The pursuit of motivation was an unlikely path for me. I have always been a highly
motivated person. As a teacher, I have a lot of different tasks, many of which are driven by
external factors: student needs, collaboration with colleagues, state and district mandates, parent
inquiries, test scores, and much more. These tasks keep me motivated, and I can go into
overdrive to finish them.
I have been teaching for nearly two decades, and for the large majority of this time, I
believed there was a certain switch for motivation–one that could simply be turned on. Even
when I didn’t want to finish a certain task, my motivation would kick in and keep me checking
tasks off my to-do list.
Of course, the intrinsic desire to be a good teacher–and all of the roles that come with this
job–play an important role too. But, when I am staring at a stack of essays, I know that I have
about a week to grade and return them before students start asking for their grades. Granted,
there are some who ask the next day, and the following day, and so on. It becomes like a long car
ride with your kids asking that infamous question, “Are we there yet?” And that is motivation
enough to complete the task sooner rather than later!
We all experience external factors that drive our motivation: promotions, deadlines,
praise–you name it. We are motivated to complete our tasks because there are definite, tangible
outcomes that will affect us. This type of motivation is important, but it can become quite
mechanical. Checking off the boxes on a to-do list is not very inspiring, and, for someone like
me, it can be habit-forming. I tend to focus only on the tasks on the list, and I forget to
acknowledge anything off-list. And, let’s face it–no one writes down the fun stuff on a to-do list!
These things–hobbies, passions, goals–are placed on the back burner, and it’s a silent sacrifice
we make each time we add one more thing to the list.
But something happened. Motivation became elusive, and I was too tired to catch it.
There was no more switch. I noticed this change slowly at first, over holidays and weekends. I had zero motivation, but this seemed normal during these smaller stretches of time. By summertime, though, it was very clearly…gone. Summertime to a teacher should feel like the first steps onto a playground: limitless opportunities that are motivated purely by a desire to enjoy the things that inspire personal fulfillment. Yet, I could not muster up the motivation to write, read, run–none of my
interests seemed interesting enough. I retreated into myself. I realize now that this was my
body’s way to heal from too much tasking.
I came to view motivation as a friend to guide me or a foe to be wrangled. But it is much
more complex than that. The external and internal factors must coexist in order for the self to be
whole. There is nothing left to motivate oneself when it has been given away. I had to find a
better balance, and the first step was breaking a bad habit: the to-do list had to go.
The physical list was easy. The mental list was not. There is an endless current that flows
through my mind, both day and night. The amount of “stuff” in my head is constantly being
organized, reorganized, prioritized, and pondered. It is hard to ignore, and even harder to turn
I have always considered this endless current to be a normal part of teaching. These
musings motivate me to craft better lessons, create new activities, engage more students, and
make better assessments. But then I realized that this constant stimuli was taking over the other
side of motivation. The whole reason for being so motivated to perform all of the required tasks
and essential demands of teaching was due to the intrinsic desire to fulfill a passion. And I had
let the external motivation become a ball and chain that was dictating nearly all of parts of my
life. I had become confined to living for everyone but myself.
Of course, it is natural to go through phases where motivation ebbs and flows. But, the
self suffers when too much is sacrificed. I never expected that I would deplete mine entirely.
Once your motivation reaches E, it is hard to fill up.
These are some strategies I started using to motivate myself and to maintain personal
fulfillment through my own passions.
1. Be realistic about time. You don’t have to set aside two or three hours to do the things
that you love. Twenty or thirty minutes can go a long way, and that small
accomplishment will keep your motivation strong for the other tasks you have to
2. Give and take. Determine how many tasks you want to complete before you give time to
yourself. I sometimes feel guilty if I don’t complete a certain amount of tasks, so choose
a number that is your “stop” period. Then, take the time to do something that you enjoy.
This will lead to less burn out and help maintain your motivation.
3. Get into a routine. Being consistent is important. I set aside some time before bed to work
on my writing, even if I am jotting down what seems like a bunch of miscellany.
Knowing that I have made time for myself improves my motivation to use that time well
rather than falling for the belief that it’s “just not enough time.”
4. Don’t feel guilty. It is very easy to feel like you have not done enough, especially
depending on your profession. I always feel that I can or should complete more, but I
have learned that those tasks can usually wait another day or two. Feeling guilty is the
fastest way to deplete your time and your motivation.
Now, I find myself always in pursuit of motivation. I realize that taking time to do the
things you love–the things that inspire and fulfill you–are necessary to maintain this motivation,
and more importantly, the self.