I have been having a hard time feeling motivated

Getting motivated when not happy.

01 April 2019

Dear Maddi, this semester I've been having a really hard time focusing and trying to find motivation to study. I'm unsure of how to deal with my lack of motivation, and also unsure if it stems from overall unhappiness. Thanks for your help.

Sincerely, Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

The semester is coming to a close and you can just about see the finish line but you find yourself feeling apathetic and unhappy. It is no surprise you are finding it hard to muster the will to study. One thing is for sure, you are not alone in feeling this way at this point in the semester. In reading your note I am reminded of this quote by Brianna Wiest:

Your anger? It's telling you where you feel powerless. Your anxiety? It's telling you that something in your life is off balance. Your fear? It's telling you what you care about. Your apathy? It's telling you where you're overextended and burnt out. Your feelings aren't random, they are messengers. And if you want to get anywhere, you need to be able to let them speak to you, and tell you what you really need.

So before we get into boosting your motivation I would encourage you to first be curious about your emotions. I think you are onto something when you say "I am unsure if it stems from overall unhappiness", so let it RAIN (insert laughter here)!

RAIN is a mindfulness practice for welcoming and understanding your emotions in a compassionate and nonjudgmental way rather than pushing them away, or criticizing ourselves for having feelings in the first place. Here are the four steps in more detail.

R - Recognize: take a moment to recognize that a strong emotion is present and gently turn your attention towards it. Observe what is happening: the thoughts, the sensations, and the emotions. It can be helpful to name the experience "I am feeling sad…I am feeling overwhelmed".

A - Allow: acknowledge the experience and let it be as it is. Allowing does not mean you have to like what is happening. It means to give yourself permission to feel it and by so doing decrease the internal struggle. When this happens we are better able to focus on gaining insight and less on criticizing ourselves for feeling this way or not being "over it already".

I - Investigate: be curious and begin to ask questions like "why do I feel the way that I do right now? ...what happened right before I started feeling this way… are there physiological factors that may be influencing how I am feeling? …too little sleep, too much caffeine, poor diet, lack of movement? …what do I need right now? …is there something I can do to nurture and support myself (and/or others) through this moment? …when was the last time I saw a friend, or left my room?"

N - Non-identifying: realize that YOU are not your thoughts, nor your emotions, and remember that your sense of who you are does not need to be fused with or defined by your thoughts and emotions. In this phase of the RAIN technique, you might come to say something like this "I am sad about how much pressure I feel from my commitments, maybe I need to let go of some" rather than "everyone else is able to do it so easily, I am just being lazy".

If at the end of your reflection you still think it is a simple matter of motivation then consider this comment made by Dr. David Burns (1999) author of the The Feeling Good Handbook:

"People who are extremely successful know that motivation doesn't come first - productive action does. You have to prime the pump by getting started whether you feel like it or not. Once you begin to accomplish something, it will often spur you on to do even more (p. 170)".

Simply put, the formula to more motivation is the following: ACTION MOTIVATION MORE ACTION. Break down large tasks into small manageable pieces and work on them on a daily basis even for a few minutes. That might be just what you need to spur you in the right direction.

But, if your reflection suggested that reaching out for guidance would be helpful, consider these options:

  • Read a helpful article on procrastination
  • Contact your professor or TA; they are there to guide you and want to help you succeed.
  • Talk to a trained volunteer with the Peer Support Centre.
  • Schedule a free Initial Consultation with a mental health clinician at Counselling and Clinical Services.
  • See a General Physician at the University Health Centre.
  • Attend a workshop, or book a consultation with a professional learning advisor at the Academic Success Centre.
  • Join a mindfulness class! Dr. Steve Knish, registered psychologist and yoga instructor with Counselling and Clinical Services facilitates two wonderful and FREE drop-in workshops year round:
    • Yoga for Mental Hygiene on Thursdays (except statutory holidays) from 3:00 - 4:30 p.m. in SUB 3-02.
    • Yoga for Peace of Mind: Mindfulness, Meditation & Motion on Mondays (except statutory holidays) from 10 - 11:30 a.m. in SUB 3-02.

You are not alone in feeling this way Anonymous, and help is available. Reach out just like you did here and you might be surprised to discover that help is closer than you think.

Great question!