4 ways to get motivated when you don't feel like working
Every week I write up to three new articles like this one. And every week I struggle to find the motivation to get started on each article. On Sunday night I make my to do list for the week ahead, and think about how quickly I’ll get to work on this week’s articles. But by Monday morning I’m struggling to get started.
The worst thing is that this happens to me a lot. It’s led me to do embarrassing things, like googling “How to get motivated”, or browsing the GetMotivated subreddit.
Which, of course, are just time-wasters that leave me even less time to get my work done. The work I still haven’t started.
So it’s time to figure out how motivation really works, and how to reliably get more of it.
External vs. internal motivation
There are two kinds of motivation. External motivation comes from factors outside yourself. Things like keeping your boss happy, earning a raise, or hitting a deadline so your clients won’t be kept waiting.
Internal motivation comes from yourself. This is when you’re motivated by wanted to feel differently about your life or work, wanting to do something because it brings you joy, or building a side project just for you to use.
External motivation is common, and some of us (ahem) rely on it more than others. But it’s not a reliable way to approach your work, because external factors are out of your control. External factors can change without warning, which makes this type of motivation unreliable, especially long-term.
Internal motivation, however, comes from factors you can control. Internal motivation is so natural that it makes us do things all the time. We eat snacks when we’re hungry because we’re motivated to do so—for ourselves, not for anyone else. We go to bed early when we’re really tired because we’re motivated to do so internally, driven by the knowledge that sleep will make us feel better.
Ultimately, we want to increase our internal motivation because it’s more reliable and we can control it. But it’s not as simple as hanging a cat poster on your wall.
We can’t “fix” our emotions
Motivation can be tricky to understand because we often think about it the wrong way. Motivation is an emotion. It’s an unpleasant one, and one that we often try to assuage by looking to external fixes. But there’s no quick fix for emotions. In fact, fighting against negative emotions can actually make them worse. Studies have shown people who feel anxious while listening to relaxing music can actually feel more anxious. The music has the opposite effect, because they’re consciously trying to fight against their emotions.
In Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski explains how we approach our stress response incorrectly a lot of the time. What we tend to do when we feel stressed—just like when we’re unmotivated—is to “switch off” the negative feelings, or overwhelm them with different feelings.
But the stress response—and our other emotions—exist for a reason. You can’t just switch them off, and trying to do so is damaging. Nagoski says the stress response is like a cycle that needs to complete. It’s a bit like anytime I accidentally turn off my dishwasher mid-cycle (I can never remember which lights flash when it’s totally, fully done!) and the next time I turn it back on it vehemently refuses to start fresh. It insists on completing the cycle I interrupted.
When you interrupt your stress cycle by having a time out, or doing something fun to avoid feeling your uncomfortable emotions, the cycle is on pause. It still needs to complete. Which is why it can feel so cathartic to go for a run, or have a good cry. That’s the cycle completing.
Though motivation might not be a cycle, it’s an emotion, just like stress. Which means you can’t just turn it off. And trying to do so can make it worse, by encouraging you to focus on how unmotivated you are.
Having said that, these approaches focus less on your lack of motivation and how to get more (which is exactly what my googling efforts focuses on, and probably why it never works). These approaches can help you develop more internal motivation. The kind that helps you effortlessly get started, and keeps you going without any external factors at play.
1. Use your memories
Autobiographical memories can be surprisingly powerful. In a study of college students, researchers found that asking students to think about a positive memory they had of exercising in the past made them more motivated to exercise in the future. It also made them more likely to act on that motivation and exercise more.
And this was without any external encouragement from the researchers.
But wait, it gets even better.
There were three groups in this study. The positive memory group, a control group, and another group who were asked to think about a negative memory of exercising.
And guess what? The negative memory group also started exercising more!
So it doesn’t even have to be a positive memory. According to the study, thinking about any memory you have of exercising in the past could provide more motivation to exercise in the future.
This obviously isn’t fool-proof, as it’s based on just one study focusing on exercise, but it’s an easy technique to try that doesn’t cost anything but a few moments of your time.
Next time you’re having trouble getting started with a task, try thinking about the last time you did the task. Remember everything you can about that time. When was it? Where were you? How did you feel? And, perhaps most importantly, how did you feel after you got started, and after you were finished?
It could be that remembering the relief of having the work finished last time is enough to get you motivated to start this time.
2. Create a pre-game routine
Writer and entrepreneur James Clear used to play a lot of sport. But he had trouble finding motivation when it came to baseball. There were a lot of games to play each season, and he wasn’t always in the mood. But he knew he couldn’t let his team down, so he figured out a way to get his mind in “game mode” every single time.
That approach was a pre-game routine. Clear developed a routine that he did exactly the same way before every game he played. Here’s how it went:
Grab a baseball and my glove. Jog out to the outfield foul pole. Jog across along the outfield wall. Stop at the opposite foul pole. Stretch hips and hamstrings. Jog back along the outfield wall. Toss lightly, working back to 75 feet or so. Head to the bullpen. Stand one step behind the mound and toss three or four times from there to the catcher. Step up onto the mound. Toss a few pitches without going into the full windup. Start throwing from the windup for 10 pitches or so. Throw from the stretch for 10 pitches or so. Finish with one of each pitch (change up, curveball, fastball in, fastball out). Walk to the dugout.
It didn’t matter how motivated he was when he got to the field, Clear says, because he always felt ready to play by the end of his routine.
…it didn’t matter if I came to the ballpark motivated to play. My pre–game routine started a cascade of internal events that pulled me into the right frame of mind and made it more likely that I would succeed.
These days Clear doesn’t play so much baseball, but he’s developed pre-game routines for lots of other aspects of his life. He has one for weightlifting, and even one for writing. These routines get his mind and body into the right place for whatever activity he’s about to do, so he never needs to go looking for motivation. He simply starts the routine confident that by the end of it, he’ll be ready. Clear has three rules for developing your own pre-game routine:
- Make it so easy you can’t say no. Clear starts his writing routine by simply grabbing a glass of water. It’s so simple. There’s nothing hard about that at all, so he’s never going to feel like it’s too much effort.
- Include physical movement. Although you might be getting ready to do something that’s not physical, like programming at a desk, Clear still believes your pre-game routine should include some movement. Here’s why: when we’re feeling unmotivated, our body language is a lot different to when we’re raring to go. Including movement in the pre-game routine helps you wake up your body and get out of the physical slump of feeling unmotivated.
- Repeat it every time. The way your routine becomes, well, routine, is you do it every time. Clear did his pre-game routine before a lot of baseball games. That’s why, after a while, when he got to the field it felt natural to start his routine, no matter how he was feeling emotionally. And once he started, the routine took over and put his mind and body in the right place to play a game. ## 3. Rely on teammates
If you’ve ever worked remotely, or taken a day to work at home, you’ll know that it comes with the relief of quiet, solo work time, and the simultaneous loneliness of being away from your team. Being part of a team is a powerful feeling. So powerful, in fact, that even if you’re actually working alone, your performance can improve simply by feeling like you’re part of a team.
A study tested this by splitting participants into two groups before giving them a puzzle to work on. People in one group were told they’d be working in teams, and were introduced to their teammates before being sent off to work on the puzzle alone. The other team was told they’d be working alone, and didn’t meet any teammates.
While working on the puzzle, those in the team group were given handwritten notes supposedly from their teammates (they were actually from the researchers). These notes, and the process of meeting their teammates before starting the puzzle had an impact on their experience, despite the fact that they were working on the puzzle all alone, just as those in the non-team group were. These participants, who felt like they were part of a team, worked 50% longer on trying to solve the puzzle. And they also reported finding the puzzle more fun and more interesting than participants who didn’t have teammates.
Another great example of the power of feeling like you’re part of a team comes from a surprising story about marathon runners. Two marathon runners in particular. Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan are extremely close, and even wear matching outfits on race day.
When they both ran in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials hoping to qualify for the Rio Olympic Games, they stayed together through most of the race. That is, until Flanagan started lagging. At this point, considering a place on the Olympic team was at stake, and marathon running is a solo sport, you’d expect Cragg to offer a sympathetic smile and take off, leaving Flanagan in the dust. But she didn’t.
She ran ahead to grab water bottles for them both, then stayed close to Flanagan until close to the end of the race. Cragg finished first, and Flanagan managed to hold onto third place and qualify for Rio.
Although we can’t know for sure, some people think Flanagan would have fallen further behind, and maybe even quit the race if Cragg hadn’t stuck by her. The morale lift that came from feeling like she wasn’t alone was so huge it may have literally kept her in the race, and helped her secure her place in Rio.
Just like in the puzzle study, these two runners were actually working alone. They each had their own race to run, and could only earn themselves a place in Rio. And yet, they behaved like a team and it improved Flanagan’s performance—and, no doubt, how she felt about the race.
4. Put something at risk
You may have heard about loss aversion before. It’s an idea from behavioral economics that shows we feel more strongly about losing something than gaining something of equal value.
For instance, if you were to find a $20 note, you’d be chuffed. But if you were to lose a $20, you’d be far more upset. Your feelings at the loss would outweigh how you felt about the gain, despite the value of the loss or win being exactly the same.
This is likely thanks to evolution. Since good things that happen to us usually aren’t serious life-or-death situations, our feelings are muted compared to stress about bad situations, like having to outrun a predator. Negative events impact us more to make us pay attention and stay alive. Unfortunately, that means even small events that we perceive as negative have a strong impact on our emotions.
The good news is we can use this to our advantage.
One professor used his class as an experiment to prove that loss aversion can be used as a motivational tool. He ran the same class twice, with the same materials. Each time, in order to motivate his students to study throughout the class, he offered optional quizzes throughout the class that would earn students one point if they passed. Earn five points, and the student could opt-out of the final exam.
There was only one small change in how the class was run the second time: while the exam was compulsory unless you earned five points the first time round, in the second class the exam was optional unless you didn’t earn the five points. If you didn’t bother with the quizzes, the exam became compulsory.
Or, to put it another way, students could lose their right to opt-out of the exam in the second class. In the first class they could earn the right to opt-out which they didn’t have before.
See how it relates to loss aversion? We kind of like to earn or win things, but we really hate to lose things that we believe belong to us. The stick works better than the carrot.
Here’s how it panned out: in the first class, 43% of students earned the five points required to opt-out of the final exam. In the second class, that number grew to 82%. Almost double.
If you’ve heard of the idea of putting your money on the line to force you to do something, this is also loss aversion. You pony up $50, then if you don’t do whatever you promised, you lose that $50. We work harder to save what’s already ours than to earn something new, which is why this method works.
Try putting something important on the line. You might be surprised at how much your internal motivation grows when it’s directly related to stopping yourself from losing something.
This will sound counterintuitive, because I’ve just given you four ways to increase your motivation, but remember what I said about negative feelings—try not to focus on the idea of finding, or increasing motivation. Since feeling unmotivated is a negative emotional state, by fighting against it directly, you may make it worse.
Ultimately, you want to focus on these methods before you’re worried about feeling unmotivated. Make sure you’re connected to a team of people so you don’t feel alone when you’re working. Create a pre-game routine and start repeating it every time you need to start work so it’s ready to work for you when you need it.
Have a couple of autobiographical memories at the ready to help you get into the right frame of mind before you start work. And try setting aside something you really don’t want to lose—just don’t forget you’ve done so!