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Why do the assignment, anyway? Why we’re doing whatever thing is a question to ask yourself at certain points in life. If your choices don’t seem to be working for you—the assignment, the college path, the AP math class—does that mean your choices were wrong? Or could you think differently about your choices in ways that make them work?

A key part of this is about understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing. Maybe you want to succeed in high school so you can go to college, broaden your thinking, build knowledge and skills, and land a good job. That’s an example of internal motivation. Or maybe your primary reason for academic success is your parents, who are banking on your becoming a doctor or lawyer, or your community, which is looking to you to set an example to others. That’s external motivation—and those reasons are not necessarily bad, but they may not excite you or get you through the rough patches.

Internal locus of control: the power to determine your own life

The sense of how much you can influence your own life is called locus of control. Understanding this concept can help you develop self-awareness and motivation. People with an internal locus of control (ILC) believe they have the power to control their own lives, while those with an external locus of control (ELC) believe that other factors largely determine their fate.

How internal locus of control helps students succeed

“I often link doing well in school to having more options for good colleges. And getting a good education means better job opportunities. With these good-paying jobs that stabilize my life, I can afford to travel the world and seek out more ways to make this world a better place. What I do now can influence my entire future.” —Lucia, sophomore, Boston, MassachusettsILC is associated with greater self-motivation, academic achievement, and reduced stress, research shows. “When students don’t feel they have much control, they tend to become a bit more hopeless,” says Dr. Keith Anderson, a staff psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. “They think, ‘If my effort doesn’t make much difference, there is no point in even trying.’ This type of thinking often results in procrastination or avoidance. Having some self-efficacy [belief in one’s ability to succeed] often results in better academic achievement.”

Are you currently an “internal” or “external”?

Here’s the difference

  • “Internals” (people with more of an internal locus of control) may push hard to succeed. Sometimes they may doubt themselves and question ways they may have slipped up, even on issues that were not in their control, but overall they tend to be less stressed than “externals.”
  • “Externals” (people with more of an external locus of control) may think it’s pointless to work harder, because how their effort is perceived depends on others (such as the teacher or coach).

Note to self: You can’t control everything

Even if you believe you drive your own life experience, keep your expectations realistic. “Trying to have complete control of one’s life could result in people feeling anxious when confronted with situations where they have less control than they imagined,” says Dr. Anderson.

“However, recognizing that you have some influence is important. So, instead of believing that if you study you will get an A, it might be more realistic to recognize that if you study, the odds of getting an A are better. However, because the teacher makes the exam, it’s hard to know everything and be assured of getting the A.”

4 ways to strengthen your internal locus of control

Strengthening your internal locus of control builds your motivation and resilience (your ability to handle challenges and change yourself). Try these approaches:

1. Review the consequences of your past choices

LightbulbExamine the good and bad consequences of your decisions. “This kind of review provides some evidence of your ability to act on your decisions,” says Dr. Anderson.

Bystander action

For example, when you noticed that someone seemed uncomfortable because of someone else’s physical closeness at a social event, you casually interrupted, making it easier for the uncomfortable person to extract herself. As a result:

  • You may have helped prevent the situation from escalating to sexual coercion or assault
  • You demonstrated to yourself and your friends that you can help someone else
  • You helped create a more respectful and positive school culture

2. Look for missed opportunities

Road sign “Consider what options you might have missed that, as a result, led you to feel that you had no control in past situations, when in fact you had some,” says Dr. Anderson.

Social decisions

For example, you got pulled into a movie night the night before an important track meet. Put on the spot, you weren’t sure how to say no. The next day you woke up feeling groggy before the meet.

Next time, you’ll have a response ready: “Not tonight—I have a high-stakes event tomorrow and can’t afford to feel rough.”

3. Focus on what you can control

We can’t control certain things—such as other people’s prejudice, the weather, or the academic calendar. We can control the amount of effort we
put into studying, our relationships with teachers and friends, or our work.

“Over the years, I’ve realized that only I can better myself. I need to motivate myself and work my hardest in order to achieve something great.”
—Tatiana, junior, Brooklyn, New York

Group project

For example, in a group project, someone is ignoring texts and forgetting assignments. You can’t control the person’s behavior, but you can keep trying to communicate constructively (including with the other group members and the teacher) and working on your own piece of the project—even when you’re feeling frustrated or disappointed.

4. Determine realistic steps toward your goals

ChecklistDeveloping the habit of reviewing our actions helps remind us that we’re able to influence what happens in our lives.

Time management

For example, if you’ve been struggling with time management, missing deadlines, and pulling a couple of all-nighters, you might consider trying a few highly rated organizational systems and apps to see how much of a difference they make to your time management, sleep, mood, and academic performance. Check out Mastering a plan with Kanban: Your next organizational tool for tips.

What’s your motivation? Students’ stories

“I’m mostly self-motivated. The thought of success motivates me. All of my dreams inspire me to do well in school so I can get a good job and have a nice lifestyle. My parents will give me a ‘good job’ from time to time, but other than that, I do well because I want to do well.” —Sophie, junior, Anthem, Arizona“What motivates me to do well academically are my parents’ expectations for me. I always try to keep in mind how much has been done for me and that I should strive to return the favor. I also want to be able to be viewed as a hard worker and am motivated by the idea of having a positive future.”
—Name withheld, Boston, Massachusetts

“My motivation is reaching high. When I set my goals to 100 percent, I will put in the effort of a 100 percent-worthy score. This effort is usually reflected positively, often landing me a high grade. However, if my goal is a 90 percent, I will often fall short and end up underperforming, below my real knowledge in the class.”
—Name withheld, Farmington, Connecticut

“My parents came from a country where education wasn’t free, and they had to drop out of school to earn money for their families. I’m lucky to be a student in a free public school, and I want to succeed in life, and live a better life than [my parents did]. I also want my parents to live better lives, and money doesn’t grow on trees so I need to succeed in school.”
—Annie, sophomore, Boston, Massachusetts

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Article sources

Keith Anderson, PhD, FACHA; staff psychologist and outreach coordinator, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York.

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Miller, J. (2005). The impact of locus of control on minority students. [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Ng, T. W., Sorensen, K. L., & Eby, L. T. (2006). Locus of control at work: A meta-analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27(8), 1057–1087.

Student Health 101 survey, July 2016.