We’ve made it through alert levels 3 and 4. Now we’re in level 2, we’re back at school and rediscovering old routines. Learning for students across New Zealand has been juggled between school and home, and the educational musical-chairs we’re playing can impact our motivation and willingness to persevere in our studies.

So, if you’ve been feeling unmotivated to complete your schoolwork, or struggling to motivate yourself to do simple tasks, you are not alone! During this global pandemic, it is completely normal to be feeling unmotivated, and it is understandable that you might be feeling out of control. It seems as though we have so much more time to complete assignments and exercise or learn a new skill. So, why are we struggling with motivation at the moment? 

The Self-Determination Theory

Professor Edward Deci and Professor Richard M. Ryan from the University of Rochester came up with the Self-Determination Theory, which looks at why and how people motivate themselves. This theory outlines that it can be easier to motivate ourselves when we have the following:

  • Autonomy – The feeling that you have a choice over your behaviour
  • Competence – A certain level of confidence in your activity
  • Relatedness – The feeling of being connected and sociable with others. 

These seem like common sense when thinking about the components that make up motivation, however, it can be easy to forget that these three elements that are working together to motivate us.

Autonomy during COVID-19

When we think about the level of control we have over choices, COVID-19 can make us feel as though we are trapped, and that we don’t have a lot of control over our circumstances. Constantly being with the same people can cause us to feel trapped in our bubble (even now in level 2), and even the little things, such as a lot of emails from your teachers and school can make you feel overwhelmed. 

Rebuilding your autonomy

To combat these feelings of being trapped and stuck, we can focus on what we are in control of. This is a technique called Cognitive Reframing, where instead of focusing on what we cannot control, we shift our mindset to focus on the things that we can. Your outfit for the day, whether you listen to music while studying, the shows you watch on Netflix; these are all little decisions that you make each day that you still have control over

Another thing we can do to feel in control is to go outside each day and put yourself in a new environment, make a choice about the path you take on your walk while following social distancing rules, and take control of the things you can.

Competency during COVID-19

Your competency regarding school has likely taken a hit due to COVID-19. You may feel as though you don’t have many NCEA credits, or as though you aren’t gaining many credits at the moment. A lack of competency can lead to a negative spiral. 

This starts with something simple like struggling to focus, which leads to no work being done, leading to anxiety, bringing us back to struggling to focus. We want to work on changing this negative spiral into a positive one

Rebuilding your competency


To regain our confidence in ourselves and our abilities we can harness our self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief we have that we can achieve a task at a particular level. Little things such as:

  • Breaking down big tasks into smaller chunks of work
  • Set small tasks to achieve in the day
  • Reflecting at the end of the day on three things that you achieved 

These methods can help you to utilise your self-efficacy, by making work more approachable, but also by feeling more accomplished in the work you do achieve. 

Address black and white thinking

Addressing black and white thinking, such as, “I’m not going to pass NCEA this year,” can also help you to regain your confidence. 

Black and white thinking can be a habit we fall into when we think of things in our life as dichotomous – yes/no, pass/fail, good/bad. Thing is, this isn’t how life works. In fact, it’s all about the small incremental changes we make.

Ask yourself, “what would I say to a friend who was thinking like this?”  If passing the year is a big worry of yours, remind yourself that your teachers, school and the Government do not want you to fail, and they understand how difficult it is for you. 

Relatedness and COVID-19

A big factor in our lives that has been affected by COVID-19 is our social activities, and seeing people face to face, which correlates to relatedness in the Self-Determination Theory. COVID-19 has meant that we currently do not have face to face teaching or physical contact with a lot of our friends that we would normally see most days. 

Social media is a major part of keeping people connected but we also need to be wary of the Illusions of Social Media, and the idea that everyone else seems to be doing amazing things such as studying a lot and exercising every day. This can make us feel even more isolated and alone. 

Rebuilding your relatedness

Feeling connected with others is important, and you could do this by forming study groups with your friends over Discord or Zoom, joining the Studytime NCEA Help Group on Facebook, or participating in game nights with friends and family. 

Connect with others by thinking about what you can do to help someone else. How can you help someone in your bubble? In your class? By making an effort to help those around you, you are also helping yourself to feel more connected, therefore, rebuilding your relatedness.

Concluding thoughts

Motivation is something that we all struggle with at times, and COVID-19 has made it that much harder. Just as we have to combat COVID-19, we also have to combat the lack of motivation that we are feeling. 

Choose one thing to work on to enhance autonomy, competency and relatedness this week. Focus on the decisions that you can make, break down large and overwhelming tasks into smaller and more manageable chunks, and connect with others by thinking about how you can help and motivate them.