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Lack of Motivation: The Forgotten Emotional Aspects of Productivity

Motivation and productivity - seize the day

Motivation is a strange, fickle thing. 

Sometimes you wake up and feel like you can take on the world. You’re eager to tackle your work and are convinced that nothing can stop you. 

Other times you don’t feel like doing anything. Your productivity plummets and the amount of time you spend watching Netflix skyrockets. You can’t seem to get going, can’t find any traction, and can’t make any progress.

Few things are more frustrating than having important things to do and not having the motivation to do them. You know that you should be doing these things, but you just can’t find the energy and drive to do so. 

If you’ve ever found yourself in that position, I’ve got some good news for you: motivation is not outside of your control. 

When you understand what motivation is and how it works, you can then do specific things to significantly increase your overall levels of motivation. 

In this article, we’re going to explore the intricacies of motivation, discover why we often lack it, and look at practical actions we can take to improve it. 


Let’s get started. 

What Is Motivation? 

Most of us have an instinctive concept of motivation based on our own experience. We know what it feels like when we’re motivated, full of crackling energy and eager to get things done. We’re also familiar with the slothful malaise that covers us when we’re unmotivated.

But what exactly is motivation and why is it so important to us? 

At a high level, motivation is a combination of biological, social, cognitive, and emotional forces that lead us to perform particular actions. It’s important to note that motivation can’t be boiled down to a single factor. Rather, it’s the result of the complex interplay between a variety of factors. 

The important implication is that the more we can bring these factors into alignment with one another, the more motivated we’ll be. 

When our biology, emotions, thinking, and social understanding are all pointed in the same direction, we’re motivated to take action. 

For example, let’s say you’re trying to write a paper for a college class. If you’re sick or tired (biology), your motivation will be low, but if you’re robustly healthy, you’ll be much more enthusiastic about writing the paper. If you don’t care about the teacher or the class (social), you won’t care much about getting the paper done. On the other hand, if you respect the teacher and want to do well in the class, your motivation levels will increase.

Starting to see the big picture? One of the keys to being more motivated is harnessing all the motivational forces together to point you in a single direction. You can almost think of it like an equation: 

Biology + Social Forces + Cognition + Emotion = Motivation

What is motivation? Sign that says "Whatever it takes"
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Components Of Motivation

In their book Discovering Psychology, Don Hockenbury, Sandra Hockenbury, and Susan Nolan identify three critical components of motivation:

  • Activation – The decision to take a particular action, such as creating a screenplay or enrolling in a particular class.
  • Persistence – Making continuous effort to achieve a goal in the face of difficulties or obstacles. For example, continuing to work on a screenplay even though you have limited time, aren’t making as much progress as you’d like, or are encountering regular distractions. 
  • Intensity – The amount of concentration and effort invested in achieving a specific goal. If you work on your screenplay with a high level of intensity, you’ll do whatever it takes to complete it, including blocking out time in your schedule, cutting out distractions, and reading books about screenplay writing. 

All three of these components are necessary in order to actually get things done. Without activation, you’ll never initiate new tasks or pursue new goals. Without persistence, you’ll give up on your goals as soon as you encounter resistance. Without intensity, you’ll make little or no progress on your goals. 

When you’re truly motivated, all three components are present. You’re eager to take action, keep working on your goals when things get tough, and bring a high level of effort to everything you do. 

Misconceptions about motivation - "If not now, when?"

Misconceptions About Motivation

Perhaps the biggest misconception about motivation is that it’s something that simply happens to you. We tend to think of motivation like it’s some sort of impersonal force that may or may not bless us with its presence. We tend to assume that if we don’t feel motivated, there’s nothing we can do about it. 

The reality is that we can take specific actions that will increase our levels of motivation. 

There are two types of motivation: 

  • Passive motivation comes from absorbing the ideas, creations, and success stories of others. When you read an article about a woman who started in poverty and is now a multimillionaire, it can motivate you to make changes in your own life. 
  • Active motivation comes from taking action. When you start working on a task and see the progress you’re making and the things you’re learning, it inspires you to take more action. The truth is, getting started is often the hardest part. Once you’ve started, your motivation levels significantly increase. 

If you want to be more motivated, you need to make it happen. 

Yes, do things that will increase your passive motivation. Read books and articles that inspire you. Watch videos that light a fire in you. Listen to podcasts that make you want to get up and get going. 

But don’t stop there. Take decisive action and get started on the goal before you, even if you don’t feel like it. Create the wireframe for the website. Write the first chapter of your novel. Put together the outline for the presentation you’re going to give. 

The more you take action, the more you’ll be motivated to continue taking action. 

As James Clear, bestselling author and productivity expert says:

You don’t need much motivation once you’ve started a behavior. Nearly all of the friction in a task is at the beginning. After you start, progress occurs more naturally. In other words, it is often easier to finish a task than it was to start it in the first place.

Lack of motivation - can't get out of bed
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Lack of Motivation: 5 Reasons You Don’t Feel Like Doing Anything

Now that you understand the fundamentals of motivation, let’s talk about why you might have a lack of motivation. When you understand why your motivation levels are low, you can take action to correct the problem. 

Reason #1: Lack Of A Strong Why

If you don’t have a strong, foundational reason for doing something, you’re not going to be motivated to get it done. If you don’t see something as important or rewarding, you simply won’t care. 

The cure: You really have only two options if you find yourself lacking a strong why. The first is to abandon the task/goal altogether. If it truly isn’t important, then you really don’t have any reason to do it. 

If you can’t abandon the task/goal, you need to work to find a strong why. Consider how you can leverage the different motivational forces to push you along. For example, let’s say you need to edit a series of photos for a client. If you don’t edit the photos, your reputation will suffer (social motivation). If you edit the photos, the client will be thankful, which will make you happy as well (emotional motivation). 

The stronger your foundational why, the more you’ll be motivated to take action. 

Reason #2: Feeling Overwhelmed

Few things kill motivation like feeling overwhelmed. When your goal is too big or you have too many things on your plate at one time, it can be difficult to take any action at all. All you can see is how much you need to do and how difficult it will be to get everything done. 

The cure: If you want to feel less overwhelmed, break your big tasks down into small, easy-to-manage objectives and then focus on accomplishing one small objective at a time. For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed at the thought of creating a presentation, break the presentation down into much smaller subtasks like introduction, point one, illustration one, etc. 

It’s much easier to be motivated when tasks are relatively small and easy to do. 

Reason #3: Low Self-Esteem

If you don’t think you can do something, you’ll be very reluctant to even try. You’ll always have that voice in the back of your head saying, “Why are you even trying? You’re never going to be able to do that!” The louder that voice is, the less motivation you’ll have. 

The cure: One of the most effective ways to overcome low self-esteem is to simply take a look at your past. Without a doubt, you’ve overcome numerous difficult obstacles and achieved some amazing things. The fact that you’ve accomplished these things is proof that you can accomplish big, challenging tasks. The more you focus on what you’ve already accomplished, the more motivation you’ll have to tackle difficult tasks in the future. 

Reason #4: People Pleasing

Being afraid of what other people will think of you can be an effective motivator in the short run. But the more you live to please other people, the more likely it is you’ll burn out and see your motivation crash. If you constantly neglect your own desires and needs, you’ll end up resenting people, and resentment is a toxic emotion. Resentment sucks away motivation. 

The cure: It’s essential that you balance your own desires and needs with those of others. Take time to work on things you love and fill you with happiness. Make space for your own passion projects and give yourself to things that give you joy. This will increase your overall levels of motivation and enable you to care effectively both for yourself and for others. 

Reason #5: Not Enough Pressure

Some people are only motivated when the external pressure is high enough. They don’t get things done until the very last minute, always just barely beating the deadline. And truth be told, this can be effective in some cases. The problem is that it’s incredibly stressful, takes a toll on your body, and can result in shoddy work. 

The cure: They key in this scenario is to move from extrinsic motivation (an approaching deadline) to internal motivation. When you are internally motivated to get something done, you don’t require any pressure from outside forces. You’re driven to accomplish your task. 

How do you move from external to internal motivation? It goes back to having a strong why that motivates you to take consistent action. When you have a deep, strong, compelling reason to accomplish a goal, you won’t wait until the deadline approaches to get things done. 

4 ways to get motivated - how to begin
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4 Proven Ways To Get Motivated

Now for the critical question: what are specific tactics you can use to get motivated? What actions can you take to increase your overall levels of motivation and get more done during the day? 

1. Schedule Your Week In Advance

One of the most effective ways to improve your motivation is to schedule your week in advance. In other words, plan out what you will do each moment of each day in the coming week. When you’ll wake, when you’ll exercise, what things you’ll do at work, etc. 

How does this increase motivation? When you know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing, it decreases the amount of friction associated with each task. You don’t have to expend mental effort figuring out what you should do or what you should focus on. You already decided all that early in the week. 

The less friction you experience, the easier it is to get started, and when you get started you’ll find motivation flowing through you. 

2. Create Pre-Work Rituals

A ritual is something you do on a regular basis without thinking about it. Automatically making a cup of coffee as soon as you wake up is a ritual. Taking a regular lunchtime walk is a ritual. Brushing your teeth every evening is a ritual. The more you do these things, the more habitual they become. When something becomes a habit, you no longer have to think about it or use any willpower to do it. 

You can use the power of rituals to overcome a lack of motivation. The secret is to link two behaviors together. For example, let’s say that every day you spend 15 minutes meditating and then immediately start working on your most important task for the next two hours. The more you do both things together, the more deeply they’ll become ingrained in your mind. When you meditate, it signals your brain that the next thing you’ll be doing is focused work. Starting work becomes much easier because your brain is used to doing work immediately following a meditation session. 

What pre-work rituals can you create? Maybe you wake up, immediately go for a walk, and then come home and spend an hour writing. Or maybe you spend a few minutes journaling before doing deep, focused work. 

Your rituals shouldn’t be complicated or overly difficult to perform. The key is to do them repeatedly so that they become habits that you can do without even thinking about them. 

3. Embrace Imperfection

Perfectionism kills motivation. If you feel like you need to perform a task at an exceptionally high level, you’re going to be intimidated and very hesitant to get started. Allow yourself to make mistakes and produce lower quality work in the beginning. Embrace the fact that your first attempt probably won’t be incredible, and that’s okay. 

Seth Godin puts it this way:

If you set your bar at “amazing,” it’s awfully difficult to start.

Your first paragraph, sketch, formula, sample or concept isn’t going to be amazing. Your tenth one might not be either.

Confronted with the gap between your vision of perfect and the reality of what you’ve created, the easiest path is no path. Shrug. Admit defeat. Hit delete.

One more reason to follow someone else and wait for instructions.

Of course, the only path to amazing runs directly through not-yet-amazing. But not-yet-amazing is a great place to start, because that’s where you are. For now.

If you want to be more motivated, be kind to yourself. Don’t expect amazing right out of the gate. 

4. Use The 5-Minute Rule

Motivation is typically lowest before you start a task. You imagine how difficult it’s going to be, and the more you think about it, the more overwhelmed you feel. And so you never get started in the first place. 

With the 5-minute rule, you set a goal of performing a task for only five minutes. If it truly is terrible and you can’t go on, you can stop after five minutes. You accomplished your goal. 

What most people discover, however, is that the task really isn’t that bad. The more they work on it, the more motivated they are to finish it.

Kevin Systrom, CEO and co-founder of Instagram, puts it this way: “If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing.”

how to stay motivated long term
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How To Stay Motivated Over The Long-Term

The most successful individuals know how to sustain high levels of motivation over the long-term. They use specific techniques and tactics to keep themselves constantly driven and moving forward. 

Consider using some of these techniques in your own life. 

Implement The Goldilocks Rule

Tasks that are too easy don’t engage your brain, leaving you feeling bored and uninterested. Tasks that are too difficult are overwhelming, leading you to shrink back in intimidation. This is where the Goldilocks Rule comes into play. You will be most motivated when working on tasks that stretch you, but aren’t beyond your abilities. 

James Clear says:

The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.

One of the keys to consistent motivation is regularly giving yourself tasks that hit the sweet spot in terms of difficulty. 

Create Specific, Measurable Goals

Few things stifle motivation more than vague goals. When goals are vague and nonspecific, you can’t know if you’re actually making progress. When you can’t measure progress, you don’t get any positive feedback. 

On the flip side, when you set specific, measurable goals, your progress is evident. As you see yourself making substantial progress, your motivation to keep going will increase. 

So, let’s say you want to write more. A specific, measurable goal might look like writing 10,000 words in a month. The more precise your goal is, the more driven you’ll be to take action. 

Focus On Incremental Changes

It’s much easier to be motivated to make small, incremental changes than huge, life-altering ones. What most people don’t realize is that small incremental changes can produce massive results over time. 

Take reading, for example. Reading five pages per day isn’t difficult, and can be done in less than 15 minutes. But five pages per day adds up to 1,825 pages in the course of a year. That’s a huge amount of reading and would make a significant difference in your life. 

If you want to be more motivated, start thinking on a smaller scale. What small changes can you make in your life that will produce big results in the long run? 

Block Distractions

Even when your motivation levels are high, it’s easy to get distracted by Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or Fortnite. One minute, you’re diligently working on an important project, the next you’re researching weird conspiracy theories on Reddit. 

The simplest, most effective solution is simply to block these distractions when you’re doing important work. Don’t even give yourself the option of browsing social media or playing online games. 

Freedom makes it simple to remove pesky distractions. You can set up sessions to automatically start at particular times in the day (like when you first get into work) or you can create a session on the fly. When these sessions are active, you won’t be able to access any of the sites that you’ve specified. 

how to stay motivated
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Take Control Of Your Motivation

If you’re lacking motivation, don’t passively wait for things to change. Don’t sit in your recliner, hoping that you’ll suddenly be filled with motivation. 

Instead, make motivation happen. Take action. Get started. Embrace the messy beginning. 

As you get going, you’ll probably notice a change starting to take place. Apathy will slowly be replaced drive. A fresh vigor will fill you, pushing you on. The fog will dissipate and the road ahead will be clear. 

Your most productive days are waiting for you. You just need to grab them.