This one goes out to my dilly-dallying dreamers, the “do you think I want to be like this?!” kings and queens. There is no shame in being unmotivated, in struggling to get done what you want to get done. The word ‘lazy’ perpetuates a harmful stigma that fails to understand the complex cognitive and environmental factors that contribute to a person being unmotivated or unable to carry out tasks they wish they could. I know that sounds like it was spoken like a true lazy person, but it actually is not your fault. People are just neurologically wired differently or have curated different habits and attitudes.
I have really wanted to write again…to build a proper blog out of this website that I’m not sure my parents realise is billed to them annually. It’s like my sneaky Moshi Monsters membership all over again. Although, this venture lasted a lot less time than my commitment to feeding Lassie the Katsuma, collecting rare moshlings and checking if my fellow 9-year-old monsters had replied to what I thought was my casually flirty ‘I like your house’ left on their pinboards.
I was in the shower a few days ago when a slither of realisable motivation finally, after years, struck…what if I just take a deep-dive into motivation itself and compile some non-medical tips and tricks to get myself back on the — preferably lilac, if it’s going — wagon and hopefully find my own motivation inside that lilac wagon.
Yes, you have understood. I found motivation in being unmotivated by deciding to self-reflect on my lack of motivation, which finally motivated me to target the audience of fellow people who I call the wannabe-motivated-unmotivated. You may now be thinking, ‘how pretentious…she has taken pre-existing words, whacked in some hyphens and made a new definition out of them’ (*side note that I just tried to write ‘maken’ rather than ‘made’, which has only fuelled my efforts to start writing again, if only for recalling the English language I was raised with for 20 years). You would be right. This is unashamedly pretentious. It’s been over four years since my last post, I’m here to make waves not mess around with any unoriginal thought. In saying that, there’s a good chance one of 7 billion people have also had this idea, but this is not their time to shine.
After scouring the internet for ‘when you really want to do something but just can’t’ and finding no specific word that captures a generalisable term for what I mean — rather than prescribing it a symptom of varying conditions — I will be sticking with the long-winded wannabe-motivated-unmotivated as the umbrella term. It should first be prefaced that lack of motivation or lack of willpower is often associated with mental illness (such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder) and is also seen in neurodevelopmental disorders (such as ADHD and ASD). Please contact a medical professional, like a GP or a therapist if you suspect a mental condition. They can help with a diagnosis, talking and cognitive behavioural therapies and/or medication. So, give your doctor a call or find a local surgery here if you’re in the UK.
However, if you are already receiving medical help or are suffering from a non-medical lack of motivation then this light-hearted three-step guide providing non-medical tips on how to start being motivated and stop being a wannabe-motivated-unmotivated is for you! Strap in, it’s time to set the scene for the wannabe-motivated-unmotivated by borrowing traits from the motivated and the unmotivated.
1. First up is the Cambridge Dictionary definition of motivated: 1) very enthusiastic or determined because you really want to do something 2) having a particular motive (= a reason for behaviour)
2. Second is the Cambridge Dictionary definition of unmotivated: not wanting to do something, or not wanting to do something well
Finally, the Amy Powellian definition of the wannabe-motivated-unmotivated (obviously just as prestigious and trusty as the Cambridge Dictionary, so they should probably watch their backs now that I’m back in business): you have the qualities of a motivated person, such as being enthusiastic and determined to achieve goals, but you just can’t quite make yourself take the necessary steps to get there. You may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of these tasks. For me, this is usually down to the desire for every task I complete to be perfect; driven by a fear of rejection or failure that makes it difficult to work out where to begin, how to cherry-pick information, or how to plan effectively. This may occasionally be accompanied by a creeping sense of pointlessness that makes you wonder whether the task is actually worthwhile, especially if it doesn’t come easily to you — even if you do want the final outcome.
Ultimately, your goals stagnate, and you are overtaken by paralysis (manifesting as procrastination and other avoidance strategies) that prevents you from achieving desired goals. You may feel frustrated or drained, unmotivated in that you end up not wanting to do anything — yet you still desperately wish you could just achieve the end-goal (hence motivated-unmotivated). This sounds similar to ADHD paralysis, in which people become overwhelmed by organising an abundance of information (particularly in tedious tasks) and shut down; this can be accompanied by boredom and loss of focus that ultimately leads to un-started or incomplete tasks. Over time, this can worsen overall motivation levels. Similarly, the ‘Perfectionism, Procrastination, Paralysis‘ cycle experienced by those with anxiety leads to the same eventual shutdown that reduces productivity. Thus, the wannabe-motivated-unmotivated is simply the catch-all term for anyone paralysed by an internal barrier to realising their still-very-much-there-dreams: whether that’s information organisation, perfectionism, fear of failure, self-doubt, imposter’s syndrome, writer’s block, exhaustion, or even nihilistic tendencies.
Now that the meaning of the wannabe-motivated-unmotivated is clarified, fear not if you see any parallels because here is your three-step guide to success!
- Reinvent the task: remind yourself of the most enjoyable or meaningful outcomes and let them be your initial motivators.
This first step is for tasks that require self-discipline and self-starter behaviour. Whether that’s pursuing your entrepreneurial projects, completing an essay, applying for jobs, reading a book, or finishing a painting. Our paralysing lack of motivation can sometimes come from tasks we have found to be frustrating, boring, or dull; such tasks can easily lead to inattentiveness and/or giving up. Eventually, this results in not wanting to even attempt the task at all. This, in turn, can make you restless and stressed because you know the task should be done at some point.
This looming feeling of dread and anticipation can spiral into a general lack of motivation for many tasks, where you lose perseverance even for tasks you once found easy or enjoyable. Maybe you have become used to not finishing tasks or not performing to the standard you expect of yourself, and that seeps into the tasks you were actually once able to keep up with. You start to view yourself as unproductive, undisciplined, and distractible, drained at even the thought of performing a task because you don’t think you will progress — so what’s the point, right? Wrong — obviously, otherwise this would have been a short and depressing anti-guide.
If you are a ‘wannabe-motivated’ then there are at least outcomes that you enjoy the idea of and you know it, so remind yourself of those. You can even reframe tedious tasks, for example, if an essay is boring let your motivator be to find a unique and original take or have the feedback state that you went above and beyond. Perhaps write a list of enjoyable or meaningful outcomes that you can work towards, knowing that they have a purpose that means something positive to you — in other words, you will find them rewarding.
For example, I am writing this piece to get back on my blogging feet; this is because although I haven’t felt motivated to complete anything in over four years, I do have dreams of working in the media that won’t come true by themselves! I have been reminded of this in my current (failing) job search, where I have realised that I do need more experience and more stand-out features under my belt. Although I have been cheekily dubbing myself the proprietor of a ‘self-run society and culture website’ on my CV, the million-word ramblings of my 15/16-year-old self aren’t likely to be the milkshake that would bring employers to my backyard. By focusing on how rewarded I will feel after I publish this article and share it with the world (bit big for my boots, but friends and family sounded a tad less dramatic), I feel the drive to achieve that dopamine hit.
2. Minimise distractions, start the task and view anything that follows as progress — even the imperfect or unsatisfactory parts are part of the journey!
Sounds obvious, yes, but often the wannabe-motivated-unmotivated are too overwhelmed to even begin a task. Sometimes they also begin a task and immediately find themselves checking for non-existent notifications and watching procrastination videos on how to stop procrastinating. It’s cliche, but everything is easier once you have started it, just because you have more information to work with — however, set that Pomodoro timer, put your phone on the other side of the room and stay focused for a limited time only to get that proud feeling once it’s over. You may even have an actual notification waiting to reward you — keep ’em waiting! Even if it feels like you just aren’t ‘getting it’ — that’s helping you realise what direction you need to go in, perhaps asking for help or mulling it over.
There have been demoralising times when I have started an essay and it has resulted in me staring at a screen for 12 hours — in between the terrifying cycle of self-sabotage that is going off task and feeling guilt (particularly if the deadline is close) but not being able to stop — and making absolutely zero progress towards the final product. This is where brainstorming and activity come in, so long as you are actively contributing towards something that you can later alter or edit — or simply doing lots of background research — this will all have its place in bringing you one small step closer to just putting that information together for the end-goal. I wrote five paragraphs for this article that cringed the life out of me when I re-read them before I wrote a paragraph I was semi-happy with and decided to push on and edit everything later. If you have clear mini goals to finish each day — as we will come to next — or timers when focusing (whichever works best for you), then distractions become less appealing because you have a manageable task that is allowed to be imperfect.
I find in cases where you feel really stuck and alone that teamwork or asking for a pair of fresh eyes (sounds a bit disturbing, apologies) can be hugely beneficial. As social beings, sometimes all we want is reassurance — to know that we are on the right track — so ask for help! Help will put you on the right path and give you the confidence to know that you can progress in the task because you’re doing well and you have support! Bringing other people into your goals — whether friends, family, lecturers, or teachers — will make them more accessible and less lonely. Rather than mammoth-sized, daunting, and overwhelming tasks that you have to face alone and feel guilty for ignoring, they include other people who can be your safety net for stress, hold you accountable and point you in the right direction. It’s better to be a self-starter with a support network and an appreciation for others’ ideas than a self-starter who never finished because they put all the pressure on themselves.
3. I’m sorry but it’s here, hidden down the bottom so you wouldn’t immediately stop reading…start in advance, break it into chunks, and pace yourself to avoid last-minute overwhelm
This is a classic tip for deadlines — and a rather rage-inducing one when it’s being told-you-so style levied at you because you have once again left something to the last-minute and are in the middle of a breakdown. The truth comes out: the times I have unproductively stared at a screen for 12 hours have more often than not been dangerously close to deadlines. Naturally, this has amped up my fear and made it impossible to organise the masses of new information I need to cherry-pick in a way I am satisfied with; making it difficult for me to work my way through the task at all and making self-sabotaging scrolls of Instagram my new favourite activity — all while its 6am and the 2pm deadline seems to be hurtling towards me at a normal-time-defying rate. These are last-minute induced ruts that make it extremely difficult to concentrate and wreak havoc with your mental state.
Instead, use step one to get excited about an end-goal — like getting the best mark you’ve ever got on a piece of coursework — and then set bursts of time aside in the day to work towards your task. Make sure all your deadlines and commitments are in a calendar well in advance. If you start early enough, you can take really short periods of time each day to work towards your goal. Just make sure you actually are being productive in that time; the moment you feel yourself falling into a rut or getting frustrated, stop. Go for a run or a swim, read a book or watch a tv show. Then, come back to your task and try again — you have time.
One of the first things I now do with tasks is break it down into smaller chunks (yes, this may be what ‘planning’ is, but this phenomenon is new to me and I like the word ‘chunks’). This helps with feeling overwhelmed by simplifying the task, making it easier to start, and bringing you moments of reward that spur you on every time you finish a chunk. You feel like you are actually making progress. In written pieces, I create three or four headlines and then look at it as only around 500 words for each headline — the task becomes way more manageable, and you can put away your work for the day when you complete one chunk (knowing that you’re en route to the finish line and so deserve to be bingeing mind-numbing television!).
Refer to step two and ask for help if you need it. If you start in advance, you can afford to be in a momentary rut and it not stress you out too much, the key is just to make sure you come back to it later on and do something about that rut; do not just start avoiding the task. This is why leaving tasks last-minute is so dangerous, it may be that you end up in a rut that there is no time to get out of!
Eat, sleep and exercise properly; maintain a balance between work, socialising and resting. Avoid making your work the nightmare last-minute task that sees all balance go out of the window. I’m sure that you’ve told yourself you will do this before but then, whoops, another deadline tomorrow! So, pick something right now that is in a few weeks or a few months, perhaps a book off an upcoming school or university reading list, and take half an hour out of your day to get cracking (maybe in the morning so that it’s over and done with, or before you watch your night-time TV show so that you have a reward right after). The more you establish a rewarding routine for your brain, the easier it will get and the more in control you will feel over your life — which means less chance to feel overwhelmed.
Once you attach motivation to the feeling of reward (or the dopamine hit) you get from completing a task that you have re-framed with the above guide, it will show you it is possible to reinvent even the most tedious of tasks and always do something that feels meaningful to you at your own manageable pace. Even if you don’t achieve the outcome you wanted, you achieved the task because you had a goal in mind — as well as pride in yourself for leaving your own unique print on it. There is plenty of time to improve and actually achieve the goal — the first part is just getting the things done that you need to get done!
P.S. I am now having doubts about this article, but you know what — I completed it, I will post it, I will get that sense of reward, I will write another article and I will improve. You have to start somewhere with this motivation cycle and it won’t necessarily be perfect, and that’s okay!