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How to Overcome a Lack of Motivation

There are many reasons it can be hard to stay motivated.

Key points

  • The impetus needed to stay on task links primarily to the discomfort experienced until our goals are met.
  • Feeling uncomfortable about doing something or persevering when you run into a snag isn’t enough to justify quitting or procrastinating.
  • It’s essential to avoid distractions that keep us from completing plans that would enable us to reach goals we decided are important.
DBT, Bunny PG/Wikimedia Commons
Source: DBT, Bunny PG/Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever left for a walk and quickly realized it was much colder than you anticipated? Likely, you hurried back inside to don a jacket (and maybe a hat), so your walk wouldn’t make you too uncomfortable. For in more ways than you might imagine, the desire to "revamp" your comfort level is what motivates virtually all of us to make changes—both large and small.

What undermines reaching your goals

In this respect, Stanford University’s Nir Eyal’s research on motivation—full of common sense—is also eminently practical. And it’s unusually illuminating in addressing what interferes with our following through on well-meaning intentions and getting beyond our “natural” (as in, biological) resistances to doing so.

This post springboards off Eyal’s thesis, which, put simply, is that it’s essential to avoid the distractions that prevent us from completing plans that, in turn, would enable us to reach goals we decided were important to us.

It’s well known that, however unconsciously, all humans seek homeostasis, both physically and psychologically. So when we feel off-kilter, leaving us in a state of distressing disequilibrium, we strive to make whatever adjustments will restore our organism’s balance.

For example, when we’re nagged by hunger pangs, experienced not only through bodily sensations but also perturbations in our nervous system, we’re led (like cavemen of ancient times) to hunt for food. Today, though, we hardly require a club or spear since we need to go only so far as our cupboard or refrigerator (or possibly a nearby 7/11). And the only “weapons” we need are our opposable thumbs, purse, or wallet.

By the same token, the hungrier we are, the less we’ll care about what particular food is at hand. As in, when we’re famished, well, food is food. And if it’s digestible and won’t result in anaphylactic shock, that’s quite good enough for us.

To use Eyal’s terminology:

When the body can’t regulate itself [i.e., has lost homeostasis], our brain spurs us to action. It makes us do something to fix the problem. . . . Whether it’s food to nourish our bodies or friends to nourish our psyche, it creates the feeling of hunger or loneliness to make us feel bad enough to do something to meet that need.

Moving beyond willpower and emotions

So, given the unalterable, unconscious, and automatic adjustment mechanisms ingrained in us, what does Eyal’s description tell us about motivation? Simply that the incentive necessary to stay focused on our goals relates primarily to the discomfort experienced until that goal (ultimate, immediate, or intermediate) is reached.

Historically, motivation has been viewed as having as much to do with emotions as beliefs. You do something because you feel like doing it. Or merely thinking you should do it may be enough to get you to do it—perhaps because you’d feel guilty otherwise.

But as Eyal’s research counterintuitively demonstrates, your emotions don’t really need to enter that much into the equation. And often, it’s better that they don’t. If you can get clear on what your goal is and conscientiously plan your actions and time frame accordingly, it’s not necessary—or even advisable—to wait for your feelings to propel you forward. Because letting your emotions take over and act as your cue can actually be a recipe for failure.

When you say to yourself, “I just don’t feel like it now,” you’re excusing yourself in advance for postponing (maybe indefinitely) what earlier you felt motivated enough to execute.

If you think about it, that’s the way young children operate—reactively and reflexively rather than reflectively. But ideally, as an adult, that’s not how you should act. Moreover, when you allow yourself to get distracted, it’s much harder to get back on track than if, beforehand, you’d learned how to effectively ward off such distractions.

I say “learned” because becoming less distractable is a self-disciplining skill requiring cultivation, especially when today’s technologically beguiling culture can motivate you to shift your focus onto an activity that in the moment feels more compelling yet is extraneous to your plan.

And if the task you want to complete turns out not to be feasible right now, you could, as an outlet, substitute something else. That exchange could take the form of practicing your guitar or taking a break from your temporary impasse by devoting yourself to helping another. But beware, the outlet for your frustrations could also involve something addictive, leading you to indulge in an illicit sexual relationship or hastily throw yourself into a harmful activity like gambling or a drug like cocaine.

That’s why you want to do your best in choosing goals and objectives that are at once challenging and obtainable. For that will reduce the temptation to wander off course when you’re struggling and beginning to lose confidence in succeeding with the goals you’ve set for yourself.

I once wrote that the so-called “line of least resistance” was, paradoxically, the line of most resistance. And what we all tend to resist is that which we perceive as too disagreeable or laborious to tackle. Obviously, we’ve little interest in making our lives any more difficult than demanded. But when taking the easy way amounts to taking the wrong way, preventing us from getting the ultimate reward we seek, the only question to ask ourselves is whether we’re qualified to do it the way it's required. And if we are, we should go for it.

Let’s return now one last time to Eyal’s thesis of homeostasis—or, in layperson’s terms, inner peace, repose, and tranquility. His model emphasizes the final unconscious objective of all human behavior. Feeling uncomfortable about doing something, or persevering with it when we’ve run into a snag, isn’t really enough reason to quit or procrastinate on it. In fact, making a decision whether to stop or continue a process shouldn’t depend on emotions. To be happy in life, it’s vital not to give up on what would fulfill us, unless provided with more information, we’ve either ceased regarding it as fulfilling or come to realize it's just not possible for us.

Other than that, we should be willing to work through whatever hindrances we encounter, adhering to the personal ideals that gave rise to our goals in the first place. And that should be independent of any immediately discouraging feelings or what we typically associate with willpower. Because we don’t have to depend on willpower either (vs. self-discipline) once we firmly commit to abiding by our plans—accepting that along the way, we’ll almost certainly encounter unexpected obstacles.

In his highly respected Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, Eyal catalogs a large variety of proven techniques to help ward off the ever-present temptations that eventuate in self-sabotaging behavior. These techniques include (but are hardly limited to) deep breathing your way through an impasse, specifically scheduling the different facets of your task, and diligently staying away from social media.

I’m reminded of the well-known expression in 12-step programs: “Failing to plan, we plan to fail.” So don’t even think of (haphazardly) beginning a project without first concretely defining your goals, as well as generating a design enabling you to reach them.

Impulsively doing so may permit you to partake in some immediately entertaining diversions, but ultimately, in defeating your goals, it will leave you painfully disappointed.

Copyright 2022, Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.