Motivation is a pendulum. It swings back and forth, sometimes there, sometimes not. When it’s there, you feel like you can handle anything, like the world is there for you and you for it. You have the energy to do your work, or at least you have a good reason to find the energy. When it’s not there, though, you may end up wondering if your work is actually yours, after all.
On the days when it is there, it’s worth harnessing. It’s worth riding that pendulum swing as far as you possibly can. High motivation days are usually the days where you feel like you can take on the world, or at least a certain segment of it.
But what about the days where it’s not there, the days where you look at the work that is yours and you wonder if it’s worth doing and, if so, whether you actually have the energy to do it? What then?
I’ve seen a lot of people panic when their motivation leaves. They wonder if they’ve chosen the wrong career, the wrong spouse, or the wrong whatever they’re feeling unmotivated about. They often feel like they have to push themselves to work anyway, no matter how awful it feels or how much pressure they put on themselves. Sometimes, simply admitting that the motivation is gone feels impossible, and so people continue to act motivated even when it is at an all-time low.
This panic is normal. But once we feel it, the key is to push into it, rather than trying to thrust it away through overwork or emotional stuffing. Instead, we need to turn it over in our hands, to examine it like a puzzle, like a Rubik’s Cube we need to solve. We need to breathe deeply, admit where we are, and take the following steps.
Step 1: Understand the process. In any endeavor, you will have good days and bad ones. Endeavors are part of life, and life has these cycles. When your motivation is up, that’s great. And when it’s down, well, that’s just part of the way these things work.
Sometimes I find myself frustrated because I lost my motivation and I don’t know why. I feel like I must have done something wrong, like maybe I mislaid my motivation or it snuck out the back door when I wasn’t looking.
It helps me to remember other times when motivation has left, and to look at my own cycles of feeling on top of the world vs. feeling like the world is on top of me. When we can remember that one piece of the process isn’t the whole story, it’s easier to figure out what to do wherever we find ourselves right now.
Step 2: If you can, figure out why your motivation changed. Sometimes, there isn’t a why, but sometimes there is, and it’s worth understanding your own patterns.
Things that can cause motivation to run for the hills include: self doubt, setbacks, lack of sleep, overwork, under- or over-socialization, fear, and change. These are only a few of the reasons motivation can disappear, but they are the ones I’ve dealt with the most.
When we understand ourselves and how the different events we face and choices we make in life can affect us, we give ourselves the option to change something now (maybe) or plan better for the future. It also helps when motivation’s disappearances can make sense, because we are less likely to be left standing, bewildered, wondering why the fire we felt inside yesterday is gone today.
Step 3: Take care of yourself, before you do anything else. This can mean a million different things, depending on the situation. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your poor, unmotivated self is to go to work anyway, whether you feel motivated or not. Other times, though, you may need rest, or to deal with another problem first, or to give yourself time to feel, to grieve, or to process.
The point is that prioritizing caring for ourselves helps us see the situation from a new perspective. Rather than panicking because the motivation is gone and wondering what in the world we’ve done wrong, focusing on self-care helps us focus on fixing the problem, and doing so in a way that makes work on our work sustainable.
The problem is, there are many, many ways to motivate ourselves, but so many of these are false in some way, denying the reality of the situation. We can always force ourselves to work, but if what we really need is rest, or to deal with another problem, then forcing ourselves to work will only make motivation run further away. Focusing on self-care, on what I need in this particular moment when it comes to my motivation and my situation, gives me a better chance of coming up with a solution that is healthy and gives me longevity for my work in the long run.
Once you know what you need, the last step is to do it. Give yourself what you need, and your motivation will return. It may not come back tomorrow, but over time you will find yourself ready to work again.
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