Tell me you haven’t had a day like this – you wake up with a full plate, you know what you want to accomplish today and how to do it, but for some reason, you just have absolutely no motivation.
You don’t feel sick, or even especially tired. But for some reason, it feels like you just can’t drag your body up and get going. Why does this happen? Where does the motivation go?
We will figure that out, as well as how to get it back. But we need to get on the same page first. Because there’s a sneaky problem hiding behind a lack of motivation.
The problem-behind-the-problem is that it’s easy to misinterpret the cause of the issue. And as with anything, setting out to solve the wrong problem will almost always give you the wrong answer. So before we try to solve the “no motivation” problem, let’s take a quick look at what it actually is that we’re missing, and why.
What Actually Is Motivation?
Okay, so you came here feeling unmotivated and looking for a boost, and here I come sounding like a research paper. I feel you. And to be entirely honest with you, it’s going to get a little worse before it gets better. But I promise you, this will be worth it in the end.
The first thing to understand is that the word motivate comes from the latin “movere,” meaning “to move.” It’s the same origin as “motor” or “locomotive.” (See? I told you it was going to get worse before it got better.) In other words, motivation is what gets you moving.
The other thing to understand is that when people talk about motivation, there are really two separate ideas that tend to get intermingled. Understanding the difference between the two is key to no longer being stuck with zero motivation.
Let’s call these two things “short term motivation” and, you guessed it, “reasonably priced duck sandals.” Just kidding, it’s “long term motivation.”
(And that was sandals for ducks, btw. Not like bright yellow human sandals.) Anyway, here’s the uh, the thing:
This is the type of motivation that people typically think of when they refer to motivational quotes, stories, or “getting motivated” in general.
It’s also what folks tend to have in mind when they say things like, “Motivation isn’t everything.”
Essentially, short-term motivation is a burst of energy that gets you moving. When the right mood strikes you, whether through your own means or some external source (like an inspiring speech), it gives you passion, confidence, and the energy to do what you need to do.
Short-term motivation is like kindling for a fire. It starts quickly, and burns brightly, but it doesn’t last long on its own. It’s easy to find, and just as easy to use up. If you try to rely on this type of inspiration entirely (which people often do), then you’ll quickly find yourself back where you started: with no motivation.
Short-term motivation is great for getting things going, but sooner or later you’re going to need some serious fuel for that fire. And that’s where the duck sandals from before come in.
If short-term motivation is what gets you moving, then long-term motivation is what keeps you moving, long after the initial burst of energy wears off.
Twigs, leaves, and small sticks can get a fire started, but it takes the bigger, slower-burning logs to keep it going and generate consistent heat.
You’re more likely to hear about this type of motivation in a context like “my kids are the motivation that keeps me going,” or an actor pleading with a director “but what’s my motivation?!” (where’s my Stanislavski gang at?) Sometimes you won’t hear it referred to as motivation at all, but something like “discipline” or “drive.”
Long-term motivation is less of a surface-level excitement, and more of a passion that burns within. It is the “why” behind your actions. It is the “why” that got you here in the first place, and the “why” that will keep you going. Once it starts crackling, this type of motivation is not so easily snuffed out.
The challenge is, this slow-burning fuel takes time to heat up and get going.
So, the two must work together. We need short term enthusiasm to get up and get moving, and we need the passion that will keep burning come rain or shine.
What Causes a Lack of Motivation?
Any fire that is not cared for and fueled, whether by small twigs or hefty logs, will eventually go out. And when your fire goes out, you’re left with no motivation, probably sitting around eating Cheetos and wondering how you can get it back again.
There are many things that can create a lack of motivation, but here are some of the most common:
- Relying too heavily on short-term motivation without focusing on building your long-term drive
- Fatigue and poor physical health, creating a greater need for motivation to “get over the hump”
- Losing faith in your long-term goals, and the passion that comes with it
- Starting a project or goal without a long-term “why” at all
- Knowing your long-term goal, but struggling to find the short-term motivation to get started and build consistency
A real fire needs kindling at the start, and sturdier fuel later. Your fire, unfortunately breaking with my otherwise perfect metaphor here, needs both types of fuel consistently. Each will, at different times, run a little low. This may be a result of your own actions, or outside circumstances, or both. But in any case, it is your job to tend this fire and keep building it up to burn hot, bright, and steady.
How Do I Get My Motivation Back?
Hopefully it is now clear why we took a bit of a winding (I mean… scenic) road to arrive back at the original question: How do I bounce back when I have no motivation whatsoever?
Now that we are on the same page with what motivation is, where it comes from, and where it goes, we fully understand what that initial problem is. This fire needs two types of fuel to burn its brightest, and if one runs short, then the whole system suffers. With a clarified problem in mind, we can now finally jump in and solve it, the right way. Let’s light this fire, [don’t say “baby,” don’t say “baby…”] baby. [ugh, did it anyway. Oh well, here goes].
1. Work on Your Positive Self Talk
The first step to reclaiming your motivation is to guard yourself against the things trying to take it away. These things will extinguish your fire.
One of the biggest is a negative attitude. With a negative attitude, it doesn’t much matter what comes into your life because you will always be able to interpret it in a negative way. Any burst of energy you might get from short-term motivation is squashed. On top of that, negative thinking hurts your confidence and self-image, making it near impossible to invest in yourself and build passion for your future goals.
This is reason #867 (or so) that positive thinking is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. Practice developing a more positive attitude, because the conversations you have with yourself really matter.
You are freaking great, and the world around you is holding countless wonderful things for you. I already know this, but I need you to know it too. Because once you believe this, life won’t be able to sap your motivation with trivial curveballs.
2. Connect (Or Reconnect) with Your ”Why”
In Smarter Faster Better , Charles Duhigg highlights a peculiar technique that US Marines learn in their training. They learn to ask one another “why”-type questions when facing their hardest obstacles:
- Why are you doing this?
- What are you doing here?
- Why do you want to climb this hill?
Simple short-term motivation is not enough to get anyone through military training. A motivational poster alone won’t keep you going for ten weeks of bootcamp. Let alone the, y’know, career of being a soldier that follows.
The US Marines, reputed for their especially gruelling training and high standards, know this fact well. Which is why they teach their soldiers to ask these broad “why” questions. For many, the “why” may be patriotism. For others, the love or pride of their families. Others still may be there to create structure and meaning in their lives.
Questions like these keep you connected to your long-term motivation. Over time, connecting (or reconnecting) with these reasons builds into burning passion and lasting drive that is hard to knock off course.
3. Keep Feeding That Fire
When it comes to keeping yourself moving and energized — and keeping your campfires ready for marshmallow-roasting — the most important thing is that you keep adding new fuel.
Because fuel, by its nature, is continually consumed. Motivation, both short-term and long-term, is energy that you convert into results through your actions. So if you don’t want to use it all up and once again find yourself with no motivation, you need to feed your fire.
Separate yourself from all that drains your motivation, and use deliberate strategies to feed it. That could include just about anything, but here are a few ideas to get started:
- Movies, music, books, videos, etc. that energize and excite you
- Reminders of your long term goals and aspirations (e.g. a vision board)
- Systems of accountability like a coach, support group, or accountability buddy
- People who uplift, support, and inspire you
- Words, quotes, and images that remind you to believe in yourself
With the right logs and kindling, you can build your motivation into an intense and robust fire. Keep that fire going by regularly adding the types of fuel that work best for you.