The mental gymnastics of mid-semester motivation

McGill students are tired. Slouching into the tenth week of online classes in tandem with the flurry of midterm essays and assignments, many students are struggling to maintain their academic motivation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and it shows.

Motivation is the process that initiates and maintains goal-oriented behaviours. There are two kinds of motivation: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from a place of personal gratification and arises from within the individual. Extrinsic motivation arises from outside the individual, powered by external validations, such as praise, or by fear of punishment.

During a time of heavy social restrictions, many rewards, like taking breaks from online studies or spending time with friends, are absent or diminished.

Dr. Richard Koestner is a clinical psychologist and professor in McGill’s Department of Psychology whose research focusses on goal-setting and self-regulation. In an email to The McGill Tribune, Koestner explained the pandemic’s effects on students’ behaviour and their ability to learn and retain information. 

“[We have seen] very high rates of anxiety and depression among 18-24 year olds during the pandemic,” Koestner wrote.

Anxiety drains energy and the ability to think logically. Anxious students can also succumb to the temptation of various distractions present in their homes, which further undermine motivation during this difficult period. Indeed, people can be easily distracted when working from home both because of boredom and because of overindulgence in activities that they are more intrinsically motivated to participate in, like baking or watching Netflix. For many students, it can be difficult to find a balance between schoolwork and fun breaks, which can relieve stress in the short term, but over time may become distractions.

“[The pandemic] disrupted many goals, particularly ones related to being independent from home and connecting with friends,” Koestner wrote. “Disruption of goal pursuits leads to frustration of basic needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence.”

Despite the many factors during lockdown that can undermine motivation, there are still several ways for students to boost their motivation from the confines of their apartments. One of the best ways to increase motivation is to set new, fun, and worthwhile goals.

“[The] best goals are ones that come from you, that are interesting and meaningful,” Koestner wrote. “Personal goals give shape and meaning to our lives.”

Students need to set goals that are important to them and that they see as adding value to their lives. Setting goals related to their priorities, such as completing schoolwork or engaging in hobbies, can improve students’ ability to work efficiently and effectively. However, setting goals is only an effective motivator when you follow through. 

“We fail at most of our personal goals—think of your [New Year’s] resolutions,” Koestner wrote. “[We fail] mostly because we lack self-control resources. We fail because many of the personal goals we set are actually not self-endorsed and volitional. Instead, they reflect things we feel we should do. We need less self-control if a goal is volitional.”

Another great way to boost motivation is finding a daily routine. Creating and maintaining a routine helps people regain a sense of control and lends predictability to the day. 

Maintaining social relationships also helps boost motivation, as having peers keep to one accountable can help individuals achieve their goals. Some great ways to stay connected during the pandemic include calling friends or joining a digital support group

“Personal goals are also interpersonal,” Koestner wrote. “Having others support our goal pursuits helps us overcome self-control limitations.”

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