How to Harness What Motivates You to Power Through that Tough Assignment

The empty page stares you in your red, tired eyes. The book sits by your desk, unopened. No amount of coffee seems to help. Sound familiar at all? Of course it does—you’re a college student. Whether you need to finish (or start) a paper, get that resume updated and sent for application or wrap up that difficult research project, you will probably need a motivation boost along the way.

Here’s how to harness what motivates you to power through that tough assignment.

1. Take Care of Your Body

Your body automatically reaches for that third cup of coffee when you have gone through your flash cards for your test 83 times, or grabs those cheap snack foods at the library when it nears midnight. However, your physical health plays an immense factor when trying to get motivated. Treat your body right. What motivates you will vary from anyone else, but try healthy practices like going to the gym, taking an extra hour to sleep or eating one of your favorite healthy snacks. “It helps to even take a walk, to just get moving,” said University of Iowa junior Geoff Montour. Regardless, when you treat your body better, you treat your brain better, right?

2. Find the Right Environment

As easy as it may seem to do those tough assignments from your apartment/dorm/house, becoming truly motivated in your own living space—with your bed right there, just waiting to be slept in—can challenge even seasoned long-haul studiers. Your surroundings directly and inevitably affect your focus, so you should suit your study area to your preference. What motivates you can range anywhere from the dead silent floor of your library to the coffee shop with good background noise going.

3. Write Out a Specific List

With the impending doom of that test or assignment, it feels impossible to even start. It will feel a lot more productive to highlight specific things on a list, and get the list done faster. Instead of writing down “bio paper,” try listing what goes into a paper, like “do outline,” “finish citations,” and so forth. “I like making several lists, for all the different things I need to do,” said Mount Mercy junior Megan Johnson. You might find out what motivates you involves completing several small tasks as opposed to one monumental task. A physical representation of crossing it out can motivate you even more. This will make it easier to finish your work earlier in the day and binge watch Netflix all night.

4. Make a Game Plan

To avoid that feeling of aimlessness when you begin a particularly large list, it helps to make an outline of what you’ll do. Because everyone has a different work ethic, this plan will look different from person to person. However, this will make the list of goals you made even more doable. You can set a timer on your phone or computer or keep track of the clock on your own, and decide what point of the list you’ll work on for a half hour, an hour or even just 20 minutes.

5. Take Time for Yourself

When you make this game plan, you should definitely include gaps between work for breaks. After all, a person’s attention can only focus for so long before it starts to wander. Incorporate what will help you relax in this allotted break. “I take an hour of the day to relax, drive around or listen to music,” said University of Iowa sophomore Dillon McHugh. If you take this time to unwind, you’ll be able to feel more energized to get through the last half of that paper or study session.

6. Find the Perfect Playlist

Speaking of music, finding a study playlist can go a long way in helping productivity. “I like making my own study playlists,” said University of Iowa freshman Megan Bryant. If you don’t feel up to the role of your own personal DJ, you can always turn to the trusty Internet. You might find what motivates you in the winds and strings of classical playlists, the upbeat spirit of Disney songs or even in the sounds of nature or background noise like rain or shuffling paper.

7. Unplug

One the hardest parts about harnessing what motivates you involves not getting distracted by our technology. Doing a quick scroll through social media or playing one quick game might not seem like much time, but before you know it an entire afternoon passes you by. Whether you want to turn your phone on silent, on Airplane Mode or off entirely, I can promise that the world will not end in the time you get going with whatever you need to do.

8. The Source of the Assignment

A lot of times, these assignments or tests can feel like nothing but busy work when you could do something you find enjoyable or worthwhile. However, you can spin this into something worthwhile by looking at it from a different perspective. Instead of viewing your research project as another tough assignment, you can see it as practice for doing actual field research in your major or area of study. Instead of studying for your test, imagine the test as concepts applicable to your own interest or critical thought. When you apply these grueling to-do lists to the real world, you give yourself a purpose for why you should do it.

9. Look at the Big Picture

Did the previous tip freaking you out a little bit? If so, just take a step back. While doing well in your classes and extracurricular activities should be emphasized, you should note that other stuff matters, too. “Work hard and remember you’re there to learn, but remember that a few bad test grades won’t ruin your life,” said University of Iowa senior Olivia Sun. Just as that research or test can prepare you for what you want to do, it also won’t destroy your career if it turns out less than perfect.

10. When in Doubt, Ask About

Contrary to popular belief, professors have experienced the same ruts and stress that you have, and make for ridiculously good resources. If the intro on your paper looks sparse, or the reading won’t click with your brain, you can always tear through that syllabus to find their office hours. “Office hours are there for a reason. Teachers want their students to succeed, and you don’t have to feel like you’re in a rut or in trouble to come talk to them,” said University of Iowa English instructor Micah Fields. Having a conversation with an advisor or teacher outside of the classroom shows that you care, and even that can help your work go the extra mile, too.

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