Why Trying to Motivate Yourself Can Sometimes Backfire

Megan Holstein

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When we talk about motivation, we use language like “a lack of motivation.” We say “I need to do my homework, but I lack motivation,” or “I feel so unmotivated!”

Let’s stop and think about it. What do we mean by “unmotivated?”

Most of the time, we do not experience “unmotivation.” We want to do things, so we do them.

  • We want to take a shower, so we take a shower.
  • We want to make breakfast, so we make breakfast.
  • We want to eat, so we eat.

We’re motivated to do these things, although we don’t think of it that way. When we get an invitation to a party, we don’t think “I’m motivated to go to that party.” Often, we don’t even think “I want to go to that party.” We experience the desire to go, and we go. This process is as natural and effortless as breathing.

Feeling unmotivated is the opposite of feeling motivated. When we’re unmotivated, we don’t do something. We get an invitation to the party, and we say “No thanks, I don’t want to go.”

But when people say “I’m feeling unmotivated,” they’re not describing actual lack of motivation. They aren’t saying “I don’t want to do my homework, so I won’t.” They’re saying something more complicated. “I don’t want to do my homework, but I want my homework to be done. A part of me wants to do my homework, and a part of me does not.”

The feeling of being unmotivated, then, is not really a feeling. It’s a judgment about a feeling. You don’t want to do your homework, but you know you should, too, so you also want to. The dichotomy manifests itself as a state of tension that we call “feeling unmotivated.”

There are two possible causes for the “feeling” of not being motivated.

  1. Someone has convinced you that you “should” do something you don’t have to do. You’re living for the expectations of someone else.
  2. You’re experiencing a deeper crisis, preventing you from truly wanting something you’d ordinarily want.

Give Up the Expectations of Others

In the first case, some external influence has convinced you that you should do something you don’t need to. Totally understandable, given American culture is engineered around creating arbitrary desires and then offering to fulfill those desires for you.

American culture places a lot of expectations on people about where they “should” be in life and what they “should” be doing. The world has stuffed our heads full of false ideas about what our lives ought to be like.

The reality is, of course, there isn’t anything our lives “ought” to be like. There is no standard to which we should adhere. If you want to do the typical get a job-get married-have children thing, that’s great. If you want to run away to central Asia and live alone in a yurt for the rest of your life, that’s great too. We like to pretend that people who have mortgages “have life figured out” and that people who ride around the country on motorcycles living out of tents do not “have life figured out,” but that’s a fiction invented by society. Sometimes people who live in tents have it figured out and married people with mortgages do not.

Imagine an unmotivated student. She feels like she should want to do her homework. But why?

Because she feels like she should pass her classes and eventually graduate with her degree. But why?

Because she feels that she should have a “respectable” job, whatever that means. But why?

Because growing up, her father taught her that people ought to get “respectable” jobs like business consultant and software engineer. He taught her people who run away to smoke pot and live in yurts are degenerate hippies who don’t understand how the world “really is.” She lives up to these unconscious expectations because she will feel terrible about herself if she doesn't.

But of course, there is no such thing as “how the world really is.” There is no dichotomy between “respectable” people like her father and “hippies and degenerates” who smoke pot and live in yurts. There are just people, all of whom are doing their own thing.

(If anything is “how the world really is,” that’s how the world really is — a bunch of people, doing their own thing.)

Given all this, it’s no surprise our student doesn’t want to do her homework. She doesn’t even really want to be in this major, in this college, or even in college at all. She’s only doing any of this because she feels it’s the only way to be a “respectable” person, and what she really does want in all this is to be a “respectable” person.

If she let go of the idea of respectability, though, where would she be? What would she want then?

Our student, however, is not conscious of all this going on in her psyche. She hasn’t deconstructed why she only allowed herself to pick her college major from the business or engineering departments. If you ask her what she feels about her major, she’ll say “It’s pretty cool, and when I graduate I’m going to make, like, 90k a year!” The only time she ever worries about her decision is when she’s forcing herself to do her homework.

There, forcing herself to study something she doesn’t want to study, she’ll fear that this is what the rest of her life will be like.

If you find you’re chronically unmotivated to do one particular kind of thing, be that your homework or getting to your training classes or something else, you may want to explore the possibility that your lack of motivation is a sign that you don’t really want what you think you want.

Working Through Internal Struggles

Maybe your judgment about what you want is sound. The issue in this scenario is that you don’t want what you know you should want. In this case, the cause is usually something else entirely.

For instance, the judgment you should want to eat when you feel hungry is sound. In this particular case, it’s not a judgment at all; merely an acknowledgment of your status as an organism. If you found you didn’t want to eat when you feel hungry, the problem isn’t your erroneous judgment of whether you need food, the problem is your bizarre lack of desire.

This example involving food seems extreme to people who eat regularly, but this happens to me when I’m depressed. When I’m depressed, I don’t want to eat, even if I’m terribly hungry. However, I know I should want to eat when I’m hungry, so my lack of desire tips me off to the fact that something’s wrong. It’s what therapists call a “warning sign.”

Let us return to our student who doesn’t want to do her homework, but let us imagine this time that she does like her major on the face of it and that she has, prior to now, always enjoyed doing her homework. But right now, for some reason, she doesn’t want to do her homework.

There are dozens of reasons this could be, like:

  • She needs to eat, sleep, and meet other biological needs before having the energy to do her homework.
  • She’s getting poor grades despite working hard and enjoying her major and she doesn’t know why, which is causing her anxiety.
  • Someone she was close to died recently and her grief is causing her prefrontal cortex to grind to a near halt.

The list of things that could cause episodic unmotivation is so long and varied that it’s not worth my time or yours to talk about all the possibilities. But they all have one thing in common: the problem isn’t that she doesn’t really want to do the thing, the problem is there’s something else going on keeping her from her natural desire to do her homework.

If you find that you feel unmotivated to do all kinds of things with no apparent rhyme or reason, or that your motivation levels wax and wane (or perhaps only wane), you may want to explore the possibility that something else is going wrong in some other part of your life.

An Example From My Life

When I was in my second-to-last year of college, I rarely felt motivated to do my homework. At that time, I realized I only went to college because my dad both pressured me into it and offered to pay for it, and I fell for his carrot-and-stick offering. I told him I wanted to drop out, and he told me if I dropped out, I would have to pay him back for the years I did go to college.

Pinned between suddenly adopting a $30,000+ debt and completing two more years of school, I decided not to drop out. But for a week or two, I felt extremely frustrated and unmotivated. I felt like I’d been tricked into going and now I was being blackmailed into staying.

Everything changed when I owned my decision not to drop out. I reframed my decision to get a college degree as a decision not to take on dozens of thousands of dollars of debt. I didn’t care about getting a degree, but I did care about my father not slapping me with $30,000 of debt.

Suddenly, I felt very motivated to do my homework. Each piece of homework done well was a class I didn’t fail, and each class I didn’t fail was one step closer to freedom. I didn’t struggle with homework motivation for the rest of my college career. Such is the power of reframing your decisions.

In Conclusion

Productivity experts, of course, don’t teach you this. In my experience, productivity experts tend to assume your judgments about what you should be doing are correct and that what you need to do is realign your environment or your life so that you’re more likely to do the things you think you should be doing. Some even say things like “the ability to force yourself to do something you don’t want to do is a mark of maturity.”

I think they’re dead wrong. I think forcing yourself to do something you clearly don’t want to do is an express pass to getting yourself into all kinds of psychological trouble.

So, if you’re feeling unmotivated, don’t beat yourself up. Before doing anything else, sit down and examine your reasons for thinking you should or shouldn’t want something.

You’ll find sometimes if you think through your reasons for doing something, your motivation will magically reappear.

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Self-help writer with 3M+ views on Medium and Quora. Covering personal growth, relationship skills, and career growth.

Columbus, OH
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