Illustration by Maxine Crump.

Illustration by Maxine Crump.

I am possibly the most unmotivated person ever. I need to study for exams, but I find it almost impossible. My daily routine pretty much consists of school and then coming home and going on Tumblr until dinner and then sleeping. I desperately want to be a more motivated person, but it’s just so hard. Do you know how I can become more motivated? —Emma, 15, Australia

First up, I feel you on exams, because it was always the type of assessment that stressed me out THE MOST. The fact that I would be judged on my performance during ONE VERY SPECIFIC HOUR (or whatever amount of time) made all my muscles bunch up tight and my brain go into some kind of hellspin.

OK, now that we have commiserated over the brutal pressure-pit of examinations, let’s talk about motivation, which actually applies to EVERYTHING in life—not just exams.

For me, there are three main questions to answer when I’m trying to get things done. They help me isolate the reasons I might be getting stuck:

1. Why do I want to do this Important Thing? The answer to this question might be straightforward: For example, if you think about why you’re motivated to go on Tumblr all the time, the answer might be that it’s entertaining or it connects you to a community. If you’re Frodo from Lord of the Rings, you might want to destroy the One Ring so that its evil power will never enslave another unwitting victim.

But for something like studying for an exam, the answer might be a bit more abstract. Do you want to study because you love studying itself? If the answer is yes, think about why you’re not studying. It might be obvious, or it might be something you don’t expect. (For example, when I was in fifth grade, I was sent to the school counselor because I wasn’t handing in homework, even though I was contributing happily during class. The counselor suggested that I might be a perfectionist—that is, someone who was so scared of failure that I tried to sabotage myself by not even trying at all. Does that sound familiar?) If you don’t love studying qua studying, then we’ve arrived at a different conclusion: You just don’t like studying. (P.S. You’re not alone. It recently ranked highly in my Made-Up Survey of Stuff People Don’t Like.) But that’s OK! It’s a good thing to know about yourself.

If you don’t enjoy endlessly looking at chemistry textbooks or writing essays, why do you want to study? You might have a goal that you want to achieve, like passing all your subjects so you can continue on to the next year of school, or you might want to do well enough so that your parents don’t worry about you or nag or revoke your Tumblr privileges. There might be more than one reason, which is fine.

2. What will work to motivate me to do this Important Thing? Once you have ascertained the reason for doing the Important Thing, you can move on to the guts of getting motivated! There are three types of motivational methods that I use:

The Goal Method: To use this method, work out how to achieve the Important Thing. So, if you’re Frodo, you need to befriend some elves who will give you magical food, persuade eight people to accompany you on a deadly trip, and maintain your purity of heart. Us mortals might be aiming to get into university, or might need to complete all assignments in order for our parents not to ground us (eek!). Awesome. Now break this bigger goal into the steps you need to take to get there. Thinking about the actual process of getting stuff done is important because it breaks the task into smaller, more digestible parts. So instead of simply saying, “I want to get at least a B on my math test,” I would think about how can I do that. I might have to study every day for an hour. I might have to ask a friend or teacher for help if I’m stuck with homework. I might have to use a website blocker to make sure I don’t creep onto the internet every five minutes to check what’s going on so I can focus on algebra. All done? OK, now you have the map, so set off, sailor!

The Reward Method: This is the more fun one. What’s something you can look forward to after doing something necessary but boring? It might be a snack, or a walk, or checking your social media accounts. Let’s be honest—some of the stuff we have to do in life just isn’t fun, and we deserve a li’l pick me up afterwards. Select a reward you can enjoy after you’ve done the deed.

The Ahhhhhh!!! Method: This one is a bit scary, but also sensible. What would be the consequences if you didn’t do the Important Thing? Poor old Frodo—if he didn’t destroy the One Ring, evil would take over the world and, also, Gandalf would be sad. That’s what kept him going. Consider what might happen if you don’t do the Important Thing, and that might spur you on each step of the way.

These are just the methods I use! There are lots of other tips (I like this list and this list, and you can come up with your own, too.

3. Is anything getting in the way of the Important Thing? This question involves taking a long hard look at your habits and “cleanin’ out your closet,” as noted bard Eminem would say. In your question, you told us that you know there are things you’d prefer to do (Tumblr, sleep) than study. You can still do these things! (You should DEFINITELY still sleep.) But be realistic. There are only 24 hours in a day, and if you’re at school for eight of them, asleep for eight of them, and on Tumblr for the remaining eight, that doesn’t leave enough time to get your other stuff done. You’ll need to make time for the Important Thing if you really want to see it through. This may not be fun. But it does involve being strategic and purposeful, and you might find that satisfying in and of itself.

And that’s it! Easy! JUST KIDDING. You know how challenging it is to become motivated, especially if you’re tasked with something tedious or unpleasant. It took me a very long time to find my studying stride, and it can feel like the hardest thing in the world. But I believe in you. You can do it! Think of Frodo going into hellacious Mordor. He did something almost no one else could have done, and he was just a humble hobbit. You are capable of difficult things, too! ♦

Need a second opinion? Send your metaphorical message in a bottle toward our advice-filled shores by emailing [email protected], and include your AGE, FIRST NAME/INITIAL/NICKNAME, and CITY. Ahoy!