Have you ever found yourself staring at a mountain of work—but feeling zero motivation to get started on it?
Motivation is to your mind as energy is to your body. When it’s there, you take it for granted—but when it’s gone, that’s a very different story.
Motivation is always ebbing and flowing—from day to day, from hour to hour, and from project to project. When you feel strongly motivated, work doesn’t even feel like work. You breeze through your to-do list like a boss, ticking off the tasks, solving problems, and throwing out creative ideas with no trouble at all.
At other times, there are distractions all around: your phone, your colleagues, what’s happening outside the window. Tasks that were molehills yesterday suddenly look like mountains. Before you know it, the day is half gone and you haven’t done a thing.
This post takes a closer look at motivation and how you can get back on track when you’re just not feeling it.
If you manage a team and you’d like to help them feel more motivated, check out our post on how to motivate your team.
What is motivation?
Motivation is about wanting something. We want something to change, and that desire gives us a reason to take action.
The change we seek might be in ourselves, the people around us, our environment, or elsewhere. For example, we might be motivated to exercise to improve our fitness or motivated to save money so we can buy a house.
Motivation directs our attention and our energy toward a goal, which is why it’s so vital at work. We might be motivated to earn money, gain social status, boost our self-esteem, or help others. And we might also act on motivations that we’re not consciously aware of.
Motivation is closely linked with emotion. When we feel good about a task, we’re more motivated to complete it. On the other hand, if we’re feeling down or anxious, our motivation takes a hit as well.
Like emotion, motivation can’t be seen or measured directly. You can think about it as your personal gas tank: a finite resource that gets used up over time and needs to be replenished.
Five ways to rekindle your motivation
Let’s look at five ways to refill the motivation tank when you feel the needle dropping toward zero.
Reset your mind
Trying to force yourself to feel motivated is a bit like forcing yourself to feel happy. If the sources of motivation just aren’t there—either in yourself or in your work—then it’s not going to happen.
To restock your emotional fuel, step away from your desk for a while and reset your mind. Physical exercise has been shown to relieve anxiety and improve mental health, so take a stroll around the block. Think about something else and let your unconscious mind work on your problems in the meantime.
Even though it can feel like you can’t afford the time, taking a break could actually be the most productive thing to do right now. After all, if what you’re doing isn’t working, why not try something else?
Change your environment
Your physical environment has a direct impact on how you feel. So, if you’re lacking motivation, consider changing up your workspace. Different colors and objects on and around your desk can help to influence your mood and reduce anxiety—especially things from the natural world, like plants.
An untidy desk can sap motivation by making you feel out of control or overwhelmed by your workload. When your environment is ordered, your mind also feels ordered.
Changing your environment could help you break free of the feeling that you’re stuck in a rut or that things will always be the same way. When you see that your surroundings can change, you realize that your inner world can change, too.
Shake up your routine
If you find that your daily routine is draining your motivation rather than building it, make a change. Even small things, like starting work half an hour earlier or making a daily to-do list, could help. These little changes give you forward momentum and add up to bigger changes over time.
Many tasks seem overwhelming before you start. To overcome that feeling, break them down into smaller parts and set yourself a target of doing just one or two for now. As you see yourself making progress, your self-belief and motivation grow in a positive feedback loop.
Reconnect with your why
It’s hard to get motivated when you don’t know why you’re doing something. You can wind up feeling like a hamster in a wheel: always busy, but getting nowhere.
So ask yourself: why do you go to work?
You might reply, “To get money.” Sure—we all have to eat. But beyond that, what does work allow you to do that you couldn’t do otherwise? How does it empower you?
Your goal might be something you do as part of your work role or something outside it. It might be related to the goals of the company, or it might be something very personal to you. Whatever it is, get back in touch with it and remind yourself why your work matters. Reestablish the link between your day-to-day tasks and the bigger picture.
If you’re lacking a goal, why not give yourself one? Goals have been shown to increase motivation—and learning goals are even more motivating than performance goals. Maybe the quest to learn a new skill will give you the boost you need—and open the door to other, more stretching goals in the future.
Picture what would make you feel excited about work. How would that look? What would you have to do to make it happen? What steps would get you from here to there?
Sometimes, the reason we’re upset is different from what we think. Could your lack of motivation have deeper roots than your overflowing inbox or your demanding boss?
To find out, give yourself time to explore your feelings without trying to resolve or resist them. Guided meditations like the ones in Calm can help surface and clarify what’s really happening inside.
If you have negative feelings, you have to feel them fully. In fact, just putting your feelings into words can help you feel better, even if nothing else has changed. When you acknowledge what’s truly going on, you may find that motivation returns of its own accord.
If you’re feeling lackluster about your work, have a look at our blog post Feeling OK about Not Feeling OK at Work. You might also find it useful to try our 3 Mid-Work Mindfulness Exercises You Can Do in 30 Seconds or Less.
To learn more about creating motivation as a manager, check out our post on how to motivate your team.