3 Tips to Stay Motivated with Challenging Subjects

3 Tips to Stay Motivated with Challenging Subjects

Sometimes in life, we have to tackle challenges that we aren’t exactly passionate about. They are often stepping stones to bigger dreams, like getting the grades or test scores needed to get into an awesome college, or on the road to our next big adventure.

How can we re-frame those challenges to stay inspired and keep our motivation strong? Successfully working through challenges is about much more than the end goal; it is all about the journey.

Tip #1: Map the Journey

What do I need to do?

Mapping the course toward a challenging goal can feel overwhelming when we put too much focus on the destination. The key here is to break big goals into small steps. Instead of asking, How am I ever going to get an A in chemistry? ask, What do I need to do for my chemistry homework tonight? What resources do I need? Who can I ask for help?

I like to call this process “bird by bird”, after this story from writer Anne Lamott:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day… He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

While I don’t recommend putting things off until the last minute, the moral of this story is to not underestimate the value in small steps. This is how big work gets done. By starting with small steps, we give ourselves a realistic road map, the opportunity to practice and explore, and to creatively navigate our own unique path, in ways that we never could if we remained too intimidated to ever begin. That is the power of bird by bird.

Tip #2: Navigate the Journey

How do I do this?

Sometimes we are afraid of taking on challenges because we know that we will make mistakes. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, and we’d prefer to stick with what we know. The problem is, sticking with what we already do well is limiting, and prevents us from discovering what else we might be capable of.

This is where growth mindset comes in. It is one of the most powerful tools we can use to navigate our way when the path gets tricky.

Growth mindset teaches that mistakes are tools for learning and exploring. Instead of being disappointed by mistakes, we can use them as sources of information about what to work on next. Mistakes are like little compasses that point the way forward.

The writer Stephen King shared that he used to tack all of his rejection letters to the wall above his desk. The purpose was to remind himself of how much experience he was gaining in the world of writing fiction. He didn’t see these rejections as failures, he saw them as an education. When we can re-frame mistakes as experiences rather than failures, we can free ourselves up to grow in big ways.

Tip #3: Enjoy the Journey

Why am I doing this again?

It’s easy to get caught up in how far we have to go rather than reflecting on how far we’ve come. This is why it’s important to brainstorm ways that we can celebrate small successes along the way. This might mean going out with a friend to your favorite cafe, taking your dog to play at the beach, or treating yourself to a movie. The only requirement is that it be fun for you!

Recognize and quantify your small successes: you sat at your desk for one hour to study three days this week. You completed a set of extra practice problems on a math concept that was difficult for you. Don’t base rewards solely on scores and grades. Base them on the time and effort that you put into your goal and working toward it.

If you wait to reward yourself until you reach the end of the journey, it’s going to feel like a long road. You aren’t going to love the process as much, and your motivation will drop off without taking time for rejuvenation.

Give yourself permission to shift perspective periodically, and look at what you’ve already achieved instead of what you haven’t achieved yet. Small celebrations are a way of patting yourself on the back and encouraging yourself forward, just like you would do for a friend or family member.


The key to finding motivation with challenging subjects is to create a journey that inspires you. Identify the stepping stones that will lead to your goal, bird by bird. Give yourself permission to engage with the process and explore your own potential without fearing mistakes. Create enjoyment and value in the process, not just the end goal.

Once you learn how to deconstruct challenges and make the process of working through them meaningful and rewarding, you will have a skill set that will expand all of the possibilities for your life.

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