Even the most motivated people run out of steam sometimes. Maybe you’re exhausted or feel as though your creativity has been depleted, but for whatever reason, you can’t get your act together. Here are a few strategies for recharging your motivation.
Lately I’ve been completely unmotivated to do anything. Getting things done at work is a challenge, and it’s even worse at home. My apartment is becoming a mess, I never cook anymore and I’ve been unable to keep up a healthy diet. I don’t feel depressed or all that unhappy—just very unmotivated. Is there anything I can do to recharge?
A lack of motivation is a difficult problem because there are likely many factors contributing to it, but the simplest way to get your motivation back is to do something you want to do. The problem with that is when you’re low on the necessary energy and willpower needed to start a particular task, your motivation is generally re-routed to indulge in something effortless like food or entertainment. Overindulgence, as you’ve likely noticed, only serves to make the problem worse. So what do you do? First, we need to pinpoint what’s causing your lack of motivation and then we need to find ways you can trick yourself into getting it back.
Social rejection can kill your motivation
Motivation can be depleted by a number of sources. A 2012 post by David McRaney, author of the human behaviour blog and book You Are Not So Smart, discusses many of them. One study asked a group of students to meet each other and then write down who they’d like to work with on a piece of paper. The researchers conducting the study ignored their choices and told some that they were chosen and others that nobody wanted them. Unsurprisingly, the rejected were unhappy, but here’s how it changed their behaviour and why:
The researchers in the “no one chose you” study proposed that since self-regulation is required to be prosocial, you expect some sort of reward for regulating your behaviour. People in the unwanted group felt the sting of ostracism, and that reframed their self-regulation as being wasteful. It was as if they thought, “Why play by the rules if no one cares?” It poked a hole in their willpower fuel tanks, and when they sat in front of the cookies they couldn’t control their impulses as well as the others. Other studies show when you feel ostracised and unwanted, you can’t solve puzzles as well, you become less likely to cooperate, less motivated to work, more likely to drink and smoke and do other self-destructive things. Rejection obliterates self-control, and thus it seems it’s one of the many avenues toward a state of ego depletion.
When you get rejected, you lose your desire to try because it seems as though nobody would care either way. It’s unlikely this is the case, as one instance of rejection from one or a few people doesn’t encompass the opinion of every person in every situation, but it feels that way and so that’s how you react.
Neglecting your physical needs makes it hard to do anything
Getting rejected in even a simple way is not the only way to destroy your motivation to do much of anything. Similar effects are possible when you’re not eating. A study published in 2010 conducted by Jonathan Leval, Shai Danziger, and Liora Avniam-Pesso of of Columbia and Ben-Guron Universities looked at 1,112 judicial ruling over the course of 10 months concerning prisoner paroles:
They found that right after breakfast and lunch, your chances of getting paroled were at their highest. On average, the judges granted parole to around 60 per cent of prisoners right after the judge had eaten a meal. The rate of approval crept down after that. Right before a meal, the judges granted parole to about 20 per cent of those appearing before them. The less glucose in judges’ bodies, the less willing they were to make the active choice of setting a person free and accepting the consequences and the more likely they were to go with the passive choice to put the fate of the prisoner off until a future date.
When leading a busy life, it can be very easy to skip breakfast and/or have a late lunch, then find ourselves in a position where it’s difficult to get much done because we’re lacking the necessary glucose to help us think properly. Even after you finally eat, you can end up with a headache from neglecting to do so for much of the day, which doesn’t really motivate you to do much other than lie down.
Neglecting our physical needs can deplete our motivation to do much, so it’s important to keep track of that neglect so it can be corrected. One way you can do that is fill out this daily personal inventory form and see if there are any common trends in your days. If there are, recharging your motivation may be as simple as eating breakfast and getting enough water.
Making too many decisions exhausts your brain
As much as we love having options, having too many options, and therefore decisions, can be detrimental to our motivation. John Tierney, in an article for the New York Times, discusses the problem:
Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue—you’re not consciously aware of being tired—but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts.
This doesn’t just come down to large decisions at work. If you have to make a number of small decisions you can slowly cause the same fatigue. If you don’t manage the number of choices you make each day, whether small or large, you’ll find yourself repeatedly indulging.
How to regain your motivation
Regaining your motivation involves a combination of combatting the sources of its depletion and tricking yourself into taking the first step. In the case of social rejection, you’re going to feel bad and not want to do much at all, but you need to confront the problem. Perhaps there’s something you’re doing that’s causing the rejection, or perhaps you’re just interacting with unpleasant people. Talk to the person (or people) who rejected you and find out why. Look at ways you can correct the problem if you’re the cause, or try to work through it with the other person if they are. If it can’t be solved, consider ways you can remove yourself from the situation because constant unwarranted social rejection isn’t healthy for anybody.
If you’re simply not taking care of your body, the solution to that problem is pretty obvious. As previously mentioned, you first have to pinpoint the issue and you can do that easily with a daily personal inventory. Figure out what you’re neglecting in your physical needs and make it your number one priority to change that.
When it comes to decision making, it can often be difficult to manage every choice you’ll have to make because you don’t always know when you’ll have to make them. One way to get around this problem is to create a to-do list of decisions rather than tasks so you’ll know what needs to be decided and when. Split them up, make sure you don’t have too much to decide in one day, and leave room for unknown decisions you may encounter as the day goes on. Don’t forget to include small things like grocery shopping, as you can get stressed out all the same when you’re trying to figure out what should and shouldn’t end up in your refrigerator.
Finally, figure out something you really want to do. This may be on the boring side and mean you want to clean your apartment, or something more exciting like make a game. Whatever it may be, take a very tiny first step that only requires about five minutes of your time. On the next day, take a slightly smaller step. Work your way up by accomplishing just a little bit more each time. When you start to see your accomplishments and how little effort they take, you’ll have an easier time making progress. After all, just getting started is everything.
Hopefully these tips will help you regain your motivation. If you combat the causes and take it slow, you should be back to form in no time.
This story was originally published in 2012 and was updated on 12/2/19 to provide more thorough and current information.