The Simplest Motivation Strategy that You’re (Probably) Not Using

In school as in life, sometimes we just need to get stuff done. And, truthfully, getting stuff done can be a real challenge.

For instance: I’m about to start writing a book. Based on previous book-writing experiences, I can predict the mundane problems that will get in my way.

My cats invariably need attention just as I’m starting to get in the zone.

The alerts from my email account lure me away from difficult writing passages.

I can never decide: stop for a snack now, or wait until lunch?

Luckily, we’ve got a remarkably simple strategy to get over these predictable hurdles.

Give Me Three Steps

Step 1: make a list of the potential problems. (I’ve already done that.)

Step 2: figure out the most plausible solutions.

So, for instance: instead of responding to my email alerts, I can simply close that browser. Problem solved.

Step 3: turn the first two steps into an “if-then” plan.

IF I get an email alert while working on my book, THEN I’ll close my email browser rather than look at the email.

Believe it or not, this simply process makes it much likelier that I will, in fact, ignore the email. (Or the cat, or my hunger.) And, because I’ve taken care of the most common obstacles, I’m much likelier to get my book written.

(Ask me six months from now how it’s going.)

Two More Steps?

This technique is even more effective when combined with another technique called “mental contrasting.”

In a recent article summarizing research in these fields, Marc Hauser describes mental contrasting this way:

In [mental contrasting], the individual first identifies and vividly describes a desired goal or wish. To be effective, this wish has to be feasible, but not easy.

Next, the individual identifies an obstacle that might get in the way of achieving this goal and vividly describes it [too].

Doing both together — vividly describing the goal AND vividly describing the obstacle — turns out to be much more helpful than doing just one or the other.

The Proof in the PSAT, and the Pudding

These techniques seem so simple that it’s hard to believe they work. In fact: why should we believe it?

Well, we’ve got some good research to persuade us. Hauser’s article, in fact, does a very helpful job summarizing both the theoretical background behind these strategies, and the studies that show their effectiveness.

For instance, Angela Duckworth (yes, that Angela Duckworth) worked with high-school students who wanted to prepare for the PSAT. Those who went through this process did 60% more practice problems than those who did a control task instead.

In fact, we’ve got good findings for non-academic tasks as well: limiting drinking, smoking, snacking, and so forth.

Practical Applications for Students

This technique, it seems to me, could be VERY easy for teachers to use. When we talk with our students about their homework habits, we can guide them through this process.

In fact, when I work with students in schools, I bring a specific form to guide them through the process.

(Here’s another approach from Ollie Lovell.)

Equally helpfully, we can use this technique to get our own work under control as well. We might not all have books to write, but we all have plenty of lesson-planning to do.

IF my phone rings while I’m preparing tomorrow’s class, THEN I’ll switch the phone to airplane mode without looking at the caller ID.

Problem solved!

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