Things That Steal Our Motivation—and How to Get It Back

Things That Steal Our Motivation—and How to Get It Back

This situation causes you to feel conflicted and pulled in different directions as you try to find ways to get what’s important to you. You might have brief spurts of motivation to work on something and then lose motivation and start working on something else, or your motivation might dry up altogether because the effort of dealing with internal conflict quickly tires you out and saps your energy.

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.

Causes of Having No Motivation

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.

Find Effective Rewards

Some tasks or even stretches of a career are entirely onerous—in which case it can be helpful to create external motivators for yourself over the short- to-medium term, especially if they complement incentives offered by your organization. You might promise yourself a vacation for finishing a project or buy yourself a gift for losing weight. But be careful to avoid perverse incentives. One mistake is to reward yourself for the quantity of completed tasks or for speed when you actually care about the quality of performance. An accountant who treats herself for finishing her auditing projects quickly might leave herself open to mistakes, while a salesperson focused on maximizing sales rather than repeat business should probably expect some unhappy customers.

Another common trap is to choose incentives that undermine the goal you’ve reached. If a dieter’s prize for losing weight is to eat pizza and cake, he’s likely to undo some of his hard work and reestablish bad habits. If the reward for excelling at work one week is to allow yourself to slack off the next, you could diminish the positive impression you’ve made. Research on what psychologists call balancing shows that goal achievement sometimes licenses people to give in to temptation—which sets them back.

In addition, some external incentives are more effective than others. For instance, in experiments researchers have discovered that most people work harder (investing more effort, time, and money) to qualify for an uncertain reward (such as a 50% chance of getting either $150 or $50) than they do for a certain reward (a 100% chance of getting $100), perhaps because the former is more challenging and exciting. Uncertain rewards are harder to set up at work, but not impossible. You might “gamify” a task by keeping two envelopes at your desk—one containing a treat of greater value—and picking only one, at random, after the job is done.

Finally, loss aversion—people’s preference for avoiding losses rather than acquiring equivalent gains—can also be used to design a strong external motivator. In a 2016 study scientists from the University of Pennsylvania asked people to walk 7,000 steps a day for six months. Some participants were paid 800.40 for each day they achieved their goal, while others lost 800.40 if they failed to. The second group hit their daily target 50% more often. Online services such as allow users to choose a goal, like “I want to quit smoking,” and then commit to a loss if they don’t achieve it: They have to donate money to an organization or a political party that they despise, for example.

Sustain Progress

When people are working toward a goal, they typically have a burst of motivation early and then slump in the middle, where they are most likely to stall out. For instance, in one study observant Jews were more likely to light a menorah on the first and last nights of Hanukkah than on the other six nights, even though the religious tradition is to light candles for eight successive days. In another experiment, participants who were working on a paper-shape-cutting task cut more corners in the middle of the project than they did on their initial and final shapes.

Fortunately, research has uncovered several ways to fight this pattern. I refer to the first as “short middles.” If you break your goal into smaller subgoals—say, weekly instead of quarterly sales targets—there’s less time to succumb to that pesky slump.

A second strategy is to change the way you think about the progress you’ve achieved. When we’ve already made headway, the goal seems within reach, and we tend to increase our effort. For example, consumers in loyalty programs tend to spend more when they’re closer to earning a reward. You can take advantage of that tendency by thinking of your starting point as being further back in the past; maybe the project began not the first time you took action but the time it was first proposed.

Another mental trick involves focusing on what you’ve already done up to the midpoint of a task and then turning your attention to what you have left to do. My research has found that this shift in perspective can increase motivation. For example, in a frequent-buyer promotion, emphasizing finished steps (“you’ve completed two of 10 purchases”) increased customers’ purchases at the beginning, and emphasizing missing steps (“you are two purchases away from a free reward”) spurred consumption as buyers neared the goal.

This tactic can work for rote tasks (such as sending out 40 thank-you notes) as well as for more-qualitative goals (becoming an expert pianist). The person writing the notes can gain motivation from reminding herself how many she’s sent until she passes 20; then she should count down how many she has left to do. In the same way, a novice pianist should focus on all the scales and skills she has acquired in her early stages of development; then, as she improves, focus on the remaining technical challenges (arpeggios, trills and tremolos, and so on) she needs to master.


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