How to deal with a lack of motivation

Staying motivated is probably one of the hardest things in life. Particularly staying motivated to do things that take a long time, that occasionally aren’t fun, and where you can’t or haven’t yet seen much payoff. I, like many people, have experienced periods of low motivation; what you do with those periods is an absolutely key factor in overall life satisfaction.

1. Realise you don’t need to be motivated all the time.

I talk about this a lot, but one of the most important things if you want to stay motivated is to accept that you don’t need to be motivated all the time. Everyone needs time off. If you want to avoid burnout, stress, and exhaustion, you need dedicated time to relax. Even if you feel like you’ve already taken enough time off, even if you feel like you don’t deserve it. Turns out we need them pretty regularly. As a general rule of thumb, I’d say a minimum of 2 days off per week (usually Saturday/Sunday, but you do you), as well as around 8 weeks of holiday per year. I say 8 weeks because in Denmark this is not only standard, but a requirement: if you don’t take your 8 weeks per year, you may get fined by the government. That works out as a little under a week every month. This may seem ridiculous, but hey, I don’t make up the rules.

Of course, what sometimes happens is that it’s during a period of time off that we realise how deeply unmotivated we feel. It’s almost like our holidays can drag us down – giving us time to actually think about what we really want can, counterintuitively, can feel counter-productive. I’ll get to this in point #2, but for now, let me say this: have you ever worked so hard that as soon as you take a break, you immediately get sick? You have to spend several days, even a couple of weeks in bed with a cold? Fever, shivers, exhaustion? I propose that this effect of feeling particularly blue when you take time off is based on the same thing. It’s just a delayed reaction to the continuous stream of work and stress you’ve been going through; you’re not sick because you took time off, silly.

2. Getting started is the hardest part – so stop thinking, and just do.

If you start the day feeling de-motivated, the best solution in my experience is to force yourself to get started, and to not really think about it. Pick something to do, and just do it. Even something as simple as washing the dishes, making breakfast, or going for a run. Doing incites doing; the more you mindlessly do things, the easier it’ll get, and the more you’ll “get into it” and actually start enjoying it. You’ll never get absorbed in anything if you don’t get yourself started – so your job is to get used to lighting the match, and then switching off as it burns effortlessly.

(Unless of course you’re entirely burnt out, in which case you need to go back to step #1 and repeat.)

There’s a great YouTube video detailing a “5-4-3-2-1” approach. The idea is that with everything difficult in life, much like diving into the deep end of a cold pool, you should count yourself in. Every morning, when you don’t want to get out of your nice, cosy warm bed, simply count down: 5-4-3-2-1, and go. When you need to send off an important email, count yourself in, and press “send”. When it’s time to get off the sofa and exercise, count down, and move. It avoids over-thinking your decisions – and whenever I’ve tried it, I’ve found it to be very helpful. 

In conclusion, the order is not always Motivation, followed by Doing. Sometimes, you need to start by Doing, in order to achieve Motivation. The good news is that they often go hand-in-hand.

3. Let inspiration take hold. 

There are going to be days when everything comes together, and you simply feel inspired. It might be that this takes you a little off-track, but the point is, you’ll already be in the mood to get started on things. So go for it. Ride the wave. Sure, it might be completely irrelevant to you right now; but riding one wave, any wave, makes it that much easier to get on the next one. It puts your mind in a state of focus, a state of calm, a state of motivation. Don’t ever let that pass you by because it “didn’t come at the right time”.

I know what you’re thinking; but let me assure you, I’m not advocating for a state of constantly procrastinating from the things you should be doing with random things you decide are more important in the moment. There’s a difference between procrastination and inspiration. Let’s explore that, shall we?

Distracting yourself from a big, difficult task you don’t want to do with smaller, more meaningless tasks that keep you busyDistracting yourself from a big, difficult task you don’t want to do with another big, difficult task you wouldn’t want to do in different circumstances
Replacing an urgent task with other urgent tasks that are ultimately less importantReplacing an urgent task with a less urgent task that is equally or more important to you  in the long run
Focus on short-term satisfaction – wanting to feel like you’ve achieved something without putting in too much work right this minuteFocus on long-term satisfaction – wanting to achieve something that doesn’t have an imminent deadline, but actually wanting to put the work in right this minute

I’ll give you an example. Suppose you urgently need to complete a piece of work for your job, but you also secretly dream of being a songwriter. One day you become inspired to write a song – so you put your piece of work on hold, and spend an hour writing down your ideas and messing around with some chord progressions. You’re now not only more motivated to finish the work you initially set out to do – after all, you’ve just put yourself in a distraction-free zone to work on something you enjoy, so you’ll be more focused and more engaged – you’ll also feel like you’re closer to achieving your long-term goals, meaning you’ll be more likely to value yourself highly and feel like your life has meaning and direction on top of that.

Contrast this with a situation in which you urgently need to complete a piece of work, you also secretly dream of being a songwriter, but also, you’re not really in the mood to do anything that takes hard work or concentration. You check your emails 8 times, you decide to rearrange your desk drawer, and you fill out that form you’ve been putting off for the past 2 weeks. Sure, you accomplished something – but you don’t feel any closer to your long-term goals, you still have a bunch of hard work ahead of you on the task you actually needed to do, you’re unfocused because you switched tasks so many times, and you’re now feeling restless and even less motivated to get started. After all, there’s now only 2 hours left of the working day – not really enough time to get stuck in with anything deep.

Procrastination is ultimately the action of putting things off until a later date by keeping yourself busy with easier, less important tasks. Letting inspiration take hold is the action of accomplishing things you’ve perhaps always wanted to accomplish, but typically don’t have the time or energy to do, as these things also take time and effort and hard work, and if you’re a busy person with a lot to do, you might not prioritise losing out on valuable free time in order to give these less-urgent things a shot.

I’d argue that inspiration is the strongest motivation there is. It might be that you never feel inspired to do the things you “should” be doing – but most decisions are fuelled by inspiration, whether it was choosing what degree to study, or which extra-curricular activities to pursue, or which jobs to apply for. Or should I say, most good decisions. Because we can’t deny that many people don’t pursue activities they’re passionate about, or choose a degree they’re interested in, or a job which inspires them on some level.

There was never any parking by the Psychology building.

Fortunately, I think it’s never too late to find inspiration in the things around you. I’m not suggesting that everyone should have a secret dream. Literally anything can serve as inspiration. It might be that you go and do some volunteer work for a charity, or teach some classes on the side, or (hint hint) start a blog. It might be that you have an idea for a project that brings your community together, or a social club you want to start up that might spark joy in other peoples’ lives. It might also be that you don’t have a secret dream of becoming a songwriter, but one day, you’re in the mood to give it a go anyway. Not everything has to always have a bigger goal. Sometimes, letting inspiration take you wherever it wants to go is going to help you discover what your deeper desires were to begin with.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Doreen says:

    I find I’m most motivated in the morning when I first wake up and am full of energy.


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