Many of my clients struggle with feeling motivated when they need it most.
You may want something badly, but that doesn’t mean you’ll feel like doing it when it’s time to get down to it. It’s a serious block, and it can undermine your wellbeing, career aspirations and self-concept.
So how is it possible that you can want something so badly and yet not experience the motivation to make it happen?
It is possible. And it’s more common than you think.
Whatever the underlying reason for your lack of robust motivation, you can learn to cultivate it. And when you learn how to motivate yourself, you’ll be better able to support your team in becoming more motivated too!
What is Motivation?
Motivation is an emotional process. It drives us to seek out new skills. It’s the energy behind our desire to be more productive. It’s energy. And emotion is energy in motion. Motivation moves us to find meaning, adapt and thrive. It gives us the drive and focus we need to implement goal-directed behaviour.
When you’re motivated, you’re better able to resist distractions and stay on track. You can work through obstacles and disappointments until you reach your goal.
But when you don’t experience a high degree of motivation consistently, you’ll experience a ‘low’ – a lull in your energy. Then you start to doubt if you’ve chosen the right path.
But the path may not be the problem at all. More often, it’s a signal that something else needs to change. Motivation doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s a neurochemical, cognitive and social process as much as it is an emotional one.
This is great news! It means you don’t have to wait around for motivation to show up. You can spark it yourself whenever you need to.
But first, you need to understand why you’re not feeling it.
What’s going on?
Any or all of these may be at play:
Relying on extrinsic rewards/penalties:
The fear of humiliation (if you fail) is a powerful motivator to act, but relying on it can actually undermine your motivation. The same is true if you rely on extrinsic rewards to motivate yourself to take action.
Rewards and penalties on their own are not a reliable way to motivate yourself. They’re not always there. And when they’re not there, you won’t know how to motivate yourself.
Over time, individuals who’ve experienced a lot of failure despite high motivation come to believe their efforts won’t ever work. They stop trying. Then their motivation falls. “There’s no point. Why try.”
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that regulates your motivation. If your brain has less access to dopamine, you’ll experience lower intensity or inconsistent motivation. ADHD is one example where low dopamine plays a role.
Weak working memory:
This cognitive function holds in mind that you’re actually motivated to make this amazing change. If you have trouble with working memory (as with ADHD or anxiety) you may forget – in the moment – why something matters to you. You then start to look for other goals that feel more exciting.
You believe that who you are is fixed in time. You’re not capable of developing your traits and talents. When you fail or feel stuck, you see it as a natural result of who you are. You don’t see the skill that could be developed.
Impulsivity can lead you to feel that you’re not in control of yourself. You may have a goal that deeply matters, but you see yourself doing something else over and over again. When you feel you’ve got little to no control over your impulses, moods, thoughts, or actions, you’ll be more prone to lose motivation.
Here’s how you can turn it all around!
Deliberately turn toward your motivation. Cultivate it.
Don’t rely on extrinsic reward/penalties:
Instead, find the want behind your want. When you make a choice to change a behaviour, look underneath. Go deeply. Let’s say you want to tackle your emails more regularly. Your motivation is not just to clean out your Inbox. It’s about feeling on top of your game. Being in charge of your time, energy and mental space. Feel that desire for agency. That’s your motivation!
Learn to let go of learned helplessness:
Motivation will come once you get into strategic action. Get to know those moments when things usually fall apart. Be prepared to get specific. Really specific. What do you need in those particular moments so that you stay on track? Identify one new, very small step that you’re willing to take. Make sure it’s achievable. Then set yourself up for success by planning for the moment when things might fall apart. This time, you’ll have your new, specific strategy at hand. Be prepared to do it whether you feel like doing it or not. Don’t wait for motivation.
Boost your dopamine:
To increase your dopamine, treat your body well: eat well, get enough sleep, exercise vigorously and often, and take Omega-3 or other supplements for brain health. Other ways to increase your dopamine: share your wins, focus on what you do well, and continue to break down tasks so you actually succeed. Deliberately stoke your sense of “I can do this” by keeping the goals small. Then celebrate after each and every accomplishment!
Support your working memory:
Use post-it notes, a vision board, or any symbol in your environment to remind you of the want behind your want. These visuals act as your external hard drives. They help you remember, in the moment, what makes this change matter so much to you.
Dissolve your fixed mindset:
To become more mentally flexible, cultivate a growth mindset. Get into the habit of asking what you can learn from a situation. What skill? What shift in perspective? Pay attention to your learning rather than how bad you feel about a perceived failure. Your thoughts have a powerful impact on your motivation. Make them work for you. Ask yourself, “What am I avoiding? What way of thinking may serve my outcome better? How can I cultivate that?”
Build your self-control:
Slow down. Take conscious and intentional actions. Practice everything with deliberate attention. This skill takes time to develop. Be patient with yourself. Just keep your focus on the present moment.
We are social beings. We have a primal need to contribute and grow. We do want to excel. We all want to do a good job. We all want to make a difference. Your new actions and changes are meant to make a meaningful difference. Pay attention to that. Motivation follows meaning. Whether it’s for you or your team members, the more you link new behaviour with something meaningful, the more effective you’ll be in motivating yourself and those around you.