This is a common predicament, so I’ll answer.
1. Don’t panic—it could be a temporary blip.
Here's a quick story. Over the last 18 months, I’ve had many rounds of IVF trying unsuccessfully to conceive a second child before my biological clock runs out. This has been incredibly expensive and demoralizing. A few months ago, I got the news that yet another round had been unsuccessful. There would be a three-month gap before I could try again.
I thought, “OK, I’ve got three months to focus on something else.” Well, nothing felt meaningful compared to a baby. I had a sudden urge to buy a Melania Trump “I don’t care, do you?” jacket.
Logically, I could see that goals related to fitness or work were meaningful, but they didn’t feel that way at all. Success in those domains seemed to pale compared to the joy of a squishy human. Even travel, which I normally live for, felt not worth bothering about (e.g., planning trips for post-COVID.) Something great happened career-wise, and I was barely excited.
Loss of motivation is part of a constellation of symptoms that happen when people are sad. We’re wired this way. Sad, depressed emotions trigger a reaction that involves the urge to retreat, withdraw, and reflect. While this might seem maladaptive, it’s not entirely. It’s part of a response that’s designed to keep us safe and protected. Our brain instinctively signals to us to step back and cocoon, instead of plowing on.
Why? If we’re upset, pushing ahead could be ill-advised or dangerous. Through evolution, we’ve built-in a lot of false alarms, so even if it wouldn’t be dangerous in 99/100 situations, we’re wired to prioritize the 1/100. When you feel low, you'll overthink and feel sluggish. Low emotions are a signal to pause, reflect, and potentially change direction. Sometimes the signal is a false signal. Sometimes it isn't.
If you don’t know this is how emotions work, it would be easy to panic and start to thinking anxious thoughts like: “Why do I feel like this? Something is wrong! What’s wrong? What am I going to do? What’s going to become of me?” Sometimes people even fear a loss of functioning and losing ground they’ve built up, e.g., losing their job because they become unable to perform it due to poor motivation or concentration.
The problem? This panicky reaction can intensify people’s sense of feeling lost, scared, and at sea. And it can intensify people’s negative ruminations about themselves and who they are. If you think you’ll screw up everything you try, then why bother trying?
In most cases, these types of emotion and motivation blips are temporary. They will last anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks if you employ good coping strategies. For example, my feelings lasted about two weeks. Those feelings have returned a bit lately, but on and off.
Even clinical depression is usually episodic. In those cases, the feelings can last months if you don’t pursue treatment. But either way, it’s not likely to be a permanent state.
Understanding healthy coping strategies will reduce the time that those periods of no motivation last.
2. Act your way to motivation.
Action drives motivation more than motivation drives action.
Knowing this, I started a structured effort to improve my running and fitness. I also took on a new challenge with my work.
Here’s the critical point: When I started, those goals didn’t feel super meaningful, but the more I did them, the more meaningful they felt.
3. Shift away from goals that don't motivate you.
I refocused my work goals on being helpful to people, rather than trying to be popular. This felt more meaningful, both in concept and in practice as I did my work each day.
4. Plan for low concentration.
When people feel low, their concentration suffers too. Therefore, pick actions to improve your motivation that aren’t heavily dependent on concentration. For example, it might not be the best time for a goal like “read a book a week.” Likewise, it’s not the best time for ultra-intense goals that require all-day focus. When I feel low, I usually set my expectations at around half my usual output, but I try to make that twice as meaningful.
5. Rule out physical factors.
Check some basics that could be causing your feelings and mental state. For example, low Vitamin D, low iron, thyroid issues, or low B12.
6. Help-seeking might feel like a waste of effort, but it isn’t.
When people feel a very profound, pervasive loss of motivation and interest in life, it’s understandable if it feels like nothing is going to help with that. A few nights ago, I had a mood blip in which I felt intensely sad. That intensity was gone by the next morning. The feelings were still there but weren’t as strong or disabling. When you feel very intensely “blah,” it’s hard to believe anything will help you shake it. It's easy to feel scared that it might last forever no matter what you do. This thinking trap stops people from seeking professional help, which has a good chance of helping your mood.
If you had a broken arm, you wouldn’t overthink whether to seek professional help. If you think you have clinical depression, do the same.
7. Try more new things.
When you try new things, you expand yourself. Sometimes when we feel low, we’re simply bored with the same old activities, people, perspectives, and routines. If you want to discover dreams and goals, try many new things, without too much expectation. When you do this, eventually some new goals or dreams will emerge from that.
When I was feeling low, I took a day trip to a large, beautiful state park. The visit didn’t go that well because my child wasn’t enjoying herself, but despite that, it really boosted me out of my funk. My point here is that things you try don't need to go perfectly to be helpful. (More on this topic in this post.)
Build your repertoire of strategies to break free of a period of no motivation. This is essential because a strategy that works some of the time might not work all of the time. Or, it might not always be possible (for example, if you can't exercise due to an injury.)
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