Certification Study: Finding Your Motivation

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It’s hot out. The sun is shining overhead, and everyone and his sister is out enjoying the weather, the festivals, barbecues and other warm-weather activities that take place in the summertime. That is, everyone except you. You’re indoors staring at your books and papers, gazing apathetically at a computer screen or perhaps fiddling with a mock-up hardware system, hoping to somehow absorb enough of its secrets to enable you to pass your certification exam in a few weeks.

The continuous learning and commitment to study and knowledge acquisition required in the IT industry—not to mention testing and passing certification exams—is enough to make even the most stalwart soul bury his head in the sand (at the beach, with an umbrella overhead and a cooler at the foot of the chaise lounge). But you can overcome the urge to procrastinate and eliminate the stressors and inhibitors that might keep you from studying. Feelings of fear, discouragement and anxiety happen to everyone, but not everyone knows how to overcome these mental obstacles and smooth the bumps on the path to success.

“I would break it down to a practical problem versus an emotional problem,” said psychologist Nando Pelusi, Ph.D. “Usually people have a practical problem with IT which is, it’s a very abstract endeavor. It takes a certain amount of time before you reach the threshold. You almost have to over-learn it to really feel comfortable with it. It’s like learning to play the piano or learning statistics. It’s not something that usually comes easily to us. We have to practice it a bit, and most of us just don’t want to go through that grueling first part.”

For those of you facing a certification exam, the connection between playing the piano and mastering the basics of a complicated operating system may not be immediately apparent. But the connection is, when you start any task—whether it’s studying or beginning instruction to master a new skill—there always is some level of commitment required. That level of commitment could be tangible—a written study schedule posted in a high-traffic area of the home or office where you’re guaranteed to see it repeatedly throughout the day. It might be intangible—a mental decision to prepare the body for intense study, like getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising and not partying until the wee hours when you should be at home organizing your note cards and hardware.

“Getting enough sleep is a powerful way to stay motivated,” said Hara Estroff Marano, editor at large, Psychology Today magazine. “Sleep deprivation destroys all of your psychological resolve and is a stress by itself. There is an effort that’s required. You’ve got to stay in shape to be willing to make the effort. Those are the preconditions for motivation. You have to be in training in a sense, and people tend to forget all that. They just focus on the task, but there are things that make you ready to do a task.”

If you’re having trouble staying motivated or starting your certification study prep—something deeper perhaps than the need to go to see the new blockbuster “Blah Blah 3” at the local theater 10 minutes into your predetermined 40 minutes of study time—you might have an emotional block. You could be suffering from anxiety, a self-downing attitude or feelings of discouragement—particularly if the test you’re preparing for is a second (or third, or more) time around. If you are, jollying yourself out of the doldrums with an inner pep rally could prove futile. It’s far better to say, “If I study 40 minutes, three times a week I have a far likelier chance of passing this certification exam.” Remember, having failed once does not curse you to fail again.

“You can do the work but still feel miserable,” Pelusi said. “People get stuck in the unreality negative, and sometimes psychologists unfortunately go to the other extreme and tell people self-esteem stuff which helps you feel better, but not get better. You can fool yourself by saying ‘I’m going to be wonderful and magnificent on that test, and when I feel like studying it’s going to be great,’ but you never get around to it. Work on the self-downing. Notice the kind of inner voice that says you can’t do it, or you should be doing it better, or you’ll never do it as well as others, or it’s too late—the IT bubble has exploded. Those kinds of thoughts just run you down. They also make you less creative.”

To silence that cruel inner voice or curtail the need to denigrate yourself, set short- and long-range goals. “Even if it’s 20 minutes of study per day, at least that’s a concrete amount, and that’s going to give you information on how you feel because if you do 20 minutes, you can continue if you feel like you’re in a groove. Most people don’t start studying because they think it’s too demoralizing. The other thing I would recommend is something I call persistent restarting. Let’s say they commit to doing 40 minutes and then to relax for 10 minutes. They’re going to try it for five or 10 minutes and then they may get distracted or turn on MTV or go out or something, but I say persistently restart until you’ve done what you’ve committed to do. Also, it’s important to identify the philosophy that causes you to procrastinate. For example, if you tell yourself you have to do this perfectly, you have to get this immediately, those kinds of things are going to interfere with you getting it at all.”

Once you identify the things that you tell yourself to rationalize procrastinating or to avoid studying, challenge them. “You say, ‘Why do I absolutely have to get it immediately? Why do I need a guarantee that it has to be done well?’ Those kinds of things put you back into reality and back into the moment,” Pelusi said. “Counteract negative thoughts with realistic thoughts because positive thoughts may or may not be true.”

“You have to know that some fear goes with the territory,” Marano said. “You’re going to have it. It’s going to be there. You can confine it by saying I’ll give myself an hour or a half an hour a day to worry. In addition, everybody needs some rudimentary way of emotion control. Everybody has to find a way to calm their fears. Walking, deep breathing, running, mental imagery that’s calming and relaxing—this is basic equipment. It’s not unique to staying on top of your work. It’s for everything that you need to do. It’s all connected. It’s probably the most important thing you can learn because you can’t pay attention to anything unless you know how to calm the anxieties that tend to arise from strange situations, deadlines and pressures.”

Once you’ve got the mental angst under control, break your study plan into small manageable chunks. “You kind of have to obey the discomfort that you feel. If you’re beginning to get discomfort that you’re putting something off, you could eat a chocolate bar. That’s one way of dispelling stress. You could mindlessly flip channels or zone out watching television or you could do a direct hit. Simply assuage the discomfort by opening up the materials and studying,” Marano said. “Everybody has the fears. There’s no person who’s magically successful. We tend to think that someone else knows a secret that we don’t know, but the fact is, everyone’s going through the same thing. There is no better confidence builder than preparation and a little anxiety can be helpful to performance. Just do it. Break it into small chunks and do it.”


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