8 Effective Tips to Motivate Yourself to Study

No matter how much you want the certificate or how interested you are in the topic every exam preparation has its hurdles and tough areas that are just so hard to get into your head. Motivation is not permanent, so instead of finding hacks to trick me into doing something I developed a routine and found my “buttons”.

How can you motivate yourself to study? 

There is no one thing you can do that turns on motivation like a switch, but the sum of little tips and tricks that follow not only make it easier to get started but also more likely to follow through.

Learn why we make excuses

Daemon number 1: Procrastination

Before we get into what gets you going we should take a look at what stops you. Procrastination (the process delaying a task that seems to be unpleasant in favor of a more enjoyable task) is the daemon most of us need to fight. So the first and most important thing to do is to admit that you are procrastinating and stop making excuses. If you are familiar with the following thoughts you know what I am talking about:

  • I don’t have time for xyz
  • I am not the xyz type of person
  • I can never learn xyz
  • I have no talent for xyz
  • Everyone else is so much better at xyz so it is useless to try
  • No matter what I do I will fail at xyz

Chances are you used at least one of those when delaying a task right? So let’s have a quick look at each of these most common excuses:

I don’t have time for xyz

Probably the most common excuse, there seems to be always something more important to do right now. I understand that with a full-time job and family time is a valuable resource but there is just no such thing as no time. Even if you only work 15 minutes on the task you try to delay it will be done eventually. And with proper time management, sleep management and planning everyone can have 1-2 extra hours every single day! For more details on how to “make time”, you can read my post about sleep improvement or a highly productive study day.

I am not the xyz type of person

A friend of mine always used to say that to me when I was telling him which exam I was going to take next. “Hey, Tom I signed up for the PRINCE2 exam!” – “Oh that sounds great but I am not a project management type of person”. What does that even mean? Nobody is any kind of person – if you believe that you can be anything you want to be this excuse is just invalid – Arnold Schwarzenegger was born like the rest of us and became what he is today because he decided yo – period.

I can never learn xyz

This one is fairly simple: Do you know anyone in the world who learned what you think you can’t? Well then so can you – if you have the possibility talk to that person or find out exactly what he did you will have a perfect roadmap on what to do to get there.

I don’t have the talent for xyz

This is a favorite excuse from many people because it somehow moves the responsibility away from the person who says it. Talent is something given to you by a higher power and unfortunately, you were not lucky enough to receive it. Well, my first question when I hear that is always: How do you know? What did you try? And most importantly: How often did you fail and what did you do about it?. I never thought I could give up my day job and become a blogger – I thought I have no talent for writing – but when I was born I couldn’t even speak let alone write. Anyone can become anything through hard work – it’s as simple as that. So to me “I have no talent” always sounds like “I really don’t want to put in so much work to learn that skill.

Everyone else is so much better so I don’t bother to try

This one is about self-esteem. Comparing yourself to others and based on that judge your own ability. When I look at others that are already where I want to be I always try to find out more about that person. And what I usually find is endless hours of work and effort to get there. All those people we put on a pillar did not just appear there, they worked and climbed and failed until they finally reached the top. Let me put this excuse in other words: I don’t at least try because someone else has already achieved my goal. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous?

No matter what I do I will fail anyway

Failing is great and the best thing that can happen to you or as Edison put it: I just found another way not to create a light bulb. Failing is inevitable so you better get used to it and see it as a chance to improve rather than a personal disaster. Important is to get back up on your feet. But what might others think of me? Who cares! Your personal feelings should not be determined by others, rely on your close friends and family – they will support you no matter what. Ignore everyone else. If you do fail an exam read about how to get over it without crying in this post.

Find the right buttons to push

The question to ask is why do you even have to read this post? What I mean by this is I was recently thinking about a new blog I am going to start on buying a cheap old van and turning it into a camper. I wanted to do some general research on what is already out there and found myself taking notes and bookmarking websites and suddenly a couple of hours were gone. The topic itself was motivation enough, I really wanted to start writing right away. My point is that the fact you need motivation at all should lead to the question: Am I learning the right thing? I understand that some exams especially when you are younger are forced on your but when you have the choice and feel that the topic is not something you are really interested in it might just be better to pick a different topic rather than to force yourself to be motivated.

But as I said in the Intro, even with topics you love certain aspects might be hard or difficult so to know which buttons to push to get you started is a great way to motivate yourself. I did that by thinking of all the times something came easily to me, all the times I just couldn’t wait to get started and tried to figure out what the driver was in that particular situation. For me personally that was appreciation. I love emails from people who thank me for passing their exam by using my training software. So whenever I am taking on a new subject I imagine how I can get appreciation – that might be as simple as a “Well done” from my mother or turning the subject into a new set of tests to help out others (and make some money on the side – if you are interested in how to make money with study material read my post about it, that might just be the button you need to push). So here is a list of things to think of when trying to find the buttons that get you going:

  • Appreciation
  • Money (from study material or by using the new skill)
  • Power (of knowing more than others)
  • Getting out (Sometimes learning a new skill gets you out of the situation you are currently in like a bad job)
  • Pride (having a specific title or certificate in your resume might just boost your ego – and if that motivates you there is nothing wrong about it)
  • A reward (Promise yourself something you always wanted when you have passed your exam)

Visualize the outcome

If you can figure out what button to push you need to use this to your advantage and amplify that motivator. For example, when I take on a new skill and prepare for an exam I just tell everyone, especially people I care about. This gets me started most of the time even if I don’t feel like it because I don’t want to “disappoint” the people I told. Sounds silly but works for me. Everyone is different and does things for a different reason but once you realize what it is you should build a routine around it. One thing on the list I do every time is to define a reward. One way on enhancing the motivator is to visualize yourself already having the skill you desire. When I was studying for my Chinese language exam I took a picture of myself reading a Chinese newspaper and put that up against the wall. This way I could always see a future self and better image the feeling how it really would be to have that ability.

Optimize your study environment

This is something that is actually quite obvious when you think about it but it really surprised me how much of a difference it makes. After I reorganized my study room and made it a place I really like to be I was so much more productive. So here is what you can do:

  • Unclutter the room – Your study room should look inviting neat and tidy so you love going in there
  • Rearrange your desk – Your desk should not just be placed anywhere, there are optimal positions and rules (like not in front of a window, not with the back to a door etc.) that give you control over the room. I wrote an extensive blog post about it.
  • Create a quiet environment – Make sure you can close the door or if you are able to pick than choose the quietest room in the house. Nothing beats silence, do not listen to music, it rather hurts your study efforts (read all about studying and music here)
  • Make sure the room is well lit – White light, preferably natural and does not come from behind you is best for studying
  • Use scents – When you enter the room and you smell an energizing scent this can be a trigger to get you into the study mood. If you want to know which are the best smells and how to use them read my post about how to use scents to improve your study experience.

As you can see there are a lot of things you can improve in your study environment. It took me quite some time to make my study desk perfect but now I really enjoy entering my room, sit down at my desk knowing that I left nothing to chance to prepare for the perfect outcome.

Use effective study tools

Using the right tools for your study is as important as a welcoming environment. But what does that have to do with motivation? Knowing that I will get ahead and not waste any time by using the right tools is a huge motivator. Let me give you an example: I am using 2 tools to help me plan and execute my study or workday, Trello and the Pomodoro technique. Trello is a very simple and free online Project Management Website where you can put tasks on different lists. I wanted to have something simple to use so that all the tasks, ideas and topics are in 1 place. What that does is that in the morning when I get started I just need to go there and see what’s on the menu today. No guessing or trying to figure out what needs to be done, the tasks that need to be accomplished are clear. Trello also helps me to remember things which is especially helpful when you are overwhelmed with topics to learn and details to research – if something comes up that is not related to my current task or topic I immediately put it on a list so it is “save” and out of my head.

Knowing what to do is only one part of the equation. Putting these topics and tasks into an executable plan is the second challenge I master with the Pomodoro technique. In this technique, the day is split into chunks with breaks. In each work phase, you have to take care of a specific task from a list. All distractions are written down and dealt with later. You have a countdown timer in front of you (Which used to be a Pomodoro (tomato) shaped kitchen timer when the technique was invented) to mark the end of each work period. Try it out, this technique is extremely powerful. What both of these tools contribute to motivation is that they take the uncertainty out of your study day. It is very clear what needs to be done and when. Ticking of tasks from a list additionally increases your mood by giving you a feeling of accomplishment.

Studies have shown that eating started is the most difficult part when trying to get something done. Just take riding a bike as an example. Getting it rolling requires much more energy than keeping it going. So when you start your study day with a plan and a list of tasks you basically continue where you left off a day before. So the last task on my list every day is to put together the plan for the next day.

Learn to learn

Most of the time people try to find shortcuts to get around unpleasant tasks. One of the most asked questions I came across when doing research on how to study is: “How can I pass an exam in 1 day?”. Well, you can’t. So there is no trick or cheat to get around hard work. The courses you need to take and the books you need to read are there and you need to go through them. But you can dramatically shorten the time to learn by improving your learning techniques. One surprising fact for example that I found out was that using a highlighter in a book to mark important details is not only useless but rather hurting. Marking something does not commit the information to memory – it just gives you the false impression of “I marked it so I know it”. There are basically 3 major areas to concentrate on:

  1. Finding the best study material
  2. Summarizing the material effectively
  3. Committing the information to memory

Some improvements take practice and some are just a simple matter of knowing how the brain works. Let’s start with finding the right infromation.

Finding the best study material

Everything is on the internet nowadays. So finding the best possible information is an essential skill to have. Just typing in a search phrase on Google and checking the first three results is not good enough anymore. Google tries to find the best articles for you but the more specific you can be the better. An example would be to type: “Project Management” cheat sheet filetype:pdf, when you are looking for a summary somebody else might have written already. Using Google search effectively is a great way to get a better search result, read my article about how to find information online with all the special commands.

Another thing you might want to try is searching on the Dark Web. The part of the internet Google can search is only the tip of the iceberg. Looking deeper just might give you the exact material so you can avoid reading entire books. Besides, is learning how to get into the Dark Web not already motivation enough? I have a detailed instruction post on how to do that for you here.

Knowing that you are working with the best possible material for an exam is motivating because it takes away the fear of missing something out.

Summarizing the material effectively

Whether you are learning with online material, books or video courses another important study skill to have is to be able to summarize the facts so that you can do a relaxing review just before the exam. Knowing that what you write down is exactly what you need to prepare your test removes uncertainty and fear. You probably know the situation the day before your exam when you read your own summary and don’t know what it means so you need to go back to the book ad everything gets worse and you feel unprepared. So here are some key points:

  • Use your own words
  • Create practice questions with correct and wrong answers
  • Use mind mapping
  • Don’t highlight facts in books
  • Create a cheat sheet (but don’t use it)

You can read my full article on taking effective study notes here.

Committing the information to memory

Did you know that reading a book and retaining the content is a skill you can learn? I find that incredibly motivational that I now can go through a book and actually remember what’s in it! The best tip in this reading technique is to decide NOT to read a book and evaluate it before you spend your precious time on it. The essence of this technique is to prepare your mind for the topic, create expectations of what you are going to learn and then read it only once. This so-called OPIR method does the following:

  • Create an Overview – Read the summary, author bio and know what you want to be answered by the book
  • Create a Preview – Go over important chapters, tables, graphs and make sure you will find the answers you are looking for
  • In-Depth view – Now you really read the content and take effective study notes
  • Review – Do not review the book, just your study notes and compare them to your expectations. Make sure all questions are answered and the study notes still make sense

You might have guessed it, I wrote an 18-step recipe post on how to read and memorize a book.

Remove distractions

The famous motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said: ‘People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – That’s why we recommend it daily”. Motivation doesn’t last, so once you are doing what you should be doing you need to ensure nothing gets in your way. Here are some of the common distractions you should get rid of when you are studying:

  • Mobile phones – Probably the biggest of all – I am still from an era where there were no mobile phones and it is sometimes hard to understand why people cannot live without all that social media. I can promise one thing: When you switch off your phone for a while there is absolutely NOTHING important you will miss on social media. And in a real emergency, the important people will reach you anyway.
  • Unforeseen events – Things happen, the doorbell rings, a friend needs help or a family member asks for advice. Ask yourself the following questions: Does this need attention right now? If not, put it on your Pomodoro list. Is there anyone else to do it? Activate your network or friends if this is an urgent matter or make it clear to people when you are available and when not.
  • Negative people – Probably the worst kind of distraction. There are and always will be people who don’t want you to succeed. And I don’t even say intentionally – they just feel guilty that you believe in something and they are lazy so they try to pull you in. The problem is that they can destroy your motivation for much longer than just the moment. Get rid of them – even if they are friends or family members! That might sound harsh but constantly hearing that “You will not make it anyway” or “You are so boring because you want to study” will take its toll. Make it very clear that this is what you decided and want and if they are not ok with it they better stay away.

If you want to learn more about the common “Time thieves” you can take a look here.

Ask yourself questions

This last tip is something that works for me personally, just try it out. I have a set of sentences I tell or questions I ask myself for a specific situation which I want to share with you. Try to find your own motivational triggers or just use mine:

Getting started with my study or task

I always make it very clear to myself that if I do nothing today the task will still be the same tomorrow. So if I just do the tiniest step even just 5 minutes I will be closer to my goal, just reading a book summary, searching a list of topics, anything. Most of the time these 5 minutes turn into completing the task.

Keep going

When I struggle to continue and want to do something else I ask myself if I would do the other thing compared to keep going where would I be in 1 year?

Making a decision

When I am facing an important decision (Like giving up my well paid day job and starting a freelance business) I write down 2 things: What is the worst possible outcome if I would do/not do it? If the worst case really happens what would I do next? This is extremely powerful because this takes away the fear once you have defined a solution for the worst possible outcome.

How can I motivate my friend to study? The best way to motivate anyone to do anything is to lead by example. Especially children try to copy what adults or their parent do not what they tell them. If you want to help a friend study together teach one another so you both benefit from it. You can also help to find an expert for your friend and facilitate a meeting or even a training session. Try to make your friend visualize how it feels like to master that skill or pass that exam.

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