“I Can’t Seem to Motivate Myself”

A buffet of possible fixes

Posted Jun 15, 2020

 Pxfuel/Public Domain
Source: Pxfuel/Public Domain

My clients often complain that they lack motivation. Amid the COVID-19 lockdown, that problem is more frequent and severe than ever.

Here’s a composite letter that describes a typical situation and my response.

Dear Dr. Nemko: I’m 26 years old, and ever since I was a kid, I have been plagued by a lack of motivation. Whenever there’s a more pleasant alternative, I take it. So, from school-age on, I waited until the last minute to get homework done. I could get away with it in school, even in college, sort of, because I’m smart. I got mainly Bs. But I’ve now been fired or “laid off” from all four of my jobs since college. I know I have to grow up and get disciplined, but nothing works: rewards, punishments, to-do lists, pep talks or laments from my parents, nothing. And with the COVID shutdown, somehow I'm feeling less motivated than ever, even to try to find a job. Am I doomed to be a permanent failure?

My response: As usual, there are no one-size-fits-all answers, but do any of these offer a glimmer of what you might do differently?

  • Do you sufficiently recognize that being productive is key to the life well-led, as well as to your financial self-sufficiency?
  • Do you know that people who are content with their lives tend to work a true 8+ hours a day?
  • Do you need to be aware of the moment of truth: that moment you’re deciding, consciously or not, whether to do the task or something more pleasurable?
  • Getting started is often the hardest part. Can you get in the habit of making yourself do the first few-second sub-task, even if it’s just to open your computer to the right program?
  • When stuck, do you need to use the one-minute struggle technique? Try to tackle that challenge for just one minute. If you haven’t made progress on it in a minute, chances are you won’t. It’s then time to decide whether to get help, come back to it later, or if you can do the task without solving that challenge.
  • Set a timer for 20 minutes. Work, really work, for 20 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. Repeat.
  • Should you just accept yourself? People who have struggled with motivation for their entire life across a wide range of tasks and situations may need to accept themselves pretty much as-is, at least for now. Should you absolve yourself of guilt, do the best you can, and recognize and play to your strengths?

I read this aloud on YouTube.