Many people see the potential of self-directed learning but don’t feel like they can motivate themselves to work without a teacher or boss hovering above. 

This is a valid concern: self-motivation is a difficult, never-ending challenge. But if you want to be in control of your education and life, then it’s a non-negotiable!

The Psychology of Self-Motivation

Understanding some of the psychology behind self-motivation is a good place to start (or re-start) your path as a self-directed learner.

Intrinsic motivation: Start with self-determination theory (explained well in this book by one of its founders). Go deeper into intrinsic motivation by reading Drive by Daniel Pink or watching this animated video describing the book’s key points.

Mindset: Carol Dweck’s theory of fixed and growth mindset is explained well in this article and this animated video. Self-directed learners exemplify the growth mindset. (My own introduction to the growth mindset came in an unusual fashion.)

Flow: Another animated video explains the basic ideas behind Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on states of optimal experience, engagement, and learning. The Wikipedia page is helpful.

Optimism/Pessimism: Martin Seligman’s research on learned optimism closely relates to the above psychology theories. Pessimists don’t last long as self-directed learners. Yet another animated video explains the main points.

All of these theories fly under the banner of positive psychology and are associated with cognitive behavioral therapy.


Writing down goals is something I’ve done since age 20; here’s my public goal list.

Dream mapping is a goal-setting process I shared in College Without High School.

Some argue with the value of announcing your goals.

In this long interview, Dev Carey and I discuss the virtues and drawbacks of goal-setting:


In the blog post entitled The Pursuit of Productivity I share some of my favorite strategies for focusing and avoiding distractions.

Habitica is a fun, free, “gamified” habit and productivity website and app. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I created my own party.

Launchpad is a 3-week online workshop I developed specifically for young self-directed learners facing productivity issues.


Self-directed learners set their own goals—but how do the ensure that they follow through with them? That’s the domain of accountability.

From Better Than College, an explanation of the website (which I’ve used to help me write, diet, tango, and create this website) and accountability partnerships: embraces this idea by enabling people to create online “Commitment Contracts.” You start by entering a specific goal and time frame for completing it. Then you have the chance to put money on the line. If you complete the goal, you keep your money; if you fail, you lose it. The money either goes to a designated individual (like a friend), a good charity (one that you believe in), or an “anti-charity” (one that you don’t believe in). To monitor this process, stickK asks you to nominate a referee who can verify whether you have completed your goal. The website also includes social media tools so you can spread word of your wager.

This kind of high-pressure, high-visibility goal setting may not be your cup of tea, but it’s worth recognizing the key elements:

  • Put your reputation or money on the line.
  • Enlist a trusted “referee” to monitor your progress.
  • Publicly announce your goal.

A lower-octane version of the stickK strategy is to form an “accountability partnership.” Tara explained the idea to me this way:

As self-directed learners, together we must be our own pro- fessors, bosses, and enthusiasts. This is exciting! However, it’s often difficult to remain afloat amongst a raging sea of ideas and dreams. This is where your accountability partner comes in.

Accountability partners set goals together, create deadlines for each other’s projects, and communicate regularly to keep on track. Find someone who will challenge, encourage, and inspire you, and for whom you can do the same in turn (without being afraid of sharing your crappiest work). This can be in-person, online, or via phone. I highly recommended keeping written records of your meetings.

Tara started her first accountability partnership by creating an outline of her current projects and goals, which included writing a book, starting a business, and saving money for an international adventure. Her partner, Jessica (a fellow self-directed learner), did the same. Every two weeks, Tara and Jessica recorded their progress and e-mailed their outlines to each other. To provide evidence of their progress, they attached samples of their notes, preparatory work, and deliverables. They then spoke on the phone for an hour to review each other’s outlines, ask questions, provide feedback, and help the other person talk through challenges and find resources. They finished the meeting by stating the goals that they would accomplish in the next two weeks.

Coaches and mentors

If you want serious one-on-one attention, consider hiring a coach for your self-directed learning.

Zero Tuition College is a social website I created to help connect college-aged self-directed learners with each other. Members can offer and request mentorship from each other (no charge).

Choosing the right work

Read Chapter 6 – Discipline, Dissected from The Art of Self-Directed Learning.

From Cal Newport, three traits that define great work:

  1. Creativity: getting the chance to do novel work and push established boundaries.
  2. Impact: feeling like you’re positively influencing a large number of people.
  3. Control: being in charge of the time, location, and method of your work.

Three disqualifiers for great work:

  1. The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
  2. The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
  3. The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

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