Motivation is Not a Thing to Get

What if we think about motivation as a feeling to be developed rather than an elusive thing to get? There are at least five common causes for feeling unmotivated. Identifying the root cause, or causes, is a first step in creating a path toward motivation and getting the job done.


Recently, my husband told me he just couldn’t get motivated to put his talk together for an upcoming seminar – something he both enjoys and does well. Procrastinating in the hopes of getting motivated didn’t seem to help. This got me thinking: Is motivation a thing waiting to be gotten?

Just like happiness, motivation is a feeling – feeling excited to do something or, if not exactly excited, then at least feeling fine about it. But feelings aren’t really something to be “got” – we don’t usually sit around waiting to get happy.

So why are we often passive when it comes to motivation? We wait for motivation to strike and, if it doesn’t, we try to power through the task without it. But what if we treated motivation like the feeling that it is and figured out how to more actively develop it in ourselves?

If you go to a therapist because you are unhappy, you expect more than a list of ways to get happy. Your therapist will start by helping you explore why you are unhappy and then move on to offering suggestions for dealing with those root causes. The same should be true when it comes to motivation. Feeling unmotivated can have many causes, each suggesting a different route toward change.

Five Reasons for Feeling Unmotivated – And What to Do About Them

With my husband, I suspected that the underlying cause of his lack of motivation was mental fatigue. He had been working hard, we were skimping on restorative activities, and I guessed that he just didn’t have the mental bandwidth for working on his talk.

Sure enough, after a couple days of prescribed mental restoration – in this case, morning walks in the nearby park – he was working with his usual enthusiasm.

But a walk in the park is not a universal prescription for developing motivation. Mental fatigue is one of multiple causes of feeling unmotivated, each of which suggests a different strategy.

Mental fatigue. As was the case with my husband, one symptom of mental fatigue can be a lack of motivation for things that require mental effort. We spend mental energy doing all kinds of tasks that require focus. And if we aren’t refueling the tank at the same rate that we are depleting it, it becomes hard to focus on anything.

When we’re suffering from mental fatigue, it’s time for some mental restoration in the form of good sleep, walks in the park, or other activities that allow the brain to quietly rest and unwind.

Lack of clarity or confidence. Sometimes we shy away from a task because we don’t understand what to do or we feel that we lack the skills to do a good job. This was certainly the case for me with many tasks when we first moved to Barcelona. I had trouble motivating myself to do things like make medical appointments because I didn’t understand the system. And I procrastinated phone calls because I knew it would be uncomfortable muddling through in my fledgling Spanish.

When the problem is a lack of understanding, you can work on building appropriate mental models. I finally cracked the Spanish health system by doing my research and talking to other expats. Making phone calls was easier if I imagined how the conversation might go and wrote out some phrases to keep myself on track – I still might not like making them, but that’s a problem that I can solve through discipline (more on that below).

Feeling overwhelmed. You might have a pretty good idea of what a job will entail, but sometimes it just seems so overwhelming that it’s hard to start. If this is the problem, it can help to break the project down into small concrete tasks.

For me, the hardest thing is usually starting – whether it’s starting a new painting or writing a blog post. If I can identify a first small step and just do that, the rest often starts to flow and I become more motivated to get the job done.

Disliking the task. Feeling unmotivated can just be a reflection of not liking to do the thing that needs doing. Cleaning the bathroom, filling out time sheets, filing taxes – there are some things you many never feel motivated to do. That’s where discipline comes in.

Many people think that discipline is all about willpower and that some people have it and others don’t. But studies have shown that discipline is not an inherent trait – it’s something that you do, not something that you are. Making a plan, setting a schedule, and removing distractions can help create discipline. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel motivated to make calls in Spanish, but I find that if I put them in my calendar and do them in the morning, I can get them done.

A judicial use of treats can also help make a disliked task more palatable. Some people save their favorite podcasts for doing things they don’t enjoy, like working out or cleaning the house. And although using food as a motivator can be a slippery slope, we got our kids up the last bit of many mountain hikes when they were little with well-timed chocolate.

Depression. Depression can make people feel unmotivated and uninterested even in things that normally excite them. Just as with motivation, there are many underlying causes of depression and seeking the help of a mental health professional may be the best way to get at the root causes and identify strategies for addressing them.

Creating Motivation Through Small Experiments

When it comes to motivation, why not be proactive rather than passively waiting for a feeling – one that may never come on its own – to strike?

If you’re not sure what’s causing your lack of motivation, try some small experiments. Refresh your mind by getting out in nature. Brainstorm on all the steps to getting the project done and then start with a small one. Journal about what might help give you more clarity or confidence. See what happens.

I’m sure there are more causes for feeling unmotivated and more good solutions for addressing them. What causes you to feel unmotivated? How do you “get” motivated?


Supportive Environments for Effectiveness (SEE): Model Building and Being Capable. As the SEE framework points out, we rely on our mental models to effectively interact with the world. When we lack the appropriate mental models – for example, if we don’t understand what a project entails or don’t have the skills to carry it out – we may decide that avoidance is the best strategy. In this case, the route to motivation lies in building the appropriate mental models. But even if we have an adequate mental model of a particular project, it can be hard to feel motivated if we’re mentally fatigued. When we’re lacking adequate mental energy, developing motivation requires recharging our mental capability through restorative activities.

Anne Kearney is an artist and writer living in Barcelona, Spain. Her writing and artwork are inspired by her decades of experience as an environmental psychologist working for universities, non-profits and NASA. She has a BA in Cognitive Science from Stanford University and a PhD in Environmental Psychology from the University of Michigan.