torti certainly lacked such worthiness. For motivation to give you the drive needed to do all that is necessary to become a good learner, you must feel compelled and passionate about the objective.

Bad educational environments and experiences stamp out the motivation to learn. In my work in consulting with middle-school teachers, I have found that by that grade level many students have been turned off of learning. They had too many bad learning experiences in the earlier grades. This is especially true of the majority of students who have not learned how to excel in school. Week after week, year after year, ordinary performance kills their interest in learning. Such students develop defense mechanisms. “Why do I have to learn this?’ “This book is boring.” “My teacher doesn’t like me.” “I could make As, but I don’t want to.” “Schoolwork is for nerds.” So goes a litany of excuses.

These problems have always plagued teachers who try to motivate the under-achievers. In today’s standards-based, high-stakes testing environment, we have the new problem that a teacher is liable to give an answer that is equivalent to “You need to learn this to score well on the state learning achievement tests so that you make your teachers and school look good.” This, you can be assured, does not do much to motivate students.

Well, learners, I have shocking news for you. Motivation that works in learning has to come from inside of you, not from the outside influence of parents, teachers, school districts, or whatever. You are like horses that can be led to water. Outside influences can't make you drink if you are not thirsty.

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How do you make yourself thirsty for effective and efficient learning? Well, the efficiency goal comes easy. We are all rather lazy about school work, and thus naturally want our learning to occur with minimal effort. The effective goal should also come easy, because what is the point of trying to learn if you aren’t good at it? What is the point of learning if you don’t remember it?

Beyond such basics, I can list several things that will motivate you to learn:

  • The Wonder of Learning. We live in a universe and world full of natural wonder. Every academic subject is wondrous to some people. Why not you? You can see the wonder in every subject (yes, even algebra, if you look for it.) Babies are fascinated by what they see, hear, and touch. Watch a baby as a mobile dangle overhead. Exploratory activities become conspicuously pronounced if the mobile objects are close enough to be manipulated. Everything a baby encounters is new and astonishing. Why do we allow ourselves to lose that fascination with the world as we get older? For some people, the more they learn, the less wondrous the world seems. Among adults, scientists seem to be an exception (to a biologist, pond scum is beautiful and wondrous).
  • Relevance. The real-world relevance of academic subjects is not always self-evident to someone learning the subject for the first time. Even if the learner understands the relevance, the subject may not be relevant for them at the time they have to learn it. The first step in seeing relevance is to realize that our lack of knowledge about a subject has put us in a small and narrow world that blinds us to the relevance. Once we know there is relevance we do not yet perceive, we have reason to look for it. In other words, we need to try to identify the relevance of what we need to learn for us. Once we realize how we might use new information or how it might make us a better or more competent person, we have reason to learn it. Even if the relevance is limited to the recognition we would get from successful learning, that in itself can be sufficient relevance.
  • Rewards and Punishments. We have all been amazed by performance animals that demonstrate astonishing feats of learning at Sea World, circuses, and similar venues. These animals learn all sorts of tricks they seemingly have no need to learn. Their training process is known as “operant conditioning.” They learn under conditions in which they are punished for failure to learn and rewarded for successful learning. Direct punishment does not work very well as a motivator. As used by trainers, punishment occurs in the failure to receive a reward if the learning objective is not met. In a typical school environment, grades are the usual basis for reward and punishment. This is frequently not enough. Recall that my low grades in the 4th grade did not motivate me to get better. What worked finally in the 7th grade was seeing Miss Torti pay attention to me because I was showing improvement. The more I learned, the more she paid attention to me. The principle here is called “positive reinforcement.” It means that when we receive a reward, even a small one, for generating a certain behavior, we are motivated to repeat the behavior. The practical point for students is to construct or find positive reinforcement for themselves for improving their learning skills and resulting in learning successes. You may not have a Miss Torti to reward you for your achievements, but you can reward yourself. 
  • Ownership and Pride.  I think it was back in the Great Depression that someone coined the expression, “Knowledge is something nobody can take away from you.” You may have things stolen, you may lose your job, you may lose out in a competition, but your knowledge is always yours. And you earned it. You have a powerful sense of ownership. This is the obvious benefit of projects where the student builds something, like robots or a science-fair presentation. Even less obvious products, like cursive writing, are something a student owns in a very personal way, and if it is done well, can take great pride. Speaking of cursive, in the first 6 weeks of the 7th grade, I had to take a penmanship course. I apparently have good hand-eye coordination, and I readily learned to write well. I took great pride in showing others my handwriting because I knew it was really good. That little success may have had more to do with my 7th-grade academic reformation than anything else. To this day, I still get compliments on my handwriting. It was a great feeling in the 7th grade, and still feels good every time I look at my handwriting.
  • Attitude Adjustment. No one likes failure. No one likes to feel inferior. Everyone relishes achievement. Failure should not be an option. However, we make failure an option by constructing excuses for it. We develop attitudes to explain away our failures and in the process perpetuate the failures. At some point, when it dawns on us that our attitude is counter-productive, we realize the value of adjusting our attitudes to be more positive.
  • Acting “as if.” Behavior changes attitudes, emotions, and motivation.  Conscientious students try to adjust their attitudes and feelings by force of will—this often fails. A better result, especially with students who are not all that conscientious, can sometimes occur with the principle enunciated about 100 years ago by the famous psychologist William James. He noted that how a person acts can change his or her own thinking, attitude, and feelings. This is the "as if" principle, which states that behaving the way one wants to be will help make it so. We know that mind can sometimes change behavior, but the "as if" principle says that behavior can change mind.
  • Learning Self-control. Few things in life are as motivating as when you reach the point where you are in charge, where you discover that your capacity for self-control gives you power. Once you discover that you have the power to be a good learner, you will want to seize the added power that learning gives you in this world.
  • Confidence. Confidence is something you have to earn. As you begin your trek to effective and efficient learning, small successes will happen. They will build on each other and give you reason to be more confident. When I made my first A in a difficult subject, I realized, “Hey, I can do this. I just did. Maybe I am not as stupid as my former Ds suggested.” Belief in your ability to learn can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As confidence slowly grows, you start thinking about what worked in the learning.


1. Find what is awesome and wonderful in everything you have to learn.

2. Identify why or how what you have to learn is relevant to something in your life.

3. Give yourself little rewards for each successful learning event.

4. Take ownership of what you learn and be proud of yourself for knowing it.

5. If your attitude about school or learning is impeding successful learning, adjust your attitude to be more positive.

6. Act "as if" you are a good learner, and do the things good learners do.

7. Control yourself. Be the "master of your own ship."

8. Gain confidence from successful learning events. Believe in yourself.

Next: Lesson 3: Paying Attention

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