We all fall behind. We’ve all lost motivation at one time or another—we don’t want to get out of bed to go to class, we lost sight of why we’re enrolled in chemistry, we let the homework stew inside our notebooks like leftover soup we’re too afraid to throw out.
One ambitious student emailed me to ask, what can I do when I’ve fallen really behind in class? Like, so much so that I barely know what the topic is.
Fortunately there are a few easy steps you can take to get back on track.
Here’s Nora’s story:
Before the holidays I started paying a little less attention in class as the impending holiday made the classes long and dreadful.
I didn't take very many notes and spent little to no free time working on understanding the material as I usually do.
Now that I'm back I feel even more unmotivated, especially as I hardly understand what's written on the board.
I'm struggling more in the classes where you have to really understand and remember things, for example, science and math. It's hard to start again when the Christmas tree is still up in the living room, and when you feel no less than disdain at your school for dragging you back in class just a week and a half after you left.
Girl, I hear you! Having a nice break with friends and family and no schoolwork is so enchanting that it’s incredibly hard to pull yourself back and get into the flow of work.
Here’s how to get motivation back and catch up when you’ve fallen behind in class
When I was directing the Marina Abramovic Institute West in San Francisco, I missed class...a lot. When I came back from some swanky museum event in New York, I wouldn’t know what topic we were on, how many pages I was supposed to have read, what concepts I’d missed mastering.
But someone out there does know what’s going on, and they have all the power to help you out of your predicament: your teacher.
So the first step is to immediately email your professor. Your email can go something like this:
Hi Professor X,
I’m really embarrassed to write this to you, but you’re my only way out of this mess!
I’ve fallen behind in class -- to the point where I feel lost. I have a plan, however:
I will try and get notes and study with a peer from class to catch up.
I will use online resources like Khan Academy or Chegg to help me catch up on what I’ve fallen behind on.
What I would really like your help with is planning for how to catch up again. If you wouldn’t mind sending me the topics you’re going to cover for the next 2-3 weeks I can start working on catching up on the material!
Your dope email signature
(Don’t have an email signature?! whaaat? read this post to show you why you need one and how to make a signature that will impress the heck out of your professors.)
What this email is doing is letting your professor know that yes, you’ve fallen behind, but you are taking active steps toward improvement.
You’re also being vulnerable and honest in front of them (admitting you’ve fallen behind) which helps build connection and can actually make you look better in their eyes instead of worse.
Now, the hidden mechanism at work here is that you’ve now announced to your teacher that you’re working on catching up.
This means you actually have to do the work or you’re going to put yourself in an even worse position. Don’t be scared about this! It’s the push that will help your motivation click back on.
If you’re anything like me having deadlines is the only way you’d ever get anything done. I need pressure to perform.
So sending this email to your professor is a good way to force you back into action.
The second thing you can do is modify your existing behaviors just slightly so that you see an improvement.
Our friend Nora fell behind because she stopped taking notes, started paying less attention in class, and didn’t spend time working on the material outside of class.
Note the actions that have led you to fall behind.
That’s where you need to focus to correct them.
(Yo, don’t just read this. Grab your notebook and write them down! Then write down what you can do to modify them ever so slightly so that you nudge yourself back on the rails.)
How to take more notes when you’re feeling unmotivated in class :
You’ll want to find a system that works for you, but here are some ideas:
Get a new notebook, new pens, or google a new system for taking notes. Anything that will get you excited to jump in and try a new note taking format out. I can trick myself into taking notes again if I get a bunch of colorful pens and start taking beautiful notes (a major departure from my usual, garbage notes).
Exchange taking notes for paying more attention (read this post to learn how to stop taking notes, pay more attention, and )
Write out your WHY at the top of your notebook in class when you need to bring your focus back and boost motivation. Answer the question “Why am I learning this material?” ie: so I can pursue my dream of becoming a teacher (that would be my answer, what’s yours?) this can help you feel more connected to the work you’re doing in class instead of making it seem like a senseless drag. (More on this at the bottom.)
How to pay more attention in class
I wrote a post about this a while ago, so you can read that for more tips on how to pay more attention in class.
The bullet list version is this:
Change your physiology. Your body dictates to your brain how to feel. So if you want to feel alert and energized, put your body in that position. I always sit straight up at my desk, without my back even touching the chair, and I have my pen in my hand even when I’m not taking notes. It signals to my brain that I’m in attention mode and I have laser focus...well, most of the time. Don’t be hard on yourself for daydreaming or slouching or getting side tracked. Just come back to your attention position and focus on the teacher when you realize you’ve drifted off.
Sit in the front of the class. It’s really hard to not pay attention when you’re front row center. The teacher is looking right at you, so you have to be on your game. I always sit in the front so I don’t get distracted by other students and I can see the board clearly.
Change how you take notes. Read this post for how to take less notes so you can pay more attention and understand material better.
How to get motivated for school after a long break
It’s so easy to lose motivation and yet, it’s the juice that keeps us going when we have difficult classes.
I believe staying motivated is a huge part of success.
No one is waking up at 5am to get a hard workout in before class or work when they’re unmotivated. They want those killer abs. Or they want a healthy, vibrant body. Or they want the strength.
They don’t want the workout, they want the results.
If you’ve found yourself fallen off the motivation bandwagon, refocus on the result you want from the actions you’re feeling unmotivated about.
Don’t want to go to class? Ask yourself, “why am I going to this class in the first place?” Often you’ll need to ask yourself why several times of the same initial question to really drill down and get to the truth.
Why am I taking a graduate course on Shakespeare? Because he’s a master of English and I can learn more about the English language and how to use it from him. Why do I want to learn how to use English? So I can write compellingly. Why do I want to write compellingly? Because I want to inspire people to live their life to the fullest and help others along the way.
Now that’s a motivating reason! (Dang, now I want to go take that class all over again.
Once you have a solid backing to your motivation, you can chip away at feelings of overwhelm by breaking down what you have to do for a daunting class into small, manageable pieces.
For example, if you have a bunch of material to catch up write down the topics in a notebook:
Graphs of Functions
First, look to see where you can have the most impact with the least amount of studying. I can see here that functions and graphs of functions are related, so I’m going to prioritize studying those before I see if I have time for quadratic equations and inequalities.
Then break it down. If I have to study functions (with 30 practice problems), write a 2 page paper, plus finish some chores, I need to break each down into manageable tasks so I don’t put them off because it seems like too much work.
My schedule, since I work best in short spurts, might look like this:
6pm - 9pm
10 mins or 6 practice problems - functions
5 min break - eat a snack
10 mins or 6 practice problems - functions
5 min break - bathroom / stretch
Write paper topic & find 3 articles (30 mins)
—— 1 hr mark ——
5 minute break - do dishes
Pull quotes form article & write outline (30 mins)
5 min break - walk my dog
Turn outline into paper (1 hr)
—— 2.5 hrs total ——
make bibliography & edit (10 mins)
5 min break - fold laundry
Power through 20 mins or 18 practice problems - functions
—— roughly 3 hours ——
Writing it out helps me stay focused, and if I schedule what I’m allowed to do on my breaks, I limit distraction.
You’ll notice I don’t have anything on here like “check email,” or “instagram,” or “make a to do list for tomorrow.” Everything on my break list doesn’t require brain energy.
Stretching, eating, walking, all help my body be able to sit for another block of time, so I limit my feeling of burnout.
If you add another cognitive task, or a distraction like email or instagram, it’s going to hurt your ability to focus and study.
I have a course video that shows you in detail just how to get your motivation back on track and get your work done when you’re feeling beat down and overwhelmed. If you want to go deeper with this, check it out! >>
As always, leave comments with your own struggles or accomplishments in this area!