Start before you’re motivated

Do you ever worry that your kids aren’t as motivated about their schoolwork as they should be?

When I talk with parents about the challenges their teens are having at school, they often express concern that their kids just don’t seem to be very motivated about schoolwork.

Similarly, when I ask students what they need to do in order to improve at school, many of them will tell me: “I just need to get more motivated!”

On the one hand, these concerns make a lot of sense.

If these kids were more motivated to do their work, it would certainly make it easier for them to earn better grades.

And it is generally true that students who are doing well in school are generally more motivated and driven to succeed, as compared to students with lower grades.

However, sometimes I wonder if we may be mixing up cause and effect when it comes to motivation.

What if, rather than the motivation leading to progress, it is actually the progress that comes first…and the motivation that follows afterward?

Exercise is a good example of this principle.

I definitely did NOT feel very excited about going on a run early this morning…but once I got out of the door and actually started running, it felt invigorating, and I was excited to continue!

When I talk with my students about their work, there often seems to be a similar pattern.

When I asked one of my students about a recent essay he completed, he recalled that he hadn’t been very interested in the essay when he first sat down to begin working on it. But after about about 20 minutes, he got really engaged in the work, and felt much more motivated to continue.

My suspicion is that this pattern — of motivation kicking in AFTER we get into action, rather than beforehand — happens a lot more often then we realize.

And it makes sense, if you think about it.

Whenever we get started with something new, the first few minutes are pretty hard. There’s an initial ‘task switching’ cost of getting our brain switched over to this new activity, and it takes considerable effort to shut out competing ideas, and get focused on our work.

There are also a lot of fears that can arise at this point in the process, about whether we can really do this, how long it’s going to take, whether it will turn out the way we want it to, etc.

As a result, the first several minutes we spend working on a task often feel challenging and frustrating, rather than motivating.

But once we are over that initial hurdle, and have gotten into “the zone” where we’re focused on the task and starting to make progress, we get a sense of momentum and feel much more motivated to continue.

Here’s a graph of what this looks like, as a function of time…


There are a couple of important things to notice about this diagram:

  1. Motivation isn’t constant — it increases and decreases over time, depending on how much or little progress we’re making
  2. The more progress we feel like we’re making, the more motivated we feel.

When it comes to motivation, I think a lot of students have things backwards.

They think that they need to be motivated before they can start working…but in fact, it’s usually the opposite: they need to get started and get a sense of progress before they’re going to feel motivated to continue.

Does this mean that motivation isn’t important?

Absolutely not.

Motivation feels great! In fact, I frequently work with my students to identify their motivation style and gain a better understanding of what motivates them.

But like all feelings, motivation is fleeting. If you have a bad day, or a task that feels like it’s going to be really challenging, you’re not going to feel very motivated.

So, waiting for motivation to show up before you start your work is a risky strategy!

It will work sometimes, but it’s not very reliable.

And as we’ve discussed, in a lot of cases, motivation is actually going to increase after you start working, not beforehand.

So, I would argue is that while motivation is nice to have, it’s actually more important for students to develop the habit of getting started with their work on time, whether or not they’re motivated to do it in the moment.

Putting it into practice:

Ask your kids to reflect on this idea, and consider how it fits with their experience.

Do they usually wait to feel motivated about their work before they start? Or do they get started at the same time every day, no matter how motivated they’re feeling?

If they were going to draw a graph of their motivation level over time, what would it look like? Would the shape be similar to the graph above, or follow a different pattern?

How does the feeling of making progress affect their motivation?

Based on this information, what do they think they should do the next time they have work to do but aren’t feeling very motivated about it?


Thoughts?  Feedback? 

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this idea, so please post a comment below and let me know what you think!


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By |March 4th, 2016|Categories: Motivation|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit or email

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