Exploring Motivation

Motivation seems fairly straightforward on the surface, but when you don’t have the motivation to complete basic daily tasks, it suddenly becomes complicated. And it can be frustrating to know that you’re on top of everything you need to do at work and at home but feel like you don’t know how to get yourself to want to work out every night when you get home.

Motivation is huge in therapy. Many people come to therapy looking to regain the motivation they used to have, to explore why they can’t seem to do the things they want to do, basically how to get yourself to want to do the things you have to do.

Motivation is also a bit of a paradox. My clients who are depressed, lost, and frustrated are all looking for the motivation to get them going in life. But my clients who are high functioning don’t see motivation as a relevant factor. They don’t work out every day because they want to, but because it’s built into their routines.

Structure and habit seem to be the key to bypassing motivation. If you only get out of bed when you want to, there will be some days when you simply don’t feel like it. But if you get out of bed every morning when your alarm goes off, you don’t have to check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling first.

This is why many unmotivated people can do well at work but are unable to follow through on what they would like to be doing with their personal time. The external structure of work creates certain obligations- be up and ready by a certain time in the morning whether you want to or not, do your routine job tasks regardless of how you’re feeling, attend meetings when they’re scheduled even if it’s not your preference. At home it’s flipped. You want to start reading more, take up a new hobby or craft project, do a puzzle. But then the “I’ll just watch one episode with dinner” becomes a few episodes, or you’re comfy on the couch and it feels easier to stay seated than to get up and do some yoga.

How do you motivate yourself? By creating a habit. By creating a new narrative of how your evenings go. By deciding that I am a person who works out every day after work whether I feel like it or not. By deciding that every night at 9pm all the screens go off and I’m going to read until it’s time for bed.

The narrative is the key. It shapes your new identity as someone who does these things instead of someone who wants to start doing those things someday. Identity stories are powerful. When it’s 5am, an identity story of “I’d like to be a runner but I’m not there yet” isn’t going to get you out of bed. But when you decide “I’m a morning runner,” you find that your motivation shapes itself to the identity that you declare for yourself. Of course it isn’t as simple as naming yourself a runner, but that’s often the first step.

Try it on with something you’ve been meaning to start or get better at.
“I’m the kind of person who……”
“I ……….. every night after work.”
“I like to ……….. at least three times a week.”

These decisions are powerful. If you work out every day after work and have that as part of your narrative of who you are as a person, it shapes your schedule. When coworkers ask if you want to get drinks after work, you can draw on your identity story to protect your time and let them know you’ve got to work out first and you’ll join them after.

As you shape these identity narratives into a habit, the action becomes routine. Motivation is not a relevant factor. You wake up early to run because that’s just what you do. Think of other routines you have. Severely depressed people often don’t shower or brush their teeth because they can’t motivate themselves to get up and take care of their hygiene. But most people don’t even think about it. They brush their teeth at certain times of the day whether they feel like it or not, even when they’re rushed or exhausted.

Focus on motivation isn’t helpful because it requires you to be monitoring your internal state which is naturally highly variable. You will not always “feel like” doing things you need to do. Deciding that you want to take on a new habit means that you decide that you will do things regardless of your internal feelings about the new routine.

Here’s the lesson: if you’re focused on motivation, you’re looking for internal resources to create an external structure. Try it the other way instead. Create the external structures- scheduling, habit forming, identity narrative- and don’t worry about waiting until you feel like following through. Because once you’ve created that habit, it doesn’t matter if you internally want to keep going, it’s just something that you do.