9 Ways To Actually Get Motivated When All Else Fails, From Psychology Experts
It's pretty easy to tell when you're feeling unmotivated, but what isn't so clear is how to actually handle it. If your motivation has been lacking lately, this is exactly what psychology experts—and research—say you should do.
What is motivation?
Motivation is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the general desire or willingness of someone to do something." It can also refer to what it is that actually motivates you (i.e., "I'm motivated to work out," versus, "Being strong is my motivation," respectively).
In the case of being unmotivated, it could be either or both factors at play—as in, you're lacking the desire to act itself or you don't have anything fueling your motivation. As licensed psychotherapist Jordan Dann, MFA, L.P., CIRT, explains to mbg, motivation in the context we're speaking about is "the ability to mobilize toward what somebody wants."
And that motivation, as we're all likely aware, is a necessary component in everything, from our careers to our health to our relationships.
What causes lack of motivation?
Lack of motivation can arise from a number of external and internal factors. For one thing, burnout and languishing are real, and it's important to consider the role mental health may play in reduced motivation.
As far as external factors go, Dann notes there are "often good reasons for us not being motivated to do something," and external pressures have a way of keeping us in a holding pattern. Those pressures can look like a number of things—from financial obligations to busy schedules to a stressful work environment.
But aside from the more obvious external factors that could be quelling your motivation, it's important to pay attention to the internal components, as well. Because the truth is, according to Dann, we can make shifts in our external environments, but we also have to identify how we're subconsciously holding ourselves back.
"Sometimes the things standing in the way of motivation are feelings, and usually those feelings are organized around fear, anxiety—you know, fear of exposure, or fear of being imperfect, or failing," she explains. Whether it's self-imposed productivity standards, shame, or fear, she says, "we can get to the emotional narrative or belief patterns that are part of what's standing in the way of the motivation."
And these patterns often run deep. According to psychology expert Margaret Paul, Ph.D., people tend to struggle with follow-through because they're trying to exert power over themselves with rigid rules and internal criticism. "You are trying to force control over yourself in a way that likely won't be too productive. This may set off an internal power struggle between the authoritative part of you that wants control, and the part of you that resists being controlled," she writes.
How to get motivated every day:
Get clear on what you're going after.
It's going to be hard to get motivated if you're not actually clear on what you want—or you're kidding yourself into believing you want something that you actually don't want at all.
As Dann puts it, "The first starting place is getting really clear about what the goal, direction, habit, or behavioral change that someone wants is," she says, adding to "get really specific about what that is and also what it will mean, the benefits, or the reasons for moving toward whatever that goal is."
Once you've identified what it is that you're specifically working toward, it may take some healing or unlearning before your motivation actually returns, especially if your lack of motivation is stemming from an internal block or unhelpful thought pattern. Understanding the ways you're holding yourself back takes self-awareness but will ultimately help you uncover your motivation. As Dann explains, self-awareness can not only show us ways we're sabotaging ourselves but further, what we want and how we can make it happen.
"So the second part is to really identify what's standing in the way, and even take responsibility for how you stop yourself from being motivated," she says. "Once we can dispel those underlying belief structures or fears, then, motivation often takes care of itself."
Create an environment conducive to motivation.
Never discount the impact your physical environment can have on your well-being, and that includes how motivated you feel. One 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that disorganization and clutter can have some unwanted effects on the brain, including draining cognitive resources and making it harder to focus.
And beyond the general "feel" of your physical environment, Dann notes that sometimes a chronic state of being unmotivated means you might need to reassess other factors that contribute to the day-to-day "feel" of your life, whether it's your job or family obligations.
Whether that means having a conversation at work about restructuring responsibilities, getting outside support from friends and family, or simply taking more mental health days, it's about "finding a different environment where I can feel less taxed with my own resources of how I want to spend my life," Dann says.
Make sure you're minding your physical health.
The irony of encouraging someone who's unmotivated to take care of their physical health is not lost on us, but the reality is, feeling good in your body is a baseline need. Any goal beyond that is going to be a lot more difficult to achieve if you feel like crap, plain and simple.
Research even shows that things like getting quality sleep and having sufficient vitamin levels1 are associated with more motivation and mental vitality. Or take exercising, for example, which is associated with a number of mental health benefits2, including reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood while improving self-esteem and cognitive function.
The point is, if you keep coming up against motivation hurdles, it may be that you're neglecting your baseline needs and would be best served to start there.
Pay attention to resistance.
Going back to the idea of cultivating self-awareness, Paul explains that you'll particularly want to notice when resistance comes up for you, and by "resistance," she means resisting responsibility and accountability to yourself and the changes you want to make.
"Often, resistance is unconscious. One way of becoming aware of the fact that you are resisting is to decide to notice yourself choosing to resist," Paul explains. "Instead of trying not to be in resistance, continue to resist but do it consciously. Notice the consequences of the choice to resist."
Get your thoughts out on paper.
OK, there's a lot of deep inner work stuff here, but yes, there are also helpful "hacks" for motivation you can do, like simply writing down what you want. In fact, according to one study on nearly 300 participants, those who wrote down their goals on a regular basis were 42% more likely to reach them than those who didn't.
Try making a point to write down your goal or affirmation a few times a day, or you can even try doing the so-called 369 method for manifestation if this sounds up your alley.
Let yourself be supported.
According to Dann, it can be really helpful to allow someone into your experience when you're feeling unmotivated, whether that be a professional like a therapist, someone you look up to, or a friend or family member.
You could even post on social media that you're working toward a goal, if that's your thing, with Dann noting having that extra accountability can be really helpful if you're struggling to stay motivated.
"When we bring someone into our process, when we get more support externally, then we move. It's inevitable—it can't not be because when we have another person inside of our process, movement happens," she tells mbg.
Make small shifts.
Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, the things you want are going to take steps and often small ones. This can, of course, feel discouraging—and subsequently squash motivation. But as Dann explains to mbg, setting small goals, or making (and keeping) small promises to yourself every day, can help you start to get the ball rolling.
For each seemingly small thing you do, acknowledge that you did it and are one step closer to your goal.
"When we only have the ultimate end goal in mind, if it's too big a leap for our systems to organize around, making a path and really acknowledging any little stretch is so important," says Dann, adding that negativity bias primes us to look for our deficiencies, even when we're doing things right.
Lean into the unknown.
And last but not least, given what we understand about the fear of failure, fear of the unknown, and so forth, Dann also emphasizes the importance of acknowledging that part of yourself and even leaning into it.
"There's a part of us that wants to move, and there's a part of us that's afraid of moving, right? And so the more we can befriend the protective part, the part of us that wants to keep us safe, the more we start to learn that well-intentioned part is actually protecting us against growth, which is what we need," she explains.
Getting motivated is no easy feat, let alone getting motivated to get motivated. But if you made it this far, there must be a part of you that's looking for a shift, and the good news is, that's a sign that your motivation hasn't completely disappeared. Lean into it, cultivate it, and trust in your ability to do difficult things.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.