The Myth of Motivation

This time a few years ago, while slogging through the final chapter of my dissertation, I had lunch with a friend. At one point, I lamented to him, “If I could just find the motivation to get through the last few paragraphs, I’d be done with this thing, once and for all.” He responded with, “Why wait? You should just embrace the pain and get it done. It’d be worth it.” At the time, I stared back at him with confusion (and frankly, more than a little annoyance); however, in the years since that conversation, I’ve recalled his words often and reflected upon the realization that my friend was absolutely right.

There is a prevailing notion in our culture that we cannot do something unless we feel motivated to do it. However, in his book, Beat the Blues Before They Beat You, Dr. Robert Leahy points out that we do plenty of things each day that we don’t want to do – we go to class or work when we’re not feeling well, we put up with behavior we don’t like from other people, and we do our dishes. According to Dr. Leahy, we don’t need to feel motivated, comfortable, or ready to do something in order to do it; we need to be willing to tolerate the discomfort of doing it. He calls this notion “constructive discomfort” – the perspective that discomfort (rather than being too much for us), is an inevitable part of any life worth living. It’s a temporary inconvenience, a challenge that can leave us feeling empowered that we have overcome obstacles.

Most importantly, Dr. Leahy also points out that rather than causing behavior, motivation is created by behavior. Anyone who has ever said some version of, “I didn’t feel like going to the gym, but once I got there, I was so glad I went,” should be able to relate to this idea. Essentially, action creates motivation. All of this feels important to share with you because I imagine that resources may running low right now as we head toward the end of the academic year (and, for some of you, graduation).

Here are a few other tips and ideas that I hope will help you in accomplishing tasks you may not feel motivated to do right now:

  • Examine the long-term and short-term costs and benefits of continuing to avoid or actually doing what you’ve been putting off.
  • Think of your goals and values and then consider how they relate to your uncompleted tasks.
  • Ask yourself when you tend to work most effectively (e.g., are you a morning person?) and plan to complete tasks then.
  • When you catch yourself avoiding a task, ask yourself what you are thinking and feeling about it (e.g., “I’ve got plenty of time”), assess the accuracy of those thoughts, and, if needed, challenge them (e.g., “Although I have a lot of time to work on this, I’ll feel a lot better once it’s done.”).
  • Set up your environment in ways that maximize the likelihood you’ll get your work done and minimize potential distractions (e.g., study where you find it easier to focus, leave your phone in your car, etc.).
  • Worst-first approach: Get the hardest and most unpleasant part of your task out of the way immediately.
  • Bits and pieces approach: Do anything related to the task you want to accomplish, starting with something easy and gradually doing more until the task doesn’t seem so impossible.
  • Sit down and work on something for just five minutes, and at the end of those five minutes, move onto something else or set yourself another five minutes on your original task; most likely, you’ll already be invested enough by that point to keep going.
  • Break overwhelming tasks down into smaller, more manageable chunks and schedule those, focusing on completing just one piece at a time.
  • Say to yourself in the present tense that you are doing the thing that you would like to accomplish (e.g., “I’m writing my essay right now”). This may sound silly, but if you try it you will discover that it directs your energy and focus toward the activity you have been avoiding.
  • Use pleasurable activities (e.g., watching Netflix) to reward yourself when you’ve done your work — rather than using those activities as a way to avoid that work!

If you’ve tried these strategies and still find that you’re unable to meet your responsibilities, consider reaching out for help from the Counseling Center (or another appropriate resource). Take care of yourselves – summer is right around the corner!

Susie Musch, Ph.D.

Staff Psychologist