Motivation is central to creativity, productivity, and happiness. Motivation is what causes us to act, and when we act, we create movement, growth, and change; we feel involved, masterful, and significant; we feel powerful through experiencing how we can change the world, and we create more of what we love in our lives. And all of this gives our lives purpose and happiness.
Demotivation is like snow
It’s said that the Inuit have multiple words for snow because snow is so familiar to them that they can appreciate the subtle differences between different types of snow. These additional distinctions enable Inuit to respond differently to different types of snow, depending on the challenges and opportunities that each particular type of snow is presenting them with.
Most of us have just one conception of demotivation, which means that whenever you’re unmotivated, you’re likely to assume that you’re struggling with the same problem, when in fact demotivation is a category of problems, containing many variations. When you have just one kind of demotivation, you’ll apply the same old strategies whenever you feel unmotivated; for many people, those strategies look like this: set goals, push harder, create accountability checks that will push you, and run your life using GTD methods and to-do lists.
These strategies are ineffective with most types of demotivation, and in some instances, they can even make you more unmotivated.
At its essence, demotivation is about your not being fully committed to acting, and there are many reasons why you might be in that position. Having more ways to categorize your demotivation will help you to identify the real reasons for your unwillingness to commit to action so that you can pick the right tools and strategies to get motivated again.
Here are some types of demotivation and the strategies that will help you to get motivated again
1) You’re demotivated by fear
When you’re afraid, even if you’re entering territory that you’ve chosen to move into, a part of you is determined to avoid going forward. Fear slows you down and makes you hesitant and careful, which can be beneficial to you, but sometimes your fears are based on your imagination rather than on an accurate assessment of the risks in your reality. If your fear is big enough, even if you’re also excited to go forward, the part of you that wants to keep you safe can successfully prevent you from going forward into territory that’s both desirable and safe.
How to get motivated again: To get motivated, you need to deal with your fear. Start by naming your fears so that they’re out in the open. Remember to say a gentle “thank you” to your fears — they’re trying to protect you, after all. Then question your fears: “Why am I afraid of that happening?” “What are the chances that would really happen?” Some of your fears will slip away now.
Look at the fears that are left. What are they telling you about the research you need to do, the gaps you need to fill, and the risk management strategies you need to put in place? Honor that wisdom by building it into your plan. Finally, consider breaking down the changes you’re wanting to make into smaller steps and focusing on just the next few small steps — this will calm your fears.
2) You’re demotivated by setting the wrong goals
Martha Beck has a great model for understanding motivation. She explains that we have an Essential Self and a Social Self. Your Essential Self is the part of you that’s spontaneous and creative and playful, the part that knows what’s most important to you. Your Social Self is the part of you that has been developing since the day you were born, learning the rules of the tribe and working hard to make sure that you’re safe by making you follow the rules of the tribe.
We’re all surrounded by so many messages that feed into our Social Selves and we’re keen to impress our tribes. When you feel unmotivated, it’s because you’re setting goals based purely on what your Social Self wants and this is pulling you away from the direction your Essential Self wants you to take. Your Essential Self uses demotivation to slow you down and to detach you from the toxic goals you’ve set.
How to get motivated again: Take some time to review your goals. Because your Essential Self is non-verbal, you can easily access your Essential Self through your body. Notice how your body responds as you think of each of the goals you’re trying to work on. When your body (and particularly your breathing) shows signs of tightness and constriction, that’s a pretty good indication that you’re trying to follow toxic goals. If you get a constricted reaction, scrap your current goals and question all your stories about what you “should” do with your life. Notice what makes you smile spontaneously or lose track of time, and set goals related to that stuff instead.
3) You’re demotivated by a lack of clarity about what you want
When you haven’t consciously and clearly articulated what you want, your picture of your future will be vague. We like what’s familiar, so we resist what’s unfamiliar and vague and we stay with and re-create what’s familiar to us. If you’re not clear about what you want to create, then it makes sense that you’ll lack the motivation to act because you’d rather stay with your current familiar reality.
How to get motivated again: If you want to create something different from what you’ve been experiencing, it’s not enough to just know what you don’t want. You need to know what you do want, and you need to articulate a clear and specific vision of what you want to create so that you can become familiar with that new outcome and feel comfortable moving toward it. Take some time to articulate what you want and why you want it.
4) You’re demotivated by a values conflict
Your values are what’s important to you in life. If you have a values conflict, it means that there are two or more values that are important to you but you believe that you can’t satisfy all of those values in a particular situation. This situation causes you to feel conflicted and pulled in different directions as you try to find ways to get what’s important to you. You might have brief spurts of motivation to work on something and then lose motivation and start working on something else, or your motivation might dry up altogether because the effort of dealing with internal conflict quickly tires you out and saps your energy.
How to get motivated again: You need to unpack your values conflict and play mediator to get the parts of you that are advocating for different values to play on the same team again. Start with acknowledging the internal conflict. Grab a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle so that you have two columns. Write about the two different directions you feel pulled in, one in each column, and summarize it with a statement of what each part wants. Now pick one column and chunk it up: “Why does this part want that? What does it hope to get as a result of having that?” Keep asking the questions and writing your answers until you feel that you’ve hit on the result that this part of you ultimately wants. Now do the same for the other part, and notice when you get to the level where the answers in the two columns are the same.
Ultimately, all of the parts of you always want the same thing, because they’re all you. Now that you know what you really want, you can evaluate the strategies that each part had been advocating for and decide which strategy would work best.
Often, once you’re clear on what you really want, you spot new strategies for getting it that you hadn’t noticed before. Sometimes by doing this exercise, you’ll find ways to satisfy all of your values, but sometimes that’s not possible. If you’ve taken time to think through your values and you’ve consciously chosen to prioritize a particular value over your other values for a while, this clarity will ease the internal conflict and your motivation will return.
5) You’re demotivated by a lack of autonomy
We thrive on autonomy. We all have a decision-making center in our brains and this part of us needs to be exercised. Studies have found that this decision-making center in the brain is under-developed in people who have depression and that if you practice using this part of the brain and making decisions, depression often clears.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink writes about the research that shows that when it comes to doing creative work, having some autonomy to decide what we do, when we do it, how we do it, and whom we do it with is core to igniting and sustaining motivation, creativity, and productivity.