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Unmotivated? Here’s how to get back on track

February 27, 2022 - 17 min read


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What is motivation?

Why is motivation important?

Why do I feel unmotivated?

What should I do if I lose motivation?

Now, how can I stay motivated?

Final thoughts

Even professional athletes struggle to stay motivated. Waking up at 6 am and hitting the gym every day isn’t easy, regardless of how much you love what you do.  

Finding motivation is something everyone must deal with. Our ambition wanes from time to time, and picking ourselves back up is important. You'll thank yourself when you see that you've stayed disciplined and learned how to get motivated.

Motivation can come from many places — your work, family, or a small reward. Whatever the source, don't stop until you're proud of yourself and want to shout it from the rooftops.


What is motivation?

Motivation is the instinct and desire to satisfy your needs and achieve your goals, and it influences how we set priorities, channel our energy, and view our capabilities. 

Motivation can be extrinsic or intrinsic. It can also be positive or negative.

Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of you. A bonus, recognition, promotion, or reward are forms of extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is given to you from an external source, and is closely connected to ambition.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. It springs from your interests and passions and your desire to make an impact, create something, beautiful or perform at the highest levels.

You don't practice craftsmanship because someone is telling you to — you do it because there’s something fulfilling and joyful in the act itself. You want to do your best work and can't always explain why — that’s intrinsic motivation, and it's associated with passion.

Positive motivation is when we do something because we have an incentive and the promise of a benefit, like going over and above at work to earn a big promotion. 

Negative motivation involves avoiding the consequences that will arise if we don't do something, like finishing your chores as a child so your mom wouldn't take away your allowance. 

Intrinsic motivators can also be positive — focused on new opportunities, learning, and curiosity — or negative — focused on fear, threat, and avoidance. Fear and threat can motivate in the short term, but they also can backfire, creating paralysis and self-doubt that make progress impossible.

In general, over the long run, positive motivation is more effective in achieving the goals you set for yourself. And this intrinsic self-motivation is more enduring and constant than extrinsic, which can change with changing circumstances. So look to your internal motivators — purpose, meaning, passion for sustaining your effort. 

But if you're struggling, some well-placed external motivators, like an upcoming beach vacation or a big presentation in front of your boss, can kickstart your motivation.

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Why is motivation important?

We all get tired from time to time and would rather procrastinate than get back to work. Motivation is important to keep us going, even when we don't want to. Discipline keeps you going when your motivation fails, but motivation is the spark that starts the fire that discipline must stoke. 

Not only does motivation propel us toward our short and long-term goals, but it helps us cope with difficult situations and solve problems. Research shows this causes a rise in dopamine levels in our brains.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter known as the "motivation molecule." Earning rewards — which in turn, rewards our motivation — causes a release of dopamine, and creates a desire to experience that sense of accomplishment again.


Why do I feel unmotivated?

Feeling unmotivated is very common, and there are many reasons we may feel this way, including:

1. We're scared

Fear inhibits our ability to think objectively and believe in ourselves, making us hesitant to start or continue, should we make a mistake. It's normal to be scared about moving forward. Remember, this is your mind's way of protecting you. But it doesn't mean you can't succeed. Face your fears head-on.

2. You've set the wrong goals

Part of growing up means doing things we don't necessarily want to, like running errands or working late. If you're feeling a lack of motivation, maybe you're in the wrong place. Have you set SMART goals? Will the end goal make you fulfilled? Or are you aiming too high and feeling unmotivated because you know you’ll fail?

3. Lack of clarity

Completing our work is hard if we don't understand what we should be doing. We like our comfort zones and familiarity, so we get frustrated and lose interest if something feels impossible. Challenge is good for motivation as long as it isn't overwhelming or unduly confusing.


4. Lack of autonomy

Making our own decisions is a huge factor in gaining motivation. Our passion and drive shine through when we have the freedom to act. If not, we're more likely to grow bored and be unproductive. See if there's a way that you can take control of what needs to be done.

But the reason why you feel unmotivated might not stem from not setting goals incorrectly or lacking clarity. When you break down why you lack motivation, you might find that it's because of mental health issues. 

A lack of motivation is a symptom of mental health issues like depression. If you find that your mental health is impacting your motivation or are struggling with a mental illness, don't hesitate to seek help from a professional. Practicing ways to take care of yourself is a habit that will benefit your well-being for the future, alongside your motivation levels. 

What should I do if I lose motivation?

Life will always present us with huddles, but we mustn't let that stop us. To kick your procrastination and stay focused when you're having a hard time, are some things to keep in mind:

1. Reassess your goals

Do you feel inspired by your life plan, or is it time for a new one? Are your goals realistic? Can you still accomplish these things in your current time frame? If your goals aren't realistic or don't inspire you, then take the time to reassess them. Taking a moment to pause and reflect will help ensure that your goals are attainable will help grow your motivation.

2. Start small

Don't be afraid to break your long-term goals into small steps to keep checking off along the way, and adjust the steps as you need. Having one goal is much harder to focus on than a few big goals or many small ones.

3. Remember what motivated you in the first place

Why did you start? It doesn't matter if intrinsic or extrinsic motivation drives you. As long as it keeps you going, then they're valid. Your motivation may look different compared to your friend's, but that's OK. Stick with whatever motivates you, and don't forget it.

4. Take motivation from others

Talk to your friend or mentor, read a book, or listen to an upbeat playlist to find positivity and inspiration. Be open-minded and learn how others find motivation. The methods they use might spark some motivation for you. Motivation comes from various sources, and listening to others might expand your perspective on how to gain it.

5. Take a break

It's perfectly fine to step away from whatever task you're working on and take a short break. You can’t expect yourself to sustain your motivation for eight hours straight, so taking breaks is a good habit to practice. This allows us to reset our minds, hone our focus, and be more efficient when we need to get back on track.


6. Practice self-care

Your motivation won't be as strong if you don't care for yourself. Things like struggling to sleep well, lacking time to relax, and succumbing to burnout all impact your motivation level.

But with a healthy and manageable self-care plan, you'll take care of your mind and body and help your motivation grow. You can practice self-care tips like reading, exercising, or a hobby like painting. It's whatever makes you feel rejuvenated and refreshed.

7. Do unwanted tasks with things you enjoy

Sometimes you don't want to do things because of your mood. You're in a funk, and your motivation to accomplish things is poor. But what happens if you pair your tasks with something you enjoy? If you have to clean the house, try putting on your favorite playlist or podcast.

Or if you have errands to run, see if a friend can provide some company. As long as your fun doesn't distract you from your task, there's no rule saying you can't incorporate some fun to spice things up.

8. Reward yourself for your efforts

Rewards aren't exclusively for when you finish a task. If your task is going to take a long time, try breaking it up with some rewards along the way. You could incorporate your rewards by doing things like working for 30 minutes then having a five-minute stretch break, or writing five pages of your report and then listening to some music.

Thinking about your rewards will help you gain motivation and accomplish your tasks. Just make sure that your rewards aren't counterproductive and don't derail your focus.

9. Practice self-compassion

Self-criticism isn't going to motivate you. In fact, it's going to harm your motivation. Practicing self-compassion means that you speak kindly to yourself, and you don't let your rude inner critic consume your thoughts. When you make a mistake or something doesn't go according to plan, your self-compassion will help you problem-solve through it.

You can do this by telling yourself meaningful and positive affirmations and talking to yourself as you would to a friend.

Now, how can I stay motivated?

You've learned a lot about how to regain motivation and why it's important. But you also need to know how to maintain it.

Here are some good habits to follow to sustain your motivation:

1. Choose goals that interest you

It's easier to stay motivated when you enjoy something. You can see the value in the task or the journey itself, which will serve you well down the road.


2. Develop a routine

It takes an average of 66 days for a behavior to become a habit. Staying motivated is a skill you must develop like any other. Be patient and adhere to your routine. Structuring your day will ensure that you work efficiently and stay on top of things which, in turn, will keep the momentum going.

3. Surround yourself with a positive support network

Negativity weighs everyone down, no matter how driven, and gives rise to self-doubt. It drains you of motivation and makes it difficult to gain it back. Immerse yourself in an environment with people who understand and support you — it'll make all the difference. Practicing positive self-talk is another great way to boost your mental state and connect with positive people around you.

4. Find a mentor

Expanding off tip number three, mentors and coaches greatly help maintain ambition. Working with people who have been where we are and empathizing with our struggles and worries helps us feel motivated and encouraged. They can be a teacher, coworker, coach, or counselor. Providing motivation is a staple of great coaching

Motivation is a crucial tool to bring about positive changes in our lives. At BetterUp, we believe that everyone deserves and is capable of this change. When we know ourselves better, we'll feel empowered with the decisions we make and the paths we pursue. 

We aren't going to sugarcoat it — finding the drive to carry on is hard work, but we're here to provide the perspective and accountability you need to unlock your potential and achieve all you want in life.

5. Regularly review your goals and progress

Take time to look back and see how far you've come. It'll boost your self-esteem and give you a reason to continue. Journaling is a great way to track your progress and remember how far you've come.

Final thoughts

Staying inspired and learning how to get motivated is tricky, especially when we're feeling low or uncertain. It's OK if you need some assistance getting over these obstacles: that's one of the challenges BetterUp coaches are here to help you with. 

People are diverse and resilient. We want you to see that within yourself. We strive to help every individual hone their focus and unlock their potential and passion.

We champion the Whole Person and know that mental health is as important as physical fitness, social connections, and career development. We want to aid you in cultivating a go-getter attitude and making wise choices to sustain your health and happiness. If you put in the effort, our coaches will be with you every step of the way.

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Published February 27, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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