By Cameron Walker
July 29, 2021
This April, I was feeling good. I’d figured out the public pool’s lane-reservation system and swam several times a week. I couldn’t wait to write new stories once my kids went back to school. With vaccines on their way, I even made travel plans.
Three months later, I’m in a slump. The pool stopped requiring reservations, but I haven’t been since June. Between Covid-19 variants and Western wildfires, I’m not fired up about a family road trip. And when my editor asked me to research a story about motivation, all I could think was: Ugh.
Motivation is the energy that gets us to take action — and I’m not the only one finding it hard to come by. Some of us might have full-on burnout after a year-plus of loss, grief and pandemic challenges. Others could feel more like I do — nothing’s terribly wrong, but we can’t quite find our spark. Whatever situation we’re in, a closer look at motivation might give us more fuel to move forward, both day-to-day and into an uncertain future.
The Forces That Move
As you look for your motivation, it helps to think of it falling into two categories, said Stefano Di Domenico, a motivation researcher who teaches at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
First, there’s controlled motivation, when you feel you’re being ruled by outside forces like end-of-year bonuses and deadlines — or inner carrots and sticks, like guilt or people-pleasing. It’s hard to stay motivated when you’re not in the driver’s seat. Often when people say they’ve lost motivation, “what they really mean,” Dr. Di Domenico said, “is ‘I’m doing this because I have to, not because I want to.’”
The second kind, autonomous motivation, is what we’re seeking. This is when you feel like you’re self-directed, whether you have a natural affinity for the task at hand, or you’re doing something because you understand why it’s worthwhile.
I wanted more of that feeling. But when it came to this story, I found that motivation touches so many parts of our lives — school, work, exercise, volunteering, health — that I didn’t know where to begin.
I needed to start small. So I started with a cup of tea.
Tiny, Well-Timed Treats
Looking forward to a reward isn’t the best for long-term motivation. But several studies suggest that pairing small, immediate rewards to a task improves both motivation and fun.
Lora Park, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, ran marathons before kids but now finds it can be hard to find a workout window before dark. When she uses the treadmill for an evening workout, she pairs it with Netflix to make running inside more pleasant.
I gave it a try. I found a favorite mug that I only use while writing and made a special tea or hot chocolate to sip in front of the computer.
Find Your Why
Tea can only take you so far, though. Clinical psychologist Richard M. Ryan, one of two scientists who developed a well-known approach to understanding motivation called self-determination theory, encourages those seeking lasting motivation to take a deep dive into their values.
Dr. Ryan, a professor at Australian Catholic University in North Sydney, said that when you connect the things that are important to you to the things you need to do — even the drudgeries — you can feel more in control of your actions. What do you love about your work? What core value does it meet?
Writing about your values can be a good start, said Tanaya Winder, an Albuquerque-based motivational speaker and poet. Ms. Winder, who teaches workshops on reconnecting to your sense of purpose, often has students free write about what makes them come alive.
Go Far, Together
I tried writing down a few words that resonated with my values. One that kept coming up for me was connection — another key part of motivation.
Ms. Winder said she draws her sense of purpose from her community — she is Duckwater Shoshone, Pyramid Lake Paiute and Southern Ute — and suggested considering how your motivation is tied to the people around you, whether that’s your family or your basketball team.
Social connections like this are critical to rekindling motivation, Dr. Park said, especially following the pandemic’s forced isolation. “Without that fundamental connection, motivation just starts to wither.”
Feeling blah at work? Contact colleagues to collaborate on a project or to ask for specific advice relevant to their expertise. Or organize a brainstorming session, after-work meet-up or other activity to create that connection.
Reaching out lifts others, too. “Letting someone know that you are thinking of them is enough to kick-start their motivation,” and reminds them that you care, Dr. Park said.
Recently, she sent a spontaneous thank-you note to a former college professor, thanking her for teaching a challenging, inspiring class. The professor responded quickly, saying that Dr. Park’s email had raised her flagging spirits.
A Friendly Game of Motivation
People also motivate each other through competition. In a 2016 study, researchers grouped students in an 11-week exercise program into small, online social networks: some groups were competitive, others provided support. Students in competitive groups exercised much more often than those in supportive social networks, said Damon Centola, the senior author of the study and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
People around us influence us more than we might like to believe — so harness that influence by seeking out a dose of competition when you need motivation to exercise, said Dr. Centola, whose book, “Change: How to Make Big Things Happen,” looks at how social networks fuel change.
New athletic adventures can be motivational gold, too. A 2020 study suggested that trying out novel activities can help you stick with exercise.
I needed a little of both: I haven’t returned to the pool, but I heard about a friend’s half-marathon and got the urge to push myself, so I found a fall trail race and started training.
Have Some Self-Compassion
When it comes to writing, though, competition just stresses me out. My internal monologue becomes a meanspirited aerobics instructor who says things like, “You’re lazy and ungrateful!” and “Finish this story, or you’ll never work again!”
This doesn’t help. Treating ourselves with compassion works much more effectively than beating ourselves up, said Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “People think they’re going to shame themselves into action,” yet self-compassion helps people stay focused on their goals, reduces fear of failure and improves self-confidence, which can also improve motivation, she said.
To start, Dr. Neff suggested pausing to ask yourself what you need. Maybe you’ll find it’s time to refocus on your purpose, or notice you’re ready to ask for outside support. Sometimes simply acknowledging you’re going through a hard time, and that this is a normal part of life, is all it takes.
Self-compassion doesn’t mean you’ll go soft or lose your drive, Dr. Neff said. Her new book, “Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive,” highlights a study of university students who did poorly on a challenging vocabulary test. Students who were encouraged to be compassionate toward themselves after the test studied longer and performed better on a follow-up test, compared to students given either simple self-esteem-boosting comments or no instruction.
“The key thing about self-compassion and motivation is that it allows you to learn from your failures,” Dr. Neff said.
You’re Not Alone
And I’ve got plenty of failures to learn from, so on a morning run, I gave self-compassion a try. What did I need? First, exercise and more sleep. I could consider new approaches to this story and ask some colleagues for advice. Then I realized what I really needed to do: pay attention.
I looked around. Even at dawn, I wasn’t alone: I saw dog walkers and maintenance workers, people commuting to work, people pulling up their masks. I imagined people in hospitals and homes, starting a new day whether they felt like it or not. The idea of all of us, trying and failing and trying again, carried me to the end of the run and to the end of this story. And if you’re still reading, you’ve found enough motivation to get here, too.
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