The times are strange, but you only need to handle right now.

By Holly Derry, Molly Maher, Caroline Carter, Behavioral Science Team

woman studying at computer
Photo Credit: Leo P. Hidalgo (@yompyz) Flickr

Your life has simultaneously been turned upside and gone very quiet in a matter of days. Social distancing and lack of toilet paper are new for everyone, and none of us has it all figured out yet. It’s normal for all this change to lead to distraction and demotivation.

Even when things feel out of control, there might be a few things you can control to make it better. The key is to find your own best way to handle the Right Now. The rest will come when it comes.

Download our study guide: Adjusting Your Study Habits During COVID

These aren’t the only way to escape a cycle of all-nighters on Animal Crossing and avoiding homework, but they are here for you to try. Even if these don’t feel right for you, please try something. Your future self will love you for whatever small steps you can take.

Five ways to find (at least some) motivation

1. Remind yourself why you care.

The same drive and purpose you’ve always had are still inside you, even if school doesn’t feel as important right now.

First, think about your why … why you are in school, why you care about your actions.

  • Think of the major or careers in which you’re interested. How does the school work you’re doing now help you make progress toward your career goals?
  • Think of what you value about yourself. Maybe you are creative, patient, detailed, the organizer of social gatherings, or comfortable working independently. How does this relate to how you want to act during this remote school period?

Now … imagine the future two months from now. This might sound like something you don’t want to do, but please try. Pretty please.

In the first scenario, you haven’t structured your time. You don’t watch lectures or study much. You instead decide to scrape by for the rest of the semester.

While it might be uncomfortable, think about what you of two months from now might be thinking.

  • Does this line up with your why?
  • How do you feel about this version of yourself?
  • What are your grades?
  • What are your best days?
  • What are your worst days?

In the second scenario, picture the opposite. Imagine you DO have a schedule. You keep up on your assignments, try hard most days, and learn as much as you can.

Now ask yourself again:

  • Does this line up with your why?
  • How do you feel about this version of yourself?
  • What are your grades?
  • What are your best days?
  • What are your worst days?

Spend significant time reflecting on what you feel in the second scenario. Do you feel proud? In control? Strong? Relieved? Hold onto these feelings. Consider writing them down. If you find yourself saying, “meh, why should I bother?” find this feeling again. Let these feelings be your motivation.

2. Set small daily goals.

Goals give us direction. They’re best when they’re concrete and achievable. Aim for five daily to-dos.

Start by writing a list of things you would like to do this week, in each area of your life:

  • What is essential for each class?
  • What about your self-care would feel good this week, like healthy eating, exercising, and sleep habits?
  • How can you stay connected with friends and family?
  • How will you unplug and relax?

The list you made for the week is probably pretty big. Let’s make it smaller:

  • Using what you did above, pick no more than five things you want to focus on each day.
  • Make sure at least one is personal and not for school.
  • If any tasks are too big to do in a couple of hours, break them down into one or two steps.
  • If you only get four done, celebrate anyway! Especially if you feel more productive and motivated than last week.
  • Adjust your list for the next day each night before bed, so you wake up with an achievable plan.

3. Pair your work with something fun and interesting (ish).

Sometimes the things you have to do just aren’t fun … but there might be ways for you to make them slightly more interesting.

  • Set the scene for your work. Pick a comfy spot, light a candle, play a song you love.
  • Prepare a treat you only have while you read, like tea or hot chocolate.
  • Make a video call spot with a comfy chair, a pleasing backdrop.
  • Ask a friend to be a study buddy so you can talk through assignments or check in on progress.

4. Think about how you can go on autopilot.

Building up habits is easier when you don’t have to decide to do them over and over (and over) again.

You probably have more flexible time than ever, but that also means you have to keep choosing schoolwork over and over again. Meanwhile, you might feel like you have to say “no” over and over again to things you’d rather be doing. Exhausting, right?

Get out of that cycle by setting yourself to autopilot. Make it more automatic to choose what you need to do and easier to say no to temptations.

Here are some ideas:

  • Set a time trigger: Pick a daily or weekly signal that it’s time for a specific task. Do one school to-do list item over breakfast every day. Set Tuesday morning as a time for lecture videos and readings for your hardest class. Write for an hour after lunch every day.
  • Control your environment: Look around and get rid of temptations as much as possible. For example, make it easy to say no to the TV by unplugging it. Choose a desk or kitchen chair to avoid a nap interrupting you five minutes into your homework. Close a door to signal to others that you’re busy.
  • Phone-free hour: We know how easy it is to scroll your feed while also on Zoom. Put your phone in the other room, even if for only an hour of studying at a time.

5. Remember to take a breath.

Sometimes taking a break and coming back to something helps you face it more easily. Maybe you need a few days to just take care of yourself.

Here are a few related ideas:

  • Release any guilt for not being productive. Take each day as a chance to start fresh.
  • Look for the bright spots where you can find them — strangers helping one another; instructors checking in on students; communities pulling together.
  • Consider what limits you might want to set on how much you watch the news or read stories about coronavirus.
  • Reach out for support if you’re struggling (see “extra help” below). And when you’re ready, make a plan and keep moving forward. We will all get through this together.

When it’s time for extra help

For U-M students

For everyone