Sometimes Your Mental Motivation Sucks

[5 Minute Read + Video]Stop chastising yourself for struggling with motivation; it won't change the outcome. If you want get moving again, make the effort worthwhile.

Discover more about your bold mind every Monday

Sometimes Your Mental Motivation Sucks

Stop chastising yourself for struggling with motivation; it won’t change the outcome. If you want get moving again, make the effort worthwhile.

INTRO VIDEO: Sometimes your mental motivation sucks.

“I’m stuck in a rut.”

I’ve heard those words frequently in recent weeks as many people struggle with motivation. We’re halfway through a year in which the need to pivot, adapt and dig deep continues to escalate.

One woman I spoke with is recovering from a short stint in hospital. Before entering the hospital, she created a bucket list of fun activities for when she recovered. She’s got the all-clear from her doctor to start ticking items off that list, but, in her words, she “just can’t seem to get started”.  

Another woman had developed a nasty reaction to Microsoft Word. She wants to update her CV and apply for a new job, but her mind goes blank whenever she looks at the flashing cursor on a page.

These women have busy lives and are well-accustomed to achieving goals. They’re neither lazy nor expect life to hand them riches on a silver platter. So why can’t they do these relatively simple tasks?

The “rut” is an effort-reward deficit.

We’re all familiar with going into a motivational slump; I’m sure I don’t need to describe how that feels.

However, most people don’t know the cause of that slump.

No energy, a lack of focus, and succumbing to distraction are all symptoms and consequences of demotivation; they’re not the cause.

Your ability to motivate yourself results from a complex chain reaction between your senses, beliefs and the delivery of dopamine to the reward centre of your brain. I explain this in detail in Dopamine Turns No-Getters Into Go-Getters.

In short, Your brain has a finite amount of energy available, and it selectively deploys those reserves to maximise the return on investment. It assesses the relative value of a task based on the dopamine released when you think about doing that thing.

If your brain thinks it will have to expend much effort for only a small reward, you’ll experience a motivation slump. Your brain will decide not to waste energy on that task.

An example of that chain reaction unfolded while writing this story.

I hit writer’s block a couple of hours ago. The effort-reward deficit is a complex concept, and I have typed and deleted sentence after sentence, trying to uncover the simplest way to explain it. That expended a lot of mental energy, and my concentration waned as my brain burned into its reserves. I went to the fridge to find a snack, sat back down to my computer, and tried again.

A few minutes later, my eyes drifted to the wall near my computer, and I stared at it blankly.

In this instance, my brain assessed that I was exerting too much effort without a commensurate level of reward, so it stopped that activity. My motivation hit zero.

I decided to take a break and check off other items on my to-do list. One thing I had to do was check on the horses in the back paddock. Within a moment of thinking about it, I was out of my chair, boots on, and out the front door. I had transformed into a highly motivated state.

I walked two kilometres up and down hills in cold weather along a challenging trail to reach the back paddock.

PHOTO: Out in the back paddock with Chancellor (horse) and Hercules (dog). The rewards of this activity make the strenuous work feel effortless.

There are easier ways to get there. I could have taken my car or motorbike, which would have taken less effort. But my brain didn’t even consider those options because it wanted the dopamine fix I experience when outdoors, walking hills with the dogs and horses. My brain gained a massive reward, which made the effort worthwhile. In fact, my brain valued the reward so highly that the strenuous activity felt “effortless.”

How to dig yourself out of a motivation rut

Some of the common motivational tactics you’ll read about won’t get you out of your rut because they fail to address the effort-reward equation inside your bold mind. Here’s are three examples.

Don’t: Give yourself a stiff talking.

A popular way to get yourself moving is to dig in the mental spurs, tell yourself to stop being lazy, to harden up, that everyone will think less of you if you can’t do XYZ.

But, negative self-talk does more damage than good because it erodes your self-esteem and fails to progress your brain’s understanding of the effort required or reward gained.

Don’t: Dose up on caffeine.

Caffeine alone won’t cure your motivation issue but will burn more mental energy than a V8 supercar. Our CV writer has tried this approach, but all she achieved was a caffeine-fuelled cleaning frenzy and no CV. She had increased her capacity for effort but had yet to identify the commensurate reward her brain sought.

Don’t: Self-sacrifice

Altruism has its rewards, but it alone will only sustain your motivation if you’re clear about how you benefit.

Our bucket list lady is a natural giver. When she reviewed her bucket list, she noticed many activities were about doing things for other people. There wasn’t much on there that was purely about her.

You must be clear about the personal rewards if you want sustained motivation. That’s not selfish; it is a biological fact of how our brains work. You can dedicate your life to the service of others; I do. But be clear about why you’re doing it, how it enriches your life, and that service will become “effortless”.

So, if these tactics don’t work, what does? I’m glad you asked.

Do: Understand your inner drivers.

Intrinsic motivation (your inner drive) is the most potent source of sustained motivation. To access that power, you need to know your inner drivers so well that you can name them and keep them at the top of your mind. We can work on this together during Answer Your Calling if this is new territory for you. Meanwhile, below is my Intrinsic Motivation Map.

If I feel a motivational lull, I look at my Intrinsic Motivation Map and work out how I can amplify one of those themes within the task that I’m doing. Think of it like a spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

IMAGE: My Intrinsic Motivation Map created during Answer Your Calling

Do: Break tasks into mini-wins

One way to rebalance the effort-reward equation is to reduce the effort required before your brain gains a reward. It feels good to give yourself a green “done” tick. So give yourself lots of them!

Mini-wins are a fantastic way to regain momentum and dose up on dopamine.

Let’s use our CV writer as an example.

She set herself the task of writing a CV, which would kick-start the long, often arduous process of finding a new job. In her mind, the reward was finding a new job, which was a long way off. She had lots of work to do beforehand.

But, by breaking that big task down into smaller chunks, she starts earning some green ticks sooner.

✅ Download a CV writing guide

✅ Write the previous experience list

✅ Write intro paragraph

Better still, if she could incorporate some of her inner drivers into the activities. If it were me, I could amp up the reward by giving myself permission to sit under my favourite tree for 15 minutes a day while I worked on my CV.

In my mind, that no longer sounds like “work.”

Discover more about your bold mind every Monday

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