Low motivation comes in many forms. The truth is that it’s not always easy to get ourselves to do things! When we talk about motivation we don’t usually clarify just what that word means in particular. It’s actually bigger than we tend to think: it can mean the passion and desire to do something, the capacity to discipline ourselves towards an activity, or the willpower to force ourselves. In any case, it is the sense that with some purely inward and intrinsic force, I will get a thing going and get that thing done.
But of course, those are very different things! Learning the discipline to brush my teeth before bed is very different than allowing the inner passion for play to take over my afternoon! What’s important about recognizing how wide of a category motivation is, is that it becomes quickly apparent that not every case of “low motivation” is the same.
The “Motivation” Spectrum
This spectrum includes both internal and external sources of “doing things,” and goes from one extreme to the other. Have a look at each of these categories and consider how different it feels to conduct an activity, or apply your attention, depending on what generates that activity. Being coerced to do something implies powerful forces of inner resistance, a willingness to fight. Obsession is almost the complete opposite—an overwhelming and compulsive need to do the thing in which resistance feels futile. Routine and discipline appear similar, though routine has an ease to it while discipline is a challenge. Habits and structures and lifestyles allow things to happen pretty seamlessly. Most of these activities go unnoticed and undiscussed. Passion brings a sense of joy to the activity, making it a pleasure to do, easy to get started. Motivation and purpose are words which occupy a tricky middle ground—they are filled with a sense of morality—that we “should” feel it, that it is a shame if we don’t.
The point is that we do a huge variety of things every day, every week, every year, and that activity is generated by a huge variety of forces external and internal. Some we notice and some we don’t. But there’s something interesting that happens with questions of “motivation,” and it can make us feel deficient or guilty if we start seeing ourselves as lacking motivation.
Key Questions for “Low Motivation”
Let’s present 5 key questions to explore with “low motivation” which get under the surface, instead of just taking it at face value.
- Is it reported or actual
- Is it global or local
- Is it a can’t or a won’t
- Is it personally distressing or distressing to others
- Is it part of a larger story
Question 1: Is it really true? Is it reported or actual?
When a client arrives with a problem, we can be sure that the experience is valid. They are distressed at the sense that they lack motivation. But for a minute let’s look at this thought experiment: for all intents and purposes I am a highly motivated person. I get a lot of things done with relative ease. BUT—let’s imagine that for whatever reason my internal perspective was that I was lazy and unmotivated. I got that idea from somewhere, and that is how I see myself. In this case we can say that the feeling is VALID but it is NOT ACCURATE.
Motivation is connected to identity, to morality, to performance, to sense of worth. It is shameful to many of us to feel low motivation, in addition to the fact that actually being low on motivation makes it difficult for us to achieve important outcomes in our life. So it is important to examine both the feeling and the actuality of motivation, to DECOUPLE these two parts from each other and explore each of them independently.
It is often true that the internal feeling of being “lazy” is associated with shame, with old narratives about the self, or with the reports of other people — parents, teachers — who criticized without understanding.
Question 2: Is it the exception or the rule?
When we are distressed by “low motivation” we are often concerned that this is a function of who we are. Several mental health disorders include challenges with motivation in their symptoms—consider depression and ADHD. So often there is a pervasive feeling that something is wrong with us.
Discovering whether or not motivation issues are global or local in nature can help relieve this worry. Using the above Motivation Spectrum can help expand the areas and ways in which we “do things” in all kinds of areas of our life, and by zooming out we can start to get a picture of just how big or how small, how general or how particular, this problem with motivation is.
We might be wondering if our “equipment” is broken. But if we discover that is only in very particular domains that our “motivation” seems to “fail,” then this is very good evidence that our system is working fine, and that there is some sort of more specific problem with that realm of activity in particular. For example, if I am often motivated to be a good partner to my spouse, but I am finding it difficult to focus at my job, it is less likely that the analysis of a “disordered motivation system” is accurate, and more likely that there is something going on with my relationship to work.
Question 3: Can’t or Won’t?
One of the benefits of saying “I can’t” is that we don’t have to say “I won’t.”
For most people, motivation problems are domain specific. Their motivation “equipment” is working fine in many areas of life, but there are some areas where motivation feels hard to come by.
A key question here is “Do you WANT to do this thing?” For example, a client might say, “I can’t get motivated to focus on my partner when they talk to me about their day.” In a trusting therapeutic relationship we can sincerely explore the questions of whether this is a can’t or a won’t.
Consider the alternatives. In the first case, I tell my wife that my brain is struggling to listen to her and that this saddens me. In the second case, I would have to tell her that I am not interested in what she’s saying, and I don’t want to listen to her. This is harsh and would have obvious relational consequences. And yet, it’s worth investigating whether the “can’t” that we report is an accurate reflection of the brain’s capacity, or more of a “relational shortcut.”
The same is true with work and school, the most common domain of “low motivation” complaints. Children aren’t allowed to say to parents and teachers that they don’t want to do boring homework—this is not given any legitimacy in our society. It simply has no utility as a statement. “Can’t” is functional when “won’t” isn’t. But “can’t” has the unfortunately side effect of building internal and external narratives and identities about what my ultimate capabilities are, and that puts one into a category of deficiency.
The truth is… we don’t get motivated about things we don’t care about. Caring takes many forms such as loving the task or desiring the outcome or catering to the expectations of others. Each of these can create a genuine interest to do the thing. But where no authentic motivation exists, to not be motivated is natural and normal and appropriate!
Society, friends and family all have ideas about what we should be motivated about. To differ from these is not a bad thing, but it can be a challenge to take ownership of as an adult.
Question 4: Who cares about this?
Is this “low motivation” personally distressing or distressing to others? Did this idea of low motivation arise from within or from the voice of others?
In many cases, reports of low motivation are rooted in the criticisms of others, often old, which have been internalized. When we have been given consistent messaging about yourself—or have been given labels with associated symptomologies like ADHD or depression—we start to view ourselves within that lens, regardless of whether or not it is accurate.
Is “low motivation” a viewpoint that is rooted in shame, self criticism, or the criticism of others? Is it rooted in childhood experiences when “can’t vs won’t” were never fully given voice? Is it rooted in a very domain-specific lack of “motivation” that has been globalized into an identity?
The key question to know here is “In what ways is this holding you back,” and then sincerely being curious about whether or not this is accurate or a narrative.
Question 5: Is this part of a larger story?
Much of this article so far has been about questions the accuracy of reported experiences of low motivation. But of course, it’s true that sometimes there is a vast lack of internal momentum. This is most commonly associated with severe episodes of depression and is better understood in the framework of “collapse.”
There is a situation in life in which it makes most sense to have no motivation. This is when two things are true: the future is looking bad and my actions will not help the situation. In this case, action can be incredibly frustrating and saddening, and our brain-body gives us a mercy by cutting all force of inner movement. We shift, psychological, physically, and hormonally into a state of passive endurance.
This is a distinct case.
Many stories of low motivation fit that final category. We want to want to do it…. but we don’t simply want to do it. We think the outcomes will be good for us, or we wish to stop disappointing people… but we don’t feel authentic motivation for the task.
In these situation we all to often shift to the language of “can’t,” capitulate to the criticisms of self and other, and begin to experience ourself as deficient, as having “low motivation.” This is worth thinking twice about, and clinical counselling can help.
If this article resonates with you, send a link to your Counsellor to help with these conversations.