How university students can boost motivation levels during the pandemic: Evidence-based tips

It’s no secret that lockdowns, social isolation and constant pandemic-related news has had an effect on us all. Many more people are less satisfied in their relationships, in life and have reported feeling lonelier more often1. These feelings of social isolation can negatively impact our motivation2. Due to many of us still having to study and work through this, this blog provides some tips to boost motivation in this turbulent time. These tips are aimed at university students but have underlying messages applicable to people in most walks of life.

Tired of the pandemic?

Sleep may not be the first thing you think of when you think of motivation, but it is surprisingly integral to it. We see many ‘’Why I get up at 4AM’’ and ‘’why I only sleep for 5 hours a night’’ motivational posts online, but this advice can actually be harmful. The scientific literature is very clear that we need between 7 – 9 hours’ good quality sleep a night5. The pandemic has led to lower quality of sleep for a lot of us and higher levels of anxiety6. This anxiety, aswell as a common increase in social media use1, can lead to poor sleep5 and subsequently lower levels of motivation. Instead of constant scrolling online, it might be better to implement things like zoom calls with friends which have been shown to benefit both mental health and sleep6. The evidence shows that quality sleep improves mood, coping skills, and memory5. It also allows us to focus for longer and strengthens our immune system (particularly helpful considering the pandemic)6. Sleep is actually related to both academic achievement and academic motivation7! Even midday 30-minute naps have been shown to help creativity5. Unfortunately, some circumstances do not allow for 7-9 hours good sleep consistently, but maybe try to implement some of these habits where you can. Consistent sleeping times, reducing or cutting out caffeine and blue light filters will all help you get better quality sleep5 and subsequently motivation. Your body and brain will thank you for good a good night’s rest.

Taking the first step

The Chinese philosopher and writer, Lao Tzu, is credited with the famous saying ‘’The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.’’ This incremental improvement mentality is very useful for motivation. We all know people who take on big unrealistic new year’s resolutions, with most people abandoning them by January 19th3! It’s better to start with smaller changes. Much smaller. Do you want to read more? Start small. As small as one page, but then read 2 pages the next day. Start even smaller if that’s too much to keep to.  These small increments, or wins, will build up psychological momentum which is a key factor in performance and effort4. Starting small allows you to go at a pace you are comfortable with. Some people will have to start smaller than you and some will bigger, but that doesn’t matter. Whatever you can keep to matters. Taking the time needed will help build up the aforementioned momentum and healthy habits. Keep with this, and before long you will have ramped up that momentum and have to motivation to keep pushing forward.

Knowing where to aim

Imagine this: You wake up tired and groggy. You have 5 alarms are set to go off in the next 30 minutes, since you knew that the first one wouldn’t get you out of bed. You have a 3,000-word essay due today and you haven’t started. This will probably get you motivated if you call panic motivation. How do you find the motivation when you are given the assignment, not 20 minutes before it is due? Combining simple, easy to follow goals with and a plan of action. Goals are a key factor in motivation8. Breaking down a task will not only help you know what specifically needs to be done but will help prevent you jumping aimlessly from task to task. Take the essay example. Do you need to do research? How much? Do you even know what the question means? Goals act as a target and will boost both motivation and performance10. Unsurprisingly, a lack of an action plan works directly against goals and motivation9. Combining clear goals with a plan will boost motivation8. Short-term goals are very important, like writing an essay, for clarity and motivation8. Long-term goals are too, such as working towards a degree, which have many psychological benefits including increased motivation10 and improved mood11. If you are feeling unmotivated or the work is overwhelming, simplify the tasks and write them down. Of course, there will still be hard work required, but at least now you know what to do and how to do it allowing you to inch closer and closer to your target.

With the current pandemic having affected so many aspects of so many lives, we must try hard to keep motivated. Some of us might need to seek professional help as there may be a more serious issue affecting motivation levels (see Resources below). Overall, the powerful benefits of sleep, clear goals, and small but meaningful improvements are three evidence-based strategies for increasing motivation.

Want to learn more?

How to get better sleep –

Effects of sleep –

Ted Talk on Incremental improvement –


Samaritans: +44 330 094 5717

Pieta House: 1800 247 247

Mental health Ireland:


1. CSO – social impact of Covid-19

2. Whaite, E.O., Shensa, A., Sidani, J.E., Colditz, J.B. and Primack, B.A., 2018. Social media use, personality characteristics, and social isolation among young adults in the United States. Personality and Individual Differences124, pp.45-50.

3. A Study of 800 Million Activities Predicts Most New Year’s Resolutions Will Be Abandoned on January 19: How to Create New Habits That Actually Stick’re%20probably%20painfully%20familiar,Year’s%20resolutions%20have%20dropped%20them

4. Iso-Ahola, S. E., & Mobily, K. (1980). “Psychological momentum”: A phenomenon and an empirical (unobtrusive) validation of its influence in a competitive sport tournament. Psychological Reports, 46(2), 391-401.

5. Matthew Walker: Why we sleep

6. Kutana, S., & Lau, P. H. (2020). The impact of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic on sleep health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne.

7. Önder, İ., Beşoluk, Ş., İskender, M., Masal, E., & Demirhan, E. (2014). Circadian preferences, sleep quality and sleep patterns, personality, academic motivation and academic achievement of university students. Learning and Individual Differences, 32, 184-192.

8. Locke, E.A. and Latham, G.P., 2019. The development of goal setting theory: A half century retrospective. Motivation Science5(2), p.93.

9. Koestner, R., Horberg, E. J., Gaudreau, P., Powers, T., Di Dio, P., Bryan, C., … & Salter, N. (2006). Bolstering implementation plans for the long haul: The benefits of simultaneously boosting self-concordance or self-efficacy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(11), 1547-1558.

10. Austin, J.T. and Vancouver, J.B., 1996. Goal constructs in psychology: Structure, process, and content. Psychological bulletin, 120(3), p.338.

11. King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 27(7), 798-807.

Author Bio:

Adam Miniter (@AdamMiniter) is a 2nd year undergraduate student doing a BA in Psychology and Economics at the University of Limerick (UL). He is currently working with Dr. Elaine Kinsella (@elainekinsella) on his cooperative education (Co-Op) placement in the Department of Psychology at UL. Adam is particularly interested in cognition and clinical applications of psychology.


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