Individualized learning is undergoing something of a boom. Directed, as the name suggests, at individuals, not entire groups, it might include helping with a career transition, addressing a specific development need or supplying the latest thinking on a specific knowledge area.

Increasingly digital in format, there are more individualized learning programs than ever before – formal and informal, certificate and non-certificate. However, all individualized learning faces a common problem: how to maximize the level of motivation needed to complete programs successfully.

Fortunately, we are better equipped than ever to answer this question. As well as the tacit experience of the learning design and delivery industry, there are psychological insights from the likes of Roy Baumeister, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler and Richard Wiseman. Combined with our own experience, these intuitions help us better understand the needs of individuals contemplating an individualized learning program, along with those who design them or commission them.

Simple and practical, yet powerful and universally applicable, techniques have been refined by application to maintain the motivation required to successfully complete individualized learning programs.

Visualize the Pathway to Success.

In the same way that complex tasks are best managed one step at a time, completing an entire learning program is best achieved by breaking it down into manageable chunks. It is thought that this happens because of two separate effects in the mind. The more obvious one is reduced anxiety about how to complete the overall program. This effect helps maintain confidence and motivation when learning something new, which would otherwise be difficult and tiring. Secondly, viewing the program as a series of to-do lists creates – perhaps perversely – a “nagging” effect, which generates small quantities of positive restlessness to help complete each stage.

By avoiding the self-help industry’s mantra of “visualizing the medal ceremony” (and there is plenty of evidence against it), focusing on each step is more likely to put the learner on the winner’s podium. Building in practical steps of encouragement when designing or delivering a learning intervention will help make a program as straightforward as possible for participants.

Share the Burden.

People who state publicly that they are undertaking individualized learning are more likely to complete a program. A public declaration creates a social obligation and runs the risk of disapproval or even shame – a powerful motivator to succeed. The most introverted or non-conscientious individuals can benefit, even when they have the support of a “buddy.” And it is more than just managing successful completion: Interestingly, participants have said they find the work and tasks involved less challenging as they progress through the program. Build a public declaration of intent into the design of a learning program in the form of a written, audio or video commitment.

Be Sure to Say Thanks … to Yourself.

In many national and organizational cultures, motivation is said to be the result of willpower, mental toughness, and the ability to be tenacious and resilient, regardless of the costs. Experience, however, doesn’t support this belief, and nor does psychological research from Baumeister and Wiseman. Their research suggests a different approach: Taking time to pause, reflect and, crucially, reward yourself on completion of the steps along the way is much stronger indicator of success in individualized learning programs.

Learning can be hard work. Assimilating new ideas into an existing role, or practicing something new, takes real mental and, at times, emotional effort. This is especially true in complex and challenging organizations. That’s why learners need to encourage themselves – and others – to take time to pause, reflect and offer some praise. A good way of recognizing that real progress is being made is to maintain a learning diary or journal. A video diary is a simple and powerful method, and it’s remarkably simple using the ubiquitous smartphone.

The Next Steps

Some of this advice may seem familiar or counter-intuitive, but whether the science is new or old is not important when it comes to what works in practice. Both science and practical experience support the individual learning “motivation maintainers” outlined here. Help your learners give them a try.