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Main Body

Chapter 2: Staying Motivated, Organized, and On Track

Where Are You Now?

Assess your present knowledge and attitudes. Yes Unsure No
1. I have clear, realistic, attainable goals for the short and long term, including for my educational success. Yes Unsure No
2. I have a good sense of priorities that helps ensure I always get the important things done, including my studies, while balancing my time among school, work, and social life. Yes Unsure No
3. I have a positive attitude toward being successful in college. Yes Unsure No
4. I know how to stay focused and motivated so I can reach my goals. Yes Unsure No
5. When setbacks occur, I work to solve the problems effectively and then move on. Yes Unsure No
6. I have a good space for studying and use my space to avoid distractions. Yes Unsure No
7. I do not attempt to multitask when studying. Yes Unsure No
8. I schedule my study periods at times when I am at my best. Yes Unsure No
9. I use a weekly or daily planner to schedule study periods and other tasks in advance and to manage my time well. Yes Unsure No
10. I am successful at not putting off my studying and other important activities or being distracted by other things. Yes Unsure No

Where Do You Want to Go?

Congratulations on your decision to attend college! For the great majority of college students, it really was your decision—not just an automatic thing to do. If you happen to be one of the few who just sort of ended up in college for want of anything better to do, the benefits of college will soon become obvious.

When asked, most students say they’re in college primarily for the job or career they expect to follow after college. And they are correct that college pays off enormously in terms of future earnings, job security and stability, and job satisfaction. Every statistic shows that people with a college education will make much more money in their lifetime, be less likely to be unemployed, and be much happier with the work they do.

Activity 1: Personal Goals

In this activity, you’ll be writing out your goals. You should literally write them down because the act of finding the best words to describe your goals helps you think more clearly about them. Follow these guidelines:

  • Goals should be realistic. It’s good to dream and to challenge yourself, but your goals should relate to your personal strengths and abilities.
  • Goals should be specific. Don’t write, “I will become a great musician”; instead, write, “I will finish my music degree and be employed in a symphony orchestra.”
  • Goals should have a time frame. You won’t feel very motivated if your goal is vaguely “to finish college someday.” If you’re realistic and specific in your goals, you should also be able to project a time frame for reaching the goal, keeping in mind your life situation and responsibilities.
  • You should really want to reach the goal. We’re willing to work hard to reach goals we really care about, but we’re likely to give up when we encounter obstacles if we don’t feel strongly about a goal. If you’re doing something only because your parents or someone else wants you to, then it’s not your own personal goal.

On a blank paper or computer document, write your goals. Be sure to consider all areas of your life—consider everything important that you want to do between this moment and old age. (While you might aim for three to eight goals in each section, remember that everyone is unique, and you may be just as passionate about just one or two goals or more than eight.)

  • Short-term goals (today, this week, and this month, this semester):
  • Midterm goals (this year and while in college):
  • Long-term goals (from college to career and beyond):

Now prioritize those goals. We often use the word “priorities” to refer to how important something is to us. We might think, this is a really important goal, and that is less important. Try this experiment: go back to the goals you wrote in Activity 1 and see if you can rank each goal as a 1 (top priority), 2 (middle priority), or 3 (lowest priority).

It sounds easy, but do you actually feel comfortable doing it? Maybe you gave a priority 1 to passing your courses and a priority 3 to playing your guitar. So what does that mean—that you never play guitar again, or at least not while in college? Whenever you have an hour free between class and work, you have to study because that’s the higher priority, right? What about all your other goals? Do you have to ignore everything that’s not a priority 1? And what happens when you have to choose among different goals that are both number 1 priorities?

In reality, priorities don’t work quite that way. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to rank goals as always more or less important. The question of priority is really a question of what is more important at a specific time. It is important to do well in your classes, but it’s also important to have a social life and enjoy your time off from studying. You shouldn’t have to choose between the two—except at any given time. Priorities always involve time: what is most important to do right now. As we’ll see later, time management is mostly a way to juggle priorities so you can meet all your goals.

Stay Focused and Motivated

Planning is mostly a matter of managing your time well, as we’ll see later. Here are some tips for staying focused and motivated:

  • If you’re not feeling motivated, think about the results of your goals, not just the goals themselves. If just thinking about finishing college doesn’t sound all that exciting, then think instead about the great, high-paying career that comes afterward and the things you can do with that income.
  • Say it aloud—to yourself or a friend with a positive attitude: “I’m going to study now for another hour before I take a break—and I’m getting an A on that test tomorrow!” It’s amazing how saying something aloud puts commitment in it and affirms that it can be true.
  • Remember your successes, even small successes. As you begin a project or approach studying for a test, think about your past success on a different project or test. Remember how good it feels to succeed. Know you can succeed again.
  • Focus on the here and now. For some people, looking ahead to goals, or to anything else, may lead to daydreaming that keeps them from focusing on what they need to do right now. Don’t worry about what you’re doing tomorrow or next week or month. If your mind keeps drifting off, however, you may need to reward or even trick yourself to focus on the here and now.
  • If you just can’t focus in on what you should be doing because the task seems too big and daunting, break the task into smaller, manageable pieces. Don’t start out thinking, “I need to study the next four hours,” but think, “I’ll spend the next thirty minutes going through my class notes from the last three weeks and figure out what topics I need to spend more time on.” It’s a lot easier to stay focused when you’re sitting down for thirty minutes at a time, plus, if you know what you are going to study when you sit down, you are much more likely to be productive.
  • Never, ever multitask while studying! Studies show that we are not good at multitasking. You may think that you can monitor Facebook and send text messages while studying, but in reality, these other activities lower the quality of your studying.
  • Imitate successful people. Does a friend always seem better able to stick with studying or work until they get it done? What are they doing that you’re not? We all learn from observing others, and we can speed up that process by deliberately using the same strategies we see working with others. Visualize yourself studying in the same way and getting that same high grade on the test or paper.
  • On the flip side, separate yourself from unsuccessful people. If a roommate or a friend is always putting off things until the last minute or is distracted by other interests and activities, tell yourself how different you are.
  • Reward yourself when you complete a significant task—but only when you are done – be honest with yourself!
  • To stay focused and motivated, concentrate on the things that matter most and get them done first. If thoughts about other tasks you need to complete jump into your head, write them down so you can get them out of your brain. Stay focused!

Problem Solving:
When Setbacks Happen

Even when you have clear goals and are motivated and focused to achieve them, problems sometimes happen. Accept that they will happen, since inevitably they do for everyone. The difference between those who succeed by solving the problem and moving on and those who get frustrated and give up is partly attitude and partly experience—and coping skills for when a problem occurs.

Lots of different kinds of setbacks may happen while you’re in college—just as to everyone in life. Here are a few examples:

  • A financial crisis
  • An illness or injury
  • A crisis involving family members or loved ones
  • Stress-related to frequently feeling you don’t have enough time
  • Stress-related to relationship problems

Some things happen that we cannot prevent—such as some kinds of illness, losing one’s job because of a business slowdown, or crises involving family members. But many other kinds of problems can be prevented or made less likely to occur. You can take steps to stay healthy, and you can take control of your finances and avoid most financial problems common among college students, as you’ll learn later in the class. You can learn how to build successful social relationships and get along better with your instructors, with other students, and in personal relationships. You can learn time management techniques to ensure you use your time effectively for studying. Most of the chapters in this book also provide study tips and guidelines to help you do well in your classes with effective reading, note-taking, and test-taking skills for classes. Preventing the problems that typically keep college students from succeeding is much of what this book is all about. But not all problems can be avoided.

Illness or financial problems can significantly set us back—especially with a tight schedules and budgets. Other problems, such as a social or relationship issue or an academic problem in a certain class, may be more complex and not easily prevented. What then?

First, work to resolve the immediate problem:

  1. Stay motivated and focused. Don’t let frustration, anxiety, or other negative emotions make the problem worse than it already is.
  2. Analyze the problem to consider all possible solutions. An unexpected financial setback doesn’t automatically mean you have to drop out of school—not when alternatives such as student loans, less expensive living arrangements, or other possible solutions may be available. Failing a midterm exam doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to fail the course—not when you make the effort to determine what went wrong, work with your instructor and others on an improved study plan, and use better strategies to prepare for the next test.
  3. Seek help when you need to. None of us gets through life alone, and it’s not a sign of weakness to see your academic advisor or a college counselor if you have a problem (use the list of resources from chapter 1).
  4. When you’ve developed a plan for resolving the problem, work to follow through. If it will take a while before the problem is completely solved, track your progress in smaller steps so that you can see you really are succeeding. Every day will move you one step closer to putting it behind you.

After you’ve solved a problem, be sure to avoid it again in the future:

  1. Be honest with yourself: how did you contribute to the problem? Sometimes it’s obvious: a student who drank heavily at a party the night before a big test failed the exam because he was so hungover he couldn’t think straight. Sometimes the source of the problem is not as obvious but may become clearer the more you think about it. Another student did a lot of partying during the term but studied all day before the big test and was well rested and clearheaded at test time but still did poorly; he may not yet have learned good study skills. Another student has frequent colds and other mild illnesses that keep him from doing his best: how much better would he feel if he ate well, got plenty of exercise, and slept enough every night? If you don’t honestly explore the factors that led to the problem, it’s more likely to happen again.
  2. Take responsibility for your life and your role in what happens to you.
  3. Taking responsibility doesn’t mean being down on yourself. Failing at something doesn’t mean you are a failure. We all fail at something, sometimes. Adjust your attitude so you’re ready to get back on track!
  4. Make a plan. You might still have a problem on that next big test if you don’t make an effective study plan and stick to it. You may need to change your behavior in some way, such as learning time management strategies. (Read on!)
  5. List a few things you can do if you’re having trouble getting motivated to sit down to study.

Organizing Your Space

Space is important for many reasons—some obvious, some less so. People’s moods, attitudes, and levels of work productivity change in different spaces. Learning to use space to your own advantage helps get you off to a good start in your studies. Here are a few of the ways space matters:

  • Everyone needs his or her own space. This may seem simple, but everyone needs some physical area, regardless of size, that is really his or her own—even if it’s only a small part of a shared space. Within your own space, you generally feel more secure and in control.
  • Physical space reinforces habits. For example, using your bed primarily for sleeping makes it easier to fall asleep there and also makes it not a good place to try to stay awake and alert for studying. In this way, we can train our brains to study when and where we create that space (more about this later).
  • Different places create different moods. While this may seem obvious, students don’t always use places to their best advantage. One place may be bright and full of energy, with happy students passing through and enjoying themselves—a place that puts you in a good mood. But that may actually make it more difficult to concentrate on your studies. Yet the opposite—a totally quiet, somber place devoid of color and sound and pleasant decorations—can be just as unproductive if it makes you associate studying with something unpleasant. Everyone needs to discover what space works best for himself or herself—and then let that space reinforce good study habits.

Use Space to Your Advantage and to Avoid Distractions

Begin by analyzing your needs, preferences, and past problems with places for studying. Where do you usually study? What are the best things about that place for studying? What distractions are most likely to occur there?

The goal is to find, or create, the best place for studying, and then to use it regularly so that studying there becomes a good habit.

  • Choose a place you can associate with studying. Make sure it’s not a place already associated with other activities (eating, watching television, sleeping, etc.). Over time, the more often you study in this space, the stronger its association with studying. Eventually you’ll be completely focused as soon as you reach that place and begin.
  • Your study area should be available whenever you need it. If you want to use a space in your home, but you never know if another person may be there and possibly distract you, then it’s probably better to look for another place, such as a study lounge or an area in the library. Look for locations open at the hours when you may be studying. You may also need two study spaces—one in or near where you live, another on campus.
  • Your study space should meet your study needs. An open desk or table surface usually works best for writing, and you’ll tire quickly if you try to write notes sitting in an easy chair (which might also make you sleepy). You need good light for reading, to avoid tiring from eyestrain. If you use a laptop for writing notes or reading and researching, you need a power outlet so you don’t have to stop when your battery runs out.
  • Your study space should meet your psychological needs. Some students may need total silence with absolutely no visual distractions, while others need some kind of sound or white noise, like classical music or even a fan. Many students are unable to concentrate for long without looking up from reading and momentarily letting their eyes move over a pleasant scene. Some students may find it easier to stay motivated when surrounded by other students also studying; they may find an open space in the library or a study lounge with many tables spread out over an area. Experiment to find the setting that works best for you—and remember that the more often you use this same space, the more comfortable and effective your studying will become.
  • You may need the support of others to maintain your study space. Students living at home, whether with a spouse and children or with their parents and siblings, often need the support of family members to maintain an effective study space. The kitchen table probably isn’t best if others pass by frequently. Be creative, if necessary, and set up a card table in a quiet corner of your bedroom or elsewhere to avoid interruptions. Put a “do not disturb” sign on your door.
  • Keep your space organized and free of distractions. You want to prevent sudden impulses to neaten up the area (when you should be studying), do laundry, wash dishes, and so on. Turn off your cell phone, and use your computer only as needed for studying.
  • Plan for breaks. Everyone needs to take a break occasionally when studying. Think about the space you’re in and how to use it when you need a break. If in your home, stop and do a few exercises to get your blood flowing. If in the library, take a walk up a couple flights of stairs and around the stacks before returning to your study area.
  • Prepare for human interruptions. Even if you hide in the library to study, there’s a chance a friend may happen by. At home with family members or roommates, the odds increase greatly. Have a plan ready in case someone pops in and asks you to join them in some fun activity. Know when you plan to finish studying so that you can make a plan for later—or for tomorrow at a set time. Giving them something to look forward to will increase the chances they will comply.

Chapter Review

  1. Describe the characteristics of well-written goals.
  2. List at least four or five things you can do to develop a positive attitude.
  3. What have you personally found helps motivate you to sit down and start studying?
  4. Describe the most important characteristics of an effective study space.
  5. How can you prepare for unplanned interruptions while studying?


CC By licenseEnd of Chapter Credits  Staying Motivated, Organized, and On Track by Tammy Root, Eva Menefee, and Martha Madigan is adapted from College Success, Saylor.Org and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License


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ACAD100: Success Pathways at Lansing Community College by Root,T, Eaton, T, Madigan, M and Menefee, E. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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