Motivation is a tricky, slippery emotion.
Some days it just seems to be there and other days you feel like no matter what you try you can’t find it. Sometimes when you feel unmotivated it’s just what it is, other times feeling unmotivated can seem like a deep dark pit that you’re trying to climb your way out of but keep sliding back to the bottom.
Motivation is about having a reason and a desire to do something. Sometimes we’re motivated by external factors (eg getting a pay check), other times we’re motivated by internal factors (wanting to do a good job), sometimes it will be both. So it should be easy then right? All you have to do is figure out your reason for doing something and you’ll be motivated to do it … well maybe not.
There are many reasons why you might lose motivation, even on tasks that you’ve previously felt quite driven to finish. Feeling unmotivated could be related to burnout and depression or it may be because the task you’ve set yourself is too difficult or too easy. Humans also have a natural inclination to avoid things which make us uncomfortable meaning that we often lose motivation for tasks when we reach a point that we’re not sure about.
The feeling of motivation also presents us with a bit of a chicken and egg type situation. We often fall into the trap of feeling like we can’t start something until we’re motivated to do it, but in actual fact it’s the other way around and we become motivated by getting in and getting started. Anyone who has played a sport or exercises regularly will be able to tell you that they often don’t feel like working out or training that day, but then they get there and by the end of it they’re really glad they went.
So what do you do if you’re feeling unmotivated? Below are a few strategies that may be able to help. But I’m afraid there no miracle solution. Different things will work for different people and different situations. Take some time to try and identify where in the process you’re losing motivation (eg the start, middle, or end). Also think about what may have changed that contributed to you losing motivation, there may be a simple solution in reconnecting with a passion or desire that you had early on, but lost sight of along the way.
If you feel like your lack of motivation is a symptom of something deeper (such as burnout or depression), don’t be afraid to speak to your GP or a psychologist about it.
Strategies for Getting and Staying Motivated
Set realistic goals: Challenging yet achievable goals are important for maintaining motivation. Too easy and you get bored, too hard and it becomes difficult and uncomfortable.
- SMART (Specific, Measureable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time specific) goals are a good place to start, but whatever goal setting format works for you.
- Go beyond just identifying the goal. Make an effort to identify potential barriers or problems that might come up and how you might get past them.
Get started: As mentioned above, often getting started can help improve motivation, but overcoming that initial reluctance to start something can be very difficult.
For regular tasks, developing a routine is one way to get started. It’s easier to get started if the initial actions are automatic, so try these:
- Pick a regular time and place for you to do your task. This way you don’t waste precious mental effort trying to figure it out at the time or risk getting to the end of the day and realising you haven’t done it.
- Perform the initial activities in a consistent sequence. This helps to cue your mind that when [x] sequence of activities happen, it means it’s time to do [y]. Your mind and body will learn this association, making it more automatic.
- Use a rating scale to decide if you are not well enough to go through with it (eg rate how you’re feeling on a scale of 10 , if you’re above 3 then you go even if you don’t feel like it. But don’t lie!). This helps reduce the excuses.
- If you keep forgetting, use visual cues placed in your environment to remind you eg need to walk the dog before you start watching TV? Put the dog leash next to the remote to remind you.
For one-off tasks:
- Break the task down into the smallest possible steps or actions required to start (eg open the book, read the first paragraph).
- Before you take a break, identify the next small task you should do when you start. If you plan your next step before you take a break, it helps to reduce the anxiety and procrastination that comes from not knowing what to do next.
Keep going: There are many ways to keep yourself going once you’ve started something as well. For longer goals, this might be about finding ways to overcome barriers that you didn’t anticipate, or having a plan of action to get yourself back on track if you slip up.
For immediate tasks it may be about reducing distractions so that you can focus. For both long and short term tasks though, a good way to help keep you motivated throughout the process is to provide incentives and rewards.
- Rewards don’t have to be physical or materialistic: ticking an item off your to do list can be enough of a reward for some tasks, so can taking a minute to congratulate yourself and appreciate your work, or setting aside some time when the task is completed to spend time with loved ones or doing something you enjoy.
- Make sure the reward or incentive is appropriate for the accomplishment: watching a two hour movie is not typically an appropriate reward for doing ten minutes of work. If your goal is to improve your health, eating an entire cake is not an appropriate reward for doing a short workout!
- What incentivises each of us is very different, so don’t base your rewards on what everyone else is doing. Identify the things that get you excited and use these as the basis for your incentives.
- For recurring tasks, like a work out, always try and finish on a positive note. Even if the task was boring or difficult most of the way through, finishing on a positive note will help you to remember it more positively, making it more likely that you will be able to keep it up. This is due to the power of the ‘peak end rule’ which states that how we feel at the end of a task impacts how we remember the activity, as much as the high points and low points do.
Another key point is to remember that thoughts are just suggestions. Right now, my mind is telling me that I should take a break, and that I can finish this article later. But this is just a suggestion, and I can choose to follow it or not.
It’s also not the only suggestion. Although it’s not as loud, my mind is also suggesting that it would be good to get this done so that I can take a break without worrying about it!
Measure progress: When we feel like we’re making progress it’s easier to keep motivated. Measuring your progress means that you have a concrete way of demonstrating that you’re moving forward. If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts about not doing enough or never getting it done, having something that you can check to see how far you’ve come can be helpful. Measuring progress can also give you an early indication that you’ve stopped making progress, and something might need to be changed or addressed.
- Using lists that you can tick off is a version of this.
- If your goal or task is long term, doesn’t have an easy way to measure progress, or feels overwhelming/impossible, take some time to identify smaller goals or tasks that can be used as “milestones” for the larger task. After identifying these milestones identify how and when you want to reach them.
Recognise that we have a tendency to avoid things that are uncomfortable: often the main source of losing motivation, or procrastinating, is that there is something uncomfortable about the task that makes us want to do something more fun instead.
People who procrastinate on an assignment often report that it’s because they don’t know where to start, what to write about, or they’re worried about it not being perfect, so it begins to feel overwhelming.
On the other hand, many people make a new year’s resolution to start working out, they make it through a few and find that their body is sore, they don’t enjoy going to the gym because they feel like everyone can tell they don’t know what they’re doing … I could give a million different examples.
- Being aware of how these uncomfortable feelings affect your lack of motivation is the first step in breaking the cycle and overcoming this particular block.
- Find a way/ reason to make the task more enjoyable or pleasant: eg rewards and positive endings as discussed earlier. Or try making it more social. Invite friends to do the task with you, hold you accountable, and give you a bit of encouragement when you need it (and do the same for them). You could also make a game out of it by creating a points system; different tasks are worth different amounts of points, based on how difficult they are. Add up your points at the end of the week, and each week try and beat the previous week’s score. Combined with a realistic reward system, this can be a good way of keeping yourself accountable and on track.
- Exercise your will power and self-discipline. Discipline and will power, just like your muscles, improve when you use them regularly and in a consistent way.
Author: Nikki Crossman, B Psych Science (Hons).
Nikki Crossman is a Master of Psychology (sport and exercise) candidate at the University of Queensland, passionate about the benefits of using athlete tools in everyday life. She takes a holistic approach to wellbeing that recognises the strong connection between our body and our mind, and draws on evidence-based therapies such as CBT and Interpersonal therapy.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129
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