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How to maintain your motivation when learning English

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

Motivation is one of the keys to success in any field, we all know that. However, it can be difficult to maintain our motivation, particularly when times are challenging. In this post, I explore what motivation is, why it matters and how you can re-motivate yourself if you’ve lost your learning mojo.

What is motivation? Motivation is a feeling and thinking pattern that activates and sustains behaviour towards a goal. The opposite of motivation is apathy – a lack of interest and enthusiasm. In language learning, we often talk about external motivation and internal motivation. Let’s look at them in a little more detail: External Motivation This is when our reason for learning is to gain something outside of the actual learning experience. Examples include passing exams or getting promotions. Many English students have this kind of motivation. In truth, they would rather not be learning English, but they know they need it to improve their career prospects so they continue to learn. Internal Motivation This is when our reason for learning comes from the enjoyment of learning itself. Examples include reading for pleasure or attending speaking clubs. As a language learner, I have a strong internal motivation to study. I genuinely take pleasure from learning Chinese and I make sure I study in ways that I enjoy. For this reason, I do not spend much time working on grammar! Instead, I read and listen a lot and do a lot of review. I also have regular lessons. If you are not sure what motivates you, ask yourself this: Would I do this even if I didn’t have to?

If the answer is no, it is likely you are motivated by external things. If the answer is yes, it is likely that you are motivating yourself. Can you combine both kinds of motivation? I would say that yes, you can! A combination of the two kinds of motivation can be incredibly powerful. I have worked with students who decided to take exams. The students already had a strong sense of internal motivation, and having the external goal of an exam was like adding rocket fuel to their learning! Why is motivation important? We all know what it feels like to have no motivation to do something. We procrastinate and make excuses. We binge on Netflix and chocolate. Then, we feel guilty and beat ourselves up for being so lazy.

Sometimes, we procrastinate by doing other tasks instead of the important or challenging ones. When we procrastinate like this, we still feel busy, but in fact we are being ineffective (this is my favourite form of procrastination!).

Unfortunately, binging on Netflix or being busy with non-important tasks will not get us to where we want to be. In fact, being busy-busy with too many small tasks can be more dangerous than simply avoiding things. At least if you are binging on Netflix, you are aware that you are not using your time well. Keeping busy-busy with small things like email, social media and to-do software can hide a great deal of inefficiency (trust me, I know!)

Motivation and language learning

Learning a language takes a massive amount of these things:

· motivation

· energy

· determination

· courage

· perseverance

· organisation

· dedication

Simply put, you cannot succeed at language learning without these things. All these qualities really come down to your mindset and your thinking habits. Motivation could be seen as the driving force behind them all. Your motivation sparks your energy and determination. It keeps you going when people or events make you feel bad. Motivation to succeed helps you to organise your learning to make it productive and is, of course, the fuel behind your determination to succeed. Despite all this, though, we all experience times when we lack motivation. In a way, this is normal. After all, it is natural for things to ebb and flow a little and it might be a little unrealistic to expect to feel 100% motivated 100% of the time.

Learning to differentiate between when to push through apathy and when to take a break is not easy. I suggest that we mostly need to find a way to gently encourage ourselves to keep going but also be aware that there may be times when we actually need to stop. We are not machines. In general, I am a highly motivated person. But I still go through times where I don’t quite feel ‘in the mood’ to do what needs to be done. Over the years, I have developed a set of habits and strategies to deal with lack of motivation, and in the rest of this blog post, I am going to share these with you.

Create your own motivation This is extremely important. We tend to think that motivation comes from outside us, perhaps an inspiring TED talk or book. However, we actually create our own motivation. This is why it is so important not to allow apathy to become too strong. Instead of sinking into it, we need to challenge it.

For example, I enjoy going running. However, there are some days when my schedule says it’s a running day but I really don’t want to go. It would be easy to delay my run by a day (or two, or three….), but nine times out of ten I make myself go. And I always feel better as a result.

Break big tasks into small chunks Sometimes, lack of motivation comes from feeling overwhelmed by the size of a task. In this case, breaking the task into small, easy-to-achieve steps can help enormously. Once we have a series of small steps, it feels much easier to take regular action and the goal can be reached without too much pain.

I have a friend who needed to write a very big essay. She never wrote in the evenings after work because she felt there wasn’t enough time. However, once she had broken the essay into sections, she found she could do a little bit each day after work and her writing progressed much more quickly!

Create routines

A big problem, especially for those of us who work at home, is having a routine that allows us time to relax but also ensures we make progress. This is why study plans are so helpful – we can decide in advance what we are going to do and when.

Also available are online tools like Focus Mate. This brilliant tool works on the principle of accountability; you arrange a meeting with someone and in that meeting, you both work on your tasks. Focus Mate is free for three meetings a week or less, and $5 / month for four meetings upwards. If you are like me and you struggle with creating helpful routines, I highly recommend this tool.

Praise yourself

I’m going to be honest here. I had a really bad day yesterday. I had pretty much zero motivation. I felt angry, depressed and very, very apathetic! However, when I got into bed and started to reflect on the day, I realised that in fact, I had done a lot of tasks! I had completed all my must-do tasks as well as some non-essential tasks. So, lying in bed, I went through each task in turn and I praised myself for doing them. I cannot stress how important this is.

As adults, we cannot rely on others to praise us, nice as it may be. Instead, we have to be responsible for praising ourselves when we do something well or when we make a big effort. Sincerely praising yourself triggers all kinds of lovely, positive feelings and increases your motivation going forwards.

Take ONE step

If you are feeling particularly apathetic, a good thing to ask yourself is this: What ONE thing can I do now that will make a difference.

Then, do that thing.

You may find that just doing this increases your motivation and you can go on to do more. Or, you may just want to stop after the one thing. As long as the one thing is finished, it’s okay to stop.

Notice and respect your Absolute No Point As I mentioned, in general I am a highly motivated person. However, there are occasions when I feel a particularly deep, emotional wish to not do something. I call this my Absolute No Point, and when I feel it, I generally listen.

For example, I love to practise a Chinese martial art called Tai Ji, and have a strong sense of obligation that I should practise it. However, there are occasional times when I feel a really deep resistance to doing practise. On these occasions, I allow myself a rest, or I do something different.

If you are a highly motivated person, you might like to see / feel where your Absolute No Point is. However, I would not recommend this for people who struggle with motivation as it can be hard to identify!

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