Motivation is central to creativity, productivity, and happiness. Motivation is what causes us to act, and when we act, we create movement, growth, and change; we feel involved, masterful, and significant; we feel powerful through experiencing how we can change the world; and we create more of what we love in our lives. And all of this gives our lives purpose and happiness.
Demotivation Is Like Snow
It’s said that Inuit have multiple words for snow because snow is so familiar to them that they can appreciate the subtle differences between different types of snow. These additional distinctions enable Inuit to respond differently to different types of snow, depending on the challenges and opportunities that each particular type of snow is presenting them with.
Most of us have just one conception of demotivation, which means that whenever you’re unmotivated, you’re likely to assume that you’re struggling with the same problem, when in fact demotivation is a category of problems, containing many variations. When you have just one kind of demotivation, you’ll apply the same old strategies whenever you feel unmotivated; for many people, those strategies look like this: set goals, push harder, create accountability checks that will push you, and run your life using GTD methods and to-do lists. These strategies are ineffective with most types of demotivation, and in some instances they can even make you more unmotivated.
At its essence, demotivation is about your not being fully committed to act, and there are many reasons why you might be in that position. Having more ways to categorize your demotivation will help you to identify the real reasons for your unwillingness to commit to action, so that you can pick the right tools and strategies to get motivated again.
Here are 10 types of demotivation and the strategies that will help you to get motivated again.
1) You’re demotivated by fear
When you’re afraid, even if you’re entering territory that you’ve chosen to move into, a part of you is determined to avoid going forward. Fear slows you down and makes you hesitant and careful, which can be beneficial to you, but sometimes your fears are based on your imagination rather than on an accurate assessment of the risks in your reality. If your fear is big enough, even if you’re also excited to go forward, the part of you that wants to keep you safe can successfully prevent you from going forward into territory that’s both desirable and safe.
How to get motivated again: To get motivated, you need to deal with your fear. Start by naming your fears so that they’re out in the open. Remember to say a gentle “thank you” to your fears – they’re trying to protect you, after all. Then question your fears: “Why am I afraid of that happening?” “What are the chances that would really happen?” Some of your fears will slip away now.
Look at the fears that are left. What are they telling you about the research you need to do, the gaps you need to fill, and the risk management strategies you need to put in place? Honor that wisdom by building it into your plan. Finally, consider breaking down the changes you’re wanting to make into smaller steps and focusing on just the next few small steps – this will calm your fears.
2) You’re demotivated by setting the wrong goals
Martha Beck has a great model for understanding motivation. She explains that we have an Essential Self and a Social Self. Your Essential Self is the part of you that’s spontaneous and creative and playful, the part that knows what’s most important to you. Your Social Self is the part of you that has been developing since the day you were born, learning the rules of the tribe and working hard to make sure that you’re safe by making you follow the rules of the tribe.
We’re all surrounded by so many messages that feed into our Social Selves and we’re keen to impress our tribes. When you feel unmotivated, it’s because you’re setting goals based purely on what your Social Self wants and this is pulling you away from the direction your Essential Self wants you to take. Your Essential Self uses demotivation to slow you down and to detach you from the toxic goals you’ve set.
How to get motivated again: Take some time to review your goals. Because your Essential Self is non-verbal, you can easily access your Essential Self through your body. Notice how your body responds as you think of each of the goals you’re trying to work on. When your body (and particularly your breathing) shows signs of tightness and constriction, that’s a pretty good indication that you’re trying to follow toxic goals. If you get a constricted reaction, scrap your current goals and question all your stories about what you “should” do with your life. Notice what makes you smile spontaneously or lose track of time, and set goals related to that stuff instead.
3) You’re demotivated by lack of clarity about what you want
When you haven’t consciously and clearly articulated what you want, your picture of your future will be vague. We like what’s familiar, so we resist what’s unfamiliar and vague and we stay with and re-create what’s familiar to us. If you’re not clear about what you want to create, then it makes sense that you’ll lack motivation to act because you’d rather stay with your current familiar reality.
How to get motivated again: If you want to create something different from what you’ve been experiencing, it’s not enough to just know what you don’t want. You need to know what you do want, and you need to articulate a clear and specific vision of what you want to create so that you can become familiar with that new outcome and feel comfortable moving toward it. Take some time to articulate what you want and why you want it.
4) You’re demotivated by a values conflict
Your values are what’s important to you in life. If you have a values conflict, it means that there are two or more values that are important to you but you believe that you can’t satisfy all of those values in a particular situation. This situation causes you to feel conflicted and pulled in different directions as you try to find ways to get what’s important to you. You might have brief spurts of motivation to work on something and then lose motivation and start working on something else, or your motivation might dry up altogether because the effort of dealing with internal conflict quickly tires you out and saps your energy.
How to get motivated again: You need to unpack your values conflict and play mediator to get the parts of you that are advocating for different values to play on the same team again. Start with acknowledging the internal conflict. Grab a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle so that you have two columns. Write about the two different directions you feel pulled in, one in each column, and summarize it with a statement of what each part wants. Now pick one column and chunk it up: “Why does this part want that? What does it hope to get as a result of having that?” Keep asking the questions and writing your answers until you feel that you’ve hit on the result that this part of you ultimately wants. Now do the same for the other part, and notice when you get to the level where the answers in the two columns are the same.
Ultimately, all of the parts of you always want the same thing, because they’re all you. Now that you know what you really want, you can evaluate the strategies that each part had been advocating for and decide which strategy would work best.
Often, once you’re clear on what you really want, you spot new strategies for getting it that you hadn’t noticed before. Sometimes by doing this exercise you’ll find ways to satisfy all of your values, but sometimes that’s not possible. If you’ve taken time to think through your values and you’ve consciously chosen to prioritize a particular value over your other values for a while, this clarity will ease the internal conflict and your motivation will return.
5) You’re demotivated by lack of autonomy
We thrive on autonomy. We all have a decision-making center in our brains and this part of us needs to be exercised. Studies have found that this decision-making center in the brain is under-developed in people who have depression and that if you practice using this part of the brain and making decisions, depression often clears.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink writes about the research that shows that when it comes to doing creative work, having some autonomy to decide what we do, when we do it, how we do it, and whom we do it with is core to igniting and sustaining motivation, creativity, and productivity.
How to get motivated again: Consider how much autonomy you have in relation to the goals you’ve been trying to pursue. Are there areas where you feel constricted and controlled? Consider how you could gradually introduce more autonomy in your task, time, technique, location, and team, and then, if you’re employed, have a discussion with your manager and ask for greater autonomy in a few specific areas of your work.
6) You’re demotivated by lack of challenge
Challenge is another crucial ingredient for motivation that authors like Daniel Pink and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, highlight. When it comes to dealing with challenges, there’s a sweet spot. Too great a challenge, and the fear becomes too great and saps our motivation (see point 1), and if the challenge is too small, we quickly get bored and struggle to stay motivated. We’re designed to be living, growing creatures and we need constant challenges and opportunities to master new skills. Without challenges, our Essential Self steps in and demotivates us as a way of telling us that we’ve departed from the path that’s right for us.
How to get motivated again: Review your goals and the projects you’re working on. Are they challenging you? Are they going to require you to grow in order to achieve them, or are you treading water in your comfort zone, doing only the things you know you can do? Try tweaking your goals to make them a bit more challenging, take on projects that will require you to grow, and find a new thing or two to learn to stimulate yourself.
7) You’re demotivated by grief
At the beginning of any change, we go through a phase of wondering if we should or could hang on to the way things were and grieving what we’ll be losing if we make significant changes. Confusion, self-doubt, mistrust of the world around us, and feeling lost are common symptoms, and the bigger the change, the more powerful these symptoms. Sometimes we even go through a bit of depression and social withdrawal. Martha Beck calls this phase the “Death and Rebirth” phase of change in her book Finding Your Own North Star. With all the grieving and fearing and feeling lost that go on in this phase, it’s normal for your motivation to dry up.
How to get motivated again: If you’ve just experienced a trauma or loss, or you’re going through a major change and finding that there are days where you’re hit hard with Death and Rebirth symptoms, don’t try to make yourself motivated and proactive. You can’t rush grieving or the undoing of your old life and ways of thinking, and you can’t skip the Death and Rebirth phase and go straight into Dreaming and Scheming.
You need to give yourself a lot of space for nurturing and reflection. Look after your body with good food, rest, and exercise. Express your grief, confusion, and fears with people who can listen lovingly. Spend time in nature and with calm, loving people to center yourself. Accept every feeling and thought you have – they’re all normal and safe. Take one day at a time and go easy on yourself. Confusion, forgetfulness, and clumsiness are all normal in this stage. The grieving will end when it’s ready, and if you relax into it and express your grief, it’ll be sooner rather than later.
8) You’re demotivated by loneliness
This is an especially important one for those of us who work alone from home. You know those days when you feel a bit cabin-feverish, you just don’t feel like working, and you’d rather be out having a drink with a friend or playing a game of soccer? Well, perhaps it’s because we’re designed to be social creatures and sometimes your Essential Self is just longing for some connection with other people, and so it steps in and hijacks your work motivation so that you’ll take a break from work and go spend some time with other people and give your Essential Self what it needs.
How to get motivated again: Take a break and go spend some time with someone you enjoy. You may be surprised at the motivating impact this has and find yourself much more clear and productive when you return to your work. And then look for ways that you can begin to build more networking and joint venturing into your work.
9) You’re demotivated by burnout
I attract overachieving Type A’s, and as a recovering Type A myself, I know that sometimes we’re banging on about wanting to get more done even after we’ve exceeded the limit on what’s sustainable. If you’re feeling tired all the time, you’ve lost your energy for socializing, and the idea of taking a snooze sounds more compelling than the stuff you’re usually interested in, then you’ve probably pushed yourself too long and hard and you may be burned out.
Your Essential Self will always work to motivate you to move toward what you most need and away from goals, projects, and ways of working that take you away from what your Essential Self craves. So if you’re burned out and needing sleep, your Essential Self may even sap the motivation from the things that you’re usually really ignited about – just to get you to meet your core needs again.
How to get motivated again: Sleep. And then when you’re done sleeping and the quality of your thinking has been restored, check back in with your Essential Self about what’s most important to you, hang out here on Charlie’s blog, and start building sustainable ways to do more of what’s important to you.
10) You’re demotivated by not knowing what to do next
Your end-goal might be nice and clear, but if you haven’t taken time to chunk it down into smaller goals, you’ll get stuck, confused, and unmotivated when it’s time to take action. Some projects are small and familiar enough that they don’t need a plan, but if you’re often worrying that you don’t know what to do next and you don’t have a clear plan, then this might be the source of your demotivation.
How to get motivated again: If you want to keep your motivation flowing steadily through all stages of your projects, take time to create clear project plans and to schedule your plans into your calendar.
Use your fears to point you to the potential risks you need to manage in your plan. Write down all of your “I-don’t-know-how-to” concerns and turn these into research questions. The first part of any planning stage is research, and you’ll find new research questions along the way, so realize that conducting research should be part of your action plan at every stage of your project. Finally, ask yourself what smaller goals need to be achieved for you to achieve your end-goal, and schedule deadlines for yourself.
Goal-setting and pushing are rarely the answer
Goal-setting, planning, organizing, and accountability structures are often touted as the big solution to demotivation and the silver bullet that will get you creative and productive again, but notice that it’s a useful strategy for dealing with only some types of demotivation. With many other types of demotivation, goal-setting, planning, organizing, and accountability structures will only make your demotivation problem worse.
Over to you…
- Have you been able to pinpoint the types of demotivation that you tend to struggle with most?
- Are you stuck in demotivation right now?
- What do you need, and which motivation strategy is going to give you what you need right now?