Why We Lose Motivation and How to Fix Once and For All
At first, it was glorious, there was energy and drive to push as far as needed to get progress because the work seemed worth it. Then, suddenly, inexplicably, you found yourself putting things off, or wanting to. The project that once put a fire in your bones and felt like it would be impossible to forget about began to feel like a sink of dishes you’d rather not wash.
Motivation loss is something that plagues most of us. There are reasons we develop it, and there are tools we can use to fix it. But, like most things worth doing, it isn’t going to be easy.
We’re talking about long-term fixes, here, not taking a break (more on this later, because some kinds of breaks are better than others), listening to motivational songs, or drowning ourselves in energy drinks. These “fixes” are more accurately described as coping mechanisms, they might work for a time but in the long run, will only make things worse when you crash. Especially with energy drinks, uffda, those things are bad for you.
Symptoms of Motivation Loss
- Being bored with your routine – Feeling sick and tired of whatever you’re doing is a sign that your motivation is dwindling. If you find yourself frequently counting down the hours until you can stop working, or if you wonder how in the world you can possibly fill the next 4-5 hours, that’s a symptom of motivation loss.
- Feeling like you can’t make a difference – Maybe you started on a project full of hope and enthusiasm. But now you feel jaded and hopeless about whether or not the work is actually impactful at all. This happens especially with people who work in environments with traumatized or underserved populations, individual efforts can feel like they aren’t making headway into the larger problems of the world. This is another sign of motivation loss.
- Feeling stressed about what you are currently working on – When work is causing you to stress, it turns out you are more likely to avoid doing it. This creates a vicious cycle of worry – stress – avoidance and eventually you lose your sense of motivation. So if you feel stressed out or anxious about your work, recognize that is likely a sign of a loss of motivation. The key here is, in spite of what many people might say, your work should be compelling and exciting, that’s what drives you to perform as best as you can.
- Comparing yourself to others – If you find yourself constantly comparing your work with those around you, rather than focusing on creating excellence by your own standards, that’s another sign that your internal sense of motivation is off the rails.
Causes for Motivation Loss
It is imperative that we understand why we’re feeling this loss of motivation so that we can correctly address it. We’ll start with reasons rooted in our physical bodies and then look at mental and emotional causes.
- Are you sleeping enough? Feeling a lack of drive, sleepiness, being easily frustrated, and having a lack of focus are just as much a sign of inadequate sleep or not eating well as they can be having a motivation problem. Do you wake up with energy for the day, or do you feel horribly groggy for hours before finally waking up part-way through the day? That’s a sign you aren’t sleeping well or aren’t sleeping enough.
- Are you eating well? Do you often feel sleepy and lethargic after meals, do you get headaches when you haven’t eaten in a little while? These are usually signed that you’re not eating very well. Meals should make you feel rejuvenated as well as no longer hungry.
- Do you give yourself adequate time to rest? This is separate from sleep, humans don’t function well when they’re overworked. It might seem counterintuitive, but if we don’t take time to do things we enjoy and spend all of our energy on our important projects instead, we will lose the ability to focus and enjoy working on them.
If you don’t need to make adjustments in these areas, or if you’ve made these adjustments and still feel a lack of motivation, that’s a sign that it is something in your mental space that needs to change. We’ll cover how to address these physical problems later in this article, but for now, take a moment to do a mental inventory.
Identify A Clear Purpose
What is the reason for you to be doing the work you are engaged in now? If you can’t articulate the why behind the work, you won’t want to do it when the going gets tough and you find your resources stretched thin. Believing in what you’re doing is what will get you through those hard times, so if you don’t believe in what you’re doing you need to do something else.
Part of this purpose is having ambitious goals. What do you want to achieve? Make it something you can be truly proud of, something you might even be a little bit amazed at having done. That is a motivating goal.
Set Measurable, Achievable Goals
If we’re setting good goals, things that might seem unlikely to happen or difficult to achieve, it can be hard to stay motivated if you don’t feel like you’re making any progress. The trick is to mix these more lofty, long-term goals with smaller reachable ones. When these smaller reachable ones are also the stepping stones to the long-term goal, that structure sets us up for success.
That is why it is important to set smaller, achievable goals within the context of that larger dream. Let’s say you want to be a famous musician, and to you, that means playing a concert at Radio City Music Hall. It might seem hard to feel like you’re getting anywhere near there if all you do is play Saturday and Sunday nights at bars in Duluth, Minnesota.
It feels like a 1,000 miles away from your goal (it is farther than that in terms of literal distance, actually), but if you set a goal to tour from Minnesota to Ohio and back one summer, and then the next summer get to New York State, and then the next summer play a show in New York City, those are achievable, reachable goals. The big difficult dream seems more reachable if you can achieve three smaller ones as you work towards it. You go from Minnesota bars to a club in New York City on the same street as Radio City Music Hall. That’s a whole lot closer.
Break things down into doable pieces, especially if you can establish a time-frame with them. Being able to say “By this time next year I want to be here with this project,” allows you to set up accountability around it which makes you far more likely to stay motivated.
Think Beyond Yourself
The most heartfelt internal dream lasts only as long as our energy does, but if we can center our goal within a larger context, it can go much farther. How does your personal dream relate to the world around you? How will you achieving your dream improve the world around you, big and small? If you think about how your success will help others, you’ll find a new source of motivation.
For a social worker providing therapy services to abused people in big city non-profit organizations, remembering that they are not alone in trying to help undo the pain of the world is incredibly important in preventing burn out. There are other people who care about the same problems and are invested in finding solutions to them, the work they’re doing is important.
The same is true in every area of life, the work we’re invested in doing has to be seen by us as important and meaningful, or we won’t want to do it. Something inside us is burning for a purpose, not just something to do.
3 Hidden Motivation Killers
Pleasing everyone (or at least trying to)
It is truly impossible to make everyone happy all the time– don’t try to change yourself to appeal to others. Be your genuine self, and do what you think is right. Every hero has had their detractors – get over it and move forward.
Lacking a real purpose
You must care about what you are doing if you want to be motivated. If you can’t find meaning in what you’re doing, change your focus to something you do care about. This can’t be overstated, you cannot sustain long-term effort into something you don’t care about.
Setting unrealistic targets for yourself
Setting (impossible) goals and failing to reach them will often make you just give up. A better plan is to set achievable ones and enjoy the satisfaction of achieving things. Over time these wins will add up and motivate even more. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a big (Radio City style) dream, but it does mean that you should have a sense of scale and understand that it is the long haul and the constant success in smaller goal sets that will get you there.
Addressing the physical causes of motivation loss
You can’t draw water from an empty well, you can’t expect yourself to have the motivation to work on anything if you aren’t taking good care of your physical body. All the motivational internal work in the world cannot help you if you aren’t performing good self-care, because the brain, where these internal motivational adjustments happen, relies on resources you can only replenish with adequate sleep, food, and rest.
The human body is not a closed system, it is holistic. If you are bored at home or at mealtimes, you’ll be less interested in your work. If you’re not sleeping well, your work will suffer, and if your work suffers, you will be less likely to sleep easily. Since you’re now stressed about and not eating well, you’re likely to eat fast food and/or eat late at night. This can be a horrible cycle, destroying our motivation to do the things we love.
Nutritional science is a complicated thing and is made further complicated by other health situations, so I won’t pretend to be able to offer any detailed wisdom here. But there are principals we should all keep in mind.
In general, it is better to eat more vegetables and fruits, fewer carbs, and eat at consistent times. Eating an excess of carbs will make you feel far less energetic, and that will lower your motivation to work well.
Not eating in the morning and eating late at night, two of the most common mistakes made, are especially damaging to our energy. Not eating in the morning sends signals to your body that resources are scarce and that it should conserve energy. Even if you’re like me and you hate breakfast, try to eat at least a little something in the morning not long after you get up. Like, a handful of almonds, an apple, anything.
Eating late at night, especially with carb-heavy foods, makes it harder for your body to rest because it needs to digest the food you just put your stomach and makes it more likely for those carbs to be stored as fat.
Now there are outliers on this next point I’m about to make, zen geniuses who ate the same thing every day and made incredible works of art or technology that changed the world. But, for the rest of us, variety is as important as nutritional content for feeling motivated.
If you’re tired of what you’re eating, don’t go to a fast food place to mix things up. Try new dishes, eat at restaurants you’ve never been to, learn to cook food you’ve never made before. If you’re at work in the morning after having had something for breakfast, and you know lunch is going to be the leftovers of those fantastic Russian dumplings you learned to make the other day, you’ll have an easier time working.
We’ve all spent a work day wandering mindlessly about because we slept like hell the night before. It is a kind of badge of honor, something we always say when talking to one another: “Oh man, I’m so tired.” We brag about how many shots of espresso we take in the morning. When you wake up in the morning, do you feel energized and ready for the day? If the answer is no, then you’re probably not getting enough sleep/enough quality sleep. And coffee, like every other coping mechanism we use to cover up where we’re lacking, will only help for so long.
There are a host of reasons for why you might not be sleeping well. If you’re sleeping on an uncomfortable mattress, you need to get a new one. People tend to spend around 50% of their life in their bed, so this is a piece of furniture worth investing in. A poor mattress can kill your restfulness in sleep, even if you sleep for eight hours every night.
The part of the sleeping process that creates that feeling of well-restedness and energy the next morning is REM sleep. If you’re having trouble sleeping well, especially if you wake up often in the night, consider doing a sleep study in a hospital to see if there are any conditions you might not be aware of. There are also apps that record you in your sleep (only a little creepy) and can tell you about which phases of sleep you’re in and how much rest you actually got, which can be very helpful.
At first, it might seem silly to have separate sections for sleep and rest, but waking restfulness is an entirely different type of rest that is vital to motivational rejuvenation.
“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life…Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.” – Ferris Jabr, writing in Scientific American
The importance not only of sleeping restfully but finding moments of conscious rest is under-realized in our world, though there is some evidence that is starting to change. One could view the explosion of yoga and meditation practice in the western world as a form of recognition of the human mind’s need for conscious restful thought. The research into these kinds of practices backs up their ability to meet this need, though there are many forms of meditation. Paulo Coelho, the novelist who wrote The Alchemist and has been published in around 80 languages, said that the only form of meditation he can stand doing is archery.
It doesn’t have to be the downward dog position, it doesn’t have to be crossing your legs and humming or anything like that if that isn’t for you. But you absolutely do need a regular practice of restful time where you are awake and able to enjoy the slow pace of the moment. Your brain, your workload, and your motivation will thank you.
How to take breaks that help you keep working (how not to kill momentum)
In the throes of stress and motivation loss, it is easy to think “I need to take a break, otherwise I won’t be able to get through any more of this stuff,” and that’s a sign that your break will do nothing but destroy whatever little momentum was there and prevent you from working more effectively after you finally sit back down to get cracking again.
But we do need breaks to maintain productivity and motivation, as several studies have shown. The brain can only take so much focus at one time, and so learning to work in bursts of time followed by brief periods of mental rest (for those of us doing sedentary work this is also the time to get up and move around) is vitally important for motivation, not to mention physical and mental health.
Alejandro Lleras, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, led a study on the productivity rate of groups who were or were not allowed to take breaks and how that affected their success in assigned tasks.”We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” he said. “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”
Effective break-taking depends on the work you’re doing, but a good practice to try starting out is something I call the 30-2-30-5 rule. This is especially helpful if you have multiple projects, though the specific numbers can change. This is how it works:
- Work on one thing for thirty minutes, no switching back and forth. Just one project
- Take a two-minute break (this is enough time to get up and walk around the office, go grab a drink of water, take a snack, or stretch)
- Work another thirty minutes, if you need to work on multiple projects feel free to switch to a second one for this second burst, especially if you had difficulty with filling the whole thirty minutes in the previous burst.
- Take a five-to-ten minute break. This is a longer walk, a conversation with someone in your office, getting a breath of fresh air.
- At this point you start back at the beginning, working for thirty minutes. Repeat until the end of your available time.
If you work this way, I’m willing to bet you’ll find you got far more done and found it far easier to maintain motivation to keep working. As I said, the specific times aren’t nearly as important as the relationship they have to one another.
Your work pace might be different, but I find that breaking things up into thirty-minute work bursts is more effective than longer or shorter periods, forty-five minutes feels like the last ten or so minutes are wasted waiting for the break, while twenty minutes isn’t long enough to make meaningful progress.
I’ve never been a very motivated person, and it feels like I don’t know the first thing about it. What resources would you suggest?
Well TED Talks are mostly free to watch on Youtube, and there are plenty of psychologists (especially positive psychologists) with fascinating talks on motivation, goal-setting, etc. There’s a whole world of writing and interest in optimizing our mindset and our lifestyle to get the success we want, but I’ll link a few below.
- The Psychology of Self-Motivation
- How to Achieve Your Most Ambitious Goals
- Refusing to Settle (especially good if you’re a younger person)
Beyond that, there’s a wealth of podcasts, books, and interviews to be found online. Dr. Phil has a podcast where he interviews the top athletes in the world and talks about what drives them to succeed, a lot of really fantastic content there for learning how to reframe your goals and staying motivated.
I feel like I can’t find the energy to do the things you described, eating better, sleeping well, and it feels like in order to do any of those things I need motivation, which I lack because I can’t do those things. How can I possibly climb out of this cycle I’m in?
I hear you, it can be incredibly difficult to break lifestyle patterns that are damaging to us. I think one of the main reasons is that we, ultimately, don’t really want to break out of them. We see the ways that they are harmful, but the comfort of food that isn’t good for us or any of the other unhealthy dynamics at play in our lives is something we’ve grown used to, something we’ve grown reliant on.
We have written extensively on the importance of having thoughts, words, and actions in alignment. The key is that you have to want to change, in your deepest core. You have to look yourself in the face and recognize that your life as it is now, lackadaisical and unmotivated, is draining for you and everyone around you. You have to look at what you want to accomplish, and really search yourself to make sure that is exactly what you want. Then you have to make a list of how to achieve it, and then go do it. The same is true with eating well and learning to rest effectively.
Sometimes we need help, so reach out to someone who can keep you accountable. Whether that’s a friend, a spouse, a family member, or something like a life coach, we can’t make big changes alone.
While I’m on this topic, there is something to be said for financially incentivize yourself. For instance – if you find yourself dehydrated and not drinking enough water, spend $40 on a fancy pink water bottle. It is far more likely you will carry it around and drink it because it was expensive. Further – since it is pink, you are less likely to leave it anywhere. It will stick out and remind you to drink more water.
So for everything in life – find a version of an expensive pink water bottle, some extrinsic thing to spend money on – and use it as a tool to help motivate you to pursue growth in these areas.Why We Lose Motivation
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