Motivation- how do I find it when I’m so stressed?

by Maud Millar on December 3, 2018

Motivation is a hard thing to find, especially when you start to feel overwhelmed. There are two kinds of people in the world; those who can’t find any motivation until the last possible minute (and so procrastinate) and those who feel desperate to work much earlier but who freeze and fail to do the work they want to do (also often labelled as procrastination).


Look, we all know those people who’re the first kind; they stroll into school ten minutes late, they never have their tie or their homework diary, they never hand in homework and they pretty much always get away with it. This is because they are usually spectacularly charming, or beautiful, or both. Their cheeky smile and funny story about why they couldn’t possibly hand in homework always gets the teacher smiling and rolling their eyes and letting them away with it. And the rest of us are absolutely outraged at the injustice.



This dude would be an example.


If this is you, you’re a person one type, and we are all very jealous of you. But it will end up working against you if you’re not careful; believing too genuinely that you can rely on your charm and quick wits to get you through all your exams without working breeds a laziness problem. Both as a student and as a teacher, I’ve seen spectacularly clever people get tangled in that trap (my best friend, my brother, and- in one particularly close shave- almost me) and mess up exams they should have smashed, so please please please if you think you are a person one type, don’t get too smug about it!!!


Anyway, today we’re going to be talking about the second type of motivation failure; the one where you know you need to work, and you want to work, but you’re so stressed out that you can’t face starting. This is a hugely important question to cover right now, when mocks are looming for both GCSE and A-Level, so buckle up and let’s get down to thinking about it.



Is my lack of motivation caused by stress?


Lots of the time, people think that lacking motivation is laziness, but it’s really not. There’s definitely a kind of lack of motivation that’s laziness-related- you know, the one where you’re having a lovely sunny afternoon in the park and you know you should be doing your homework but you just want to stretch out in the sun for a little bit longer and enjoy relaxing? That’s laziness-related, and I’m fully on board with that. Everyone should get to be lazy sometimes.


It’s more problematic when it’s stress-related lack of motivation; that one feels more like you’re standing at the bottom of a massive mountain of work and, as you look at it, it just seems to get taller and taller and taller and you just think “Uh-uh. No way. I am not touching that mountain. Don’t want to think about it. Netflix me.” Ring any bells?


If you’re still not quite sure why you’re struggling to find motivation, there are some simple ways to check in with yourself and see if you’re failing to get started because you’re having a bit of a lazy day, or if you’re overwhelmed and avoiding looking the problem in the face in case you panic. Check these out:


1. Are you thinking about studying a lot?


How often does the thought pop into your head: “I really should be doing some work right now?” If once, twice a day- or even a week- you’re probably erring a little on the lazy side. However, I suspect that this week of all weeks, with the mocks an ever-present threat- even those of you who are a little bit casual about their studies are starting to up their worry levels… So, are you thinking that thought ten times a day? Fifteen? Twenty? With that slightly sick feeling in your stomach? And still not starting? Much more likely you’re suffering from stress-related lack of motivation.


2. Are you losing sleep?


When you get into bed at night, are you sleeping the deep and merry sleep of the righteous? Without a care in the world, drifting off happily without a worry in your mind about the work you should have been doing? If so, you’re probably just a teeny bit in the clutches of laziness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sleep. I’d be thrilled if you all did genuinely sleep the deep sleep of the righteous, but that really only comes when you’ve actually done everything you need to do, you’re on top of your work and you’re coasting comfortably. It doesn’t tend to come when you haven’t done enough, unless you’re a tiny bit lazy and probably not yet quite bothered enough about the trial by fire that you’re about to face.


If, on the other hand, you’re really struggling to sleep, and you’re haunted by all of the things you should have done today but you managed to find excuses to avoid, you’re probably suffering stress-related lack of motivation. Here, you know you should have done it, and you genuinely did want to and mean to get started, but you were too scared to attack it directly. So you ignored the problem, and it hasn’t gone away. What a horrifying surprise! *eyeroll* *facepalm* *theusual*


3. Are you suddenly finding yourself a lot more interested in boring tasks that never interested you before? For example, cleaning your room or alphabetising your books?


Yeah, classic symptom of stress-related lack of motivation. You really need to tackle that pile of work, but suddenly your room’s never been tidier, your pencils are colour co-ordinated, your sock drawer is a perfect row of matched pairs, and it three days later and you’ve still done no work. This is not an example of laziness, my friends. Laziness is lolling on the sofa, genuinely not even thinking about the exams, playing fortnite with your mates like you do every week. It is not suddenly developing a short-lived form of OCD.


If you are doing these things, you are not lazy. You are scared. 




So what’s the answer?


Much like these posts from two weeks ago about anxiety, the key to dealing with this problem is to accept that you’re suffering from it. You need to face it head-on and start wading in to do battle, even though every fibre of your being is screaming “Noooooooo! Don’t maaaaaake meeeeee!”


In the immortal words of the YA fiction genius LJ Smith, “There is nothing frightening in the dark if you just face it.” (from the absolutely outstanding Secret Circle books; if you haven’t read them yet, get them now for Christmas holiday curling up on the sofa!)


So you need to face it. Do battle with that pile of work in front of you! Wade in, wielding your sword, slashing those pieces of paper to pieces! Destroy your revision like you would vanquish a monster!


Well, not exactly. But what I said still stands; you gotta be honest with yourself about why you’re not getting starting. You gotta admit that you’re scared and that you’re letting your fear control you. And you gotta ask yourself “Is that really what I want? Is that really who I am?”




Once you’ve answered a resounding no to both of those questions, you’re ready to get started facing the mountain. As I always say, the two best possible things you can do are to make a plan and ask for help. We wrote a post a little while ago on making a revision timetable, that may be helpful to you, or you can always come over to Study Rocket (the adaptive revision planner) and we can do it for you. But the important thing is to decide what you’re going to tackle, when you’re going to tackle it, and get yourself a buddy to make sure you do tackle it. Study Rocket can be that buddy for you if you want- we make sure to tell you when to work and what to do- but you can also find a friend, a parent or a sibling. Just make sure they’re bossy. Give them a copy of your timetable, or make it with them if they’re super-patient and friendly, and ask them to please for the love of god force you to stick to it.


It’s so much easier when that bit of finding motivation isn’t on you. When you’re not responsible for making sure you get started. That’s the key, people, I mean it. Get a bossy friend.


Oh, and one last tip, if you’re really struggling and scared, it can really help to start with a subject you like. Then, once you feel a little better and a little more in the flow, you can tackle one that you don’t enjoy so much. Never feel weak for giving yourself a break!


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