What to Do When Your Motivation Plummets

It’s been such nice weather here lately that I find it rather difficult to get to work. It makes me think of a common question that I receive: “Why does motivation wax and wane?”

I think almost everybody wants to experience a state where they work like a machine, where they behave a certain way, and they produce certain work. In that way, they can feel like they’ve achieved productivity, or success, or at least not feel like a complete failure.

So I see a lot of solopreneurs who suffer from insecurity about their productivity or lack thereof. On one hand, it makes sense that you should be hard on yourself because the buck stops with you. There is no one else to pull you up short when you’re misbehaving. But on the other hand no one else praises you either. No one but you can really assess w dohether it’s time to take a break, or you need to power through your work. So you have to be balanced in this kind of thing.

When we ask why motivation waxes and wanes it’s clear that the expectation is that it shouldn’t. But why do we think that? It would be like asking, “Why is there weather? Why isn’t it sunny every day?” The world is a complex interplay of forces that affect your productivity as much as they do the weather.

Is it so crazy to think that working might not be the thing you want to do most right now?

For instance, right now I would dearly like to be outside digging in the dirt. It’s been a long time since I got to dig in the dirt, and the weather is perfect. Hence, being outside is more attractive than sitting at my desk, no matter how much I enjoy the work. This seems obvious, but you would be surprised how often this is overlooked.

Here’s how you usually see it go: Someone says, “Help! I’m not getting enough done! I set my goals and I’m failing at achieving them. I just can’t get motivated.”

And then you look at what they’re doing and it’s A LOT. And as a result, they’re nearing burnout.

The project itself, while important and necessary, is also usually large, stressful, and becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Some might call this lack of motivation Resistance. Personally, I call that self-preservation.

[Tweet “The question isn’t “Why does my motivation wax and wane?”, it’s “Why do you think it shouldn’t?””]

It’s pretty easy to deconstruct lack of motivation, when it isn’t you personally involved. We are predisposed to be generous to our friends. For some reason our generosity does not typically extend towards ourselves. But you can ease this process by imagining what your best friend would tell you. I give you permission. (For some reason people seem to need permission to be as nice to themselves as they would be to someone else).

Tracking the forces that affect you

I’ve been keeping a time log of what I do in a day. It’s pretty simple, since I break the day up into blocks. At the end of each block before I take a break, I write down what I’ve done. I also keep track of what time I got up and how I slept.

I’m aware that this is hard-core nerdery, but it doesn’t take much time, it’s very satisfying, and it allows me to track cycles in my productivity. Using this method I’ve been able to see that I can be productive for a certain number of days, and then I have a couple of days where hardly anything gets accomplished. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Sometimes I need a break. I frequently work weekends with the book business, which means that by Wednesday or so during the workweek I need to expect that my energy level will be low.
  • Sometimes accomplishing things is about preparing for your work. This includes strategizing, researching, planning, and setting up. On days that include a lot of those types of activities, little seems to happen, except that I can note, “prepared to do X.” Preparing for a new project can take days, but it does not really allow you to cross anything off your to-do list.
  • Sometimes you reach a lull between projects. The correct thing to do here is to take a break. Most people want to keep pushing, including me, frequently. But you need to understand that this is a natural break, and if you don’t take the natural break when they’re presented, you’ll be forced to take one at a much more inopportune time.
  • Sometimes my RAM is full. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve had a few developments which have meant that I need to take some quiet time to consider their implications. It seems a poor use of time to sit down and write my thoughts out in my journal. However it’s only by laying out the new facts of the situation that I am able to see the possibilities clearly. I can tell when this is happening, because I spend much more time pointlessly clicking through social media, wanting to relax, but being unable to. Sound familiar? Any time that happens I know I need to regroup.

So I guess the question is not why does my motivation wax and wane?, it’s why do you think it shouldn’t? And to be fair, what we really want is to take one of the more unpredictable aspects of our lives, and get rid of it. Just like weather.

Just like the weather, you need to plan for it. You need to anticipate it. You need to not take it personally. The weather just is.

But, like bad weather, you can make use of the rainy days to do the things that wouldn’t otherwise rate. And when the sun shines, you can REALLY take advantage of it. I’ve found this to be far more productive than heroically trying to ‘turn around’ a low-energy day.