Our universal struggle with motivation

Why is motivation something that’s never completely dealt with? Why are issues with motivation always…there? They’re seemingly an unrelenting part of the human experience.

They’re also seemingly a universal experience for anyone trying to accomplish anything in their life. There’s some comfort in that, to be sure, but it’s also confounding. Has no one cracked the code yet? Even when we feel like we have found the solution and get something done in a day, how does the problem still come back the next day? Honestly, how dare it come back the next day?

We know what we want to do with our lives and what we most want to achieve with our time. More often than not, we also have a detailed understanding of what it will take to get there. We know what hard work looks like, and we’ve put in that hard work. We’ve even sometimes been able to see the fruits of our labor and be proud of ourselves. So after all of that, after someone experiences something like that even one time, why is it still something we struggle with?

Lots of questions today. Some that maybe can’t be answered. It’s just how we’re wired, perhaps.

In the meantime, there are some prevailing theories, and better yet, some strategies we might be able to employ to get something done.

Let’s give it a shot.

Baby steps are truly superior


Many of us, despite however many articles we might read about the art of productivity, still have it backward. Somewhere buried in our heads is the unshakeable belief that motivation comes before action. That we’re doomed to sit, staring blankly into space, waiting for the muses to smile upon us.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that.

Many of us believe that motivation is something we need to find before we can take action. But the truth is, motivation often finds us after we start taking small steps towards our goals.

As author E.B. White famously said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.” This applies to any task worth doing. Waiting for the perfect moment or feeling motivated can lead to procrastination and stagnation.

Psychologists call this “the motivation trap,” where we wait for motivation to strike before taking action. But the reality is that action precedes motivation. By taking small steps, we create momentum and motivation.

Research by Harvard professor Teresa Amabile supports this idea. She found that making progress in meaningful work is the single most important factor in boosting emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday. This is what she calls The Progress Principle.

Small wins may seem insignificant, but they can have a profound impact on our motivation and inspiration. However, it’s important to note that simply ticking off to-dos or answering emails isn’t enough. We need to focus on meaningful tasks that align with our goals and values.

So, how can we apply The Progress Principle when we’re feeling this way? By taking tiny steps towards our goals, we can build momentum and motivation. It may not be easy, but it’s a powerful way to overcome procrastination and achieve our goals.

Find meaning and share it


Taking advantage of The Progress Principle requires us to take action, but it’s tough when we’re feeling inert. However, there are simple exercises that can give us a jumpstart.

Procrastination often stems from feeling like our work lacks purpose. To combat this, try identifying how your work impacts those around you. While it may not change the world, your work likely has a positive effect on your colleagues and team. Reflecting on this internal impact can help you find meaning and motivation.

As Liz Fosslien, co-author of No Hard Feelings, suggests, take a moment each day to write down three ways your work has helped your coworkers. This practice shifts your focus and reminds you that your work has value, even when you’re feeling stuck in place.

When we’re struggling with motivation, we often seek advice from others. However, research suggests that giving advice can be even more motivating! By sharing our knowledge and expertise with others, we build confidence and galvanize our sense of purpose.

In fact, studies have shown that participants who gave advice on issues they were struggling with were 68-77% more motivated to act on those issues compared to receiving advice from others. By explaining what to do to others, we increase our confidence and motivation.

Catch the motivation wave


So, we’ve established it’s unrealistic to expect constant motivation. But we also all have memories of moments when motivation did, seemingly from out of nowhere, smile upon us.

There’s even been thought put towards the idea that those moments can be tracked down to specific parts of the day where they happen more consistently.

So imagine: if you can maintain awareness when these moments come, and jump onboard as that surge of motivation hits, you can let it carry you a long way.

Most of us already do this instinctively, tackling important tasks when we’re in the zone. Psychologist BJ Fogg calls this phenomenon the “motivation wave.” The key is to leverage this wave to set up systems that will help you stay motivated when your enthusiasm wanes.

For example, use that classic “New Year’s Day” post-holiday motivation to create a schedule that fosters better habits and productivity. As Fogg advises, “Use the motivation wave to do hard things that will make future good behaviors easier to do.” On a smaller scale, utilize your most productive hours to make progress on challenging tasks, driving you through the rest of the day.

Keep your life balanced – in and out of the office


Feeling uninspired isn’t always a personal issue; it can also be a symptom of a toxic work environment. As the co-editors of the Burnout Research e-journal point out, “Why should poorly designed, stressful workplaces be given a free pass when they’re the source of stress, while employees are told burnout is their personal problem?”

If you suspect your workplace is to blame, ask yourself:

  • Are you challenged and engaged?
  • Do you feel curious and motivated?
  • Do you have control over your work and schedule?
  • Are there opportunities for collaboration and recognition?

In a lot of cases, a lack of motivation might stem from an imbalance in your work and personal life. When we’re trapped in the cult of busyness, motivation suffers, and burnout looms. The good news is that engaging in activities outside of work can help you feel motivated and productive.

Pursue hobbies, practice deliberate rest, reflect on past successes, or take meaningful breaks. These activities help you disconnect from work, rebuild happiness, and transfer that positivity into your workday. Research shows that happiness boosts productivity by up to 12%, as happier workers use their time more effectively and efficiently.

You’re not alone


Again: this is as close to a truly universal issue we could face as people.

There is not a person walking the Earth right now that hasn’t been bludgeoned by feelings of listlessness and inertia, and likely also blamed themselves for feeling lazy at the same time. But within that universality lies hope: others have, without question, beaten this beast before you. And that means you can too.

It’s normal to have off days where motivation seems elusive. But letting those feelings linger can lead to added stress and even burnout. When you’re stuck in a cycle of poor motivation, remember that you have the power to break free.

So remember: you don’t have to tackle this alone. Reach out for support and guidance when you need it. Odds are, any single person you talk to is going to have scores of experiences with the exact flavor of spiritual lethargy you’re going through at any time.

Let’s join up and try and figure this out.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

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