10 Things That Steal Our Motivation—and How to Get It Back
M otivation is central to creativity, productivity, and happiness. Motivation is what causes us to act, and when we act, we create movement, growth, and change; we feel involved, masterful, and significant; we feel powerful through experiencing how we can change the world; and we create more of what we love in our lives. And all of this gives our lives purpose and happiness.
It’s said that Inuit have multiple words for snow. It’s so familiar to them, they can appreciate the subtle differences between the varied types. These distinctions let Inuit respond differently to different types of snow, depending on the challenges and opportunities that each particular type of snow presents.
Most of us have just one conception of demotivation, which means that whenever you’re unmotivated, you’re likely to assume that you’re struggling with the same problem. The truth: Demotivation is a category of problems, containing many variations. When you have just one kind of demotivation, you’ll apply the same old strategies whenever you feel unmotivated. For many people, those strategies look like this: set goals, push harder, create accountability checks that will push you, and run your life using to-do lists. These strategies are ineffective with most types of demotivation, and in some instances they can even make you more unmotivated.
At its essence, demotivation is about not fully committing to act, and there are many reasons why you might be in that position. Having more ways to categorize your demotivation will help you identify the real reasons for your unwillingness move forward. Then, you can pick the right tools and strategies to help you get motivated again.
You’re Demotivated by Fear
When you’re afraid, even if you’re entering territory that you’ve chosen to move into, a part of you is determined to avoid going forward. Fear slows you down and makes you hesitant and careful, which can be beneficial to you, but sometimes your fears are based on your imagination rather than on an accurate assessment of the risks in your reality. If your fear is big enough, even if you’re also excited to go forward, the part of you that wants to keep you safe can successfully prevent you from going forward into territory that’s both desirable and safe.
How to get motivated again: To get motivated, you need to deal with your fear. Start by naming your fears so that they’re out in the open. Remember to say a gentle “thank you” to your fears–they’re trying to protect you, after all. Then question your fears: “Why am I afraid of that happening?” “What are the chances that would really happen?” Some of your fears will slip away now.
Look at the fears that are left. What are they telling you about the research you need to do, the gaps you need to fill, and the risk management strategies you need to put in place? Honor that wisdom by building it into your plan. Finally, consider breaking down the changes into smaller steps and focusing on just the next few small steps–this will calm your fears.
Design Goals, Not Chores
Ample research has documented the importance of goal setting. Studies have shown, for example, that when salespeople have targets, they close more deals, and that when individuals make daily exercise commitments, they’re more likely to increase their fitness levels. Abstract ambitions—such as “doing your best”—are usually much less effective than something concrete, such as bringing in 10 new customers a month or walking 10,000 steps a day. As a first general rule, then, any objectives you set for yourself or agree to should be specific.
Goals should also, whenever possible, trigger intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation. An activity is intrinsically motivated when it’s seen as its own end; it’s extrinsically motivated when it’s seen as serving a separate, ulterior purpose—earning you a reward or allowing you to avoid punishment. My research shows that intrinsic motives predict achievement and success better than extrinsic ones do.
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Take New Year’s resolutions. We found that people who made resolutions at the start of January that were more pleasant to pursue—say, taking on a yoga class or phone-free Saturdays—were more likely to still be following through on them in March than people who chose more-important but less enjoyable goals. This is despite the obvious fact that aspirations for the New Year are usually tough to achieve; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t require a resolution!
Of course, if the external reward is great enough, we’ll keep at even the most unpleasant tasks. Undergoing chemotherapy is an extreme example. In a work context, many people stay in their jobs for the money, feeling like “wage slaves.” But in such situations they usually do the minimum required to meet the goal. Extrinsic motivation alone is unlikely to help us truly excel.
In an ideal world we would all seek out work roles and environments that we enjoy and thus keep our engagement high. Unfortunately, people often fail to do this. For example, my research shows that when asked whether positive relationships with colleagues and managers are critical in their current position, most people say yes. But they don’t remember that office morale was key to success in past jobs, nor do they predict it will be important for them in the future. So simply remembering to consider intrinsic motivation when choosing jobs and taking on projects can go a long way toward helping sustain success.
In cases where that’s impractical—we don’t all find jobs and get assignments we love—the trick is to focus on the elements of the work that you do find enjoyable. Think expansively about how accomplishing the task might be satisfying—by, for example, giving you a chance to showcase your skills in front of your company’s leaders, build important internal relationships, or create value for customers. Finally, try to offset drudgery with activities that you find rewarding—for instance, listen to music while tackling that big backlog of e-mail in your in-box, or do boring chores with friends, family, or your favorite colleagues.
Causes of Having No Motivation
For example, if you’re a perfectionist, your lack of motivation may stem from the fear that you won’t complete a task flawlessly. Until you address this need to be perfect, your motivation isn’t likely to increase.
At other times, your lack of motivation may cause you to procrastinate. And the more you procrastinate, the less motivated you feel. In this case, improving your motivation to get work done can help you feel better and perform better.
- Avoidance of discomfort. Whether you don’t want to feel bored when doing a mundane task, or you are trying to avoid feelings of frustration by dodging a tough challenge, sometimes a lack of motivation stems from a desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
- Self-doubt. When you think you can’t do something—or are convinced you can’t tolerate the distress associated with a certain task—you’ll likely struggle to get started.
- Being over-extended. When you have a lot going on in life, you’ll likely feel overwhelmed. And this feeling can zap your motivation.
- Lack of commitment to a goal. Agreeing to a task simply because you felt obligated, or declaring a resolution out of peer pressure, may mean your heart really isn’t in it. And you likely won’t take action when you aren’t committed to your goal.
- Mental health issues. A lack of motivation is a common symptom of depression. It can also be linked to other mental illnesses, like anxiety. So it’s important to consider whether your mental health may be affecting your motivation level.
These are just a few common reasons why people sometimes lack motivation. You might find that your lack of motivation stems from other issues, like the fear of what people think or a desire to please everyone. So carefully consider the underlying thoughts and feelings that are affecting your drive.