The single most common symptom that my clients have reported to me over the years has been problems being motivated to do things they are supposed to do. Whether this is household chores, school assignments, or work tasks, many people struggle to get the things they need to get done, done. The following is a discussion on the elements that contribute to motivation, and some ideas on how to improve it.
Generally, motivation is defined as the desire or willingness someone has to do something. To accomplish anything at all, we need to have some kind of motivation. However, as simple as this seems, motivation is an extremely complex process that has a swarm of variables tied to it. To simplify it a bit, we will focus on the two major motivation types: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Keep in mind that most people have a blend of these for any given task or goal.
Intrinsic Motivation: Anytime we are motivated to do something simply because we like it or want to do it, we are being motivated from within. This is called intrinsic motivation. This kind of motivation usually comes easily; out of our interests, drives, and desires. The things we are intrinsically motivated to do (like writing, art, hiking, gardening, relaxing, etc) are often the things that we don’t do as much as we want to because of work, school, or other life obligations.
Extrinsic Motivation: When we are motivated to do something because we want the reward it brings (or punishment it avoids), we are being motivated by something outside of ourselves. This is called extrinsic motivation. This kind of motivation relies on incentives and gains like money or grades to get us to do things we may otherwise not do. Most motivation problems are related to this stuff.
The following are the most common causes of motivation problems for my clients:
Enemies of Motivation
1. Ego Depletion: We only have a certain amount of energy each day to do things, manage our emotions, and navigate various situations. When we have used a lot of that energy, it becomes harder to motivate ourselves to do more things. This is a condition called “ego depletion.” Being busy, over-committed, not sleeping enough, neglecting things that restore you, or having a lot of stress will make ego depletion set in quicker, and will make motivation even more difficult. What we are generally left with is wanting to “zone out” or avoid things, which is one of the ways our bodies tell us that we are depleted.
2. Incentive Problems: Not having large enough incentives will make being motivated very difficult. For a lot of tasks, if the things we will gain by doing something aren’t enough to be motivated, we put them off. Then what usually happens is that a deadline approaches and we start to feel stress and anxiety because of the potential negative outcomes looming. Essentially, the incentive that emerges in that situation is a reduction in the pain of the stress from procrastinating, and that can usually become enough for us to do it.
3. Bad habits: Habits are patterns of behavior that become automatic over time. All habits have a cue (thing that triggers the start of the pattern), a routine (the pattern itself), and a reward (what we get at the end). An example of a potentially bad habit would be coming home from work (cue), walking to the kitchen after hanging up your coat and opening a bag of potato chips, then sitting down in front of the TV for several hours (routine), and thus feeling more relaxed (reward). When something like this becomes automatic, it becomes much more difficult to change.
4. Making Work: One of the most common mistakes related to motivation is when we take an activity we are intrinsically motivated to do (like cooking) and then turn it into a job (being a professional chef). What happens for nearly everyone is that the intrinsic joy of the activity erodes, and we then have to rely on extrinsic forces to motivate us. This is the case to be made for keeping your hobby as something that’s just a fun hobby, rather than something that needs to pay the bills. There are occasional exceptions to this, but most people are never motivated in the same way once it is a job.
5. Not Caring: This may seem obvious, but not being passionate or caring much about the activity will result in motivation problems. The key here is caring not just about the potential reward for doing the activity, but in caring about the activity itself. Meaning, if you like your actual job, not just the money you get, you are more likely to do it, and also do it well.
6. Punishments Without Rewards: I have seen patterns of motivation problems with clients be based primarily on unfortunately learning earlier in life, usually related to school. The pattern usually is that getting good grades earlier in life resulted in a neutral attitude from parents, whereas bad grades were punished. Over time, the person stops chasing possible rewards of success, but instead primarily fears the punishment. Furthermore, if the punishments starts to not be very painful, motivation will usually cease altogether.
Improving Your Motivation
If you are having motivation problems and want to improve them, there are a few basic places to start. After that, things can get more complex. First, the basics.
1. Insight: Think deeply about all of the things that will motivate you to do something. An example list might include: recognition, money, doing the right thing, social pressure, anxiety, desire, obligation to someone else, spiritual beliefs, fear of death, competition, pleasing others, success, etc. If some things come to mind that you don’t like so much, leave them on the list anyway since the important thing here is to be real with yourself. Also, when faced with a task, consider whether you honestly want to do it. Most people have at least some level of internal conflict (some part of you wants to do it, another part of you doesn’t) in doing tasks that require a certain amount of stress or pain to get the rewards that come afterward, and denying that can make it more difficult to become motivated.
2. Up the incentives: If you are finding yourself unmotivated by the level of rewards you are getting for an extrinsically motivated task (or the things from #1 aren’t there enough), see if there is any way to up the incentives. One good way to do this is set specific desirable goals such as getting a promotion or getting into grad school. Once these are in place, each smaller piece of work can be seen as a part of striving toward those larger rewards.
3. Premack’s Principle: A classic strategy to help motivation is to engage in a pleasurable activity or experience after you complete a more painful or strenuous activity. We can set things like this up by making a specific goal to complete some work, and then make sure to do something fun or relaxing after we are done. For people that are more self-disciplined, this can work like magic.
4. Pairing: Similar to the previous point, but this is when we pair a pleasurable thing with something we are less motivated to do. Examples might be having a snack while you write a report for work, listening to music and singing along while you clean your house, or watching a TV show while you are at the gym. Pairing only becomes dangerous if you are including things that can harm you with repeated use (like drugs).
5. Self-acceptance: If none of the previous things work, a way of reducing the distress associated with procrastinating can be simply accepting that you are the way you are. Not everyone is a super hardcore go-getter that is up at 5am training for a triathlon before a 12 hour work day. Instead, most people procrastinate on things they are not interested in, unless the incentives are high enough, and some of us value relaxation more than the 5am go-getter does. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things in life that don’t have large enough incentives to motivate ourselves to do them, or we just want to chill out more, and it is completely OK to be that way.
Furthermore, if you can accept that you will procrastinate on things routinely, another thing you can do is simply to plan to do the work at the last minute. I call this ‘planned procrastination.’ If that’s what was going to happen anyway, why not just plan for it from the start and enjoy the rest of your time more? (NOTE: I would not advise this if you have a tendency to miss deadlines).
6. Self-dialogue: If we are conflicted about whether to get some work done or relax, the internal conversation is usually very brief. However, if you want to get better at motivation, have an extended dialogue with yourself and see how it comes out. If the part of you that wants to relax usually wins, try having the part that wants to do the work continue to make arguments for doing the work. That part can also work on compromising (see #3). I’ve found with my clients that the longer they can have this discussion, the more likely they will be to do the work that needs to be done.
7. Good habits: Since I already wrote about habits (of the negative kind), we can also form good habits. Set up some systems where there are cues, routines, and rewards that are positive in your life, and let them become automatic. For example, what would happen if you came home everyday and the first thing you did was a 5 minute mindfulness meditation? Developing a habit like that could go a long way toward being healthier and increasing motivation afterward.
8. Rest: Sleep, diet, and exercise are ways of filling our energy tank. If you want the quickest solution to motivation problems, sleep more, eat better food, and move around more.
9. What Worked Before?: Exploring what factors helped motivate you to do similar types of things before, is also a good trick in figuring out what can help now. If the elements that helped motivate you in the past are no longer there, see if you can find a way to bring some of them back into the picture.
10. Connecting to Intrinsic Motivation: When the incentives aren’t enough to motivate us, sometimes connecting the specific task at hand to something we are intrinsically motivated for can work. For example, if you have a work task that is tough to be motivated for, you could link it to a larger career goal that is intrinsically motivating like getting a promotion. If you are having a hard time with a school task, you could link it to the larger goal of getting into graduate school.
Another thing to consider here is inertia, which basically is the physics principle that “bodies in motion tend to stay in motion, bodies at rest tend to stay at rest”. Behaviorally speaking, when you are being productive you will have momentum to continue being productive. When you are watching 100 episodes in a row of something on Netflix, you will have momentum to watch more.
I think this is a commonly neglected principle that can give us new ways of structuring our day to increase productivity. Basically, when we need to motivate ourselves to be productive, the very first action is the most important. If we can get started on something right off the bat, usually we will get into the flow of the task easily and can stay in that zone longer. However if we sit down with the idea of working, but pull up Facebook first, we are starting a course of being distracted from the tasks we set out to do.
Many clients of mine say they have problems procrastinating on work, and go through cycles of self-criticism about it. Usually I ask what they did instead of work, and they say “nothing.” But when we look closer at it, two general patterns emerge. The first one I call “good procrastination,” which is when we are doing something else that we need, or is ultimately good for us. For example, procrastinating on work so you can get better at playing guitar, spending time with friends, reading about something else you care about, or getting some much needed rest and down time, are positive.
The other one I call “bad procrastination,” which is excessive avoidance or detachment (usually through alcohol, marijuana, video games, TV, online shopping, sleeping, pornography, Netflix, etc).
Obviously these are very different processes. My suggestion is that if you are going to procrastinate on something, be a good procrastinator and use that time to work toward other goals or good things for your life. If you are a bad procrastinator at the moment, there are a few questions to answer. First, is whether you are suffering from being over-planned? Other things to consider are whether the things you are being required to do things that are a) painful and b) don’t come with enough incentives to warrant doing them?
If these are true, your procrastination may be more a way of passively “going on strike.” Basically when we don’t get enough down-time, social time, or play-time, we are actually unhealthy, no matter how productive we are. Bad procrastination can be a sign of a part of you rebelling against that.
Another thing to consider is what your expectations of productivity actually are. How many hours of the day should you be clipping along and producing quality work? Now think about how many hours a day you actually are producing quality work. I’s suggest asking some friends about this as well and seeing what they say. If you answer any more than 8 (that includes sitting in meeting or class, responding to emails, reading for work, etc) then you should consider revising your expectation.
Many people have been taught a myth about productivity and that people can work for 12+ hours a day everyday, and still be healthy. Only the rarest individuals can actually do that for any length of time without other serious problems emerging (health, relationships, substance use, etc).
A final consideration is whether what you are avoiding is something you actually want to have as part of your life. If you really look at your life and genuinely do not want to be in your job, on your career path at all, (or your major, or in school at all), maybe it is time for a change.
If none of these are true, you may consider that you are having another issues. Basically lack of motivation is also one of the most common symptoms of mental disorders like depression, various anxiety problems, and ADHD. If all of the things written above don’t do the trick, something else may be going on.
Depression: If your motivation problems are going along with a depressed mood (not just sadness; but emptiness, hopelessness, general malaise, and possibly suicidal thoughts), you may actually be struggling with depression, which may need more extensive care and treatment.
Anxiety: If part of your motivation problems come along with excessive and uncontrollable worrying, tension, fearfulness, and physical symptoms, you may have an anxiety disorder, which also may need more extensive care and treatment.
Substance Use Problem: If part of your motivation goes along with using a fair (or more) amount of some type of substance (alcohol, marijuana) or another type of problematic behavior pattern (excessive TV, shopping, video games, pornography, etc), you may have a substance use problem.
ADHD: Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder is one of the most over-diagnosed and misunderstood conditions in psychiatry. If your motivation problems and ability to focus on tasks began before age 7, and you have an extensive pattern impulsivity, excessive restlessness, and difficulty completing tasks on time, you may be struggling with ADHD, and there are a variety of treatments available.
If you are looking to set some goals for improving these things, I’d suggest check out my article How to Set Goals. Counseling can be incredibly helpful for understanding and improving motivation issues.