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You’re not alone if you’re having a hard time getting stuff done lately: One of the many things that have gone out the window since the pandemic began is motivation itself. This is a daunting time — even without the coronavirus, there are many overwhelming challenges before us.

The dramatic changes in our lifestyles in the last year have profoundly affected our energy levels. This is partly due to feeling highly stressed for too long. Adrenaline gets us going, but we can’t sustain that rush for weeks at a time.

There’s also been a new kind of sameness in our day-to-day lives, a Groundhog Day aspect to this last year. A repetitive routine can be especially dulling.

The pandemic has presented an odd paradox: Our high-level stress is too high, while our day-to-day stress is too low. A little bit of stress is a good thing; it keeps us focused and energized. Having something to anticipate — a trip to plan, or even preparing to leave the house and go elsewhere to work — raises our stress levels just enough to provide an added edge.

But we often lack that stimulus while simultaneously bearing up under constant uncertainty with few distractions. It can be hard to stay upbeat, positive, or attentive when the future looks unclear, and when we feel there is so little we can do to affect it.

Yet even in the best of times, moti­vation is fleeting by nature. Even for the most driven, it’s a transient state. Sometimes we have it and sometimes we don’t.

So, I invite you to avoid seeing yourself as bad, broken, or lacking when you feel unmotivated or apathetic. You are human, and like everything else you desire, motivation is impermanent.

It’s also helpful to know that moti­vation exists on a spectrum. We all experience varying degrees of it that are constantly in flux, moment to moment and day to day. When you’re feeling unmotivated, try to remember that yesterday, a month ago, or last year, you were energized. And you will be again.

Best of all, your degree of motivation does not have the final say. Sure, it’s easier to get things done if you actually feel like doing them, but it’s entirely possible to get things done even when you lack motivation. These four steps can help you get going when your energy is low.

1. See what is.

Mindful awareness allows you to see things clearly — not as you want them to be, but as they are.

Here’s an example: Assume that you are lacking in motivation. That is something you can recognize, without judgment. Seeing that, you say to yourself, At this moment, I do not feel motivated. That is simply a nonjudgmental statement of what is.

If instead you said, I’m so unmotivated, I can’t get anything done. I’m just lazy, that’s all! then you have gone from a simple observation to adding a critical assessment. Notice how much unnecessary harm that second statement adds?

2. Accept what is.

The second step is a lot easier than it seems. Many people believe that acceptance means allowing something negative to remain as it is, without trying to change it. That’s not how I understand it.

Acceptance is simply about seeing and accepting that at this moment, you’re not very motivated. You don’t deny it or beat yourself over the head with it. You just accept yourself and your current lack of motivation as the way things are.

Then you can decide what you want to do about it, without spending more time and energy on futile self-criticism.

3. Make a choice.

Ultimately, the lack of motivation is just another feeling, and you don’t need to allow your feelings to have the last word. Seeing what is and accepting what is, you still have the capacity to exercise choice.

You can decide how you will respond to this state of affairs, no matter how you feel. For example, I might say to myself, I don’t feel like doing anything productive right now; it’s probably best to rest for a while. Maybe that will help me get some strength to do something later.

Or I might conclude, I really feel unmotivated. My energy is low, but I’m still going to take care of this now. I may not be able to give it my best effort, but I’ll feel better if I just do something. I can come back and improve on it later if I need to.

4. Take the long view.

Most of us have experienced  a prolonged, unproductive, unmotivated funk. Maybe it’s from the pandemic, or maybe it was caused by repeated discouragement, the effect of a long winter, depression, or something else.

Whatever the case, it may have become “the way things are” and it’s hard to see how to escape it. This is not always something that you can shake off with a couple of quick actions, but that doesn’t mean you’re stuck feeling stuck forever.

When you’re really lagging, try to break motivation down into the tiniest steps: Did you get out of bed this morning? Can you return one phone call? Write one grocery list? None of this requires that you achieve perfection.

Taking the long view just asks that you make small choices most of the time that move you toward being more fully alive. When you do that, motivation will, eventually, arise of its own accord.

Henry
Henry Emmons, MD

Henry Emmons, MD is an integrative psychiatrist and the author of The Chemistry of Joy, The Chemistry of Calm, and Staying Sharp. He is the cofounder of NaturalMentalHealth.com.

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