Why Can’t I Get Anything Done?: The Quest to Stay Motivated

Our team recently read a meditation book, which prompted me to confront the idea of motivation. Allow me to explain. The book was about the science behind meditation, written by a self-identified skeptic of the benefits. The aim was to convince the reader of all of the benefits of meditation and relieve them of any concerns about doing it perfectly. The author wanted to encourage people to meditate who might have trouble doing so because he found that the practice was so beneficial to him. 

Honestly, I didn’t make it through the whole book. I found myself feeling frustrated with the author, but then I realized I was actually frustrated with myself. Over the years, I have read a ton on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. In college, I even took a course on Buddhist Meditation. There have been times in my life when I have meditated regularly, but most often, I’m not meditating at all. Meditation has become one more thing I know is good for me and that I “should” do, but for some reason, I can’t motivate myself to do it consistently… 

When can I get myself to meditate? When I’m doing it with someone I want to spend time with and feel inspired by (see: Shawnta Valdes) and when I’m having difficulty sleeping. This got me thinking about when I push myself to pursue goals I’ve set or even find myself completing tasks easily, and when I drag my heels or avoid the tasks entirely. What motivates me when I take steps to take care of myself? And what makes it so hard to get motivated when I want to, even when I know all the reasons why?

What is Motivation?

Motivation refers to the driving force that prompts and directs goal-oriented behaviors. It’s the process that initiates, guides, and maintains our desire to accomplish a particular objective. In short, motivation is what makes us get up and pursue our goals. And unfortunately, for most of us, motivation isn’t always easy to access. 

Different types of motivation can fall within two main categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation stems from one’s own interests and personal satisfaction. This could look like completing a painting for yourself simply because you enjoy the process or going for a walk because moving your body makes you feel good. Conversely, extrinsic motivation is driven by external rewards, like money and prizes, or consequences, like punishments or fear of failure. Motivation is complex and involves cognition, emotion, and behavior, and it can be influenced by various factors. And while there are two main categories, given the complexities, there are also different subcategories of motivation: 

  • Achievement motivation refers to the desire to succeed in accomplishing a goal. Unlike other forms of motivation, achievement motivation isn’t centered around the end goal itself. Instead, this intrinsic form of motivation is driven by the desire to experience success that arises from reaching a goal. It’s about accomplishment for accomplishment’s sake, not for rewards or recognition. A professional athlete, for example, might be motivated by the desire to win more than any of the accolades or titles they might receive.
  • Power motivation is driven by the aim to influence or control others. This would be considered extrinsic motivation and can be used for altruistic purposes, like a teacher who is determined to shape and guide their students, or an employee inspired to strive for a leadership position within their company. On the other hand, power motivation can also be driven by more unscrupulous desires like those of a corrupt landlord or police officer who uses their subject position to abuse vulnerable people. 
  • Fear motivation is one of the most common types. Many people fear the potential of failure and the shame and guilt that may accompany it, so they might even act against themselves to avoid that experience. Fear makes us uncomfortable, and while that can trigger our parasympathetic nervous system into initiating a fight response (or, in this case, action), fear can also generate a freeze response, causing paralysis and an inability to complete our goals. Fear motivation, while powerful, can also create excessive amounts of stress for those who experience it, so in the long term, it tends to lose its efficacy. 
  • Affiliation motivation is fueled by the need to perform well to gain the approval of others. As social creatures, humans are naturally oriented towards wanting to be part of a group or organization, so it is not uncommon for people’s desires to be driven by affiliation motivation. Similarly to fear motivation, however, this need for belonging can incentivize people to behave in ways they generally wouldn’t, and it can even impair effective decision-making.   
  • Incentive motivation is a purely extrinsic form of motivation. It relies upon the desire to perform well to gain awards or recognition. For example, a child might experience incentive motivation to obtain good grades if they think they will receive a reward from their parents. Incentive motivation also frequently occurs in the workplace, where employees are promised raises or promotions based on performance. 

Why is motivation important?

It can be easy to discount the role that motivation plays in so many aspects of our lives because we often don’t think about it until we start feeling a lack of it. Aside from the obvious benefit of helping us pursue and achieve our goals, motivation dramatically influences how we feel and engage with our worlds. It’s not uncommon for highly motivated individuals to feel increased enjoyment and satisfaction from pursuing their goals, leading to an overall sense of well-being and happiness. 

Motivation also helps to build flexibility and resilience as people often face challenges and setbacks while they work to achieve their goals. Another benefit of motivation is that it helps to inspire more creative and innovative thinking, allowing people to find new and unique solutions to problems and challenges. Finally, motivation can lead to personal growth and development as individuals strive to improve their skills, knowledge, and abilities. 

How does our ability to stay motivated intersect with mental health?

Our ability to stay motivated is closely tied to our mental health. Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and burnout can make finding and sustaining motivation difficult. Similarly, low motivation can be a symptom of various mental health concerns. People living with depression may struggle with low motivation, lack of interest, and reduced energy, making it challenging to engage in activities they once enjoyed or pursue their goals. Anxiety can similarly interfere with our ability to feel motivated as it can cause a sort of decision paralysis, making us struggle to start or complete tasks. Attention disorders like ADHD can also be detrimental to motivation, making it hard to pursue or reach a set goal and even harder to stay focused in the process. And people who experience burnout really struggle with motivation because they’ve become so depleted that even the most minor tasks can seem impossible.  

Motivation can also play a positive role in mental health. Motivation can help people set and work towards achievable goals, leading to a sense of accomplishment and increased self-esteem. It can also provide a sense of purpose and direction, which can be particularly important for those experiencing mental health challenges.

Why is it so hard to stay motivated?

In addition to our mental health, several other factors can make staying motivated a challenge. You might struggle with motivation when you don’t have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish or a concrete goal. And though fear can be a strong source of motivation for some, for others, the idea of failing can be a significant demotivator and might prevent you from trying new things or taking risks. Along with fear, the negative self-talk that often accompanies it can lead to a lot of self-doubt, lowering your confidence and ability to stay motivated. When a task seems too challenging or complex, or when we experience a lack of progress in pursuit of our goals, we might also experience trouble with motivation as it can seem pointless or too daunting to continue trying. And, of course, external distractions like social media or television can interfere with motivation. 

What is the neuroscience behind motivation?

The connections between motivation and the brain are as varied as they are complex. While motivation can be influenced by several external factors such as environment, emotions, and resources, a large part of what motivates us is dictated by the neural networks in our brains. These mechanisms inform everything from memory to risk-reward processing to decision-making. One such mechanism is expressed through the neurotransmitter dopamine. 

Dopamine is considered one of the “feel good” chemicals produced by the brain and is often associated with motivation. Research has shown that dopamine neurons are activated by actual rewards and by cues that predict future rewards. When we expect a reward, dopamine levels increase, creating a sense of excitement and anticipation. This anticipation motivates us to engage in actions or behaviors associated with the anticipated reward. Dopamine also reinforces behaviors that lead to rewards. When we engage in pleasurable or rewarding activities, dopamine is released, creating a positive reinforcement signal. This signal strengthens the neural pathways associated with the behavior, making us more likely to repeat it in the future. Dopamine dysfunction is linked to various motivational disorders like depression, addiction, and ADHD. In these conditions, the regulation of dopamine is disrupted, leading to alterations in motivation and reward processing.

What are some ways to get motivated?

So now that we understand more about how motivation works and its impact on our daily lives, it’s time to figure out how we can work to stay motivated. Here are a few tips that might help improve your ability to stay motivated and accomplish your goals:

  • Set clear and specific goals: To find motivation, you must first have a concrete idea of what you want to accomplish. Decide what you want to achieve and be specific. Instead of just setting out to meditate, which is a large and amorphous goal, deciding to spend 5 minutes per day meditating three times a week can offer more encouragement and clarity. 
  • Get clear on your why: Step back and consider your values and beliefs. Why are you setting this goal for yourself? Instead of just wanting to meditate for meditation’s sake or because I know it’s good for me, I have been most connected to the undertaking when I know why I’m doing it. One of my top goals these days is to get good rest so that I can show up for myself and those I care about. When I set my goal against the backdrop of why it’s important to me, the rest will sometimes fall into place. 
  • Break it up: Once you have identified your goal, consider the steps you’ll need to take to get there. Breaking down a larger goal into smaller, more manageable actions can make it seem less daunting and easier to achieve. A marathon runner might be deterred if they try to run the entire 5k the first time they train, so instead, they break the distance up into smaller parts, adding more distance in increments as they build stamina and grow stronger. 
  • Celebrate small victories: We often don’t give ourselves enough credit for the hard work and successes we’ve achieved in pursuing our goals. Taking time to celebrate what you have accomplished can help you stay motivated in the long run. Rewarding yourself will only encourage you to keep showing up and further incentivize you.
  • Find a community: A solid support network can help provide encouragement and accountability. This is why there’s such a wide array of support groups. Being in a community with others working towards your same goal can inspire you to stay motivated in those moments when you want to give up.
  • Add it to your routine: If you already have a routine that works for you, sometimes adjusting it and adding what you’re hoping to focus on can be helpful. Once you’ve identified actionable steps, look for opportunities to incorporate them into your schedule. Dedicate specific time slots to work on these tasks or pair them with other tasks. I have found that I am most likely to meditate right before bed. I’m ready to be restful and present, and I have nothing else competing for my attention.
  • Take breaks and take care: Burnout is an enemy of motivation! When we’ve reached our limit, even one more small step forward can seem impossible. Taking breaks and engaging in self-care activities can help prevent burnout and maintain motivation over the long term.
  • Visualize success: This is easier said than done, but as previously mentioned, when we dip into negative self-talk and criticism, it can impair our ability to stay confident and motivated. Consider what a visual representation of success would look like, and write down what you’re hoping to see. Making a vision board can be the first step, but don’t stop there. Then brainstorm how to work towards those goals and what obstacles you may have to navigate. Give yourself grace and space to experience pitfalls and setbacks, and keep in mind all that you have achieved so that you can stay optimistic about what you can do moving forward. 

While these suggestions may imply that motivation is just a few tricks away, as someone who manages both depression and anxiety, I know that it’s not that simple. So much can make it hard to work towards our goals, even when we have the best intentions. If you need help with motivation, please reach out to us. Let’s figure out what’s getting in your way and how to move past it together. 


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