Throughout this week, I’ve been sharing lessons as a lead-up to a new session of my course, Rapid Learner. Already I’ve shared:
- How to quickly extract the best insights from a huge topic.
- The perfect studying routine
- How to get better at the things you do every day
The difficulties we have in learning aren’t just about strategy, however. Sometimes you know exactly what to do… but you just don’t do it.
Let’s try to understand why motivation can stall, and how you can redesign your learning efforts to make it the best part of your day.
The Three Problems of Motivation
I see three common patterns to the problem of motivation:
- DRIVE: You don’t have a strong enough drive to learn.
- ANXIETY: You have too strong an aversion to learning.
- DISTRACTION: You have something else that motivates you more.
When you have a lot of learning to do, but can’t seem to motivate yourself to do it, the problem typically falls into one or more of these categories.
Problems of Drive
Without a drive to learn, it’s hard to get started. Weak drives can include expectations from family members, teachers or employers. The things you “need” to do, but don’t “want” to do.
The problem here is that these drives can often be satisfied by avoidance. Placating parents is much easier to do by putting in a half effort than really trying to get good grades, so what you end up with is apathy.
You can flip this, of course, but you need a compelling vision to get you started. In Rapid Learner, we spend the first week on designing a project. A big part of this is to create an inspiring goal to drive you forward. If your project doesn’t excite you, all the learning advice in the world won’t help.
Problems of Anxiety
Sometimes you have a drive to learn, but end up procrastinating anyways. Why?
In this case, it can be an inverse of the previous problem. Instead of lacking reward, you worry about punishment. Fears can be of failure, feedback or performing.
Fortunately, we have a lot of research on anxiety. If you can expose yourself to the thing that you find unpleasant, and nothing bad happens, the response tends to diminish.
I often find reframing helpful. Begin each studying session with the idea that you’re going to get the questions all wrong. Do your first practice test with the idea that you’ll fail it. Open your flashcards with the intention that you’ll forget the first ten. Expect it to be hard, and you take the sting out of starting.
Problems of Distraction
If your tendency to do something else is stronger than to study, you’ll get distracted. This is particularly true in our current environment where attention-stealing mechanisms are stronger than ever.
Distraction isn’t always an evil, however. Putting a book down because it got boring isn’t a failure of willpower but a recognition that in a world full of unread books, you should stick to the interesting ones. Switching projects too, can be useful, if a new goal matters more.
The problem is when distraction becomes compulsive. Those same mental subroutines that drive you towards greater rewards can backfire when the rewards are superficial.
The solution is to build a walled garden for your mind. Create rules and constraints that prevent toxic distraction without disabling what those mental algorithms were made for. Here are some that I find helpful:
- Set time limits and caps on all digital distractions. I love Twitter, but if I don’t constrain it, I’m on it all day. Leechblock, Screentime and app blockers all exist for this purpose.
- One project at a time, see it through until the end. One month is a good length because the cost of sticking to a dud is minimal, but you can still make significant progress.
- Never quit on the uphill. Distraction and anxiety can work together. Your urge to do something else can arrive conveniently when you have to do real work. Making a rule for yourself, say, to not quit when you’ve just got a recent question wrong, prevents stopping for the wrong reasons.
Your Homework: Engineering Enthusiasm
Today, I want you to look at your motivation to learn and see how you could cultivate it:
- How could you increase your DRIVE? How could you make your current learning goals more exciting?
- How can you reduce ANXIETY? How could you make the path ahead less painful, even if just by reframing the goals you have.
- What steps could you take to eliminate DISTRACTION? What rules could you make for yourself that prevent distraction without nullifying spontaneous curiosity?
- Write your response to each in the comments!
Rapid Learner Course
Rapid Learner is my six-week course teaching everything I know about how to learn better. In the course we’ll cover:
- Week One: Project. How to create a compelling plan for learning that you’ll actually stick to. Simple changes to your plans can make you vastly more likely to succeed with them.
- Week Two: Productivity. How to study without burning out. Build the habits of getting your work done calmly and efficiently, without stress and procrastination.
- Week Three: Practice. A deep dive into efficient learning. Every tweak and tool I know of to squeeze the most learning out of your limited time.
- Week Four: Insight. How to understand things more easily, backed by the science that makes it work.
- Week Five: Memory. Remember anything better.
- Week Six: Mastery. How to go from success with a single project to an entire life of learning. The path to being a polymath, if you choose to take it.
If you’ve enjoyed my articles, or my book Ultralearning, this course provides the system.