You’ve been waiting for this moment all day.
One of the kids is at school and the other just fell asleep. Or maybe hubby took all the kids out to terrorize the villagers (or get ice cream…whatever). You now get to partake of the rarest commodity known to mom-kind: uninterrupted work time.
You get a cup of coffee, sit down at the beautiful desk you wish you could spend more time at, breathe a deep sigh of relief, and then…
There is not a single one of your million tasks that feels inspiring to you. You’ve waited for this moment all day (and sometimes longer), but when your fingers actually touch the keyboard you are suddenly at a loss.
You need motivation, but you couldn’t find it with two hands, a flashlight, and the motivational equivalent of a “find my iphone” app.
What’s the Problem?
Rather than scream angrily and shake your fist at the sky (which would surely wake up any kids that may currently be napping) or scrolling aimlessly through Facebook, let’s diagnose just why you currently feel aimless, lackluster, and like you want to sleep, cry, eat, or attempt all three simultaneously (which is a serious, NEWT-level undertaking which should not be attempted without proper training).
The problem is that intrinsic motivation (aka the desire to do something of your own volition, rather than because you are being bribed, coerced, forced, or otherwise pressured into doing it by some outside force) is not an unlimited resource.
Yes, intrinsic motivation is the “secret sauce” that makes people incredibly productive, inspired, and excited about what they’re doing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t grow on trees.
Why You Feel So Depleted
Okay, I wish there was one concise answer to this question.
Most likely you are overwhelmed, over-matched, attempting to get way too many things done in one day, juggling responsibilities from your house/job/side-hustle/kids/marriage/life all at the same time, and just overall worn down. No shoot Sherlock…of course you’re not motivated! You’re exhausted!
All joking and sarcasm aside, there is actually an empirically demonstrated link between emotional exhaustion and the absence of feelings like intrinsic motivation and creativity. You probably aren’t imagining it. If you feel drained, it’s completely normal not to feel supercharged with pent up productivity. It’s completely normal to stare blankly at your computer screen for a few minutes before you realize you aren’t actually doing anything (or moving in any way).
This. Is. Normal. Behavior.
Why This Sucks
Well, that’s a pretty easy one: just because you feel depleted, drained, and unmotivated doesn’t make your tasks disappear…and that sucks!
Just because you don’t “feel like it” doesn’t mean you don’t have to earn money. It doesn’t make your bills go away or your boss do their own work. It doesn’t vacuum, do dishes, or fold laundry.
Basically, even though you may be exhausted, depressed, overwhelmed, frazzled, and/or torn in 19 (million) different directions, it doesn’t mean stuff doesn’t still have to get done.
Am I saying you shouldn’t take steps to make sure you’re rested, decently-maintained, and in possession of at least a quarter tank of emotional fuel? No, I am certainly in favor of all of those things. You should definitely do all of the above.
However, that’s not what we’re talking about right now. Right now we need to get you some motivation STAT before your work time runs out.
How to Handle It
In order to get some motivation, you need to know where it comes from in the first place.
According to decades of psychological research, there are four main factors that facilitate intrinsic motivation:
The more of any of these four things you have (in relation to any given task), the more you will want to do it. If you remove one or two you’ll probably still be fine, but if you have a task that fulfills none of these four categories it’s going to feel like pure torture.
So, let’s use these four categories to help you a) troubleshoot what’s causing you to lose motivation and b) get some motivation before your work time runs out.
If your children have ever stomped their petulant little feet and declared “I’m doing it because I want to, not because you told me to” then congratulations (on not slapping them…but also…) because you have the perfect example to understand the concept of autonomy.
Autonomy is basically the sentiment that no one is forcing you to do what you’re doing, but rather that you’re doing it of your own free will.
In a work scenario, a lack of autonomy can be felt when you have a task that you don’t really want to do, a task that was assigned by someone else, something you feel obligated to do, or something you feel pressured to do faster than you would choose if you were in control.
Troubleshooting Question: If you feel like you’re drowning in an endless pile of tasks and you didn’t get to choose any of them for yourself, it is very likely that a lack of autonomy.
Having no control over your tasks is a surefire way to feel like you don’t actually want to do them at all.
If This Is You
If you’re struggling with autonomy-related motivation depletion, there are several ways you can try getting back on the horse:
- Find a way to make tasks your own. How to do this will differ drastically depending on your situation, but the act of taking ownership of a project brings a sense of autonomy. This could be as simple as reorganizing how it’s done so it makes sense to you or as gutsy as taking the task in a different direction (be sure not to get yourself in trouble). It could even be making a mental shift to consider the task as a challenge instead of a burden. If you can find a way to take ownership, you’ll get some of your motivation mojo back.
- Follow tasks without autonomy with a task of personal importance. Sometimes there’s no getting around doing a task that you really don’t care about in a personal way. This is a fact of life. If you encounter one of those autonomy-free tasks that you just have to grin and bear, try telling yourself that if you complete it you will “treat” yourself to 15 minutes working on a passion project or some other task that induces high levels of intrinsic motivation. It isn’t a long-term fix, but it’ll get you through it much easier.
Humans have always been pack animals. Since the times of cave dwellers we have known that we are much better, more productive, and less likely to get eaten by something large and toothy if we live and work in groups.
This has created a fun little glitch in our wiring where, when we are completely isolated when working on a task, it can sometimes sap our motivation.
Just to clarify, you don’t actually need to be with other people to feel a sense of connectedness and to have that connectedness create motivation. One of my main motivators when I’m working is to bring in money for my family so that we have something significant to pass down to our kids. So, while I do my work alone (or while the kids nap) in a darkened room, my motivation to work intimately connects me to my kids.
If I ever lack motivation, all I have to do is picture my daughter (who is currently a toddler) all grown up and being impressed at all the things that her mom was able to accomplish, even while she was taking care of three kids.
Troubleshooting Questions: Does your task have any connections with other people? Does completing it impress or please someone you care about? Are you doing it to benefit someone? Is someone else depending on you?
It may be a little more subtle to figure out if a lack of connectedness is impacting your motivation levels than some of the other factors. However, often if you feel unmotivated and don’t know why, upping the connectedness factor can help get you back up and running.
If This Is You
If you think you could be dealing with a lack of motivation here, it’s totally understandable. If you’re the only one connected to a task or (worse) the only one who cares about its completion…why even bother, right?
If this sounds like what you’re dealing with, here are some ways to up the connectedness for a given task:
- Ask yourself why you’re doing it. Usually this will yield an initial answer of “because I have to”, but if you keep asking why (i.e. why do you have to?) you will usually be able to dig down to the reason it’s important to you…which 9 times out of 10 will be connected to benefitting the lives of people you love.
- Find an accountability buddy. I was always pretty skeptical about accountability buddies (before I got one). It just seemed like a folksy way to procrastinate actual work while actually just talking to a friend. I was actually shocked that, after verbally committing my goals to my accountability-buddy-turned-friend, I felt waaaay guiltier about not achieving them. Almost like I was letting her down. Like she was…dare I say…connected. (See what I did there?)
- Think about who benefits. Usually you’re not just working for the fun of it. (And if you are, you most certainly aren’t lacking in motivation.) Try thinking about what you’re going to do with your paycheck from this amotivational task. Are you paying for your kids’ school? Are you saving for a vacation your spouse will love? Whatever it is most likely connects you to other people.
- Make things group projects. Even those among us who truly detested group projects in school *raises hand* would have enjoyed the experience if the other kids weren’t such lazy, freeloading slackers. If you can find other equally-motivated people to collaborate with, you’ll feel way more of a sense of connection (and therefore motivation) without the pesky desire to strangle and/or slap people that you used to feel during high school group projects.
Moms of toddlers should know this one like the back of their marker-stained hands. Competence is the feeling that you can do something well and by yourself, without anyone helping you.
You have probably seen first-hand the way competence boosts intrinsic motivation when, every time one of your kiddos learns to do something by themselves, they immediately want to do it all the time every day forever and ever. Even tasks that aren’t inherently fun (like brushing your teeth or throwing away your garbage) become the best thing ever when your kid first realizes they can do it by themselves.
This goes back to the psychological concept of flow.
All About Flow
When you think of flow, think of a concert pianist being “in the zone” with a piece they know by heart or a professional athlete playing by muscle memory. Flow is an inherently-pleasurable state that is achieved when you are performing a task you’re so well-practiced at that you don’t have to really think or strive to do it, you can just lose yourself in the task.
Most people who have careers they love have experienced a state of flow at work, whether it’s a writer getting in the zone and cranking out two chapters before lunch, a web developer going on an all-night coding binge, or an artist getting super inspired and diving into a painting knowing exactly what they’re going to create.
You don’t have to be in a creative profession to experience flow. Accountants, lawyers, bloggers, moms, dentists…anyone can feel “flow” when they have a task they know how to do well enough to get lost in it.
(Lack of) Flow and (Lack of) Motivation
What does this have to do with motivation?
If you’re doing a task that’s incredibly complicated, outside of your “zone of genius”, or something you’re still learning, then it’s very hard to enter a state of flow. Your conscious thought is too engaged to lay back and let you enjoy the task, so it doesn’t feel as rewarding.
Troubleshooting Question: You could be struggling with competence-related motivation depletion if you feel the beginnings of a migraine when you even think about your task, if you are doing something complicated and/or for the first time, or if you find yourself trying to figure it out in the shower, in line at the grocery store, or while you’re absent-mindedly stirring the pasta sauce at dinner.
If you feel somewhat less than competent at a task, it only makes sense that you might not feel that motivated to get started.
If This Is You
Those struggling with motivation for a task that feels challenging, one in which you don’t feel competent, there are some key things you can do to help increase your motivation.
- Realize that you are working outside of your core skill set. Once you acknowledge this, you’ll put less pressure on yourself to perform at the same levels you would on a task you have mastered. While I know “giving yourself a break” isn’t in most of our comfort zones, a decrease in pressure actually will bring back some of your lost motivation.
- Chunk your task into smaller and more manageable increments. If your task is confusing, highly-technical, or out of your comfort zone, working in small sessions is usually going to engender much more motivation than attempting giant, hours-long work blocks.
- Find a tutor, mentor, or guide. If you don’t feel competent by yourself, hiring (or otherwise acquiring) someone you can pester with questions, have look over your work, or otherwise assist you in your task could make all the difference in the world. Just make sure it’s someone you feel comfortable bugging without compunction (i.e. someone very nice, someone close to you, or someone you pay) or it will backfire in terms of creating more stress than it relieves.
This is the final piece of the motivational puzzle.
It actually wasn’t added into the psychological model for what creates intrinsic motivation until years after the model was created, but I personally find it to be one of the most potent motivation generators there is.
Scenario: Your kid doesn’t want to do their math homework.
This is highly likely at least at some point in every child’s academic career. Math homework can be either hard, tedious, or boring, especially if it’s not taught to your child’s capability levels. If this is the case, most parents have to bribe/nag/cajole/force our kids into doing it anyway.
However, if your kid wants to be a doctor more than anything in the world, all you have to do is let them know that they’ll never get into a top medical school unless they get a good grade in calculus and they’ll usually go running to their textbook, boring or not.
This is the power of purpose.
It is the massive force created when a top-level, emotionally-charged goal overpowers all our little, hedonistic complaints about the unpleasantness of a task.
Troubleshooting Question: Is it hard for you to connect this task to something you want in life? Something happening more than a year into the future?
If your task is completely unconnected to your long-term goals, wants, and desires, it’s completely logical that you may not be that motivated to get it done.
If This Is You
If your tasks aren’t really feeding into your long-term goals, it makes sense that you would have very little motivation to do them. Here are some ways you can remedy this:
- Write out your long-term goals. This may seem procrastination-y (and if you take more than 3 minutes to do it, it probably is) but having a visual reminder of what you’re working for may help give you that motivational boost you need. Are you working for a new house? Keep that Zillow tab open next to your work. Remind yourself of your work’s purpose and it will become less painful.
- Delegate tasks outside of your realm of expertise. This may sound contradictory, but the tasks people love are generally the tasks they are best at and (consequently) the ones they are best paid for. If your task is something that doesn’t connect with your long-term goals and it isn’t something you love, there’s a high chance there is a better body suited for the job.
- Long-term strategy: align your tasks with your long-term purpose. If your tasks are completely devoid of purpose, they are simply not going to be as motivating. For example, if you really want to become a motivational coach, you may want to stop accepting freelance ghost-writing jobs. Yes, you have to pay the bills, but keep an intentional eye on the types of jobs you’re doing and see if you can nudge them closer to your actual, passion-driven purpose.
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Losing motivation is a common and completely expected occurrence, especially when someone is stressed, overworked, under-slept, or otherwise overcommitted. It happens and it is not your fault.
The four main things that create intrinsic motivation are:
The more of these four factors you can work into your tasks, the less you’ll deal with those weird motivation draughts. If you do get stuck, read over the troubleshooting questions (the ones in the purple boxes) to figure out which of the four factors you are lacking, and then try applying some of the specific strategies in that section’s bulleted list.
If all else fails, do seriously get some sleep. A car can’t run without gas, and humans are simply not productive past a certain level of exhaustion. If a 20 minute nap can enable 40 minutes of actual productivity, it’ll net out to more completed work than 60 minutes of staring vacantly at a computer screen wondering what is wrong with you.
Trust me on that one.
Your equally-exhausted web-friend,
Liz Bayardelle, PhD
Liz is the mom of three human(ish) kids, three furkids, three businesses, and eight blogs. She also has a PhD in Business Psychology, several published books on parenting psychology, and a serious Chick-fil-a addiction. Hobbies include color coding anything that will hold still, reading textbooks for fun, swearing at her herd of dustbunnies, and nodding off mid-sentence at the dinner table.