Motivation to Study

This tip sheet will cover a number of factors that affect motivation to study

  1. Maintaining motivation
  2. Implementation intentions
  3. Managing procrastination
  4. Managing perfectionism
  5. Establish if you are doing the course you want to do

Maintaining motivation

Maintaining motivation to study can be difficult. As Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner (2011) said in their nature article. “Some psychology research shows that action leads to motivation, which in turn leads to more action. You have to start before you feel ready; then you'll feel more motivated, and then you'll take more action.”

The way this is done is to:

  1. Break down your task into very small steps. Start with steps that are possibly smaller than you think, eg: Start with a first sentence.
  2. Set time lines (deadlines) and keep them. Brief timelines such as between 9 and 10 am I will sit down and write at least one paragraph.
  3. Reward yourself when you have completed things. This might be simple things like having a coffee when you have finished a few paragraphs.

Implementation intentions

These are the plans you put in place to manage the various barriers to completing a task. Often put into an if-then statement.

‘‘I intend to maintain a high level of study for exams during swot vac (so that I pass uni)!’’

‘‘If I am distracted from study I then as soon as I realise I will return to study by going to the library each morning.

Implementation intentions define exactly when, where, and how one wants to act toward realizing one’s goals Peter Gollwitzer (2014) outlined the effect of implementation intentions on reaching goals. He reported that a meta-analysis published in 2006 based on close to a hundred implementation intention studies showed a medium to large effect on increased rate of goal attainment (d = .61; ), which implies maintenance of motivation.

Similarly, he outlined that sometimes using Implementation intentions with imagery (contrasting fantasies about desired future outcomes with obstacles of present reality) can be effective. However he also outlined that there are some situations where doing this does not work. A trial for your circumstance is the best way to find out.

Managing procrastination

Assuming you are the only one with this problem, blaming yourself for it and punishing yourself for procrastinating may not be helpful. Dr Joseph Ferrari, associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago has found that 20 percent of U.S. men and women are chronic procrastinators. Similarly, a 2007 meta-analysis by University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel, PhD, reports that 80 percent to 95 percent of college students procrastinate, particularly when it comes to doing their coursework. This suggests that procrastination during your time at University is very common.

Dr Ferrari’s recommendation to manage procrastination is to reward yourself for doing things, not punish yourself for procrastinating.

For further reading on procrastination, there is an article in psychology today.

The Centre for Clinical Interventions offers a free self-help course on Overcoming Procrastination using evidenced based therapy principles.

Managing Perfectionism

Kearns and colleagues (2008) reported that perfectionistic students self-handicap to protect themselves from the negative implications of failure. The effect of self-handicapping is to render performance feedback from an exams and assignments ambiguous. For example, if you self-handicapped by spending too much time on other activates, then this becomes a reason why you did not do perfectly in your exams or study. By doing this students can protect the image of themselves as competent (perfect) scholars.

They outlined forms of self-handicapping suggested by other researchers, as including:

  • Alcohol
  • Adopt a “sick” role as a way of avoiding
  • Lack of effort
  • Not taking opportunities to practise

They recommend managing perfectionism and self-handicapping by changing the beliefs that underlie the perfectionism. They suggest Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Cognitive Behavioural Coaching (CBC) as useful ways to do this. The Centre for Clinical Interventions offers a free self-help course on Overcoming Perfectionism based on CBT principles

Establish if you are doing the course you want to do

If you are studying a course that you are not interested in it will be difficult to maintain motivation. Being aware of your values and if the course you are studying is related to them may help you make decisions about what kind of study you want to do. Talking to a careers adviser or a counsellor about your values may be useful.


Kearns, H., & Gardiner, M. (2011). Waiting for the motivation fairy. Nature, 472, 127-127. doi:10.1038/nj7341-127a

Gollwitzer, PeterM. (2014). Weakness of the will: Is a quick fix possible? Motivation and Emotion, 38(3), 305-322. doi: 10.1007/s11031-014-9416-3

Psychology of Procrastination: Why People Put Off Important Tasks Until the Last Minute. (2010, April 5). Retrieved February 6, 2015, from

Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychol Bull, 133(1), 65-94. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65

Kearns, H., Forbes, A., Gardiner, M., & Marshall, K. (2008). When a High Distinction Isn't Good Enough: A Review of Perfectionism and Self-Handicapping. Australian Educational Researcher, 35(3), 21-36.