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Where is my motivation?

Absolutely typical that the moment you sit down to write about motivation, it disappears completely.

I say that like I should be surprised. Motivation’s been in short supply the last few years, and it’s not just me saying it.

The pandemic left us with a condition called “languishing”. Something the New York Times referred to as “the blah you’re feeling”. Writer Adam Grant described it as a sense of stagnation and emptiness:

“It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless.”

I feel like that languishing feeling hasn’t really gone anywhere. I feel like we’re all still feeling a bit depleted, even if it feels weird to admit that a few years on. And I feel like it’s getting harder and harder to get fired up and stay motivated.

Depending on what study you read, just 15% of the global workforce feels motivated at work (this is according to Gallup). Which would lead you to believe a whopping 85% of people don’t.

I feel like it’s impossible to pin down a totally accurate figure to illustrate how motivated people feel at work, because it probably changes on a daily basis.

What motivates us appears be changing too: anecdotally, job security and a hefty pay cheque seem a lot lower down the list of priorities than they otherwise have been. People seem to be actively avoiding toxic leaders, unsupportive cultures, and glass ceilings.

Brands with purpose, businesses that give something back or try to change the world for the better, and working cultures that actually cooperate have the edge in not only attracting talent but retaining people as well.

As you might guess, when people feel motivated at work they’re generally more productive, profitable, helpful to others, less likely to resign, and overall cool to be around. So why aren’t we all tapping into it?

What is motivation?

As with many things – happiness, imposterism, trust – you probably don’t need a definition for motivation spelled out for you. You know what it is when you feel it.

Motivation’s easy to identify when you’re in it. You feel energised, hungry, driven. It’s sometimes harder to pin down feeling unmotivated. Because it’s the absence of those feelings, a sense of disengagement, of lethargy, of not.

You know when you can’t seem to get the energy to exercise?

Once you get started, you know you’ll ease into it, you might even get carried away and enjoy yourself, and by the end you’ll probably feel really good you did it. For some reason though, no matter how much you tell yourself that, you’re sitting still on the edge of your bed, looking at your phone, not moving.

Motivation is similar. It takes a heck of a lot of energy to even unpack the contents of your head before you can start moving forward. Here’s what’s going on in your brain when you feel motivated (or not as the case may be):

When you complete a task your brain usually produces a hormone called dopamine – a happy chemical. You feel good about completing the task, and if you complete another one, your brain knows you’ll get to enjoy the same feeling again.

“…dopamine has a crucial role in motivational control – in learning what things in the world are good and bad, and in choosing actions to gain the good things and avoid the bad things.”

Sounds like a nifty little system doesn’t it? And for the most part, it is.

The problem is, if you’ve been stuck in a relentlessly challenging period – like, I don’t know, living through a global health crisis, war, and the burgeoning cost of living – or if the payoff you get from completing tasks, or more broadly that sense of fulfilment you feel at work, isn’t what it used to be, it can be really hard to generate motivation from nothing.

You’re sitting on the edge of your bed when you know you should be in the gym again.

How to stay motivated

The way it feels like it should work is: you receive a piece of advice, hear a motivational speech, or read an inspirational quote, and that’s it: you’re motivated. Immediately and permanently, job done.

If only. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Feeling motivated, like almost any other feeling, is fleeting and temporary.

It takes daily practice and care to maintain motivation. I personally have to rev up my motivation like I’m pulling the rip cord on an old chainsaw or a gas powered lawn mower. Often multiple times a day. Sometimes multiple times an hour. And it doesn’t always work.

People refer to “burning” passions or having “fire in their belly” or some other kind of flame-based imagery to describe their sense of motivation. And while it’s a literary cliche, it does help to picture a fire.

You can’t just light it once and it blazes forever. It takes concerted effort to maintain and control, a continuous supply of fuel, a stable environment, optimal conditions, consistency, care, and protection to keep it going and stop it spilling out of control.

Author and entrepreneur James Clear says motivation often comes after starting a new behaviour, not before. So waiting for it to occur naturally might mean you’re waiting a while:

“Motivation is often the result of action, not the cause of it. Getting started, even in very small ways, is a form of active inspiration that naturally produces momentum.”

“You don’t need much motivation once you’ve started a behavior. Nearly all of the friction in a task is at the beginning. After you start, progress occurs more naturally. In other words, it is often easier to finish a task than it was to start it in the first place.”

How coaching helps motivation

I think what I’m learning about coaching being at Sanctus is the interconnectedness of everything.

You might come to a Sanctus session wanting to talk about struggling with drive and motivation. But what you soon realise is you’ve actually got plenty of motivation, for a ton of different things, it just may not be channeled in the right way.

Coaching doesn’t claim to give you all the answers or spoonfeed motivation to you. The way it works is by looking at all the different moving parts of your life, helping you see things more clearly, and thinking about your situation differently.

The key to a lot of the coaching process is to get connected to your true self, your inner strength and wisdom. So the first thing to do is work out what actually works for you. Forget motivation and drive for a moment.

Ask yourself: what gives me energy? Or excitement? What makes me feel inspired?

One thing I’ve found personally useful – as was the case writing this piece – is forcing yourself to start. Which is much easier said than done.

I find a trigger for me losing motivation is when the task seems so enormous it doesn’t appear to be doable. I know once I get into it I’ll end up making progress and (eventually) getting it done. But I often have to say to myself: “I’ll just work on this for an hour and then see where we are”.

I usually surprise myself. And that makes it easier to carry on.

The other thing is what one Forbes article refers to as “chunking”. Which is to simply break big tasks into much smaller ones so they don’t seem as daunting. Hardly rocket surgery but sometimes the simple things are the most effective.

There are different approaches to cultivating and stirring up motivation. Different coaches use different approaches and techniques. And there’s no guarantee what works for one person will work for another.

If you’ve felt your motivation dwindling lately, first of all, that’s perfectly normal and there’s nothing wrong with it.

You might be asking yourself: where is my motivation?

Rest assured it’s where it’s always been: in whatever makes you feel alive.

Sanctus Coaches help people get in touch with their motivations, process thoughts and feelings, and work out plans to move forward in life. To learn more about how they work, click the image above. Or here.