You know the problem well: it’s halfway through the term and your mind is out the window, over the city, across the water, somewhere on a beach in Bali. It’s one thing to stay motivated when you’re showing up to class each day, engaging face-to-face with instructors and peers, but the challenge deepens when you’re learning on your own. What are some of the most effective ways to reel your mind back in when it wanders off?
Most of the reading you’ll do on this topic will resound with the same advice: drink lots of water, give yourself breaks, get enough sleep, create a study schedule and stick with it, chart your progress, reward yourself regularly, make time for fun. And none of it helps—at least not in a deep or lasting way. In theory, it all makes sense, but when it comes to improving our ability to focus, we need to be talking about the brain, not how many cookies we’ll eat after acing an exam.
For your educational pleasure, we’ve compiled some of the most useful research and insights on the way motivation works in the brain. Above all, it’s important to note that we are all motivated by different things. A one-size-fits-all model of academic grit just doesn’t hold up to scientific inquiry. This may sound like a bad thing, but it’s really an advantage: If you can truly understand what motivates you, you’ll suddenly have the power to apply it to any of life’s tasks. And that includes your online course.
At the Motivated Memory Lab at Duke University, Dr. R. Alison Adcock studies the neural correlates of motivation. What she’s found so far is that motivation stems from a feeling of “playful anticipation” more than an actual reward.
Studying rewards doesn’t illuminate much, she says, because people have vastly different definitions of them. For instance, Adcock found that some people’s brains respond with pleasure when offered monetary rewards for a task, while other people’s brains respond with anxiety or fear. What’s universal is that when people are motivated by something, their brains light up with anticipation.
It’s that anticipatory brain state—largely defined by curiosity and desire—that Adcock believes we should pay closer attention to.
People think they know what motivates them, Adcock says, but they’re often wrong. Is it money that motivates you, or is it power and status? Maybe it’s simply the anticipation of receiving these things that’s most pleasurable. The bottom line is that curiosity matters.
But we can’t be curious in just any environment.
“From what we understand about the brain systems for motivation, you can’t be afraid, you can’t be anxious—because anxiety systems really clamp down on curiosity and produce stereotyped, rapid, simple responses that short circuit the kind of playful curiosity we’re so interested in facilitating in education and in therapy, too.”
Think of the last time you felt nervous while answering questions about yourself. Most likely, you gave brief stock responses and then thought later, “That wasn’t genuinely me.”
Playful curiosity comes from feeling “safe and valued—not tense and worried.” Research even shows that feeling safe makes us more creative. It’s also important to cultivate an exploratory mindset and learn to associate it with high rewards.
“If you give a child M&Ms for violin practice, they can’t be contingent on some particular behavior,” Adcock says. “If they are, what you’ll get is more of that specific behavior, which is not necessarily going to induce exploratory behavior. You could give M&Ms before or after violin practice, no matter how well it went. It might work, but the tit for tat of reinforcing violin is probably not going to inspire the playful attitude you want either.”
It’s this “playful reward anticipation” that kindles curiosity, thereby fueling motivation. Once we’re curious, our brains are primed to remember what we learn along the way.
“Individual differences in motivation aren’t just rhetoric,” Adcock says. Her research has made it clear: “How people were being driven really determined how well people learned.”
Adcock’s team is now working on eliciting a motivated brain state in subjects by bringing them into the lab and asking them to imagine a motivated state of mind. She thinks it may be possible for people to become more motivated simply by visualising in this way.
“That’s really the focus of my laboratory right now: to answer the question of what circumstances produce curiosity and to see if we can teach people to generate that state for themselves.”
You’re familiar with the idea that self-affirmations increase motivation, but researchers at the University of Illinois and Southern Mississippi University have found evidence to the contrary: people who ask themselves if they will succeed at a task generally perform better on that task than people who tell themselves that they will.
In the study, Illinois professor Dolores Albarracin and her team divided fifty people into two groups and asked them to do one of two things: spend one minute wondering whether they would complete a task or spend one minute telling themselves they would.
People who asked themselves whether they’d complete the task “showed more success on an anagram task, rearranging set words to create different words” than people who told themselves they’d complete it. Albarracin and her team discovered the same effect when students were instructed to write the words “I Will” versus “Will I?” before completing the anagram task, without any prior knowledge of what the task itself would be.
“The popular idea is that self-affirmations enhance people’s ability to meet their goals,” Albarracin says. “It seems, however, that when it comes to performing a specific behaviour, asking questions is a more promising way of achieving your objectives.”
In a follow-up study, the same participants who had completed the “I Will” versus “Will I” task were asked how much they planned to exercise the following week. The self-questioners not only exercised more, but they also scored higher on a psychological scale measuring levels of intrinsic motivation.
“We are turning our attention to the scientific study of how language affects self-regulation,” Albarracin says. “Experimental methods are allowing us to investigate people’s inner speech, of both the explicit and implicit variety, and how what they say to themselves shapes the course of their behaviours.”
Dr. James W. Pennebaker, Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas, commented that these findings have big implications for our understanding of how motivation works in the brain:
“This work represents a basic cognitive approach to how language provides a window between thoughts and action. The reason it is so interesting is that it shows that by using language analysis, we can see that social cognitive ideas are relevant to objective real world behaviours and that the ways people talk about their behaviour can predict future action.”
Give it a whirl before you start your next online course: Ask yourself a question and create your own motivation.
Researchers at the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba have discovered something pretty fascinating about the nature of motivation: it has two distinct stages.
At first, most of us are dreamers. We picture the positive, transformative aspects of achieving a goal, whether it’s receiving perfect grades or setting a personal record in the marathon or publishing a book. That provides enough gas for the first half of our work. After that, a different kind of motivation takes over as our deadline approaches: the fear of not achieving our goal. That’s what’s usually in our tank when we cross the finish line.
The first type of motivation is what lead researcher Olya Bullard, PhD calls “promotion motivation.” It’s the good feeling, lighting up the pleasure and reward centre of the brain, that helps us get started. The second type of motivation, called “prevention motivation,” sets in when we consider the negative consequences of flunking our classes, slogging through our marathon, or giving up on our book. Both are normal, and we can use them each to our advantage.
The research comes from a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, where people in a weight loss program were working to lose twenty pounds. Bullard and her team found that participants were initially motivated by the thought of improving their appearance and feeling more energised. They chose to eat more fruits and vegetables as they imagined the positive aspects of achieving their goal. Midway through the program, however, participants reported following the new diet for different reasons: they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to fit into new clothes and no longer wanted to feel insecure about their appearance. Instead of focusing on fruits and vegetables, they switched their focus to avoiding things that would throw them off course, like eating dessert and being sedentary.
The same thing happened across five different versions of the study: promotion motivation followed by prevention motivation. So how can this help the rest of us?
“People may have better luck sustaining motivation in the late stages if they focus on what to avoid in order to reach their goals,” Bullard says. “For those who are trying to save money for a house or a trip, for example, initially it may work to pursue positive saving strategies like getting a higher paying job or investing money. Later in the process, focus on avoidance strategies like going out to dinner less often or forgoing expensive purchases.”
Marketers should take note as well:
“Companies can frame their advertisements based on whether consumers are in early or later stages of pursuing their goals,” Bullard explains. “For example, a gym catering to people who are just starting to get in shape could emphasise the exciting opportunities and latest fitness technology at the gym that will help members achieve their aspirations. On the other hand, an ad for a gym catering for people well on their way to reaching a fitness goal could emphasise safe and proven technologies that will secure expectations for fitness and offer ‘satisfaction’ guarantees.”
In an educational context, this research has some very useful implications. If you’re just beginning your online course, focus on the positive outcomes of succeeding in it, whether it’s receiving a job qualification or simply enhancing your knowledge for intrinsic reasons. Once you’re midway through the course and feel your motivation lagging, try imagining the undesirable consequences of not finishing or succeeding in the course. You know what you wanted when you started it, so envision being denied those things and you’ll probably be able to stoke that fire back to life.
Sometimes we procrastinate not because we’re disinterested in a subject but because we don’t want to fail. If we know our grades or reputation are at stake, we avoid assignments until the last possible minute. According to researcher Emily Falk, one way to get around this is to zoom out from yourself and consider other people, or even society at large. Doing so takes the pressure off a bit and separates your performance from your self-worth.
In her study, Falk found that people are more likely to respond positively to health messages (i.e. being prompted to exercise) if they first experience feelings of self-transcendence or compassion:
“Focusing on values and activities that transcend the self can allow people to see that their self-worth is not tied to a specific behavior in question, and in turn become more receptive to subsequent, otherwise threatening health information.”
At first, participants reacted defensively when they received the health messages. After all, no one likes to be told what to do. But if they were primed beforehand to consider the well-being of others, such as their children and other family members, they were more likely to embrace the messages.
“It is possible that self-transcendence primes openness to new information by activating such a positive reward stance, which allows for a nondefensive, open-hypothesis testing mindset,” writes Falk. “In this way, messages that might otherwise pose a threat to self-worth can be received and retained more effectively.”
For students, this might mean participating in a loving-kindness meditation, volunteering for a non-profit, or getting friends together for a few laughs before you hit the books.
We tend to assume that “staying focused” is an entirely mental phenomenon, but Falk’s research suggests otherwise: If you elicit a feeling first, especially one that has less to do with selfish rewards and more to do with the social good, your mind will be less resistant to tasks that appear to be high-stakes.
Not to contradict the previous point, but cognitive psychology shows we are all most interested in things that apply to us personally. We can use this to our advantage when it comes to online learning. The more personal we make it, the more curious we’ll be about it and the better we’ll remember it.
This effect is known in psychology circles as the “self-referential bias”: we are strongly motivated by things that have to do with us. When it comes to learning new information—or, as cognitive psychologists say, “encoding”—we perform much better when it has personal value.
“Self-referencing (i.e. thinking about oneself during encoding) can increase attention toward to-be-encoded material, and support memory for information in adults and children,” write researchers D.J. Turk and Karri Gillespie-Smith. A 2015 literacy study of theirs showed that “children in this self-referent condition produced longer sentences and increased spelling accuracy by more than 20%, relative to those in an other-referent condition. These findings demonstrate the significant potential advantages of utilising self-referential encoding in the classroom.”
There’s even a separate network in the brain for self-referential information. If an external message activates this network, neuroscientists say it can “directly change a person’s behavior, prompting them to make one choice over another.”
If you’re based in a city, chances are there are other people taking the same course as you, or at least a similar course. Create a Meetup group or post on Facebook to reach out to potential study partners. The world is increasingly interconnected, and it should be an advantage—not an obstacle—that your course is online. Go find your people!
You can also ask friends, relatives, peers, and colleagues to hold you accountable for your studies. Tell them your schedule, goals, or exam dates and ask them to check in with you about your progress. Take it one step further and have them quiz you if they’re willing.
Another point to consider is that storytelling is becoming an increasingly useful skill, not only in social situations but in professional teams that want to build more authentic, relatable brands. The human brain loves stories, and any information that’s presented in a compelling narrative format will be remembered over information that’s not.
“A story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own ideas and experience,” says storytelling and learning researcher Gerry Beamish. “In terms of influencing there is nothing more powerful than people thinking that the idea is their own.”
Try organising the material you’re learning into stories that can be told to yourself or others. It’s both fun and effective.
Thanks to a psychological phenomenon called “associative learning,” you’ll recall each lesson better if you study for it in a different place, because you’ll be aided by a visual memory that’s uniquely tied to that material. I still remember passages from textbooks I read in uni because I can picture where I was reading them—on a bench in the park, on my belly in the grass, on a couch on the top floor of the science center. I recall these passages better than passages I read while studying at the same location on the other days: the library, my room, the common space of my dorm. My brain made a connection between the information and the environment, and it’s stuck with me all these years later.
It’s not an all-or-nothing deal; obviously, you’ll want to study in the same place more than once. But it’s good to keep in mind if there’s something you want to try extra hard to remember. Plus, the new environment will refresh your brain a bit and provide a much-needed antidote to any burnout you might be experiencing.
The great thing about mobile learning is that you can absolutely use this associative learning technique anywhere you want as you complete your online course.
Self-control is one of the best-researched areas in the motivation literature.
According to a new study from the University of Toronto, self-control may be less limited than we think. The secret is switching up our tasks throughout the day, and if we manage to do this successfully, there may be “no noticeable dip in our motivation and ability to do something.”
Dan Randles, a postdoc fellow and part of the research team at Toronto, explains: “While people get tired doing one specific task over a period of time, we found no evidence that they had less motivation or ability to complete tasks throughout the day.”
That’s because self-control is sacrificing what you want now for what you want most.
“It’s doing something not because you enjoy it, but because it’s connected to a larger goal and you want to see it through.”
Many psychologists believe self-control is a general resource that can be exhausted if we draw on it for too long. But Randles underscores the fact that there’s little evidence for this, and it’s a theory that remains controversial at best.
The Toronto team found that when self-control does decline, it’s because people have been doing the same thing for too long: While completing a single difficult memory task, subjects’ performance started flagging around the 30-minute mark, followed by a noticeable drop around 50 minutes.
Despite being limited within a single task, the researchers found no evidence that self-control decreased for various tasks throughout the day. In fact, motivation to complete tasks actually increased over time.
One possible explanation for this effect, says Randles, is “that we have several longer-term goals to achieve and that we’re sensitive to putting in enough effort to complete them all, so too much effort in one task may rob other important goals.”
The bottom line is that self-control is fairly unlimited, as long as we switch up our tasks now and then.
“This finding is especially important for intellectually demanding tasks like learning,” said another researcher. “It fits with research showing that you remember more of what you learn when you review it frequently but in short bursts.”
The study is one of the first to observe self-control in a natural setting over a full 24-hour period. The researchers gathered data from over 16,000 students who completed voluntary learning and review exercises over several months using an adaptive learning platform.
“The data… offered a unique opportunity because it showed us exactly when people were willing to engage in a difficult mental activity and for how long,” Randles said. “The fact that participants got worse at a single task speaks to how effortful they found it, [but] despite the difficulty, we found no evidence whatsoever that their ability or motivation decreased up until the point they got tired late at night.”
Another new study on self-control aims to challenge the notion that self-control requires sacrificing pleasure. Do we really have to give up video games and Netflix to get our studying done?
According to Dr Irene Scopelliti, associate professor of marketing at Cass Business School, the problem with this way of thinking is that it paints our choices as black-or-white, when really we should give ourselves some slack.
“Presented with the opportunity to eat cake or carrot sticks, a person intent on losing weight would experience a self-control failure when they choose to eat the cake and expect to regret having done so,” Scopelliti says. “Anticipated regret would signal that eating the cake violated a long-term goal of losing weight.”
But is it really as simple as a tradeoff between health and pleasure? Does eating the cake equate to a self-control failure?
“If the same person ate only a small piece of cake… they may not experience a self-control failure because they haven’t eaten enough to violate their goal of losing weight and trigger regret. It is not the consumption of cake that automatically signals a self-control failure; it is whether consumers believe that they may regret their food choice in the future. Our research demonstrates that health and pleasure are not necessarily in conflict.”
Studying people’s relationship with food, Dr Scopelliti and her co-authors—Professor Joachim Vosgerau of Bocconi University and Dr Young Eun Huh from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology’s School of Business and Technology Management— argue that “obesity should not, as it often is, be associated with a lack of self-control, as the two cannot be empirically linked.”
It’s all about the goals you create for yourself and how you define “self-control.”
“Because individuals’ long-term goals often differ, so too do the prerequisites for self-control failures,” says Professor Vosgerau. “If a person is comfortable with their weight and does not anticipate regret in advance of their food consumption choices, then we cannot say that person lacks self-control.”
Finally, a third study from Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv found that the more we try to achieve self-control, the more illusive it becomes. Over six hundred people participated in the study, and those who reported wanting more self-control performed worse in difficult tasks that required it.
“One of the main messages of this paper is that although it’s good for society that both children and adults have a high level of self-control, the mere desire for self-control could be an obstacle to achieving it,” says Dr. Liad Uziel, a psychologist at Bar-Ilan University. “Thus, while intended to help people gain more self-control, the common practice of driving people to desire more self-control runs the risk of actually undermining their confidence and increasing their doubts that they have the resources to exhibit self-control.”
That’s enough talk about self-control for now, then.
Our professional and educational lives are increasingly intertwined with our personal lives. One area that still gets a bad rep is social media, but so many of us use it for both formal and casual purposes that it’s becoming harder and harder to draw the line between leisure and work. Maybe it’s time to view it in a different light.
Social media can be a powerful motivator. For some, it can even be more motivating than distracting. Instead of separating your social and personal life from your online studies, try blending them. Record your progress on Insta with quotes that summarise your learning. Test your understanding of new material by sending WhatsApp voice messages to a friend or peer that summarise what you’ve learned in each lesson. Use Insta and Facebook stories to record short videos of yourself reviewing new information. Be creative and tie it to your life. Make it interesting for others. Social media can and should be used as a personal learning and teaching platform, not treated as a distracting temptation. Learning is cool. Share your insights with the world.
We all go through slumps where our minds wander off-task and we’d rather be doing something—anything—other than what we’re supposed to be doing. While it sounds appealing to be a laser-focused superhuman, that’s just not how we’re built. We need to take breaks, we need to treat ourselves well, and we need to give up the false notion that we can be perfect. That said, there are concrete things we can do to recharge our motivation, and they don’t require running down the block for a sixth cup of coffee. Take a note from the one who’s really in charge—your brain—and hack your motivation with the latest lessons from cognitive science.
Author: Saga Briggs. Saga Briggs is a journalist covering trends in learning, creativity, intelligence, and educational technology. Follow her @SagaMilena