Why Motivation is Overrated and What You Can Do Instead

18th May 2021 |

Does the following sound familiar to you?

15-year-old Malcolm has just got back his Social Studies exam score. It’s a disappointing borderline fail.

He feels deflated because he thought that he had answered the questions well. His teacher says he’s weak at answering Source-based Questions. So he writes down “Do more SBQs” on a piece of paper and sticks it up on his desk.

Over the next few weeks, things get hectic at school.

Almost every evening, Malcolm comes home drained, take a shower and gobbles up his dinner, and rushes to complete his homework. On weekends, he feels tired and wants to sleep in, plus he needs to go for Y and Z tuition class, so he doesn’t feel like doing any SBQs.

Besides, after a tiring week, playing computer games are way more appealing.

An entire term passes. Malcolm doesn’t have the time for any SBQ practices (aside from 1-2 questions his school teacher gets the class to do). He burns the midnight oil for the next Common Test.

Two weeks later, he receives his marks, and true enough; there’s no improvement in sight. In fact, he does worse because the class is now tackling advanced skills.

He swallows his disappointment and heaves a sigh, “What’s new? SS is too difficult. I give up…I think I should concentrate on other subjects instead.”

If this describes you, know that it happens to many students too (yes, including me!).

How does one get out of that dreadful cycle then? Here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Recognise that you’re not going to feel inspired or motivated all the time.

In teaching thousands of students over the years, I’ve concluded that inspiration and motivation are ingredients to success, but they aren’t the most important.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been greeted by collective groans when I get my students to do SBQs or SEQs/SRQs. But they buckle down, and over time, it becomes a habit. It’s hard to imagine, but some of them end up asking me for more assignments to do after a while.

Maybe right now, the goal of passing or acing Social Studies or History can feel impossible, even crazy, to you.

Do what it takes to get you inspired. Stick motivational quotes and pictures on your desk. Meditate. Subscribe to motivational Pinterest feeds.

When you feel inspired, make use of the momentum to get as much done as possible. But it’s perfectly okay to feel you don’t want to do things sometimes.

The key to achieving the breakthrough you need, regardless of how you feel, is to boil it down to a tiny habit (see tip #2 below).

2. Break it down, and make it a tiny habit.

Stanford behavioural psychologist B. J. Fogg has conducted many studies on what helps people change their behaviour. What has emerged is the ‘Tiny Habits’ framework.

Click through his slides below for the three steps involved.

3 Steps to New Habits from Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford

Let’s adapt it for Social Studies and History

Step 1

Make it tiny, even ridiculous. Needs to be fast and easy to do. E.g. Instead of “Write more essays”, we could say “Do 3 minutes of SBQ writing once a week.”

Step 2

Find a spot for it in your routine. Put it after an act that is something you do everyday, like a shower. E.g. Do 3 minutes of SBQ after showering every Friday.

Step 3

Train the cycle. Focus on doing the tiny behaviour as part of your routine. You may need reminders at the start. E.g. If I know that I have dinner around the same time every day, I might set a daily phone reminder to do 3 minutes of SBQ writing at about 7.30pm on Friday, and set it on repeat every week.

Step 4

Tell another person about your tiny habit. This significantly increases your chances of success. It needs to be someone you respect, and who would check in regularly with you about how it’s going.

I call this person an accountability partner. I have three accountability partners and we meet every 2 or 3 weeks. Just telling them about the things I want to do and how I want to go about doing them have helped me accomplish many of my goals this year.

If you want an accountability partner for yourself or your child, let me know. I can help.

My challenge to you

  1. Write down the tiny habit you want to build.
  2. Set a daily or weekly phone reminder for it.
  3. Tell someone you respect about the tiny habit you’re building.

If your child needs consistent support for Social Studies and/or History, our team of experienced ex-MOE coaches are here to help.

Find out more about our online History and Social Studies Coaching Programme.