Motivation is a fickle beast — at least that’s the relationship that most people have with it.
When we’re unmotivated, we feel incredible guilt and search for ways to feel more motivated and inspired to act, without actually getting any work done. It’s a neverending cycle.
Before looking for a solution, we must change our relationship with the idea of motivation.
Take focus, for example.
Everyone wants to be more focused, but each of us operates a little differently. Some people can dedicate consecutive hours to one specific task, while others find that they’re more productive when working in 30 minute increments, with built-in breaks in between.
Your ability to focus is also affected by your physical environment, and the nature of the task at hand.
A writer may need to get into a long mental flow, while a sales person may take mental breaks between calls. Each task requires a different level of focus, but the understanding is that sometimes your brain just needs a rest.
Similarly, no one can stay motivated forever. Like focus, motivation can wane, and that’s okay.
Disassociate guilt from lack of motivation, and start thinking about why you might be in a mental funk.
What is motivation?
Derived from the word motive, which is the reason that causes someone to act or behave a certain way, motivation is the internal process that guides a person’s behavior towards a goal.
How does motivation work?
There are two major types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes from within and drives a person to behave a certain way simply because it feels good. The behavior itself is internally rewarding.
Playing a sport because you genuinely enjoy the activity and the way it makes you feel, is an example of intrinsic motivation because behavior is driven by internal forces and not by an external reward, such as a trophy, medal or praise.
Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from external factors that are outside of you. It involves engaging in a behavior in order to achieve external rewards.
Studying for an exam, in order to get a passing grade, is an example of behaviour that is extrinsically motivated because you are seeking to be externally rewarded for your effort with a good grade.
One of the most famous theories on motivation, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, suggests that people are motivated to fulfill their most basic needs before they’re able to meet more complex, higher-level goals. That’s to say he believed humans have an inherent desire to ‘self-actualize’, which means to reach their full potential. But before that can happen, more basic needs need to be met before any more progress can be made.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often represented by a pyramid that includes five levels: the most fundamental needs make up the bottom of the pyramid while the top level represents “growth” needs, which lead a person to live up to their full potential.
The lower four layers of the hierarchy consist of what Maslow called “deficiency needs”, which include physiological needs, safety, social belonging, self-esteem and finally the highest level is the need for self-fulfillment.
The idea is that if “deficiency” needs aren’t fulfilled, we have a tendency to feel anxious and tense, and the deprivation we feel is what motivate us to satisfy these needs.
The need for self-actualization, on the other hand, is not driven by a lack of something but rather from our desire to develop and grow as individuals.
What’s fully under your control?
These are usually the things we think of last. They’re the easiest to change, but they require the most amount of discipline.
Are you getting enough sleep? Have you been eating well and exercising consistently?
A full eight hours of sleep, a well balanced breakfast, and an hour at the gym can feel like flipping the motivation switch in your brain. We convince ourselves that there must be a better reason for why we feel lazy, but often times there isn’t.
Go on a three-mile run right now, and I promise that you’ll feel accomplished and motivated to work.
What’s troubling you?
If you’re preoccupied with something, you’re likely depleting all of your mental energy. Things like financial issues or relationship problems can put you in a state of tunnel vision where you’re too worried about your problem and blind to actual solutions.
You might have a business to run, or a deadline to meet, but if you’re not addressing the things that are weighing heavily on you, your work will suffer.
If you’re fighting with your spouse, talk to them and work towards a resolution. If you barely made rent last month, focus on spending less elsewhere or getting a higher paying job.
These things must be prioritized and resolved so you can free up your brain to feel motivated again.
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, keeps a quote on his fridge from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
This is one way he stays motivated.
Getting perspective from others can be just what you need to start working again.
For some, this means reading a book full of entrepreneurial stories, or listening to a podcast and watching a video that can plant new ideas into your head. The key with consuming content, however, is to get back to work as soon as you feel inspired to act, capitalizing on the newly found energy.
Others find that it’s more helpful to meet and talk to other people.
Grab a beer with a friend, or reconnect with a colleague. Just by getting out of the house, you’re taking a step toward action. Someone else might be able to help you connect the dots and get moving again.
You can’t always wait for motivation to strike you. Sometimes you just need to be disciplined enough to put in the hours and do the work.
Other times, lack of motivation is a symptom of something bigger. Take the time to understand yourself, and avoid looking for shortcuts. Addressing difficult personal problems upfront can have the most lasting impact.