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How to motivate yourself to study (5 minute read)

Staying motivated and focused is essential when studying for exams or completing assignments.  However we all experience times when we struggle to do this.


When our interest or energy levels drop it can be difficult to know how to restore them. In this blog our psychology team will help you understand how your brains ‘motivation system’ works, and share some practical tips to help you refocus and get back on track.


Motivation and our Brain – some facts from neuroscience


The first step to learning how to sustain your motivation for study is to learn how our brains’ motivation system works.


Dopamine is a chemical that is released in our brain when we do certain things. It is an essential fuel for our motivation level.  It is often called the ‘pleasure chemical’ because it is released when we do something rewarding, and it helps us to experience feelings of enjoyment and excitement. So hanging out with friends, watching our favourite movie or eating a nice meal will prompt the release of a small amount of ‘feel good’ dopamine in our brain – and this is what motivates us to want to repeat this behaviour.


Take the example where dopamine is released after we watch a funny video on our phone.  When this happens, it makes sense that we start to scroll for more videos to get that reward again and again.  In fact this brain chemical is the reason it can be so difficult to put your phone down!


So let’s summarise what we know so far:


Doing something rewarding = Dopamine ‘the pleasure chemical’ released in brain

Feeling good because of dopamine release = high motivation to repeat this behaviour


Researchers have also shown that dopamine helps our memory by making it easier to take in information and retain it.  It makes sense then that when dopamine is not present during the learning process (in school or when studying) our performance will suffer.


Low Dopamine = low motivation to study or complete assignments

Low Dopamine = more likely to find it difficult to memorise information for exams.


What causes us to lose motivation?

There can be many different reasons why we lose or lack motivation for studying. You might feel overwhelmed or stressed by the material you have to revise.  Or you might not be interested in the subject, and don’t currently see the value in what you are learning.


A little bit of stress can motivate us to study, but when we let things build up it can feel overwhelming to know where to start.  One way we cope with this anxiety is to delay or avoid it through procrastination.  The more we procrastinate by scrolling on our phone, or watching just one more episode, the greater our study stress grows.  So even though we aren’t doing any work, we are using up lots of mental and physical energy which will drain our battery.  When this happens we usually find that our motivation drops because the pile of work seems too high, and we are feeling too burnt out to face into it.


A similar stuck loop can happen if you are perfectionistic about your work.  Having too high (or too low) expectations of yourself around study and exams again drains your energy battery over time and can lower your motivation levels.


Other common reasons that we lack motivation to study include:

  • the subject is too challenging for your skill set right now
  • the subject is too easy and you don’t like the pace of teaching
  • feeling like you’ve too many other things on your mind right now (family, relationships, money)
  • feeling burnt out
  • you don’t feel safe in school (bullying, not listened to, poor relationship with a teacher)
  • your learning differences or style is not being supported


For more advice from our Psychologists, listen to our podcasts ‘How to stop procrastinating’ and ‘How to tackle perfectionism’ in the School Stress Section on our Teen App.


So, how can I boost my motivation levels?


Fuel your brain

When our motivation is low for study we can feel both stressed and drained. So boosting your energy usually starts with caring for your body and your brain.


Think about what foods support your brain health.

Do you find it easy or difficult to drink water?

What exercise clears your head and lifts or calms your energy?


Try to write down a list of what fuels your brain (and body) and put this next to your study schedule so that you can prioritise these actions.


Another way to fuel your brain involves engaging in activities that make you feel happy or relaxed. Because these types of activities are rewarding, it is thought that they can help you to increase your dopamine levels. For example – taking a study break to exercise, meditate, stretch, play with your pet, walk in fresh air or watch your favourite show, can indirectly boost your brains ability to study.


Use these brain facts to prioritise a balance between study and feel good activities in your revision schedule.  Check out our new podcast ‘Practical strategies for improving concentration’ in the School Stress section on our Teen App.


Identify your internal motivators and external motivators

Sometimes we do tasks because we want to do them.  This is called internal motivation. At other times we do tasks because someone else wants us to do them, or we receive some type of external reward.  This is called external motivation.


When it comes learning and study, it helps to understand the source of our own personal motivation so that we can boost it when we experience a slump.


For example, think about a subject or activity you enjoy and find interesting.  It might be playing a sport or an instrument, learning about a certain subject or practicing your skills in things like drawing, coding, a language etc.


Is your drive to engage in these activities concerned with external rewards ( i.e. exam results, winning a competition, receiving praise from a teacher, earning money)? If so, this means that the source of your drive is external motivation.


Or is your drive based on enjoying the activity itself? Feeling good about your skills and ability in this task? How you feel when you are engaging in it? If so, this means the source of your drive is internal motivation.


Often our motivation for work or study is a mix of the two types.  For example, if I get a job in a coffee shop during the school holidays I might be motivated by the money that I will earn (external motivator) and enjoy meeting people and gaining a sense of mastery over my coffee making skills (internal motivator).  So, because both types of motivation are present I’m likely to feel strongly motivated to go in to work and do a good job.


However, if I suddenly stopped being paid for this work my motivation would likely drop. Why? Yes, you got it – because I am no longer being rewarded for my work and my enjoyment of the job does not feel like enough of a motivator to continue on with it.


Compare this with a person who volunteers their time for free with a charity. They likely have very high levels of intrinsic motivation driving their work which means they stay motivated, even without the external motivator of a money reward.


Now think about school and study.  What are your internal and external motivators that drive you to learn in class and revise for exams?  Are there certain subjects that you enjoy or feel skilled in so you study them for this reason? And are there others where you are studying them to get a grade to reach a longer term goal?


When asked ‘what motivates you to study’, many young people will answer ‘because I have to’.  Or highlight that they would get in trouble with their parent or teacher if they didn’t.  These external motivators (avoiding trouble or following expectations) can be helpful as they drive you to study, but are often not strong enough to keep us feeling motivated in the long-term.


This is where identifying your personal internal and/or external motivators for study can help. For more support from our team of Psychologists, check out these podcasts in the School Stress Section on our Teen App:

  • I want better grades but can’t study (9 mins)
  • I have no motivation for homework – what do I do? (10 mins)
  • Thinking about the future after exams (7 mins)

Switch it up

Do you ever find yourself staring at a page and rereading the same paragraph again and again? Or are you struggling to write any of the thoughts in your head onto paper?


When this happens it’s a sign that your brain has gotten a little stuck, and needs some support to get back on track.


Our first tip when stuck is to ‘switch up’ tasks. By this we mean moving your attention to a task that has a different type of energy to it.  So if you’re stuck with reading, try setting a timer for 5 minutes and free-writing the thoughts in your head.  Don’t correct or worry about what you’re writing – simply allow yourself to write or draw whatever thoughts are swirling in your mind right now.  Take a short break to move, drink water or eat something. Then return to reading a see if your brain feels more energised and focused.


Other ways to switch it up include:

  • Setting a timer and cleaning your study space. Doing tasks like this can help you regain a sense of control when study feels overwhelming.
  • Writing a more realistic study schedule to allow for your energy level today.
  • Take a movement break, get outside, drink water, eat something.
  • Put on some music or a half hour of your favourite show to boost your serotinin levels (your brains happy chemical)
  • Talk to someone – a parent, sibling, friend. Get them to test you on your study, or talk about a different topic to give your brain a break.


If a topic or assignment feels overwhelming, try to break tasks into more manageable chunks. So if you are studying a subject like biology, you might split a study session as follows:

  • Rewrite, shorten and highlight the important sections in your notes that you have written in class.
  • Research shows that physically writing activates lots of different parts of your brain, which make it easier to learn and memorise information.  So even rewriting notes can help boost your brain’s ability to study.
  • Set yourself 2-3 questions to answer, and take 15 minutes to read whatever information you need to answer these specific questions. Then write out your answer or get someone to test you.
  • Draw a diagram or mind-map that summarises what your brain has learnt in this 30 minute study session


For more practical tips to help you structure a study session, check out our podcast ‘How to study when there’s so much to cover’ in the School Stress Section on our Teen App.


Take regular breaks

This sounds simple but is often the most difficult thing to do when are low in motivation for study.  You might find that on a Sunday evening that you still don’t have your assignment finished, but you have spent the whole weekend feeling anxious or guilty that you haven’t even managed to take the first step.


These feelings can block you from thinking that you deserve to take a break or do anything fun.  However chronic stress & study worry will drain your battery, and without taking breaks you will find yourself quickly running on empty – making even more unlikely that you will complete your assignment!


Give yourself deep permission to rest.


You cannot pour from a jug that is empty.


Your brains’ motivation system needs fuel from doing fun things that you enjoy.  From hydrating your body. Eating nourishing food.  Exercising, laughing and connecting with others.


Take time to activate your relaxation system. Put in regular breaks on your study schedule and use some of these tools on our Teen App to replenish your mind and body:


Meditation: Shut off the thinking brain (9 minutes)

Sleep Story: Icelandic Adventure (25 minutes)

Sensory Relaxation: Calm quickly through sense of Touch (5 minutes)

Get outside: Mindful Walk (15 minutes)

Grounding Tool: Quick Calming Technique (3 minutes)


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