1. Three Important Ideas About Motivation
Idea number one: motivation isn’t something you can just decide to have. It’s not like an on/off switch inside you, which you can just flip from ‘off’ to ‘on’ if you find the right trick. Instead, motivation is a consequence. It’s a consequence of your life goals, your values, your environment and your lifestyle. You can’t decide to change your motivation directly, but you can change other things in your life which influence your motivation.
Idea number two: real motivation is deep motivation. If you struggle to find the motivation to study English, then that’s a deep problem. There’s also ‘fake’ motivation. This is the kind of motivation which makes people join a gym and pay for a year’s membership on January the 2nd, and then go once or twice in the whole year. This isn’t real motivation. Often, fake motivation comes from other people, but it disappears as quickly as it arrives. Real motivation is deep motivation; it comes from inside, and it takes time and work to develop.
Most importantly, idea number three: it’s hard to develop and maintain motivation, but it’s easy to kill it. Lots of things can kill your motivation: a bad teacher, a busy job, a newborn baby who doesn’t sleep well, financial worries, video game addiction, and many more. So, you have to look after your motivation carefully. You need to think about many aspects of your life, not just study-related questions.
You’ll learn about these points in more detail over the rest of this lesson. Let’s move on.
2. Set SMART Goals
We won’t spend long on this section. Why not? Because we already made a whole video about it! You should watch our lesson on SMART Goals, if you haven’t already. Remember that it’s easy to kill your motivation.
Not knowing how to set study goals is one of the best ways to kill your motivation to learn English. If you set yourself goals like, ‘I want to speak like a native speaker,’ or, ‘I want to speak English perfectly,’ this will kill your motivation.
Where do you start with goals like these? What’s the first step? How do you know when you’ve finished? There are no answers to these questions, which is why these goals are no good for you.
You need to set goals which are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timebound: SMART goals. We’ll give you one more idea here which we didn’t mention in the SMART goals video.
Don’t compare yourself to native speakers; don’t aim to speak perfect English; instead, just ask yourself one question: how can I improve? This is how I approach teaching, by the way. This is the question that’s in my head when I meet a new student: how can I make this person’s English better? Students come to me with all sorts of goals; they have different budgets, and different amounts of time they want to spend on studying. They’re starting at different levels. Some people are ambitious; others just want to learn one or two simple points.
With each person, there are different possibilities. I don’t worry about those things; I just ask myself: what can I do to make this person’s English better? You can benefit from thinking in the same way.
This idea makes things simpler, and it helps you to focus on specific, concrete steps to learn and improve. Guess what: that’s good for your motivation!
Overall, nothing is better for your motivation than feeling like you’re making progress. If you can feel that you’re improving, you’ll feel more motivated to continue studying. Setting good goals is vital to keep your motivation alive and healthy.
However, there’s another point which is equally important to improve your motivation to study English.
3. Change Your Environment
Your motivation to study English depends greatly on your environment. This means: where you live, where you work, what kind of work you do, who you talk to every day, how you spend your free time, and so on.
Let’s take two examples. Imagine two people. We’ll call them Sam and Alex. They’re not real, but the ideas are similar to many students we’ve met.
Sam lives in Amsterdam. She doesn’t speak Dutch, so she mostly uses English in her day-to-day life. She works in a software firm, where all office communication is in English. She regularly attends meetings, participates in conference calls, and gives presentations in English. Outside of work, most of her friends are expats from other countries. Their common language is English, so most of the time, Sam speaks English outside of work, too. She only speaks her native language with one or two friends, or when she calls her family and friends back home.
Alex lives in Taipei. He speaks intermediate-level English, but he rarely uses it in his daily life. He works for the marketing department of a large company, and most of his day-to-day work is in Mandarin or Taiwanese. At home and with his friends, he mostly speaks Taiwanese.
He goes to English classes twice a week because he wants to improve; he has a dream of studying in Australia or the UK, but he knows that his English level isn’t high enough. He often feels too tired to study, or that he doesn’t have enough spare time. Besides, he feels like studying doesn’t make any difference to his English level. He feels frustrated because his progress is slow.
What do you think? Do these stories sound familiar to you? Are you more like Sam, or more like Alex? Remember: these aren’t real people! However, I think Alex’s situation will sound familiar to many of you. We meet and hear from so many English learners who are in this situation.
Here’s another question: what can Alex do to feel more motivated? How can he deal with these feelings of frustration? Short answer: he can’t, or at least, not easily. That might sound like a demotivational answer! We’re not trying to kill your motivation to study English, of course, but you need to understand what you can and can’t do to make a difference if you’re in the same situation.
Here’s the problem: Alex lives in an environment where he doesn’t need to use English. Sure, he has his dream of studying abroad, but for most people, future dreams aren’t enough.
You need something now—or at least, in the near future—which gives you motivation. Alex doesn’t have that. There’s nothing in his life now which means he needs to improve his English. That limits his motivation. He feels like he’s too busy or too tired to study.
When you say you’re ‘too busy’ or ‘too tired’, that means you don’t have enough motivation. When you care about something, you find the time; you find the energy. When Alex says he’s too busy, he really means that it’s not a high enough priority.
When you say you’re too tired to study or practise, you’re saying it’s not a high enough priority. Alex’s environment limits his motivation, and his motivation limits his potential progress. Not making progress hurts his motivation even more. Over time, nothing changes. He spends time and money on English courses, but his situation doesn’t change in any meaningful way. Motivation won’t just appear out of thin air. He needs to change something.
If you’re in Alex’s position, you need to change something. You need to give yourself something now or in the near future which means that you need English. You need something which is a central part of your life, and which you cannot do without English.
Let’s think about Sam for a moment. Sam doesn’t have these problems, because if she did, she couldn’t live her life. She couldn’t do her job or talk to her friends if her English wasn’t good enough. So, if her English was weak in some areas, she would fix those problems. She would find a solution. Maybe she’d do it herself, maybe she’d ask a friend, or maybe she’d study with a teacher. It doesn’t matter; she would find a solution, because she has to.
Let’s think about you. What does this mean for you? It means two things, and neither of them is easy.
One: if this is your problem, then you need to change your environment. You need to make changes in where you live, or where you work, or how you spend your free time, so that you need English in your day-to-day life. I know that a lot of you are thinking, “Great advice, guys! I can’t just move to another country! I can’t just get a job in a multinational company!” Yes, we know. It’s not easy, but you need to do something.
Start small: try to find expat groups or social activities in your city where there are English-speaking foreigners. If you work for a company which sometimes deals with foreign clients, ask your manager if there’s a way for you to be involved.
We can’t tell you exactly what to do, because you have your life, and everyone watching this will have different possibilities. All we can say is: you need to do something, and if you have no idea what to do, start with something small.
We said there are two things you need to think about. What’s the second?
Two: you need to take risks. That means that you put yourself in a situation where you might fail, and that failure might hurt. Think about Sam and Alex again. Sam cannot live her life if her English isn’t good enough. She’ll lose her job and she’ll struggle in social situations.
For Alex, there are no consequences if he doesn’t make progress. He just stays in the same place. Maybe he’s unhappy with that, but for most people, that’s not enough to give you motivation. You need to take risks. That means things like talking to people when you’re nervous or uncomfortable, moving to a new city, or volunteering to make an important presentation at work in English. And again, we know this isn’t easy. But, it’s necessary.
If you live in a way that means you don’t need to improve your English right now, then you’ll probably struggle to find the motivation to study and practise. You need to put yourself in an environment where you need English, and where failure to improve is painful. ‘Painful’ means that your life is more difficult and more limited if you’re not getting better.
We know a lot of people watching this are going to say, ‘I can’t…’ ‘I can’t make changes…’ ‘It’s too difficult…’ Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know the details of your life. I don’t know what’s possible or not for you. Just remember: your environment limits your motivation, and your motivation limits your progress. There’s no way around that.
Finally, let’s talk about one more thing you need to know.
4. Setting a Motivation Budget
Up to now, we’ve talked about developing and building your motivation to study English, about how to feel more motivated to study and improve your English. We’re going to tell you something which might sound strange, but it’s just as important: your motivation is always limited. You’ll get better results—and be happier—if you understand this.
Here’s a question: how long can you sit and study by yourself before you get bored and you find it difficult to concentrate? Half an hour? An hour? Two? What if you have to study every day for a month? Could you still do the same amount? How long can you spend in an English class before you start to feel bored and you want to do something else? How long can you spend speaking English before you feel tired and you have an urge to speak your own language?
You’ll all have different answers, but all of you watching this will have a limit. Your limit might be lower or higher, but it’s there. These limits control how much time you can spend working on your English. You can try forcing yourself to study when you’re bored, but it’s not effective. If it works, it only works for a short time.
That’s because feeling bored is your brain’s way of saying to you: “This isn’t important enough to spend our time on!” Remember: motivation isn’t something you can just decide to have. You have a certain amount of motivation, and you need to decide how you use it.
Don’t be hard on yourself. Feeling bored is natural, and everyone has their limits! But, it means that you need to set clear goals, as we talked about before.
Also, you need to set priorities based on the time and energy you have available. If you can study for thirty minutes before you start getting bored, you need to think: what can you do in thirty minutes which will help you the most?
Many English learners overestimate their motivation, and set goals which they don’t actually have the motivation to achieve. We’ve met so many students who say they want to study for hours every day, but most of them give up quickly, because they don’t have enough motivation to do the things they say they want to do.
You can see this from the other side, too. If you can speak in English for half an hour before your concentration starts to fade, then ask yourself: how can you have a 30-minute conversation in English every day? Who can you talk to? You have enough motivation and the energy to do this, so you should try to use that. How do you manage your motivation to study English?
Have you experienced the things we’ve talked about in this Oxford Online English lesson? If so, please let us know in the comments; we’d love to hear your ideas! Thanks for watching!