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Motivation Breakdown: What to Do When Your Driving Force Stalls

"Seasonal Motivation / TempusVolat / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Seasonal Motivation” / TempusVolat / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

No matter how clear my goal is, or how badly I want it, at some point I’m going to lose motivation. Guaranteed.  My energy level ebbs and flows, even if my underlying ambition doesn’t. It doesn’t matter what it is, I will lose steam, feel frustrated, and try to reason my way out of doing exactly the thing I set out to do.

Case in point: after an initial burst of energy to launch Lotus in Progress I hit a serious wall and haven’t feel like writing at all – an unfortunate development when you’ve just done a ton of work to start a site where you’re the only one writing the content. So this is my first post in weeks. Oops. I abandoned many other projects in the past however and it took a long time before I recognized the pattern of self-sabotage. Identifying the point at which you veer off track is a crucial first step, but it’s not enough to reverse the trend on its own. 

But it did get me thinking about the nature of habit formation and my expectations for progress. It serves to reason that if you want to arrive at a destination, then you’ll also want to take the necessary steps to get there…right? Nope. Often we’d prefer to reap the benefits without putting in the work – all gain and no pain, so to speak – and that lack of drive means we get nowhere at all.

Is that longing to teleport straight to success just laziness? An child-like wish for instant gratification? I don’t think necessarily so. I’ll be the first to admit that I can veg out like a pro and, yes, I have days where I wear pajamas like a uniform, but in general “lazy” is not a word I think most people would use to describe me. So what’s really going on when our driving force begins to stall?

Most of our behaviors, even voluntarily self-destructive ones, served a psychological need once, conscious or not. Repeat those actions consistently (not just for 21 days as the myth goes) and they develop into habits.  The problems arise when those behaviors stop serving their purposes and instead disrupt our functioning, hamper our growth, and cause negative effects to our bodies, psyches, and relationships. Those old ways are dysfunctional but they’re also very well established. Forming new habits means working directly against deeply ingrained practices and well-worn routes to comfort and literally forging new pathways in our brains. Needless to say, it’s a lot harder to break ground and blaze a new trail than it is to ride down a well-paved road in cruise control. It’s no wonder that staying motivated gets hard.

To be ready to fight the motivational lull, it helps to first look at where you’re coming from, what exactly you’re moving towards and why. It will be easier to repair your broken-down car if you can first understand what makes it run. Some people find consulting counselors, therapists, or other professionals helpful, but even if you do it on your own or with a friend, a little self-reflection goes a long way to fueling your progress. In my opinion, if you take some time to better understand the context for the situation you’re trying to remedy, your efforts will be more fruitful.   [SIDE NOTE: Various schools of psychotherapy differ on the value of analyzing a person’s history in achieving successful behavioral change. Click here for more information on the various schools of psychological thought.

Reminding myself of the above works for a little while to calm the voices of self-criticism that activate when my energy wanes, but ultimately they return. Berating yourself during times of hardship only serves to push you further down and make getting back on track that much harder. Finding a way to stay positive is imperative for me. It’s easier said than done though. I know that it’s not realistic to expect tireless, high-energy motivation and unwavering focus all the time, but that doesn’t make the motivational wall any less looming. 

So what do you do when you run out of fuel? Your shortage of driving force threatens to derail you completely but it can feel so overwhelming to combat. What’s the solution? Patience

No secret trick or mind hack here – just plain old patience. I don’t mean walk away and wait for the motivation to return. Sit idle for too long and getting back on the horse just gets harder. I mean have patience with yourself, patience with the habits that you’re trying to shed, and patience with the process of change itself. We are human and complicated, not Energizer bunnies. It took years to build our routines, they’re not going to vanish overnight. Lasting change takes time to cultivate and that means perseverance. 

Ok so now you’re patient. But still, how do you re-ignite the spark that drives you to carry on? I don’t usually take tips from corporate America, but Tom Bartow, a nationally recognized business coach, spells out some helpful techniques that he calls “fight-thru’s”. Patience might keep you from throwing in the towel, but it takes courage and pro-active steps to make your way over the  wall. 

1. RECOGNIZE: Recognition is essential for winning the fight thru. When you have entered the fight through, simply say to yourself, “I have entered the fight thru, and I need to win a few to move past this.” Winning each fight thru will make it easier to win the next. Conversely, when you choose to lose a fight thru, you make it easier to lose the next one.

2. ASK 2 QUESTIONS: “How will I feel if I do this?” and “How will I feel if I don’t do this?” Bring EMOTION into the equation. Let yourself feel the positive in winning the fight thru and the negative in losing.

3. LIFE PROJECTION: If the above 2 techniques haven’t moved you to action, then imagine in great detail how your life will be in 5 years if you do not begin making changes. Be totally honest with yourself, and allow yourself to feel what life will be like if the changes are not made.

– excerpted from Jason Selk’s Forbes.com article

If forming new habits and meeting our goals was easy, we’d all just shoot directly to happiness, success, and prosperity. It’s the struggle that makes success satisfying. The enormity of the effort required is what gives our achievements their meaning. So perhaps we should even love our struggles! 

Personally, when I’m unmotivated I’d rather strangle my struggles than hug them, and that’s exactly where the patience comes in. Staying patient and understanding with your frustrations can go a long way into breathing new life into your drive to overcome yourself. The road to change is bumpy as hell and keeping calm isn’t always easy or even realistic…but do carry on. 

 

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