- Maslow's theory of motivation suggests why we may sometimes feel unmotivated.
- A lack of motivation is often a result of other physical or emotional needs being ignored.
- Focusing on meeting other needs may help bring back motivation to achieve your goals.
Do you ever find yourself staring at your to-do list, intimidated by its size but too overwhelmed to begin checking off boxes? Yeah, of course you do.
Motivation in our daily lives can be extremely hard to come by. There are some days where you feel like a superhero as you plow through your tasks like some unstoppable machine, and then there are days where you feel like that unstoppable machine just ran you over. Those days, motivating yourself to get things done feels impossible.
Everyone wishes on those days that motivation could come down deus-ex-machina-style and spontaneously inspire us to tackle the day. However, on the days when motivation is missing, it may be less important to focus the absence of motivation and more important to look at what other needs are not being met.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Twentieth-century psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed the theory that human needs are intrinsically prioritized and that some needs must be fulfilled before others can be of concern (Maslow 1943). He proposed that needs are more or less hierarchical in nature, with survival and safety most basic, lying at the bottom of his famous pyramid of needs, and more abstract requirements such as self-fulfillment and psychological needs towards the top.
Maslow also examined how these needs relate to our sense of motivation in life. Maslow’s original hierarchy included five layers of needs–physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization–each of which must be fully satisfied before the next layer of needs could be tackled. He concluded that we are motivated by our needs, whether these needs are tangible or psychological, and that motivation to continue ‘upwards’ will be absent when lower needs are not met.
Although Maslow eventually adjusted his theories to be less rigid—he later withdrew his belief that one stage of needs must be fulfilled entirely for those above it to be acknowledged—there are many critiques of his theory and his research methods. Nevertheless, the concept of psychological hierarchies remains an arguably vital piece of modern-day understanding of psychological motivation.
Why Am I So Unmotivated?
Taking a page out of Maslow’s book, it is important to consider what other things you feel when you find yourself lacking motivation. Although motivation sometimes feels fleeting, your motivation is likely drained because some of your other physiological and psychological priorities are unmet. The unsatisfied needs could be related to your environment, your relationships, your emotions, or something different altogether.
Personally, I find my motivation at its lowest point when I am hungry or tired, or when my anxiety and emotional turmoil are at a high; achieving my goals seems irrelevant during these moments. Motivating myself to do the “extra stuff” feels impossible when I’m in this state, so my to-do list goes untouched except for the essential tasks. Everyone’s needs might be prioritized differently, but it is important to consider what needs you might not be acknowledging that inhibit your motivation to proceed.
Although it is unrealistic to expect the world to pause and our to-do list to shrink while we sort out our body's and mind’s requirements, we can still take a moment to take stock of our well-being when motivation runs low. Like missing car keys, sometimes things turn up once you stop looking for them and fixating on their absence. Next time you find yourself looking for your long-lost motivation, consider taking the time to ask yourself what else is missing too.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.