How to Get Motivated When You Don’t Feel Motivated
I’m going to be honest with you. When I sat down to write this blog post, I wasn’t feeling particularly motivated to write it. So instead, I did some “very important” administrative tasks that needed to be done but weren't time sensitive. Then, I found myself sliding off into my instagram feed and my facebook notifications and even my email. That’s when I realized that I needed to write this blog. We all struggle from time to time to do the things we need to do – and even sometimes the things we want to do. I set myself a goal to write this blog post for good reasons, and even though I struggled to get started, I found a way to make it happen, just to prove this stuff works, and whatever the thing is that you need to do, you can do the thing.
We’re all busy, so I’ll give you the short version up front:
It’s easy to do the thing when you’re excited about it, but we all have to do things we don’t feel like doing sometimes. When motivation fails, you need self-discipline to get the job done. Self-discipline requires practice; it’s not something anyone is born with. You don’t have it yet? No problem. Start practicing. Right now. Go do the thing.
Need a little more nuance? Maybe some specific tips? Read on.
Purpose (with a small p)
“Big P” Purpose is a whole other topic, and while knowing yours can certainly light a fire that keeps you motivated, if my goal is to help you find motivation to write that literary analysis essay or study for that Spanish test, it’s a little off topic to talk about your Life’s Purpose. So let’s just focus on “small p” purpose.
Why do you need to do the thing? Why is it important?
I’m my own boss, and no one made me write this post. But if you’ve come to my blog for advice, you’re probably reluctant to do something your teacher or parent has asked you to do. So, if the reason for doing the thing isn’t immediately obvious, you might have to think about why they think it’s important for you to do the thing.
It helps to focus on reasons related to your academic or personal growth, your overall well-being, and future success. (In the short term, this helps you find motivation to do this one thing, and in the long term, this helps you cultivate a growth mindset.) Contrary to popular belief, teachers do not invent assignments just to torture students. They are trying to help you build specific skills or knowledge with every assignment (even stuff that seems like “busywork”). And whether or not your parents get you, they probably think whatever they’re asking you to do will be good for you (and they might even be right).
When you figure out their reasons for having you do the thing, sometimes you’ll find that you agree and sometimes not. If not, you may have to dig a little deeper into the thing to find your own reason why it could be important to you.
If you’re still struggling to find any reasons whatsoever why doing this thing could be important, skip ahead to the “Assemble a Support Team” section.
The Ins and Outs of Motivation
Once you’ve done the thing, there’s usually a reward of some sort. If it’s a reward given to you by someone else (like a sticker, a good grade, or money), it’s called an extrinsic reward. If the reward comes from inside yourself (like feeling relief, confidence, or pride), it’s called an intrinsic reward.
The type of reward you’re anticipating determines whether your motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic. Psychologists generally agree that intrinsic motivation tends to help people through more challenging situations. There are some exceptions, like if you’re being paid a very large amount of money to do a job you wouldn’t otherwise want to do. But even being paid well has its limits, and if you’re a student, you’re probably not getting paid to do the thing at all.
What happens once you’ve done the thing? What’s the outcome?
Think in both the short and long term here. Immediately, it might feel good to cross one more thing off your to-do list, or maybe you’re really looking forward to getting a good grade. In the long term, maybe doing this thing is a stepping stone towards your ideal career or building independence. Maybe it’s just about practicing self-discipline so you get better at that and don’t have to whip up motivation all the time.
If you can’t think of any positive outcomes, or any that seem like a worthwhile reward for you, you should consider creating your own reward system. You might practice delayed gratification by only going on TikTok after you finish doing the thing. Or you might create a game for yourself by writing the names of your favorite video games on slips of paper and putting them in a cup or a bowl. When you finish doing the thing, you can pick one at random and spend some time winding down.
Don’t be tempted to rely on anyone else to create a reward system for you. Practice coming up with your own rewards now because adult life does not get easier, and your mom isn’t going to take you out for ice cream if you submit your Q1 reports on time.
What happens if you don’t do the thing?
Fear isn’t the best long-term motivator, but it can sure light a fire under your butt in the short term. If you don’t do the thing, will your grade suffer? Will your parents be angry with you?
If these questions bring up more anxiety than resolve for you…don’t ask them, and skip ahead to the “Assemble a Support Team” section.
The Subtle Art of Goal Setting
You can have a powerful sense of purpose and boundless intrinsic motivation, but if you don’t see the path from here to doing the thing, then aimlessness and hopelessness are bound to set in. Just like Google Maps can tell you each step on the road to get to the place, you need to create a roadmap to do the thing.
When do you need to do the thing?
Sometimes you have to do the thing right now, but other times, you don’t need to do it right now but you still want to get started early so that you can be ahead of the game. So what’s your real deadline, and what’s your self-set deadline?
A note on procrastination…
When I was a student, I used to procrastinate like mad because I found that I could squeeze out ideas most easily when I had an urgent deadline. On the other hand, that also led to a lot of anxiety over whether or not I would actually finish the work on time. As I’ve continued writing and lesson planning over the years, and as I became my own boss and deadline-setter, I’ve discovered that I can be just as creative when I pace out my work. In fact, waiting around for inspiration (or panic) to strike actually leads to more missed opportunities than just starting the thing earlier. Practicing self-discipline, like making a regular practice of doing whatever kind of work you struggle with, actually does make it go easier after some time.
Do you need to do the whole thing now, or just part of it now?
You might be able to do the thing in one work session, or you might need to spend several hours on it. If it’s a big project and spending several hours doing one thing is intimidating and exhausting, aim to do it in chunks over time instead of one long marathon session. By scheduling multiple shorter sessions, you’ll experience less brain fatigue and more spurts of creativity.
I started writing this blog a couple of weeks before I planned to post it, and I didn’t write it all in one sitting. I actually felt more motivated to pick the writing back up once I started. Taking a break between writing sessions also gave my brain an opportunity to mull over what I’d written and think about what’s working and what to go back and edit later.
Even taking short 2-10 minute breaks between 20-60 minute work sessions gives your brain a chance to rest, and you’ll come back more focused. So if you do have to do the whole thing in a day, be sure to schedule some short breaks for yourself throughout!
What will it take to do the thing?
Think in terms of all your resources – time, energy, supplies, community.
Whether you determine that you need to do it all now or save some of the thing for later, you’ll need to estimate how much total time it’ll take to do the thing. Then you can schedule out your work sessions accordingly.
If doing the thing will be fun once you get started, it’s not going to sap as much energy as something you don’t enjoy. And if doing the thing is going to take physical effort, that’s another factor in energy drain. You can adjust your work session length and timing to prevent burnout and give yourself some recovery time between sessions.
Make a list of all the materials you need in order to do the thing, and include acquiring them in your plan. Make sure you know which materials are needed at what step. You might not need absolutely everything in order to get started.
If the thing you need to do requires input or work from other people, make a list of who those people are. If they’re people you already know, make sure you have their contact information. If they’re people you need to network to find, make a game plan for that as well! When you’re scheduling work sessions for yourself, be mindful of your team’s time commitments as well. Don’t make a plan and assume everyone can jump when you ask. Ask about their availability before you create a schedule.
What’s the smallest task you could possibly do right now to get started or move the needle forward?
For larger things that need doing, it’s usually helpful to break them down into smaller tasks. Many of my students struggle with this exact skill, and I recommend trying an app like Goblin Tools to help.
If you’ve already broken the thing down into smaller tasks, pick one thing, and then set a timer for 10 minutes, and just do that thing! When the timer goes off, check in with yourself. How did you do? How do you feel? Do you need to stop and come back later? Or are you on a roll and want to keep going? Set another timer for 10 minutes or 25 minutes, and see how you do!
When I realized I was procrastinating and allowing myself to be distracted by less important things, and I recommitted to writing this post, I started with a quick brainstorming and research session (the first step in the writing process). I thought about my own struggles with getting motivated, strategies I’ve learned over the years, and I read some helpful articles from other experts (see below).
Assemble a Support Team
Your friends can help you in a variety of ways, from brainstorming reasons why doing the thing is important to poking you repeatedly to make sure you get the thing done.
Your parents will want to support your success, and they probably have their own experiences with lack of motivation to share. Plus, if you need help getting resources to do the thing, they’re a great place to start.
If you suspect that your lack of motivation stems from a larger mental health issue or learning difference, then you’ll want to check in with your school counselor or ask your parents to help you find a therapist.
Tutors or Academic Coaches
If your lack of motivation has more to do with not fully understanding the material, a tutor can help you get caught up. An academic coach can explore with you how to best organize and plan the steps it will take to do the thing according to your unique personality and skills, and can also help you practice self-discipline along the way. At Sol Success Education, we also support our students in understanding your personal values and goals (both for school and life after school). Finding your own sense of purpose (small p or big P) can go a long way towards building intrinsic motivation to get even the hardest of things done.