Motivation. It’s the fuel, the invigorator, the sunrise on our otherwise dark desert of endless schoolwork. But most of us have those days — sometimes many days in a row — when our fuel reserves run dry. Pulled taut by the strain of finals and deadlines and the ever-ticking clock, we feel perpetually exhausted. We lose our elasticity, our will to act, to improvise, to create. In light of days like that, I’d like to discuss why I believe mistaking a constant sense of resigned studying for motivation is the deadly cancer of college life, and how we might change our mindsets to become better students.
In school, we’re challenged every day. We know that it’s not supposed to be easy. And we might enjoy large parts of it: the reading, the art, the science, whatever our interest happens to be. Yet, at the same time, it’s easy to feel knocked over by the tsunami of assignments. We can’t force ourselves to care about everything 24/7, and what we’re passionate about becomes just another box to check off the packed schedule. Education becomes mentally draining. See the paradox?
Say a student has a heavy workload. Feeling unmotivated begets procrastination, and procrastination begets a little bit of guilt. Finally, the student must resign themselves to studying. Soon, every assignment becomes a reluctant task. And instead of allotting times for established breaks, procrastination — and with it, that gnawing guilt — takes a stronger grip. Homework becomes dreadful because it’s put off, and putting it off makes the guilt worse by association. Eventually, constantly scrambling for assignments leaves no time to pursue personal interests, and apathy tightens its grip. The student may even start questioning why they came to college in the first place. Resolve to keep trying disintegrates. Being resigned to studying turns into being resigned to giving up.
Maybe this all seems like a far-fetched, hypothetical scenario. The statistics, however, tell a sobering truth. In fall 2017, the freshmen retention rate for UTD was 88%; and, for freshmen entering in 2012 on a 4-year graduation rate, only 54.5% graduated in 2016. It isn’t much of a stretch to guess that as many as a few thousand people left because college just didn’t feel worth it anymore. It may not have even been just the workload — rather, there wasn’t any excitement in learning any longer.
Say we take all of this to be true. Perhaps it’s not a particularly controversial idea that academic apathy is undesirable or wide-spread. But is it inevitable? Should we resign ourselves to more days of being stressed, overwhelmed, and, consequently, apathetic? Or is there a way to spark the flint of our creativity, passion and true motivation on the days when we feel stuck in drudgery?
Allow me to briefly illustrate a possible answer from my own experience. As a homeschooled high schooler, I more or less set my own schedules and deadlines. Friends in extracurricular activities often asked me how I stayed motivated to get things done. Truthfully, I was stressed with assignments and lagged in motivation just like everyone else. But I found that searching for spontaneity in my day was what revitalized my studying. Going on a spur-of-the-moment bike ride, jotting down a quick poem or making up a song on the piano — it seems random, but it worked.
Let’s map this idea on to our current college experience. Our schedules are more freeform now, much like mine was during high school. There are great gaps of time in the day when our time is our own. Sure, we have assignments and deadlines and places we need to be. But on a deeper level, we’re choosing to be there — learning to o make the choices that teach us adulthood. We don’t have someone constantly at our shoulder telling us what to do. We draw the boundaries for our lives. Academic apathy becomes toxic when we choose to let those boundaries be completely predictable: studying, while important, will wear a person thin when there’s no variety in other aspects of life. What would happen if we let our boundaries and experiences become more unexpected—even to ourselves?
Examining this more factually, in their 2016 study “The Calendar Mindset: Scheduling Takes the Fun Out and Puts the Work In,” Gabriela Tonietto and Selin Malkoc demonstrated how test subjects reported that scheduling specific leisure activities made it feel more like work than keeping plans spontaneous. Relatedly, there is overwhelming evidence that taking breaks helps studying: an article on The Huffington Post, “5 Science-Backed Ways Taking a Break Boosts Our Productivity,” sums up these ideas well. With all that in mind, I propose that making the contents of free time less mundane (essentially, something planned far in advance) and more impromptu will stimulate studying. By choosing to be as creative as possible outside of school, we’ll bring creativity and motivation into our studies as well.
Don’t keep waiting for winter break, or Friday, or even the end of the day. Don’t merely survive. Waiting and always knowing what’s coming next doesn’t tend to energize anyone. Instead, look for ways to live in the moment. Dress up and go to a dance. Get up at 6 a.m. to watch the stars go to sleep. Go to the mall and put quarters in all the gumball machines for kids to find later. The possibilities are really only limited by your imagination. Finally, rather than letting one minute distractions grow into one hour distractions, learn to set time for established breaks—and exercising spontaneity within that time. Psychologically, it’s refreshing; emotionally, it’s satisfying.
There will always never be enough time. Changing our mindsets about time—and actively pursuing creativity in all areas of our lives—will turn resigned studying into invigorated exploration. And maybe you already know (and have tried) these strategies, and still find yourself uninspired. If that’s your situation, then try again. And again. Never stop searching for your sunrise.