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Just for Teens: Motivating Yourself To Do Better

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It’s April. Spring break is over and summer vacation is still weeks away. Maybe you are a high school senior with an acute attack of senioritis, or a college freshman struggling to go the last mile to the end of the semester. Maybe adults have been talking to you about “living up to your potential.” Or maybe you are simply unmotivated and feel stuck.

Girl StudyingA lot of advice exists for parents on how to motivate children to achieve, but the suggestions below are for you, the teenager or young adult who wants to do better—better at school, better at the activities you love, or better in your day-to-day routine—but who doesn’t know where to start.

Awaken Your Intrinsic Motivators. If the extrinsic motivator of good grades isn’t enough to get you moving and studying, you aren’t alone. Watch Dan Pink’s TED talk on “The Surprising Science of Motivation” to learn more about the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Then, spend a few days paying attention to what tasks or activities you do that give you satisfaction just for the sake of doing them. What do they have in common? How can you use this intrinsic motivation to do the things you usually don’t want to do? When do and don't extrinsic rewards work for you? What are your goals for your academic performance apart from others' expectations?

Read Motivating Books. Don’t limit yourself to books written for your age group. A lot of smart teenagers can enjoy and benefit from some of the best books written for adults. Here are just a few titles to whet your appetite. Look for them in your library or bookstore, in hard copy or as audio books or e-books:

  • Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. Who today hasn't heard of Malcolm Gladwell, author of several bestsellers such as The Tipping Point and Blink? But have you read any of his books? Outliers is a terrific book for when you need some motivation not to skip practice or rehearsal the next time you are tempted to sleep in or tube out.
  • The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, by Ken Robinson. This book is filled with examples of people who have found what Robinson calls their “Element”: the meeting place of aptitude and passion.
  • Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist, by Tyler Cowen. If you consider yourself a polymath and are a self-described and proud nerd, Tyler Cowen may become one of your informal mentors. Also look for Cowen’s Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World, in which he discusses everything from social media to Sherlock Holmes.

Mix Things Up. If your current study plan or schedule isn’t working, try something else. Study or practice at a different time of day. Experiment with a different way of taking notes. If you check your email or phone every few minutes, try blocking out an hour or more when you are unplugged and give all your concentration to a technology-free activity. Like George Costanza in Seinfeld, try doing “the opposite” of whatever you did before. Not only might you find a more effective way to do a task, you also are practicing creativity by enhancing your complexity.

Take Care of Yourself. It’s hard to be motivated when you are sleep-deprived, filling up on empty calories, or over-caffeinated. According to the American Psychological Association’s Monitor magazine, “There can be little question that sleep deprivation has negative effects on adolescents,” including “difficulties in school, including disciplinary problems, sleepiness in class and poor concentration,” and, yes, lower grades. A change as simple as going to bed earlier may make a big difference in how motivated you are to do what you want to do. Also, pay attention to how you feel after eating or drinking. Does an orange leave you more energized than a bag of potato chips after school? How do you feel an hour after drinking water with fresh lemon as opposed to a large bottle of soda?

Find Informal Mentors. Informal mentors can be family members, friends, teachers, or even people you have never met in person who are living the kinds of lives you hope to live. Whereas formal mentors need to give their permission for mentorship, informal mentors can guide you just by their presence and by your paying attention. How do they bring passion to their work or life? What kinds of choices do they make? How do they spend their time and energy? If there are authors or other famous people, alive or dead, whose lives and work you admire, spend some time reading biographies of them or their autobiographies to see what choices they made and how they shaped their lives. For example, one teen I know who enjoys science fiction says he has been more influenced by the autobiographies (yes, there are several) of Isaac Asimov than his short stories or novels, partly because of Asimov’s lifelong curiosity and passion for learning.

Don’t Wait to Talk to Adults and Ask for Help. Don’t wait until you reach a crisis point to talk to parents, teachers, or other adults in your life. Of course, understanding that we need to talk about a problem is easy. Knowing what to say and how to say it is harder. Before you begin a conversation, think or, better yet, write about what is bothering you and what you need. Freewriting is an excellent technique for self-discovery and drawing out what you are really feeling so that you can put it into spoken words more effectively.

Also, don’t wait for others to ask you what’s wrong. Keep in mind that your parents may be just as unsure as you are about how to bring up difficult subjects or questions. If your parents are particularly unskilled at such conversations, remember that they probably feel as new to parenting teenagers as you feel being one. Take the initiative and read a book such as How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk, and use the techniques on them, talking so that your parents will listen and listening to encourage them to talk.

Finally, if you are feeling depressed or otherwise overwhelmed, reach out for professional help before trying any of the above suggestions. You deserve not only to do better, but to feel better. Do it for you.

Photo by hvaldez1.

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