In my daily work with clients I often hear statements like these:
- “I know I have to study for my upcoming VCE exams, but I just can’t get myself to do it,”
- “I really would love to take the dog for a walk every afternoon, but usually I just don’t feel like it, so I don’t,”
- “I often think of my friends who live far away, but usually as I pick up the phone to ring or text them, I think ‘why bother?’ and then just leave it,”
- “I really should get the garden in better shape, and I actually do like gardening, I just can’t find the motivation for it,”
- “I love reading, but have not read a book in months, I can’t find time and often am not in the mood anyway.”
Motivation. Drive. Get-up-and-do-it. Action. “Go”. All are synonyms for the thing that pushes us from passive inertia into actively doing something. This “something” that people often postpone or avoid usually entails some form of effort. (After all, no-one needs much “motivation” to lie in a hammock and eat ice cream all day!) The effort – or perceived effort – could be mental effort (e.g. studying for a test, or reading an article for work), physical effort (e.g. doing any form of exercise, or doing laundry or mowing the lawn) or social effort (e.g. initiating a phone call or going for a coffee with a friend). I often illustrate it like this:
In other words: you have a task ahead of you, and part of you wants to do it, but another part doesn’t… and up pops a barrier that actually stops you from doing the thing you have to do. This mental barrier could be one of many things and is usually underpinned by certain beliefs and thoughts that tend not to be very helpful. For example:
- I really do not want to do it. I should never be made to do anything I do not want to do. I only have to do things that are enjoyable and pleasant to me.
- I can do it tomorrow, there is really no reason why I should do it today.
- Conditions are not quite right to do it.
- And the most common one: Why bother? What’s the point?
These barriers often lead to procrastination… and then more procrastination. When this happens, people get more alienated from themselves, and start moving away from the life they want for themselves. This can feed into depression (due to thoughts of failure and hopelessness or being stuck) or increased anxiety (due to increased stress and deadlines, and a feeling of things slipping out of our control).
Of course the million dollar question is: What can I do to increase my motivation? Even though there is no golden key, there are a few strategies that often help people to get going:
1. The following little line really caught my attention when I read it recently:
Ask yourself: What do I want NOW? vs What do I want MORE?
If I get home after work and I ask myself what I want NOW, I might say to lie on the couch and scroll through social media. What I want MORE though, is to have a life with healthy habits, and because I know walking a few blocks is great for my physical and mental health, I would then rather choose to walk rather than scroll. It is about figuring out what is important to you long-term (“what I want more”) and then actually getting onto the path that will make that happen. If we just reach for the short-term instant gratification, we will without a doubt start moving away from the life we want.
This leans into the idea that some form of discipline in our decision-making is helpful. We need to practise this and teach and model it to our children: even if we do not FEEL like it, we take the bins out, do the laundry and take the library books back. Something does not have to be easy or pleasant for me to be able to do it. We need to foster and build the idea of our own ability to do and push through tasks that are not perceived as pleasant. Then, rather than the barrier being “I can only do things when I feel like it”, we build the grit to be able to say “Some tasks are pleasant, others not so much so, but I can do both”. (The beauty is, of course, that by completing household chores – boring and unpleasant as they might be – we do get a little dopamine kick after ticking the tasks off the list; this in turn leads to improved mood and a better sense of wellbeing.)
Another way of fostering a long-term sense of wellbeing rather than always reaching for short-term pleasure is asking yourself the question: What would my future self thank me for? If we think of this in the context of VCE exams, for example, my future self of December 2023 would probably thank my current self for attending my last classes in term 4, for asking clarifying questions if I don’t understand something, for starting my revision fairly early, for getting enough sleep, for making sure I am on time for my exams and for keeping a healthy perspective on the relative importance of the exams in the bigger scheme of things.
2. Another strategy that I often teach clients (and use myself!) is to do a little bit of mind-trickery by playing a pretend game. We ask ourselves the following question:
What would I have done if I WERE feeling better or more motivated?
And then – even if you do not FEEL it quite yet – to pretend just for a little while that you are indeed feeling more energetic or less depressed or less unmotivated. The beauty is that in doing what we would have done in a hypothetical world where we were feeling better, helps us to actually feel better! Not only does our emotional state influence our behaviour (e.g. I am feeling depressed, therefore I will stay in bed), but our behaviour also influences our emotional state. Thus: if I pretend that I am feeling a bit better or a bit more motivated, and I go for a walk, or start working on an assignment, the “feel good” neurotransmitters really are activated, and my mood really does lift.
3. When it comes to combatting low motivation, it is often helpful to chunk up the task. Rather than looking at the whole mountain to climb, or the whole thesis to write, or the whole house to clean, we can break it up into smaller parts. It is far less intimidating to think about reading one chapter rather than the whole book. If tasks are realistic and doable, it helps increase our motivation to actually do them. We really have to be smart in our goalsetting, because unrealistic, unachievable goals only set us up for failure, and ultimately this leads to a decrease in motivation. If our eyes are focused on the next steps rather than the ever-extending road ahead, we will most certainly find it easier to take that first step.
4. In the same vein, it is often helpful to set up a little reward system for yourself. Maybe you could watch the next episode of your Netflix series after you have vacuumed the house, or take a lovely hot shower after you have summarised the first 5 pages of your Biology chapter. After all, rewarding activities do taste so much sweeter if we feel we have done something to “deserve” the reward! This helps build the inner grit to delay immediate gratification in the service of getting something better later.
5. When the little lines “Why bother?” or “What’s the point?” pop up, I find it quite helpful to actually answer the question rather than keep it as a rhetorical question. Why bother to put in the effort to study hard for my exam? Because it is important to me to do as well as I can, and because good marks will help me get into the course I want to do. What’s the point of going for a walk after work? The point is that I know I will feel healthier and better afterwards. Why bother to do the heap of laundry on the weekend? Because it makes me feel prepared and less stressed about the week ahead. Actually finding the “because” or “the point” can be a true motivator when we are plagued by “Why bother?” or “What’s the point?”.
6. Being able to do a task or parts of a task in conditions which are not 100% favourable is a fantastic skill to build. Too often we say “I cannot ring my friend because I only have 10 minutes to chat”, or “I cannot go for a walk because it is too cold / too windy / too hot” or “I cannot start the assignment because the house is too noisy / too quiet / too untidy”. This search for the perfect conditions is in my mind quite futile. Very rarely will it ever be the perfect time!
I saw a meme some time ago about travel. It stated: Ideally we need 3 things to be able to travel: time, money and health. When we are young, we have time and health (but not money). In middle age we have health and money (but not time). When we are old we have money and time (but not health). Point being: there is never a perfect time to travel! If we wait for the stars to all align, we might never do it. Hence (the point of the meme): travel! Even when it is not the perfect time, even if your wallet is a bit flat, even if it will be winter at your destination – go! Similarly – if we wait for things to be “just right” before we start working on our next task, we might find ourselves in limbo for a very long time.
7. Lastly: harsh and critical self-talk has never been a great motivator. Telling yourself that you are “lazy”, “a loafer”, “an idiot”, or that you “never complete anything” does absolutely nothing to increase motivation. Speaking to yourself with kindness and compassion goes ever so much further than berating language would ever take you.
As I am finishing up this blog, the clock has ticked over into my lunch break. Two fabulous colleagues have popped into my office already, asking if I am joining them for lunch outside on this gorgeous spring day. I told them I’ll be out soon, I just need to do some last finishing touches on the blog… When I shut down my computer shortly, knowing that a task has been completed, a sense of satisfaction (and that little dopamine kick!) will surely follow. Then the sunshine and friendly chats outside will be a sweet reward for getting going and getting the job done.
I’m there in a minute, guys!
Felix & Sage Psychology