THE BLOG
01/29/2014 01:41 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2014

What's Hindering Motivation in Students?

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I spoke to an audience of university students recently about balancing the art of staying focused and the art of leading change. Afterwards, several students talked about how difficult this feat is. The topic quickly swerved to New Year's resolutions -- which incidentally are all about both focus and change. In essence, we ask ourselves:

  • "What changes must I make in my life to improve it?" Then,
  • "How can I sustain my focus until the resolution becomes a habit?"

Almost every student present admitted what most Americans concede by late January: They have given up on their resolutions. The reason, however, was what intrigued me. They all agreed it wasn't a lack of resolve, but a lack of focus. They had all moved on to new interests. Focus -- especially long-term focus -- is very difficult for Generation iY.

In Daniel Goleman's latest book, Focus, he explains the research. When technology increases, there is always a trade off: Life becomes streamlined and convenient. At the same time, however, users experience a reduction in the ability to remain motivated for long periods of time. As I've written before, inward motivation has been replaced by outward stimulation. The smart phone, the tablet, the device, the gadget... is at our fingertips. We now have a Google-reflex.

What Cultural Realities Hinder Motivation in Students?

1. Too many choices
Although we all love the cafeteria lifestyle, having so many options cannot only paralyze an adolescent, but it can also reduce their motivation. Why stay committed to something when we know something else, probably something better, will come along soon?

2. A fast-paced lifestyle
We live in a world of speed, and it's evident in every area of our lives: Instagram, Snapchat, high-speed Internet access, fast food and microwave ovens. Unfortunately, when we have to wait on very little, we never learn to delay gratification. As a result, students will naturally experience diminished motivation.

3. The credit bubble
I am not a financial advisor, but students who've grown up in a world where they and their parents have purchased "wants" on credit will find it difficult to wait or remain motivated. Credit is a leading cause of our inability to cultivate motivation.

4. Celebrity Culture
Consider the fact that millions of people follow the lives of a small group of celebrities. These stars are often portrayed as ignorant, while reality TV shows portray dysfunctional people getting rich because of it. We seem to worship bad behavior, not self-discipline.

5. Social Media
Social media has altered reality, enhanced self-promotion and offered people a "fake" sense of who we really are, as opposed to who we appear to be. Technology is not bad, but it's like fire: It serves a great purpose, but when used imprudently, it can get out of control and dangerous.

6. Self-Esteem Movement.
Our tendency to praise our kids so often actually reduces their motivation. Think about it - if I'm told I'm awesome just for playing soccer, how motivated will I be to improve? The movement has actually fostered entitlement and narcissism.

How Do We Counter the De-Motivation Trend?
I believe we can begin to undo what culture has done to kids by creating a counter-culture within our environment -- our class, our team, our home or youth group. As you review the list above, what if you met with your students and discussed this trend? Then, together, what if you developed the opposite reality for the expressed purpose of deepening personal and inward motivation? Here are some places to start:

1. Get them used to one choice, not many options.
Once in a while, agree on a decision and don't offer a myriad of options. Help them to learn to live with what's in front of them -- a meal, a task, a project, etc.

2. Slow down the pace, and help them soak it in.
Agree that your group of students will actually "stop and smell the roses." Make a conscious effort to ease up on the superficial pace and go deep as you converse.

3. Set goals, and make them wait to reach them.
Post photos or images of their goals, and talk about those targets often. But be careful not to circumvent the process by offering a prize before they've worked and waited.

4. Discuss and celebrate people who model discipline and motivation.
Instead of Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian, why not discuss the stories and virtues of those who labor to add value to others and serve those in need? Find "true" celebrities or real life role models.

5. Agree on a technology fast.
This won't work unless you agree on it, but decide on a period of time where you will turn off the "ping" of that cell phone text or tweet and the endorphins it creates.

6. Determine to match your praise with actual achievement.
Once your students understand your love and belief in them, choose to only affirm achievement, and match your words with it. If it isn't awesome... don't call it that.