The Progress Principle: What to do when you’re feeling unmotivated and uninspired at work

“I have no motivation today.” Hands up if you’ve ever texted that to a friend or partner during the workweek. (*Gazes out into a sea of raised hands*

It’s completely normal to feel unmotivated at times, especially about work.

Maybe there’s a task you’ve been ducking for weeks or a new project that’s taken the wind out of your sails. Whatever the cause, it can be downright impossible to get things done when those feelings hit.

And that’s OK. 

Almost everyone struggles with feeling unmotivated and uninspired from time to time. In fact, when we surveyed hundreds of RescueTime users, we found that on average, people are just 60% motivated to do their daily work.

Yet while these feelings are normal, they can become a serious distraction if they linger or intensify. So what can you do when that feeling of being unmotivated for work just won’t go away?

The progress principle: Why tiny steps are better than shooting for the moon

Running up stairs to get motivated

Author E.B. White has a famous quote that goes like this:

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.”

The same goes for pretty much any task worth doing.

Most of us think of motivation as this mythical quality we need to “find.” But in reality, it’s far more accurate to say that motivation finds us. If you wait until you “just feel like it” you’ll probably never do it. Psychologists call this “the motivation trap”:

“Motivation does not precede action, action precedes motivation.” 

As we’ve written before, issues like procrastination and a lack of motivation are emotional issues. This means there’s no easy scheduling hack or time management tip that can save you.

Instead, the easiest way for you to get motivated is to just start. 

In fact, when Harvard professor Teresa Amabile studied the diaries of hundreds of knowledge workers, she found that:

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

She calls this The Progress Principle. Simply put, small wins build motivation, inspiration, and innovation. However, this doesn’t mean you can simply tick off to-dos or answer emails and feel motivated to push on. 

Instead, The Progress Principle only kicks in when you do work on meaningful tasks. But how do you get that start when you’re feeling truly unmotivated?

RescueTime is one of the best tools for building better habits, tracking your daily progress and staying motivated. Find out more and try it for free today!

5 ways to beat those feelings of being unmotivated

If you want to take advantage of The Progress Principle you need to just start working. (Which is easier said than done when you’re in a total slump!)

However, there are a few simple exercises you can try to give you the jumpstart of motivation you need. 

1. Look for the ways your work impacts the people around you

Procrastination hits us worse when we don’t see the point of our jobs.

Often we get hung up on the day-to-day of our tasks and ignore the larger picture. However, it’s this connection to a larger purpose that helps us find meaning and motivation at work.  

But what if your job doesn’t make a huge impact? 

That’s fine. We’re not only talking about some grand, world-changing impact here. In fact, few jobs will make such a massive change in the world. Instead, experts say it’s better to think about how your work has helped the people you spend your day with. 

As Liz Fosslien, co-author of No Hard Feelings explains:

“Take note of how your work has impact on the people at the company you work with. There’s not always external impact, but there’s internal impact.”

Personal connections are one of the most motivating factors we have. And studies show you’re naturally more motivated when you feel a deeper connection with your teammates. 

To find this connection, Liz suggests a simple practice.

Each day, take a short timeout to write down three ways your work has helped your coworkers (think of this as a personal lessons learned document). This practice shifts your mindset and reminds you that even if you’re feeling unmotivated, you’re still helping the people around you. 

2. Give someone else advice on how to feel motivated

When we feel unmotivated, it’s common to go out seeking advice (such as reading a blog article like this one!) And while that can help uncover techniques you hadn’t thought of, researchers now say that it can be more motivating to give advice. 

In an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, researchers described a series of experiments where they asked people struggling with motivation and self-control to advise others on the exact problems they were facing. As the authors write

“Although giving advice confers no new information to the advice giver, we thought it would increase the advice giver’s confidence. Confidence in one’s ability can galvanize motivation and achievement even more than the actual ability.”

In the end, participants were anywhere from 68–77% more motivated to act on their issues after giving advice versus when receiving it, even from trained professionals. 

Ultimately what it comes down to is that we don’t lack motivation because we don’t know how to be motivated. Instead, we just don’t know how to act on our own knowledge. By explaining to others what to do, we build our own confidence and motivation. 

3. Ride the “motivation wave”

What if you’re motivated some of the day but not all? 

You can’t expect to be motivated all the time. Instead, it’s better to take advantage of when you are motivated.

Most of us already do this (although maybe subconsciously). When you’re in the zone you get things done. You clear out your inbox. Work through a test plan for a new project. Or dive into some other Deep Work.

Psychologist and director of a lab at Stanford, BJ Fogg calls this the “motivation wave.” The key here, however, isn’t just to use this wave to get something done today. But to use that rush of motivation to set up systems that will help you when your motivation isn’t as high. 

For example, let’s say you just got back from a holiday and you’re inspired and motivated to get back to work. Instead of just diving right into your to-do list, use that motivation to finally create a time-blocked schedule that will force you to build better habits and stay motivated when you don’t feel like it. 

As Fogg explains:

“The motivation wave will go away. So what you need to do when it’s high is to do hard things that will make future good behaviors easier to do.”  

On a smaller scale, you can also use the wave to set yourself up for success each day. Use your most productive hours to make progress on something you’ve been putting off and that can drive you through the rest of the day. (Or, help you not feel so bad when you hit the afternoon slump). 

4. Ask if your workplace is to blame for your lack of motivation

Feeling unmotivated or uninspired isn’t just a personal problem. It can also be an organizational issue. 

As the co-editors of the Burnout Research e-journal ask:

“Highly stressful workplaces are often poorly designed, socially toxic, and exploitative environments. Why should such workplaces be given a free pass, when they are the sources of stress, while their inhabitants are being told that burnout is their own personal problem and responsibility?”

The same goes for motivation. Toxic work environments kill motivation. And you shouldn’t be responsible for shouldering all the blame. 

If you’re unsure whether your workplace is to blame, try asking these simple questions:

  1. Are you challenged?
  2. Do you feel a sense of curiosity?
  3. Are you in (at least some) control of how you spend your day?
  4. Do you have opportunities to collaborate or compete?
  5. Do you feel you’re getting enough recognition?

Need more help finding motivation each day? Check out our in-depth guide to Understanding Motivation. 

5. Give yourself some space and take on a hobby or project you enjoy

Woman drawing on laptop to get over feeling unmotivated

Finally, that lack of motivation might also come from a lack of work-life balance. When we’re trapped in the cult of busyness, it’s impossible to feel motivated. And if left alone, feeling unmotivated or uninspired can lead to burnout.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are simply so many things you can do outside of work that will help you feel motivated. 

You can spend time on a hobby, engage in deliberate rest, reflect on past successes, or go for a walk or take another type of meaningful break. All of these activities help you disconnect from work and rebuild your happiness levels, which transfers into your workday. 

In fact, a study by economists at the University of Warwick found that happiness makes us up to 12% more productive at work. As one of the paper’s authors writes:

“The driving force seems to be that happier workers use the time they have more effectively, increasing the pace at which they can work without sacrificing quality.”  

It’s OK to feel unmotivated. But you don’t have to let those feelings take over. 

We all have bad days when it feels like nothing will happen. And while it’s OK to feel that way, leaving it unattended is just asking for added stress and even potentially burnout.

When you find yourself caught in a bigger cycle of feeling unmotivated and uninspired, remember these 5 tools at your disposal: 

  1. Reflect on the impact your work has on the people around you
  2. Give someone else advice on how to get motivated
  3. Ride the “motivation wave” and build systems for when you feel uninspired
  4. Ask if your workplace or work environment is to blame
  5. Give yourself space to work on something you truly enjoy

Finally, remember that you don’t have to do this all alone.

Millions of people use RescueTime to build better habits, be more productive, and kickstart their motivation each day. Find out more and try it for free today!

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

5 comments

  1. Some great points in this article.

    Yes, it’s pretty much impossible to be feel 100% motivated all the time and enthusiasm for anything and everything in life is bound to wax and wane.

    I think the key is to just recognize and embrace this fact and try to organize your tasks in a way that makes allowances for it. So when you’re feeling motivated, hit the high value tasks hard (ride the “motivation wave”, as you say) and when you’re lacking motivation, take care of the less important stuff that perhaps does not require as much concentration or thinking.

    And don’t beat yourself up when you’re lacking motivation – it will pass, especially if you employ some of the tips you have outlined in this post!

    Thanks!

    1. Definitely Robbie! It’s all about understanding when and how you work best and trying to make sure your tasks for the day match up with that information.

  2. I always thought of watching movies, Thanks Mr. Jory, This information you have shared is really enlightening. I’m glad you shared it. I must say you are season with your niche. Thank for the share and keep up the good work. Nice one.

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