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What’s Hindering Motivation in Students?

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 that 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. Focus—especially long-term focus—is very difficult for Generation iY. They had all moved on to new interests.


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 As I’ve written before, inward motivation has been replaced by outward stimulation.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 can not only paralyze an adolescent, it can 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.

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.


Looking to develop leaders? Check out

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  1. Dan Burk on January 31, 2014 at 7:30 am

    Sadly, I think some will think this means we should go back to educating students the same way we have for 100’s of years…

    • Howarrd on November 13, 2014 at 9:31 pm

      Not exactly…its changing and adapting to different ways to handle things. As a teacher I have to change my lessons depending on skill level of my 6th graders. So realizing what is out there we have to adapt to what are kids deal with or we fall behind

  2. Mark Gedeon on January 31, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    There is a lot of research on changing habits (New year’s resolutions). I suggest the book Change anything –

    See the video Which gives an overview of why we can’t seem to will ourselves into change.

    • Tim Elmore on February 5, 2014 at 10:08 am

      Thank you for sharing, Mark!

    • Joseph Valentin on February 6, 2014 at 11:28 am

      This article is very informative for
      teens’ lives. He explains what hinders motivation in students. He’s to the
      point and gives solutions to the problems. Technology has a major amount of
      impact in our motivation for the good, but especially for the bad. I liked it,
      because it taught me new things to take care of difficulties.-Joseph Valentin

  3. Lorrie Mowry on July 22, 2016 at 10:09 am

    The cafeteria reference really made a point with me, regarding the lack of commitment because “something better might come along.” It struck me a week or so ago, when I (AGAIN) received a message that my iPad needed to “update.” That’s when I realized that this generation is being plagued with a phenomenon I’m naming the “UPDATE GENERATION”. It seems like we are teaching youth that we can just put our work out there – and everything is a rough draft, because we are going to UPDATE it later. I teach in a college classroom, and I often witness lackadaisical effort from students and society, rather than real focus. My generation was taught, “Do it right, and do it right the first time.” I feel like we are saying to youth today, “Just try it, and we’ll make it better later.” The concept of improving on what we do is a great one, but somehow, we’ve lost sight of putting in quality effort in the beginning. Many are just going through the motions, feeling like the educational process (and life!) is a “transaction” (like an online purchase) rather than a “transformation” (involving change and growth).

    • Tim Elmore on July 25, 2016 at 2:44 pm

      Great points, Lorrie. I’m hearing the same feedback from other educators across the country. I believe we must have conversations with students to help them define what excellence looks like regarding work. One of our values at Growing Leaders is excellence and we work with each team member to define what that means for his or her role.

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What’s Hindering Motivation in Students?