Man… I see this question more often than I want to. And if you look closely, it’s basically people just complaining that they don’t want to study.
How did they graduate law school? If finally becoming an attorney doesn’t entice them, I don’t know what to say. More like I hold back on giving a huge answer every time I see the question!
HOW do you get motivated? How DO you get motivated? How do you get MOTIVATED?
You don’t. Asking about it is just going to get you into a pity party with other people who also “don’t have motivation.” The blind leading the blind.
To be fair, it’s a gray area. Who wants to study for the bar exam?
You might as well moisturize your outlines with sandpaper because this exam is one of the driest, most boring things in existence. It’s natural to be uninterested if you’re looking at this huge, seemingly insurmountable goal—even if it is a high-stakes exam.
If you’re asking about motivation, though, don’t count on it to come to you first. “Motivation” and “inspiration” are fleeting. It comes and goes based on the situation, difficult to summon at will.
Keep reading to find out:
- My answer to the titular question (or what doesn’t get you motivation)
- 3 approaches to getting my own work done (and how you can apply this to your bar prep)
- 5 productivity tactics (that don’t require you to give up on sleep)
You’re going to have up days and down days. It’s a good feeling to wake up one day and say, “Yeah! I’m gonna do 5 essays and 100 MBE questions today!” Or “Brian’s email today was rather excellent and inspiring.”
But what if you don’t get that feeling? Are you willing to embrace the boredom after the high wears off? Will you wait for the desire to study to fall from the sky?
You’ll be waiting a long time if you’re waiting for motivation to strike from above. On the other extreme: Overloading yourself or bruteforcing may be unsustainable and lead to burnout, and you may not even remember much. You’ll end up zoning out, spinning your wheels, and generally not getting anywhere.
In the first place, would you actually get some studying done even if you were motivated? Even if you did have the perfect moment with the perfect tools? Unfocused motivation is like taking Adderall. You’ll do it, but “it” is whatever gets your attention, not whatever needs to be done.
I get that studying for the bar is tough. I did it twice myself. But where’s the motivation to get this over with so you can enjoy every holiday to come? I think it’s in there somewhere.
Most of all, if you’ve committed to this, isn’t this simply something you have to do? It’s the only thing you can do. It’s your duty.
The question isn’t so much motivation as your willingness. So the better question might be how to make doing what you need to do simpler.
- Just start first, and the motivation to continue comes after. Opening this document was the hardest part. Like waking up in the morning, getting out of bed is the hardest part. You’re on your way once you get up. A wildfire starts with one branch. Motivation follows action.
- Pull different levers. For example, when entertainment takes a backseat to other pursuits, you eventually see it as not the best use of your time and attention (although you still need diversions). It’s a sacrifice, but think about the potential time you can recover in your life, if only for the next few months. What else could you de-prioritize in your life? What about unimportant busy work?
- It helps that I plan and do things ahead of schedule. You might think that the stress of deadlines will push you, but that just makes you hate it and feel frazzled. This is counterproductive. Try shooting for under par, and see what happens.
To sum up these approaches: You use a bit of discipline to start. You find and use effective and efficient study techniques that work for you. This establishes a consistent habit of studying, which reduces the friction. And then you get better. Progress and mastery are motivating.
In other words, study until you feel motivated. Just start first, and the momentum to continue comes after.
All that said, here are some productivity tactics that helped me (which don’t require you to give up on sleep or anything like that). These may be helpful if you’re plagued by procrastination and issues focusing and staying on task:
1. REMOVE DISTRACTIONS
We can regain our focus by subtracting distractions from our environment. If you lock yourself alone in an empty room with a book and no stimulations (no phones, computers, etc.), what else are you going to do? You have no choice but to open the book.
The locked room can be metaphorical or literal. For example, you can…
- Make distraction hard to do. Get distractions out of reach (mobile devices especially): Put your phone out of sight, leave it with someone else, put notifications on silent or airplane mode, etc.
- Just close the door to your room so you don’t hear any stray noises or see anything going on outside. This is more effective than you think if you’re with roommates, family members, etc. Some say having music in the background helps, but you’re not an unemployed “creative writer” at a Starbucks. Be honest with what actually helps you, and put away all unnecessary stimuli.
- Block distracting websites so you don’t end up browsing them until you realize it’s dark outside and sob grossly by yourself.
Some tools for managing distractions online:
- StayFocusd browser plugin for Chrome
- Forest browser plugin for Firefox
- Intent browser plugin for Chrome (doesn’t block websites but makes you aware of how much time you’re spending on certain sites and categories of sites over time)
- Freedom subscription for iPhone, iPad, Mac, Windows, Chrome, Firefox, Opera
“People think focus means saying YES to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not always what it means at all. It means saying NO to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”—Steve Jobs
“Focus is a function, first and foremost, of limiting the number of options you give yourself for procrastinating… I think that focus is thought of as this magical ability. It’s not a magical ability. It’s put yourself in a padded room, with the problem that you need to work on, and shut the door. That’s it. The degree to which you can replicate that, and systematize it, is the extent to which you will have focus.”—Tim Ferriss
2. LEAVE THE LOOP OPEN
When you’re about to finish studying for the day, STOP what you’re doing in the middle of a particular MBE question or essay review without finishing it.
Leave it ready to go the next day. Humans are wired to want to see the ending (the “cliffhanger effect”). Tease yourself. Maybe even leave 2-3 questions unfinished. This will make you want to see the ending the next day.
And once you continue studying the next day, you’ll jump right into study mode. Attitude follows behavior.
In fact, I’m going to use this technique today. It’s past bedtime, so I’ll finish this article after I wake up. Good thing I started ahead of schedule!
3. THE 20/10 CYCLE
I advocate for taking frequent breaks, although you should keep going if you’ve entered a flow state where you’re in cruise control. See my article on “the 20/10 cycle.”
4. HABITS & CONSISTENCY
You don’t stop going to work just because you don’t feel like it. You don’t stop brushing your teeth just because you don’t feel like it. You don’t leave your kids and not pick them up from school just because you don’t feel like it.
You don’t need motivation for that stuff. You can do the same for bar prep. You just do it consistently. Time has a mysterious power to realize the potential in you.
You don’t need as much willpower when you’ve made studying a habit. Let me copy paste something from a comment I made in the MTYLT FB group:
Once you make studying a habit (i.e., you do it consistently and seriously enough forget what it’s like to do what you formerly enjoyed), then studying becomes your new pastime and… dare I say… enjoyable? You have to let go of the expectation that you will have the same kind of free time and enjoyment that you used to have.
More importantly, it’s the WHY you’re doing this in the first place and committing to it. It doesn’t matter how selfish or weird the WHY is. My WHY for passing the bar was: I don’t want to fall behind others. I’m poor and need money. I don’t want my parents to be secretly ashamed of me. I want to prove to myself that I’m not that dumb. I want to prove to myself that I’m not any worse than classmates who passed the bar. I was afraid that they were right, that a low GPA meant I was a doomed to failure. My WHY had zero resemblance to the personal statement I submitted to get into law school.
5. REASONS BEFORE ANSWERS
Expanding on the above, WHY are you doing this in the first place? Humans are ruled by emotions and driven by meaning.
Is there a particular someone? Who or what are you doing this for? “I want to help people in need” was a good answer for your personal statement, but what’s the real answer?
To pay off loans? Prestige? Money? To show your classmates that you’re just as good as them? To stop feeling like you’re disappointing everyone around you?
If the prospect of studying doesn’t motivate you, maybe remembering why you’re here will. Get a big enough why, and you can figure out how to do anything.
I’m more productive and attentive when I do something for someone other than myself (including you). I wouldn’t have the steam to maintain everything that goes into MTYLT if I were doing it as a personal hobby. I want to impress you and be the best bar resource in the world.
There’s also the option of quitting if you don’t actually have a reason for taking the bar. Or if you think you’re wasting other opportunities by doing this. Maybe you don’t “got this.”
Motivation isn’t all about woo-woo surface-level feelings. You can use those feelings to spark you into action, but you’ll be waiting a long time if you’re waiting for something to strike from above. Instead, you can take steps rather than trying to summon motivation from the ether or waiting for it to show up like pizza delivery.
I wanted to pass the bar, and the stakes were there, of course. But it was about taking intentional and consistent small steps to become as prepared as best I could by the end.
To do that, I needed to enjoy the process. No more lectures. No more cookie-cutter plans. I took plenty of breaks and tried different things to see what worked for me and what didn’t (and as a result of sharing them with others over the years, those strategies and systems are now divulged in this playbook).
Your turn: How do YOU get motivated? Let me know in the comments below.