8 min read

How to Overcome Lack of Motivation

The lens that I use with my clients is there is usually something deeper going on underneath the lack of motivation, some barrier in the task itself or the environment leaving them feeling outstripped of their abilities to start or complete the task.
How to Overcome Lack of Motivation
Photo by Kinga Howard / Unsplash

A lot of my clients struggle with lack of motivation/productivity. There is a familiar cycle they run through of procrastinating until the last minute where they make a sprint of anxiety ridden hyperfocus to beat the deadline or throw their hands up in surrender, saying, “It’s too late, what’s the point?” Either way the last phase of the cycle is these clients shaming themselves and coming to some really damaging and false conclusions: “You’re just so lazy,” “You must not want this bad enough,” “You just have to try harder.

The lens that I use with my clients is there is usually something deeper going on underneath the lack of motivation, some barrier in the task itself or the environment leaving them feeling outstripped of their abilities to start or complete the task. When motivation problems are viewed in this light, we can try and problem solve and find a solution to the particular problem. Most of the time, clients who struggle with productivity view the problem as an internal flaw and just come to the only conclusion they can think of: I’m just not motivated enough.

Often with my clients problems with productivity present themselves after high school. This is when people start gaining more independence; having larger amounts of unstructured time compared to the daily routine of the K-12 education. People with productivity problems can also thrive in a lot of work place settings if they are given enough structure. However, when there is a setting, whether work or home, where they have large, multi-step projects or several projects to accomplish they can struggle with having a lack of motivation/staying organized/procrastinating/turning things in on time. The copings skills listed below are broken down to address different underlying problems that can create barriers to being productive, there is no “one size fits all” solution to accomplishing your goals. The first step in improving your productivity is recognizing the barrier to what prevents you from accomplishing the task.

Difficulties starting the day/sleeping in too long

Some of my clients will start explaining that the biggest reason they sleep in too late is because they went to bed too late the previous night. My recommendations to these clients is to focus on waking up on time more consistently. My explanation is that while you can practice good sleep hygiene habits, you cannot control when your body drifts off to sleep but you have a lot more control in waking it up. So end the poor wake/sleep cycle by consistently waking up earlier and a lot of times your body will naturally start falling asleep earlier. Ways to push yourself to wake up earlier:

- Set an alarm that you have to get out of bed to turn off (obviously)

- Create barriers to going back to sleep after turning off the alarm (open the door to your room, turn on the bedroom light or lamp, let the family dog or cat into the room, move to a slightly less comfortable place a couch or lazyboy)

- Allow a transition time of allowing your body to wake up without immediately springing into action (scroll on your phone, read a book, sip your coffee) with the barriers to sleep in place previously mentioned. Think of this part of the morning as a way to talk your body into moving in the right direction that is a little more palatable than jolting out of bed.

- Give yourself more responsibility: assign yourself a role where others depend on you (family coffee maker/lunch maker/cat feeder/morning dog walker), if you’re a college student sign up for morning classes, volunteer to be someone’s morning workout partner. Several of my clients know they struggle in the morning and therefore remove all responsibility and accountability from their mornings which can actually increase the problem. Giving yourself some self-imposed responsibility might be the key to salvaging your mornings.

- Accept your night owl tendencies if you feel no matter what skills you put in place you simply cannot be productive in the mornings. This means using your part of your night to set yourself up for success the following morning (lunch is packed, bags are packed, clothes are laid out, you are showered with very few tasks between you and leaving the door/logging in from home).

Difficulties getting started on a task

This is by far the most common place where clients get stuck in the productivity process and it can happen for several different reasons. Below I will list out a few common reasons why people get suck in getting started and give a few recommendations to cope with his problem

1. Difficulty prioritizing: There are just so many tasks and different deadlines someone might not know where to start. They feel this sense of panic if they give their attention to one task, they are inevitably not working on another task. A lot of the time the problem is they spend so long ruminating on not being able to work on all they tasks that they don’t make any headway on any of the tasks and feel a lot worse about themselves. A few solutions to try:

- Practice using organizational tools (I recommend all my clients have a running to-do list for tasks and a calendar for appointments). These tools (whether electronic or paper) should be easily transportable and within reach almost all the time in order to help maintain the regular use of them.

- Decide what you’re going to work on the night before: A lot of clients who struggle with prioritizing feel overwhelmed when they recognize they should be productive at a certain point in their day and do not have a specific task in mind to start on. So I encourage clients to pick out a time in the evening where they create a schedule for themselves the night before so when they wake up in the morning they already have a written down game plan. This process should be clients combining their appointments from their calendar (class, work, doctor’s appointments) along with their to-do list (laundry, mow the lawn, respond to emails) and of course down time to relax and recover.

- Start with the hardest task on your to-do list! This can be a daunting idea but getting the hardest part of the day out of the way can increase momentum in your day and lead to more productivity as well as make the rest of the day feel like a breeze. However, if you know yourself well enough to understand that you need some kind of easy task to complete to get ready for the of day then do it. Ultimately how you arrange your tasks in our day should be based off what you perceive is most realistic rather than ideal.

2. Perfectionism (fear of inadequacy): Clients that struggle with starting tasks due to perfectionism can become so paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes or doing an inadequate job that they avoid starting all together. A lot of the times it does not even have to do with how they believe the teacher, boss or peer will perceive their work but that their own perception of their work is not good enough. They are not afraid of getting a bad grade or a lecture from their boss as much as they are worried about what their own “poor performance “ on the task will reveal about themselves as a person. While there are several different therapeutic approaches to help someone address their anxieties over a potential poor performance, they all lead to the same crucial step of someone having to allow themselves to feel vulnerable and give their best attempt even if they don’t feel the work reflex their true abilities.

3. Feelings of being overwhelmed with the size of the task: A lot of people struggling with productivity feel unable to start a large project because they anticipate how difficult a task is going to be or how long is going to take. They predict they will be so mentally and emotionally taxed they avoid starting. The analogy I use is they are so busy envisioning how difficult it will be to hike up the whole mountain that they can’t focus on taking the first step. Ways to cope with feeling overwhelmed:

Chunk: I encourage clients that when they recognize they are feeling overwhelmed by a project to break it down into smaller chunks and to do what I call a “gut check.” This means clients envision themselves doing a small chunk of the larger assignment and if they can envision themselves doing it successfully then it is a good size chunk to start to work on. However, if they try to envision themselves completing even this smaller chunk and predict they will struggle with it or it will still feel so overwhelming they will avoid it, then they need to break the task into even smaller chunks. However, I will challenge them these chunks do need to be significant enough they experience a small victory when completing the chunk. Again I will prompt clients to envision them completing this small chunk of the project and if they can predict they will walk away with the sentiment, “Hey, at least I did this much” then it is worthwhile chunk to start on. However, if clients envision completing the chunk and walk away saying, “I’m no closer to the end of the task” then they need to give themselves a more meaningful chunk. For example, writing this post felt overwhelming for me with all the different ideas I wanted to capture. A good first chunk for me was to brain storm and put to paper the different ideas I wanted to incorporate. After that was accomplished, I felt the rest of the writing process would be more manageable.

Difficulties staying on task

While I indicated before that starting tasks is the most common place for people to get stuck, there are difficult barriers that people run into making it a struggle to complete a task even after they have started. Below are some of the common barriers and recommendations I give to cope with them.

1. Distractions: The difficulty with coping with distractions is they can come in a wide variety. It really depends on what is distracting you that will shape how you cope with his problem. However, one of the most common distractions are our electronics. (I have personally had to resist the temptation of checking my phone for new texts and messages while writing this post). Silencing devices or putting them in your bag or another room can be a step in the right direction. Changing your environment and going to the library, coffee shop or home office (instead of the couch where the TV is just staring at you) can be helpful as well. Keeping your to-do list or a scrap piece of paper to write down random thoughts or additional tasks that can derail you from the task at hand, helps with internal distractions.

2. Bad breaks: I encourage clients who are writing out a daily schedule to include times where they will intentionally take breaks. But I will have clients identify what they will do with their break and to distinguish between whether it will be a “good break” or a “bad break.” A good break is something that gives your brain some mental rest but is still easy for you to transition back to the incomplete task. A bad break is a break that makes it difficult to return to the task, keeping you breaking for longer than you anticipated. Typically good breaks for me including getting up and stretching my legs, refilling my water bottle, chitchat with coworkers in the hallway. Bad breaks for me involve emails and social media.

3. Hyperfocus: Sometimes clients become “too motivated” and hyperfocus on the task at hand where they have a difficult time taking a break from a task because they don’t see a clear stopping point. This creates the problem that they now are neglecting other tasks and are falling behind in other areas of life. If you anticipate you’ll have difficulty getting too caught up in a project and neglecting other prioritizes then my suggestion would be to pick clear stopping points before you start the tasks or set timers for when you need to transition to the next part of your day.

I write this hoping to have addressed a lot of the common problems for those who struggle with motivation; to normalize their experience and give them practical solutions. However, the bigger message I want my clients and anyone reading to take from this post is the idea of “lacking motivation” big a myth. It is a simple and quick label we slap on ourselves and others without really giving time to look at the problem. The first step is always to be curious about why we are struggling and to identify the barriers in the process of completing the task that make it difficult (i.e. feeling overwhelmed, hard time prioritizing, perfectionism, distractions). From here we get to brainstorm informed solutions that help us target these barriers, rather than giving ourselves the unhelp advice of, “I just need to try harder.”