We all struggle with motivation. Even objectively “successful” and “driven” people run out of steam. Motivation springs from 2 main sources – having physical energy to do a thing and emotional energy to do a thing. If you are physically or emotionally depleted, your motivation will typically evaporate.
We can work on the physical energy part by taking care of our bodies - attending to sleep, nutrition, stress, illness, and movement. Consistent and healthy self-care of our bodies will assist with having physical energy to stay motivated for action.
The emotional energy piece of motivation is a bit more complicated. Our daily mood, our self-talk, external factors, and our underlying mental wellness have a direct influence on our internal motivation. All kinds of factors like stressors, anxiety struggles, depressive patterns, interpersonal patterns, upbringing, and trauma exposure impact the amount of motivation we feel able to access on a given day.
The two types of motivation
There are two ways that was are motivated as humans.
1 - External motivation (fancy term: extrinsic)
...refers to someone’s ability to do or complete a thing when there is an outside factor giving a push.
Outside factors like: getting a paycheck, hearing approval from someone, receiving a high grade, or avoiding the disappointed face of someone whose opinion matters.
External motivation is what makes most of us pursue achievements, follow the law, show up at school & work, and generally do those things that are not always enjoyable.
2 - Internal motivation (fancy term: intrinsic)
...refers to someone’s ability to take necessary steps and stay the course until completion, without the requirement of external support or reward.
Internal factors like: feeling proud, being in alignment with personal values, having a sense or peace or pleasure. For example, I am intrinsically motivated to get outside and move my body every day if I can because I enjoy how it makes me feel (refreshed). No one has to convince me to do this. I’m also intrinsically motivated to eat dark chocolate because it tastes good (pleasure).
But internal motivation can be like holding onto jello. Slippery. For most people, it is mood-dependent and we can talk ourselves out of taking or sustaining action incredibly easily. Especially if obstacles pop up along the way (like…it’s taking longer than planned, it’s not going smoothly, it’s getting unpleasant, unexpected interruptions arise, etc.).
Then add in our mental health factors. People who live with fluctuating mental health wellness typically experience chronic patterns of overwhelm, fear of imperfect outcomes, prioritization struggles, indecisiveness, overthinking, emotional lethargy and deep shame about having these difficulties. These patterns are like pesticide on a seedling when it comes to internal motivation.
The VITALS: How to increase your motivation
When you want to grow motivation or you hit a wall with your drive, remember the acronym VITALS. Check your VITALS and see what modifications you might be able to make to help yourself out.
V - Validate. Validate your feelings
Rather than criticizing yourself for your struggle to get started with something or your “failure” to sustain effort, try validating yourself. Validation helps decrease the emotions that contribute to motivation difficulties.
When we feel unmotivated, underneath it we may be feeling things like… nervous, overwhelmed, uncertain, frustrated, ashamed, bored, disinterested, frozen, agitated… Identify what you are feeling underneath and try to step back from judging yourself for the emotion.
To validate yourself:
Describe your perspective, emotion, or action in a matter-of-fact way without making any judgments about it. Judgments just lead to feeling ashamed, which depletes motivation.
And yes, "I just don't want to do it." is an acceptable perspective. Try to go a little deeper to ask yourself "why?" What is the threat or discomfort you want to avoid? From there, validate yourself.
Try this basic formula for self-validation:
“It makes sense that I feel/think/want _______ because _______.”
“It makes sense that I’m nervous to start a new exercise routine because I always abandon them and feel bad about myself.”
“It makes sense that I am overwhelmed with where to start because this project is so crucial to our quarterly earnings.”
“It makes sense that I don’t feel willing to have that conversation because I don’t want my partner to be disappointed in me.”
I - Imagine yourself taking action.
Close your eyes for a minute and try to visualize yourself starting the thing you are unmotivated for.
Mental rehearsal and intentional visualizations are powerful tools of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity describes how our brain is changeable. We have the ability to create and re-route neural connections that impact our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
The more we rehearse handling something well, the better prepared the brain becomes for the real situation. Athletes and performers use visualization and mental rehearsal all the time. This is a skill that can be applied to all kinds of challenges.
Imagine yourself doing the first step.
Imagine yourself making diligent progress.
imagine yourself doing it peacefully and productively.
Imagine yourself completing the task smoothly and without too much struggle.
Imagine imperfection. See yourself doing it “just fine” but not perfect. Let yourself off the hook if fear of doing it “imperfectly” limits you from taking action.
Imagine how you will feel once the task is done or progress is being made “I will feel proud of myself if I take a walk 3 times a week.”
On the flip side, you can also imagine what will happen if you don’t take action. Consider whether inaction leads you to a desirable feeling.
Sometimes just taking a moment to remind yourself of the potential negative outcome can kick you into action:
“If I don’t pay this bill, I will have a late fee. That will feel awful.”
“If I don’t work on this assignment, a low grade will bring down my average and I'll feel frustrated with myself.”
“If I don’t get started on this project, I will feel disappointed in myself.”
T - Take small steps.
Break down your task/project/goal into small, achievable pieces.
We are looking for any minimum effort that will move you closer to the outcome but not feel like too much and create overwhelm.
Identify the part(s) that seem the easiest and start there to increase your feelings of accomplishment.
Simply thinking through or writing out a step-by-step plan can count as your first step of effort.
Consider rewording your task goals from “completion of step” to “completion of 30 minutes working on the step.”
If you still feel overwhelmed or struggle to prioritize steps, ask a caring person for an outside perspective on ways to break it down. They might even accompany you or help you out with areas that seem especially daunting.
Read about additional goal-setting strategies.
A - Applaud & Reward Yourself.
As you take small steps, be sure to pay attention to these successes and encourage yourself.
Work at being your own cheerleader or coach to further improve your chance of staying motivated. After you invest even a small amount of time or effort, pause and say “nice, I’m making some progress. I’m proud I did that.”
Set up a reward system for yourself to make an unpleasant task more worthwhile to complete. Washing that mountain of dishes doesn't feel quite as painful if you promise to treat yourself to your favorite show afterwards (or during!).
If the task is both large and unpleasant, you may need to give yourself several small rewards along the way to keep your momentum going (ex: "I'll get 10 minutes on social media for every 45 minutes I study for my Chem exam.").
Remind yourself why you want to do the thing and how you will feel once you’ve done it.
If it’s possible, you can combine the thing you need to do with something rewarding, like listening to your favorite author only when you exercise, or going to a friend’s house to share space while studying.
If you start to lose your drive at any point (the middle section of tasks and projects are often the more challenging parts to slog through), use validation to give yourself some compassion and encouragement. Remember that criticism will steal your energy. Take a break and try to make the next step even smaller.
Reflect on past accomplishments and times that you were able to sustain motivation. Remember that you are that same person with the same capacity inside you.
L - Lose those distractions.
Distraction is a helpful self-calming tool when we get emotionally overwhelmed, but not so helpful when motivation is the challenge.
We have unlimited access to news, entertainment, and stimulation of every kind. It’s a significant feat to maintain our focus and energy anyway...and especially for activities that require an extra dose of motivation.
Help yourself out when you want to have motivation for action:
Change your environment into a less-distracting location that promotes focus and progress.
For studying or task work, this typically means that it is a pleasant spot, fairly uncluttered, with ideal lighting, and your preferred music or white noise.
Remove distractions like your phone (put it out of sight or turn it off), close unnecessary web pages, and separate yourself from the TV, gaming consoles, and kitchen.
Limit external demands for attention. For chores or action tasks, this may look like putting on headphones with something appealing to listen to, and removing physical distractions (phone, people, pets, any non-essential items that can grab your attention).
Aim to be in your “productive spot” for a certain amount of time. And remember the concept of giving yourself a TIME goal rather than a completion goal and just
Some folks find that phone apps designed to help with limiting distraction also increase their motivation.
A client shared about the Forest app, which uses a time chunking technique and turns it into a game. You plant an electronic seed when you are ready to start some work, and the tree will keep growing until you exit the app. If you exit the app before the designated time, your visually beautiful tree will die early. :/
S - Strategize specific tools.
Identify some motivation-encouraging tools that are specific to what you know about yourself.
Time of day - When are you are most likely to have energy or focus for something difficult? Morning? Early afternoon? Evening? Work with that.
Make an appointment with yourself - Put your start time on your calendar and treat it like an important meeting. Set a reminder alert.
Sleep chronotype - If you're not a morning person and therefore unlikely to wake up early for exercise, accept that and identify alternatives rather than trying to force yourself.
Preparation - What do you need in advance of getting started to boost motivation? All the proper materials close by? A snack? To have showered? Some movement or fresh air first? A pep talk from a friend?
Mood shifters – What songs, videos, people, memories, games, activities, etc. can you engage with first to get yourself in an empowered mood before getting started?
Past success - Reflect on times when you have felt physically and emotionally energetic – what was part of the dynamic for you? What was absent in the dynamic (in a helpful way)?
Are you more likely to take action if you:
Ask a friend to check in on your progress?
Do it together with a group or friend?
Create a checklist or other visual to chart your progress?
Have a reward ready to go?
Now that you have checked your own VITALS, what have you noticed?
Take small steps.
Applaud & reward.
Strategize specific tools.
Which of these VITALS need your attention?
Is there one small tweak you want to make to improve your motivation?
What new efforts are worth trying to increase your motivation and likelihood of success?
High anxiety and other strong emotions can blockade motivation and action. If you want to better understand yourself and learn new ways to manage anxiety & other emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.
Some material adapted from Motivation by UNC Campus Health.