From Outside Pressure to Internal Motivation

As I’ve been moving and updating some posts from my old Everyday Intensity blog over here, I was happy to run across this one about  “How to Hack the Psychology of Student Motivation,” by StudyHacks blogger 1114004_frame_itCal Newport.

In response to Alfie Kohn’s work on rewards, motivation, and learning, Newport argues that students (and others) can benefit from a more nuanced and complex view of how to want to do what we, well, want to do:

“It would be great, of course, if students could find intrinsic motivation for all academic work, but this is a pipe dream. As you move through high school and into college, work becomes demanding. Few can summon an intrinsic interest in reviewing 200 pages of AP history notes or memorizing organic chemistry equations: these are hard tasks, which require the unpleasant mental strain of hard focus. In other words, a large percentage of student work will remain extrinsically motivated — we do it to for the grade and the interesting options a good GPA attracts, or to build the expertise needed for a remarkable life.”

The article is full of solid research and practical advice, such as this suggestion to over-schedule… on purpose:

“Overschedule by 20%. When setting up your autopilot schedule for a given class, assign yourself about 20% more time than you think you need to complete that class’s assignments. If you finish the current week’s assignments for a class, but more time remains in your autopilot schedule, use it to get ahead on your work. Over time, you will begin to slip farther and farther ahead in the syllabus, yielding a powerful sense of deadline disassociation.”

I consistently run out of time for project and activities because I think they will take less time than they do, but when I can remember the technique of overscheduling (for me , it’s more like by 50-75%), I have much less spill-over of my to-do list into the next day.

Newport also recommends that students find motivations other than deadlines to get started on important projects. He writes, “Most students let the pressure of a deadline motivate them into action: if I don’t start working I’ll run out of time before I finish and be punished with a ruinous grade!” Instead, why not begin as soon as you get an assignment, before any external pressure exists?

“[I] you’re able to start and finish work early — perhaps even radically early — you not only avoid the feeling of external regulation, but the sheer novelty of your approach — at least, as compared to other students — gives you the sense of self-determination required to experience integrated regulation.” Read More

The challenge becomes one of how to create intrinsic motivation for otherwise extrinsically motivated tasks.

The spring term has just begun at the school where I teach. At the start of each term, I ask my students to imagine themselves waking on the morning of whenever their major assignment is due, and looking to their desk to see their paper printed, proofread, stapled, and ready to go. Think of this technique as “putting your future self in charge.” I ask them to think about how they would feel on that morning, having completed the work not only early, but to the best of their ability. They have the power to give their future selves that feeling by starting early and sticking to a schedule.

The simple change of attitude from seeing planning and discipline as something imposed on us to meet others’ expectations (extrinsic motivation) to something we do for ourselves, in order to affect how we will feel not only in the future but right now (intrinsic motivation), can make a major difference in whether we start—and finish—whatever work is most important to us.

Learn more about research into intrinsic motivation and how it relates to creative work in this video featuring Dan Pink, from RSA Animate:

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