Recovering Motivation

Practically everyone you talk to these days is struggling to varying degrees. Lives have been thrown into chaos, and there is a tremendous amount of confusion as old routines are drastically and often suddenly altered. Worse still, most of us feel like we have no control over the way our lives are going. This can make it very difficult to keep your motivation going. As time goes on, not only does your motivation take a hit, but you start to feel bad about the lack of forward motion. Eventually it gets more difficult to get ANYTHING done, much less the stuff that really matters.

However, while you can’t change the situation, you can change the way you react to it. Even with our present situation and the all the associated weirdness, there are still things you can do to recover your motivation and get moving again. The situation is far from hopeless, and it’s entirely possible that these times constitute the best opportunity you’ve ever had for real person growth, provided that you can get going again.

There’s also a danger here. A lot of conversations about motivation assume that you are going to achieve some sort of productivity nirvana. That’s unlikely to happen in the present circumstances (or if we are honest, in ANY circumstances you are likely to encounter). Lots of discussions by motivational gurus will proceed as if nothing bad is going on. That’s not a realistic assessment of most people’s situations at most times. Rather, a decent approach to repairing your motivation consists of accepting reality as it is and then doing what you can with it, instead of pretending that you have total control over your situation.

Things don’t always work out perfectly. And it’s completely normal to periodically feel a loss of motivation. Given the current strains on society, it’s not only normal, but expected. However, if you have big goals, you probably don’t want to to wallow in misery until things get better. Part of taking charge of your own life is figuring how to correct your own motivation so that you can keep moving forward. It may not be perfect, but much of life isn’t.

Episode Breakdown

Remember the beginning

At some point, you may have made a decision to do whatever you are doing right now. Try to remember how that felt and why you were motivated at that point. Are those motivations still valid and reasonable? Alternatively, you may not have explicitly decided on your current situation. Thinking back may help you realize it. This could easily be the reason you feel demotivated to continue. Regardless, one of the most important keys to recovering your motivation is to remember what previously motivated you and to evaluate whether that reason for motivation still applies. If it doesn’t you either need to find something else to motivate you, or you need to re-evaluate whether you want to continue what you are doing.

Look for changes and adjust to them.

You may also be feeling a lack of motivation because circumstances have changed. Take some time to figure out what has changed recently, and whether that change means that your goals have a different possible outcome. You might also find that changed circumstances mean that your current project is even important and valuable than you thought. This can help you recover motivation. It may also be trivial to simply adjust to changes. For instance, if you schedule suddenly changed, you might find that changing your sleep schedule to match it makes sense (if the project is important enough).

Get moving on easy tasks instead of critical ones.

Sometimes motivation needs a bit of a kickstart, or easy win. Odds are good that if you’re stuck, you’re probably not stuck on the easiest or most pleasant thing on the list. While this can be difficult to justify to management, this can also take the form of simply taking a smaller chunk of your current task and handling before even considering the rest. This is why agile teams tend to break things down. The other thing about simple, smaller tasks, is that you can more quickly get positive feedback which will help your mood, or help you more effectively reason about the problem you are dealing with.

Look for and adjust health issues.

A lot of times, motivation goes away because you feel like crap. In addition to the previous bit about sleep times, things like your diet, exercise levels, alcohol consumption, or even just aches and pains can significantly alter your feelings of well-being. While health issues aren’t always the easiest thing in the world to fix, there are often simple things that you can do that can make things less miserable, even if it doesn’t totally fix the problem. In particular, pay attention to your diet, your sleep, and any nagging aches and pains. Improve those and you may find that you are better equipped to deal with other difficulties. Hormonal levels (such as low-T in men) are also worth checking. Allergies and food sensitivities are another area where small changes can have big payoffs.

Lean on your support network.

Don’t try to do everything by yourself. While you probably can, it’s not efficient. This is especially true if you are stuck trying to figure out something simple. For almost everything you do, you are going to have someone in your support network who can do it better, who has more experience, or just has an approach that you don’t. Find them and ask for help. You also have people in your support network that care about you (hopefully). Sometimes when things get too difficult, it’s worth reaching out to them and just talking. While this isn’t easy in the current COVID environment, even a zoom call is better than nothing. You might also want to look at “outsourcing” some of your work, especially the parts you don’t like to do. This can free up your focus so that you can work on more important items.

Concentrate on benefits, not on difficulties.

Spend some time listing out the downsides and difficulties of what you are doing, then take that list and figure out what advantages those difficulties give you. Not only does this do a wonderful job of telling you which things aren’t worth doing in the first place, but it can also give you a lot of perspective on the relative importance of each thing you are doing. By focusing on the upsides, you can spend more effort on things that are more likely to matter and less on things that won’t. You may also find that if you do this, you can make the upsides even more profound with slight adjustments to what you are doing.

Remember your larger purpose.

It’s very easy to get caught up in minutea, especially in longer-term projects. If the project is going to make a large, positive impact on your life, it’s easy to forget that when you are tracking down yet another NullReferenceException. It’s also very easy to get lost in the weeds and end up doing things that don’t move you towards a larger goal. If you are starting to get stuck and lose motivation, keeping the larger goal in mind may help you formulate alternatives to what you are currently doing. You may also find that your larger purpose can be served immediately with some quick wins. These quick wins can not only help motivate you, but can often result in learning things that change your overall course for the better. Finally, it’s worth re-examining your larger purpose often, just to make sure that it is still a goal worth attaining.

Remove negative influences.

Motivation can also be destroyed by having negative or toxic people around you. Note that some people can be absolutely wonderful about most things, but will continually talk down about your major life goals. That’s still toxic. There are also other more subtle behavior patterns that you might want to remove from your close circle, such as people with poor boundaries, who constantly have drama, or who are regularly negative about other things.

Limit the number of decisions you make while executing.

Sometimes the problem is decision fatigue, rather than actual burnout. Reducing the number of decisions you have to make in a given day can often help with that. Plus, you’ll often find that most decisions really don’t have any bearing on anything useful at all. For these, you save time by choosing a sensible default and sticking with it. Try to separate the phases of your work that involve making decisions from the phases of your work that involve acting on those decisions. This can greatly reduce the stress of both. Embrace the power of making a “good enough” decision that lets you get moving, if you find yourself in analysis paralysis. Most things can be undone if you expect that it might be required to do so.

Track small wins

Your motivation WILL lag if you feel like you aren’t making progress. Odds are good, however, that you probably are making at least some progress towards your goals. This is why it’s useful to track even small wins. It’s much easier to troubleshoot ways to move faster than it is to come up with ways to move at all. Tracking small wins is also a good way to determine whether you are focusing on the right things or not. If you aren’t tracking what you are doing, it’s easy to lose sight of the amount of time you are spending on tasks, which means you won’t know if you are being distracted by minutea.

Tricks of the Trade

Running into a problem developing can drain you, especially if you are already suffering a lack of motivation. You may be stuck on something or just out of ideas. The trick to overcoming these times is in your attitude. It helps if you’ve had success before in a tough stop, or even been on a team. Look at it as a game or puzzle, know that there is a solution you just have to find it. Almost everything we do has been done before so there is going to be a solution, even if it’s not elegant. All you have to do is find it, then you can refine to make it elegant.

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