Staying Motivated in College
This question comes in many forms: How do I do well in college? How do I prevent burnout? How do I ace my courses? What is the best way to prepare for finals? How do I make time for things besides coursework? These are all analogous questions because they stem from the same basic question about optimal performance as a student and lead to the same essential response: consistent, effective, and directed work habits. So how do you stay motivated in college?
Let’s break this phrase down—consistent, effective, and directed work habits—starting from the end.
What are work habits? They are regular bouts of work. And by work, it means work. It doesn’t mean sitting at the desk, reading for 5 minutes, then checking your phone for 15 minutes, then reading for 5 minutes, then checking your e-mail for 10 minutes, and so on. It means a dedicated period of time to accomplishing some task at hand. This applies whether you are studying, completing a task, or even doing your chores. It is about handling your work at hand with intention, every time. How can you discipline good work habits? I think it is actually easier than most people think, and it has nothing to do with giving yourself a tough time.
The key to establishing good work habits is having goals. Know what your long and short-term goals are. You have to have a vision. Want to go to medical school? Want to become an engineer? Want to create art? Great. What do you need to do to get there? Are you willing to do it? Great. Then do it. Period. It is not about forcing yourself not to check you phone, not to check your e-mail, or not to be distracted, or not to do anything else. Rather, it is about what to do. It is about having your goal and the tasks that will get you there at the front of your mind and the forefront of your actions. If you are sitting at the desk and habitually checking your phone, maybe you need to reassess your goals. Is this goal really what you want? If so, then work towards it. Some goals are hard to achieve. Some goals should be hard to achieve. If they are not hard to achieve, aim higher. Establishing good work habits is about having drive. So, find something, and drive yourself towards it.
How can you direct your work habits? By having a practical sense of how to accomplish your goals. Directing your work habits requires a solid grasp of what you need to do and how you can do it. Does your goal involve post-graduate studies? Read about how to make yourself most competitive for admissions. Know as soon as possible, and orient your tasks to optimize your application by the time you need to apply. Want to develop a start-up or an app? Find out what the process entails, and then apply yourself to each task it demands.
How can I ensure my directed work habits are effective? In short, plan as best as you can and find what works. This is often the most difficult part for incoming freshman. You have never taken a college course before, but you have heard how it is so much different from high school. Your instructor will probably not know you individually, and, especially in large general education lecture halls, people are going to fail without a stir being made. You have the liberty to apply yourself as much as you want—no one is there to check on your progress. The hope is that you will take the ambition to prosper, and, with your directed work habits already established, you already have goals and a sense of what you need to do to accomplish them.
So, what are some practical tips on making your efforts effective? For each course, review your syllabus. This is literally a calendar of the course—what material will be covered, when exams will take place, when projects or papers or other assignments are due, etc. You can use your syllabus to plan. Again, as a freshman, the difficult part is know how much time things like studying a chapter will take you, but you have to test the water and find out for yourself. With a syllabus, though, you don’t need to wait for the first exam to know how well you are learning the material. You can study for each class before class. Did the lecture make sense? Were you able to anticipate the Professor’s next statement based on what you had read? Great. Not only does this help you learn the material at the rate of course progression (rather than on the night before the exam), but it also primes you to make best use of your time in lecture, making connections that help you consolidate the material (see: “priming” and “depth of processing”).
Finally, how can I make sure my effective and directed work habits are consistent? In short: routine, routine, routine. This doesn’t mean have every minute of your day mapped out, but to have blocks of time set to ensure you have a clear mind to sit and apply your effective and directed work habits every day. Know what hours you are going to sleep, study, party, exercise, and whatever else you want to do. But, the point is plan so that you can entirely commit yourself to what you are doing when you are doing it. Be realistic and honest with yourself. Don’t like to study in the morning? Don’t plan 6am study sessions if you are going to be half asleep and not actually get any studying done. Likewise, don’t say you are going to study for 12 hours Friday afternoon if you know your roommates come home and you are going to want to party with them. Give yourself space to do the things that you want, but be realistic and manage your time with a realistic routine. This will enable you to be happy with how much studying, parting, sleeping, etc. you are doing on a regular basis, and it will allow you to get done what you want to get done.
Follow these guidelines of consistent, effective, and directed work habits and you can easily manage much of the stress of academics. The cycle is vicious, but very predictable: you cram for the first exam. This causes tons of stress and you are exhausted afterwards. This compromises your retention of the next week’s material. Then you receive your grade, knowing it was not your best performance, and feel discouraged. Now, behind and discouraged, you struggle to catch up with the material for the next exam, and the cycle continues through the final. Don’t let this be you.
With the chi of routine, realistic expectations of how much time you need to get things done, and planning ahead, you can enjoy your coursework, deriving empowerment from academics. With consistent, effective, and directed work habits, exams will be reinvigorating, seeing your results will be reinforcing, and doing well in your coursework will inspire you to be ambitious in your career and life. You will be amazed to see what you can accomplish through the process.