Monday, May 30, 2011

Motivational Techniques

One of the hardest things I've had to do recently was study for my real analysis final exam. It was hard because I had a lot of things going on that week, and I was tired, and I did not want to do it, and it felt futile because I knew I could not master the material in the time available, even in a best-case scenario. That last thing made it especially hard.

Yet somehow I did study, at least enough that I got an A in the class.

I wrote a while back about negative motivation. It used to be that threatening myself ("if you don't study you're going to fail this class") was the only type of self-motivation I knew how to deliver, and of course that type of motivation is not really very helpful. Eventually you become immune to your own threats, and the truth is that even many important things don't come with immediate terrifying consequences (e.g., it is not true that if I eat this particular donut I will die of diabetes at a young age).

Ever since realizing that I always resorted to negative motivation, I've been trying to cease making threats to myself. Instead, I've been trying to remind myself of positive reasons to do what I should do ("I'll feel good when I get this homework done"). And that has been moderately successful.

But neither type of motivation was enough to get me to study for my analysis final. Instead, what I did was pretty continually push myself simultaneously with various different motivations, of all types. Among them (and yes, I talk to myself in the second person)
  • If you study enough that you can get 3/4 or more of the exam done, you'll feel pretty good about it afterwards (as has happened on the other analysis exams you've successfully studied for).
  • It's going to really suck to sit in the exam and not be able to write much for many of the questions. You'll feel really stressed and doomed in that situation.
  • If you get through this semester with good grades, you're going to feel really great about your chances in the program.
  • You have some good friends here - you don't want to let them down by failing classes or dropping out. To continue this happy lifestyle you need to be like them and actually do well.
  • If you finish strong, you can send an email to Dr. P (undergrad analysis prof who wrote me LOR's for grad school) and tell him you finished your first year including this analysis core sequence! (You'll feel sad if you can't send that email or if you can't report passing this class.)
  • You're really just pre-preparing for the analysis qual in August. You'll feel good studying for that if you already have this head start.
So, basically, thinking of a lot of creative good reasons to want to study or to want to avoid not studying really helped. I mean, it helped just enough. It was barely enough to get me to actually do the stuff I needed to do, and I needed to apply it pretty constantly over the days I was struggling.


Tam said...

Upon reading this post, one thing that strikes me is that almost all of my successful self-talk is about my own feelings. It's not, "Studying for this qual is your job and you should do it," or, "Don't squander your talents by failing this class." I find that reminding myself of my duties, etc., doesn't work very well, perhaps because I'm not very conscientious to begin with.

Sally said...

When I was interviewing for PhD programs, one of my potential advisors had recently done some work (unpublished as yet) on whether first person or second person self-talk was more effective in this situation, but I can't remember what she found! (I think it was 2nd person, though.)

I think it makes sense that you are using feelings to fight feelings in this self-talk because those feelings have an immediacy that other rationales do not.

Tam said...

I think whenever I am reassuring, coddling, motivating, or lecturing myself, I use second person. I think I only talk to myself in the first person if I'm more like thinking out loud, so that it's not actually directed to me even though I'm not the only one there. For instance, I might say, "OK, first I need to go get the car, then I'm going to go the store, then..."

It seems a little weird now that I think about it, but I'm sure it's common.