How can I overcome a lack of motivation

Posted March 19, 2022

Have you ever had the experience of really wanting to do something but have been hampered by “lack of motivation” or “not feeling in the mood”?

These kinds of feelings and thoughts are pernicious. They lead to us not taking good care of ourselves, which negatively affects our wellbeing and causes a lack of motivation.

To be a healthy, successful nurse, it’s vital you engage in regular self-care behaviours such as exercise and eating a balanced diet.

In this article, I am going to outline why we fail to achieve some of our goals and present a fun method for getting better at following through with things.

Morning struggles when there is lack of motivation.

I’m lying in bed. It’s 5.55 am. The alarm has just ripped me from my unconscious state.

I’m staring at the ceiling, noticing the warmth circulate gently around my body in my little cocoon; it’s how I imagine a sausage feels when it is laid into a bread roll and sealed in with a hot blanket of fried onions.

Last night I told myself I would get up and do a workout first thing in the morning, as I do every morning. At night, I remind myself the goal of exercising in the morning and I go to bed happy with my intention: “No problem, I’ve got this!” I think to myself.

The reality is that once I wake, my mind begins doing what minds do best: It starts up its engine and begins to whir away with thoughts.

Before I can lift my body out of bed my mind catches me, and I get sucked away into a torrent of thoughts that go something like this:

“It’s warm in here, just another 5 minutes.”
“You can always work out this evening”.
“It won’t matter if you skip one day.”

What happens when we buy into what our mind says? 5 minutes turns into 20 minutes more in bed, which turns into not having enough time for breakfast, let alone exercise, meditation or other life-enhancing behaviours.

The “evening workout” turns into an “I’m too tired now” and plenty more reasons your mind justifies and tries to make you feel okay about avoiding doing the thing that deep-down matters to you.

Skipping one day leads to skipping several days, which ultimately leads to you not developing a habit, which is a robust pattern of behaviour that leads to the long-term results you are after.

It’s always there, wherever you go.

I have been doing regular, almost daily exercise for several years now. My mind still continues to produce those same thoughts in the morning, every morning.

When we say that we have a lack of motivation to do something, what we really mean is that the alternative to the activity in question is producing a greater desire than this thing, which almost certainly takes some sort of effort.

For example:
Getting out of bed immediately to go and put your body through exercise = effortful, uncomfortable.
Sitting down to meditate for 10 minutes = seems like a lot of effort, not that fun, maybe even unpleasant if you tend to have a busy mind.
Cooking with the ingredients you have in your fridge rather than Mcdonald’s = effort, not as much pleasure as the fatty goodness of a Big Mac and fries.

Our behaviour is being guided by short-term payoffs in all of these scenarios.

In every single example, you can possibly think of where you avoid doing something that is life-enhancing for you, it is being motivated by the short-term desire to do something else which seems more rewarding or may in fact be physiologically more rewarding.

The problem is this: As long as we allow our thoughts and feelings to govern all of our behaviour, we can get very stuck in life and not grow in important areas.

Life is a marathon, requiring daily choices to avoid one immediate pay-off in the service of building longer-term, but ultimately much more powerful rewards.

Dwight, the annoying motivation troll.

Imagine for a moment that a small, annoying troll has started following you around almost all day every day. He’s green and short, wears orange trousers, has pointy ears and a weird shaped nose, and has a generally irritating look on his face all the time. Let’s call him Dwight.

Now, Dwight has some magic powers. For one, he knows exactly what is important to you in your life and he knows all about your goals. He knows that you’ve got a secret aim of losing 10lbs by going to the gym. He knows that you are trying to cut down on that half bottle of wine a night. He knows that you’re trying to make your own breakfast in the morning rather than grabbing a McMuffin.

Unfortunately for you, Dwight has been employed specifically to follow you around and tell you to do things that will sabotage your efforts to work towards these important goals. It is completely unknown why this has happened, and you sometimes even think to yourself, “where the hell did you come from?!”

Not only does Dwight pop up out of the blue and say things like “just leave it until tomorrow” or “missing the gym one day isn’t going to matter”. Oh no, it doesn’t stop there.

Dwight also has another magical ability: He is able to control the way you feel.

He has a magic red little button he presses, which once activated, zaps your energy, making you feel lethargic, sleepy or tired.

He presses it at predictable times like first thing in the morning, but he also purposely does it at random other times seemingly just to piss you off. You know, like, once you’ve procrastinated your way through tons of other things and you think you’re finally ready and “in the mood” to go for a run.

Unfortunately, Dwight is there waiting for you; he zaps you with his button and inexplicably, you have lack of motivation.

So, there he is, annoying little Dwight. He’s there in the morning when you wake up at the end of your bed; he’s already pressed his little button before you realise, and then he’s nattering away in your ear with his well-rehearsed reasons for not getting up and exercising.

You see, Dwight has had all night whilst you were sleeping to prepare his reasons and excuses for you. He absolutely thrives off convincing you to not do things.

He’ll even convince you to do something later on that day, but to your dismay, you find that the little critter has zapped away your motivation again when you gett in from work.

How can I overcome a lack of motivation 1

Sometimes, however, you realise that Dwight isn’t there. “Yippee!” you think to yourself.

You check in with your body and realise that “I’ve got some motivation” or “I’m in the mood”.

Annoyingly, it’s now 2pm on a Tuesday and clearly not appropriate to go to the gym as you are sitting at your desk in the office.

There are other times you notice he’s not there too: On the occasional evening after work, it’s like Dwight has gone on holiday and again, you think “wow, Dwight has vanished and I actually now have motivation!”

So you go to the gym. Once. Then Dwight returns the next day after work.

It’s impossible to set up a habit this way with Dwight’s unpredictability.

You become absolutely convinced that in order to do those things that are important, you’ve got to wait until Dwight is on sick leave or just off bothering someone else.

You spend your life waiting around for him not to be there creating this “lack of motivation” and usual excuses.

Annoyingly, you look at other people who seem to be doing the things that you want to: Bill from your team at work proudly flaunts the fact he’s started meditating every day; your mate Dave talks to you about how him and his girlfriend have stopped drinking booze entirely; your best mate Sally reflects on her last month of attending yoga classes three times per week. “I HATE YOU ALL!” you silently think to yourself.

You begin to ask, “why won’t Dwight just go and bother them!” or “why am I the only sucker who has a Dwight in my life?”

The thing is, Dwight sits at the end of everyone’s bed.

He sits on the edge of everyone’s desk.

He sits in everyone’s home waiting for them to return each day.

His little “motivation button” is being used on all of us.

He’s the most malicious of creatures; he convinces us all into inaction and then leaves you to your own misery when you realise you’ve been hoodwinked by him yet again.

He perpetually gives reasons, excuses and sucks us into the “I’m not motivated enough” story and then once his work is done, leaves us to beat ourselves up with an old slipper.

He does his job so well in fact that we often decide to abandon our goals because it’s not worth the pain of the feeling of failure the next day.

As you have probably realised, Dwight is simply our mind.

We were born with him already in place. Whilst we all experience him, some people have developed a different relationship with him to you.

Ask yourself what the bigger vision is with respect to these actions. Ask yourself how it will impact your life, and those around you. This will give you an idea on the values that are driving these goals.

So, what do I do about Dwight or the lack of motivation?

Here are four options:

1. Listen to Dwight and be led by the feelings created by his little red button.

This may be what you’ve been doing so far. It gives you short-term payoffs but keeps you trapped in an ever-shrinking comfort zone.

In this scenario, Dwight keeps you tucked snugly in your bed in the morning, gently strokes your head on the sofa in the evening, and even offers to feed you your 12 pack of McNuggets.

You are feeling great in the short-term but have a chronic lack of growth or satisfaction overall in life.

2. You try and outsmart him.

You wait patiently knowing that he won’t always be there to activate his tired or lethargic feelings button. So, sometimes you miraculously “find motivation” or feel “good enough”.

The problem with this is Dwight is one step ahead of you.

Dwight knows that he’s got you locked into his little game. He knows that he can afford to let you have this little win because he’s convinced you this is the only way you can do effortful things.

Guess what? Dwight is back on shift tomorrow and knows he will have you wrapped around his finger once again. And even if for some reason he’s taken an extended period of absence, say, a few days, the little fella is always coming back.

Playing the motivation game just doesn’t work, as I expect your own experience will confirm.

3. You struggle and debate with him every time he shows up.

You could decide to get into a debate with him. When he shows up, you can tell him that you’re not interested in what he has to say and tell him how annoyed you are with the fact he keeps making you feel “demotivated”. You can struggle with him and try and get rid of the feelings he creates.

This approach might actually sometimes get you doing the thing you want to. But how much effort was it? And does this really make him go away or the lack of motivation?

How many times have you started trying to bargain or debate with Dwight, only for him to win and convince you with his reasons?

The fact is, when we try and challenge Dwight, he never really goes away, so what use is that? Surely there’s a better strategy?

4. A more workable solution to the problem of Dwight: Accept him and take action anyway.

Whether we like it or not, Dwight and his weird magical feelings button are present for all of us. Yes, we can do certain things that might make him or the lack of motivation more or less likely to show up, but it’s a waste of time and energy fighting him.

Make friends with Dwight.

We know that he’s always going to be there so whilst he may be annoying, there’s no use in arguing with him.

Instead, when you hear Dwight’s chatter, try to simply acknowledge him – “Good morning, Dwight!” and just let him chatter away on his own. You can say “Dwight, I’m just going to let you do your job!”

When you notice that feeling of tiredness, lethargy or “not motivated”, you can say “thanks for that Dwight! I know you’re trying your best to convince me to stay put, but I am choosing to do this anyway”.

Remind yourself of the bigger WHY, then COMMIT to an action.

Once you’ve acknowledged Dwight and the feelings he has created, remind yourself of why this action is important to you.

When you’ve got a few moments, spend some time thinking about why going to the gym is important to you, why cutting back on booze is important, or why going out on more dates is going to enhance things.

Ask yourself what the bigger vision is with respect to these actions. Ask yourself how it will impact your life, and those around you. This will give you an idea of the values that are driving these goals (for further info on values on goals see this short video).

For me, when I notice Dwight chattering away in the morning, I acknowledge his stories (“here’s Dwight again!”) and then pause him and connect with the broader reasons for doing the exercise in the first place. I simply remind myself things like “Exercise keeps me healthy, effective and resilient”.

I then get up out of bed. That’s all it takes. Once I’m up, it’s like kryptonite for old Dwighty – he realises he’s lost this game for now.

It won’t be long before he shows up again – probably in about an hour around the time I will sit down to meditate. And then he’ll be around again later when I’m on my way home from work to try and hijack other “effortful” plans I had, like doing some French studying.

At every point, I’ll simply repeat the same process: acknowledge he’s talking, acknowledge the “no motivation” story, and then reconnect with why I want to do the activity and commit to doing it.

Dwight hates it, but he’s accepted me as much as I’ve accepted him.

How can I overcome a lack of motivation 2

Nipping Dwight in the bud early is important to fight the lack of motivation.

As soon as you notice that you are still lying in bed, you are probably still being driven by Dwight’s reasons, excuses and unhelpful feelings.

As soon as you notice you are sitting on the sofa instead of packing your gym bag, you are probably still hooked by Dwight.

As soon as you notice you have taken the turn off the main road into McDonald’s Drive-Thru, you have been convinced by Dwight. IT’S NOT TOO LATE. YOU CAN TURN BACK.

Just because Dwight has begun guiding you one way, does not mean it’s too late.

He’s really clever though because he tries to convince you that you can’t change your mind.

Once he’s made you sit down for that extra second on the sofa, he’ll start up again with his justifications: “well, I’ve had a big day and walked up and down the stairs a few times already so I’ve kinda done my exercise for the day”. IS THIS DWIGHT TALKING?

Making things simple.

I often get asked for clarification around what you should do when you’ve done the noticing of Dwight and tried to remind yourself of what’s important. What action do I take to counter the lack of motivation?

To simplify things as much as possible, I would generally say do the complete opposite of what Dwight is saying. As mentioned, Dwight’s raison d’etre is to draw you away from your values and goals. He is pulling you in the wrong direction. Therefore, mindfully acknowledging what he is trying to do and committing to the total opposite is likely to take you toward your value.

For example, Dwight says “sit on the sofa and watch Netflix”. A good place to start is to stay stood up, shortly followed by grabbing your gym bag.

If he says “you are too tired”, the idea is not to argue with him and try and find energy to disprove him. You won’t just magic up energy from nowhere if Dwight is pressing his little button. Simply take action – there is always enough energy there, it’s a case of not listening in to Dwight. Yes, it will feel uncomfortable to begin with, but you know very well that once you finish that workout you will feel like an absolute hero and be highly satisfied about your choice.

Similarly, if Dwight says “it’s okay to relax your no drinking rule on Thursdays”, then don’t relax your drinking rule on Thursday. If Dwight says “stay in bed for 5 minutes longer”, then get up right now.

Rounding things up.

Carrying out patterns of behaviour that lead to long-term life enhancement is hard.

It’s just an unfortunate fact of life that humans were built primarily as danger (and discomfort) avoiding organisms that love to get a little hit of reinforcement in the short term. The modern world has made this all too easy with things like smartphones, Netflix, and delicious high-calorie food, factors that contribute to the lack of motivation.

In this article, I’ve playfully introduced you to Dwight. I recommend trying to develop this relationship with your own mind. Ask yourself, “is Dwight being helpful right now?”

Of course, you can give your mind a different, more personalised name, but the same principle applies.

Don’t let Dwight be the boss of you and don’t play his motivation game. See what difference it makes.

Article written by Nathan Illman. Nathan is a Clinical Psychologist. His mission is to give nurses access to high-quality psychological education and training to help them prepare for and heal from emotionally challenging work.

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