What’s the Best Way to Motivate Someone Who Lacks Motivation?

For years, I offered trusty advice to my children about how to achieve academic success. I worked my tail off in school and thought of myself as a treasure trove of information. Convinced that my words of wisdom would light their scholarly fire, I would go on for hours about how to develop good study habits. Perhaps seeing their eyes glaze over as I banged on about the benefits of working hard and doing their best should have alerted me to the possibility that the message might not be sinking in.

So, what does help? Research from the University of Pennsylvania offers a counterintuitive solution. Instead of giving students expert advice about how to do well in school as I had been doing ad nauseam, ask them to provide advice to other students about how to do well. In the study, middle school students (6th, 7th, and 8th graders) who shared their thoughts about why school matters with 4th graders became more motivated to study vocabulary themselves.

A different group of middle schoolers received advice from teachers on how to become better students. The teachers’ tips were objectively sound but didn’t impact behavior. Contrary to the assumption of well-meaning parents and teachers everywhere, explaining to children why and how they should study doesn’t make much of a difference. Most children are fully aware of optimal study habits. They don’t need more information. What they need is motivation.

Being a giver turns out to be a wellspring of motivation. Instead of being a struggling student in need of help, when you give advice, you become a competent person capable of providing help. Plus, human beings like to be consistent. When advocating for an idea, you take ownership of it. In the process of telling another person about how important something is, you remind yourself of its importance too.

Next time you encounter someone who is having trouble reaching a goal, save your breath. Instead of offering your words of wisdom, ask them to offer their words of wisdom to someone in a similar predicament.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman