One of the issues that comes up a lot in therapy is when a client tells me they have no motivation to do anything. Sometimes this can be a symptom of a condition, for example, depression. But sometimes it can actually be the cause of depression. People will find they do not have a purpose to strive for, or even if they have something others could only dream of, for example, a flourishing career, they just cannot access that ‘pep’, that feeling we all need to want to do something and take enjoyment from it. They feel no motivation and this can cause feelings of despondency, apathy, low mood, and depression. Life just doesn’t seem to have any meaning for them. They wonder to themselves and ask me: “Why am I struggling with motivation?”. They may even feel like there’s something very wrong with them, especially if they know they have things that others might be excited about. Some of my clients can actually be quite worried about this because they feel bored with life and even though they don’t want to die, they also don’t feel engaged with their lives. It’s a serious issue that can have a serious impact on mental health. This article will discuss what to do when you have no motivation.
What Causes Lack Of Motivation?
Avoidance Of Discomfort
So one reason why you might not be motivated to do anything is because of a fear of discomfort. According to Freud, people will do all kinds of things to experience pleasure and avoid pain. So when you have no will to do anything, it might actually be underpinned by a deeper need to avoid discomfort. For example, it often requires hard work, energy, resources, and time to do a good job and this might cause discomfort if one prefers an easier life. Discomfort might also be related to an aversion to the risk of failing, causing one to do nothing instead. So avoidance of discomfort might even be about suppressing your own self-doubt.
So let’s talk about how self-doubt creates a loss of motivation. It’s essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy. What we think and feel affects how we behave. So if I believed that I was incapable of passing my driving test, I would find it very difficult to book my test. I’d probably procrastinate and make excuses whenever the topic was raised. Even IF I managed to book my test, I might miss it, or because of my self-doubt I might expect to fail, this of course is my prediction and it will affect my anxiety levels. Because I’m nervous and anxious about failing, I cannot concentrate and I end up failing – self-fulfilling prophecy – I made my prediction come true and this reinforces my self-doubt but I didn’t fail because I’m incapable, I failed because I expected to and made it happen.
A lack of motivation and energy can also occur because one is feeling overwhelmed. This can happen when we try to do too much or take on something that makes us feel we aren’t capable. This can impact self-confidence, and over time, our self-esteem. It makes us feel out of our depth. Remember what I said about avoiding pain? Well, this is why one might feel demotivated when something feels too much, or too difficult. For example, if your job is overwhelming you, you might experience no desire to work anymore. This feeling only heightens when mood is impacted.
Mental Health Issues
Indeed, feelings of low-confidence, low self-esteem, stress and overwhelm can all contribute to other mental health problems like depression and anxiety. But, as mentioned, a lack of motivation itself, can cause depression or be caused by it. When we’re feeling down, our usual day-to-day obligations can feel effortful and even overwhelming. People often want to seek comfort instead, and this is usually in the form of withdrawal and inactivity. But these behaviours keep people stuck in depression because there is a strange kind of comfort in depression and withdrawal, that combined with no drive is a vicious cycle that makes it feel as if you can’t do anything.
Lack of Commitment
Some people will start tasks and rather than see one through to completion, whatever that might look like, they will leave it unfinished and move on to something else. Some ‘disorders’, like ADHD feature this tendency, but it is something that can be a part of one’s personality. When one loses motivation toward things in this routine way, it demonstrates a lack of commitment to any given endeavour. Sometimes it’s easier to start things than it is to see them through. So if you notice yourself lacking motivation toward something you’ve started, and are thinking about starting something new – call it out – you may be using the new thing to distract yourself from your lack of commitment.
If for example, you have no desire to work anymore, this might be to do with emotional issues. But sometimes it might be something else entirely. Some people experience what’s known as a poor work ethic. They do not hold themselves accountable to their responsibilities and they may even blame their employer for their problems, or resent them for being more successful. Who hasn’t heard of the person who does nothing but complain about their employer and when you suggest they look for a new job, they dismiss it. This is someone who is not taking ownership for themselves and their life, and simply wants to blame everyone else, when in fact it is this bad attitude that is their downfall.
Not Specific Enough About Goals
You might have some ideas about things you want to achieve and still experience a sense of no motivation and not even understand why. This might be because you haven’t clearly defined your goals in a clear and structured way. When we make our goals SMART, that is., Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound, we create clarity and accountability. We can have a time-frame for every small part of the plan, and troubleshoot when things aren’t working to schedule. So, take heart, your lack of motivation toward that goal you’ve had for ages might not be impossible. Instead of looking at the misty tip of the mountain and feeling dejected, you can look ahead at the first check post you see in the near distance.
Being Burnt Out
If you’ve experienced no motivation or energy to do anything and even had the thought that “All I want to do is sleep”, then you might be burning out. Burnout is exactly that; a state of complete exhaustion, physical, mental, and emotional. It’s no wonder then that, when this happens, we cannot muster the energy or drive to engage in life in the usual way. Put simply; you’re in need of rest so you can recover. Trying to find a sense of purpose, or meaning when experiencing this level of exhaustion is just going to add to your exhaustion and make you feel hopeless and even more demotivated .
Experiencing Toxic Stress
Stress is a normal part of life and we should not think we can avoid stress all of the time. In fact, some people find a small amount of stress motivating. These are the people who like to leave essays or work commitments to the last minute and can do well because the stress of the approaching deadline motivates them to do better. This is healthy stress. Then there’s toxic stress. Called so because it’s harmful rather than helpful. Stress might become toxic when it relates to an acute issue that is particularly impactful and pressure-ful, or when we experience lots of stressors or a build-up. Think of stress as an elastic band, over time, it gets tighter, and then some relief is had which offers some slack. But when there’s no slack, it just gets tighter and tighter, until it snaps – likely burnout. When this happens we might feel we can’t do anything.
You May Not Have a Lot of Activities That Interest You
Some people might wonder why they’re not motivated to do anything without realising that it’s not a general lack of motivation that they’re experiencing. They are simply finding it hard to engage with whatever they have going on in their life at that time. For example, when people become depressed, they stop doing what they once enjoyed. This makes them think they have no will to do anything, but if they restarted some of the things they once enjoyed, or something new, they might find they feel good and accomplished. This often reinforces the action and provides more motivation.
Lack Of Motivation Vs. Depression
So you may have noticed this apparent overlap between a lack of motivation, and depression and this is because they are very much connected. Our brains and bodies., that is., our physical, mental, and emotional health are intricately connected. When we are well, we experience the production and release of mood-regulating, or ‘feel good’ hormones. These are chemicals that affect the way our bodies work and how we feel. We might become depressed due to a deficiency in some of these hormones (what doctors call a ‘chemical imbalance’). Alternatively, there could be another reason for our depression but even so, the depression and its symptoms prevent us from being able to create the hormones we need, and instead we experience stress hormones. It’s complex, but either way, ‘motivation’ is not going to be the motivation when we are feeling this way. A lack of it becomes one of the symptoms instead.
Now when we are well and not depressed, we can still experience a lack of motivation. Why? Because motivation is that ‘get up and go’ feeling, that ‘pep’, that drive. It’s the thing that helps us move in some direction. And as mentioned above, you will notice there are a number of factors that can lead to loss of motivation, many of which do not have to start with depression. But this does not mean that they might not cause it, which further compounds the issue. So first it’s helpful to understand the cause of your lack of motivation because this will provide the antidote, or at least the roadmap to the solution. Below are some of the things that may help you get your mojo back, depending on the reason for lacking motivation.
What To Do When You Have No Motivation
Create a Routine
If you’re asking yourself “Why do I have no motivation to do anything?” you might simply need to force it. It may seem strange but it’s an actual psychological technique from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and it works! When you’re feeling that you’re not motivated to do anything, do what Nike said all those years ago: Just Do It! You have to rebuild your routine because we humans are not so different to our cat cousins, we like a bit of routine and structure. By gradually building your routine, so that it doesn’t overwhelm you, you will notice your motivation return.
Use the 10-minute Rule
This is another one from CBT and the time can vary, but ten minutes is a nice neat number. Here’s what you do: when you’re experiencing a lack of motivation, and therefore procrastination for a particular task, force yourself to do this very thing for ten minutes only. The idea is that you will get past the barrier of starting, and perhaps find your flow, and therefore drive to continue. So just imagine that things you’re putting off will only take ten minutes, do what you can, and if you find it hard to continue, stop. You can then try again for another ten minutes, at a later time. But, you may find that you’ve gotten over the hardest part, and be able to finish the task!
When people wonder “Why do I have no motivation to do anything?”, they often come from a position of blame and criticism toward themselves. Now how do you think this will affect the lack of motivation? It will feed it. Indeed, imagine if you have no desire to work anymore, do you think you’ll regain it if your boss criticises you, or if they support and show kindness? Yes, we respond better to care, rather than criticism. So when we therapists ask you to show yourself kindness and compassion, we’re doing it for good reason, because you deserve it and because it helps.
When you’re not motivated to do anything, this one will be a toughie, but hear me out. Remember those lovely mood regulating hormones I mentioned before? Well two of those are endorphins and dopamine. The production of these can be boosted by exercise! Imagine; we have this amazing ability to give ourselves the chemicals we need to feel good, and driven! So, even if you don’t feel like getting out of bed, try the ten minute rule. Take a ten minute walk, or jog and see if you can continue from there. It’s likely you will find it much easier to, the more you do it!
Break Large Goals Down Into Smaller Tasks
If your response to that one was “All I want to do is sleep, I have no motivation” and the ten minute thing doesn’t help you then how about this – let’s break things down. Remember, when you’re focusing on the summit of the mountain, it can look very daunting from all the way down here. So, think of the thing you need to do, and just think about one step in that process. Let us say, you’ve got to start an essay. The first thing you could do is give yourself some time to make an ‘essay plan’. This would be clearly outlining the days and times you can spend on the essay, what the tasks might be on each day, with the deadline in mind. When done this way, we have a more clarified goal, one that does not feel as big and vague.
Manage To-Do List
Another thing that can help when you’re experiencing no motivation is a to-do list. This is a bit like the previous point. By placing things on paper or PC, whichever works better for you, you can instantly take away a bit of pressure and regain some cognitive bandwidth. This is because you no longer have to remember all of the things you have to do, and when you do this, you may also notice that things don’t seem as many or as unclear as they did before. This clarity also helps you to regain that headspace, you no longer have to worry or wonder, or work hard to suppress what you’re trying to avoid – another good reason to get it on paper.
Reward Yourself for Working
Just like Pavlov’s dogs, we all like to be recognised and rewarded for our hard work. So if you’re thinking to yourself “I have no motivation” then when you take some of the steps mentioned here to regain it, you should also reinforce this good effort with a treat! Not only will it give you an additional incentive to work for, it will also make you want to do it again. And, it doesn’t have to be extravagant as this would be hard to maintain. So treat yourself to your favourite meal or drink (non-alcoholic preferably, unless you’re of legal age and it’s an irregular choice!). Or you might give yourself an hour to play your favourite video-game, or anything else you consider a reward.
Pair a Task with Something You Enjoy
If you’re feeling a lack of motivation to do anything, what if you become creative with it. One example is pairing with a reward, although that should be done anyway. But another way to make your task(s) more interesting, and therefore, easier to do is by making the process more appealing, not just the reward you’re looking forward to. For example, if you’re putting off some work you have to do on your laptop, take yourself to a coffee shop or library to do it. If you’re finding it hard to exercise, make a playlist that will get you in the mood! If you’re sick of eating takeaways but can’t get yourself to cook a healthy meal, call a friend while you’re cooking and catch up on some social time as well!
Go for a Walk in Nature
When you’re wondering “Why do I lack motivation” you might want to take a leaf out of the Ecopsychology book (no pun intended). It teaches us that we humans find ease and peace in nature. It seems to be the only thing that can help us feel close to our ‘true selves’ and this might just be another way of saying that we can connect to who we are without all the modern-day distractions and noise that we’ve created and become embroiled in. We were not designed to live the way we do, our lives were once much simpler, and this might in fact be another reason why we experience demotivation and burnout, because in some ways, we’re fighting against our nature. So get back to nature and take those walks between your tasks, they might even be your treat!
Seek Professional Help
Even if after trying these things, you’re still lacking motivation, you might just need a helping hand. For example, if you experience no desire to work anymore, or think all I want to do is sleep and have no motivation toward your obligations or relationships, then there might be more at work. Therapy can help because you will have someone beside you who will remind you to be compassionate, to hold you accountable, and to reward your effort. But more than this, you will have a professional who will be able to help you explore and understand the cause(s) of your lack of motivation and find what works for you to help you shift this feeling and regain not only motivation, but also improve your quality of life.
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