How to get back on track after pandemic languishing

Registered psychologist and guest author Heather Gower offers some insight into why you don’t feel like yourself and how to get back on track.

Heather Gower - 21 September 2022

In the latest edition of Dear Maddi, registered psychologist and guest author Heather Gower answers a student-submitted question about motivation and the pandemic.

In the latest edition of Dear Maddi, registered psychologist and guest author Heather Gower answers a student-submitted question about motivation and the pandemic. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

Dear Maddi,

I have struggled during this pandemic. Being on campus and surrounded by people always motivated me to work hard, so my mental health took a downward turn during COVID. I have struggled to find intrinsic motivation, to persist in my work, and have picked up bad habits. I often lie around and do nothing these days, and then feel bad, which leads to more unproductivity. I know this isn’t who I usually am but I am struggling to find myself and improve my mental health. Any ideas to get back on track?

- Lost

Dear Lost,

First, let’s contrast the pandemic times with the “before times” when life had built in structure and routine. When you had a class or job to get to, you had an external motivator to get out the door. After classes, you might have gone to the gym since you were already on campus. Maybe a friend joined you. You could come home and eat dinner because you were hungry after the gym. You tidied up and got some work done because it was the only time you had before going to bed. This was a life where the structuring and scheduling was already done for you, and you didn’t have to build your day from scratch. Cue the pandemic. Suddenly you’re at home and it’s all up to you. Time stretches out before you, and there is less holding it all in place. A greater dose of unstructured time naturally brings struggles with motivation, persistence, and self-care. So let’s jump in and see what we can do. 

You talk about being out of touch with who you really are - a person who was previously motivated to work hard, to get out and about, and to work on wellness. I would say struggling with unstructured time and having less “natural motivation” is also a part of you, like it is for all of us. The pandemic simply got you better acquainted with this part of yourself. 

Instead of beating yourself up, try accepting there’s part of you that wants to lie around and do nothing (you are not alone!). Like all of us, you need to learn to manage that part and figure out how to manufacture some structure, accountability, and motivation when it’s not readily available.

Imagine this part of you as a kid who lives inside you. This kid wants to maximize pleasure and minimize discomfort. So the kid might want to stay up late, eat cake for breakfast, go back to bed afterward and eat cake again for lunch. This kid thinks he’s living the life because he’s still figuring out how bad it really feels to subsist on cake. 

Now, imagine you are like a school bus (bear with me). You are a bus full of kids and adults and all sorts of versions of yourself (thoughts, behaviours, feelings, warring impulses, contradictory goals, and so on). All of these things/people take turns driving, and right now this cake-eating kid has taken the wheel! The pandemic has paved an open road and the usual driver has disappeared! 

But! This kid is not a good bus driver. He’s a fun kid and we like him, but right now we need a responsible, wise bus driver; someone with a lot of patience and a lot of structure. The driver needs to feed everyone on the bus something healthy for breakfast! They need to get everyone out of bed and out the metaphorical door to school. They need to notice that this kid has taken control of the bus and gently but firmly put him in a different seat. 

So, ask yourself: Who’s in charge? Who is driving my bus, and are they the driver I need? (Hint: Look around you. Are there cake crumbs everywhere?)

And then ask yourself: If someone wise and responsible was driving my bus, what would they do? (For example: Put me to bed, cook a nice meal, set a timer to get down to work, save the Netflix until after we finish watching our lectures, go for a walk, find a new strategy for staying on task, etc.) And: How would this wise person talk to me and to the rebellious parts of me? (Kindly, but firmly. Wisely and rationally.)

Remember, the cake-kid is a feeling of not wanting to do much. When the kid is in charge, it makes you feel worse, makes you do less and gets you stuck in a vicious cycle. Your wise mind needs to take over. It knows you’ll feel better if you get dressed, get some work done, do some exercise, and interact with friends. Once the wise mind takes over, you can start implementing strategies to help. Here’s a few to get you started:

  • How can I make myself get dressed every morning? Make it a non-negotiable habit and set your clothes out the night before; perhaps check a box on a chart every time you do it. It is helpful to remind yourself of the bigger reason for it all, too. Write down the reasons for getting dressed every morning and remind yourself how it allows you to live a life more in line with your values.

  • How can I make myself get work done? 
    • Start with small goals that are realistic and celebrate small successes. You might make a very short and manageable to-do list for the next day and pat yourself on the back if you check off at least one item. Pick something manageable to build momentum. Remember: doing things creates motivation and a greater sense of effectiveness. 

    • Try turning tasks into a game. Just remember to approach your tasks like a kind parent/busdriver and not in a punishing or harsh way. For example, I like to make a promise to my sister on certain days to get X hours of work done, prove it to her with a screenshot of my timer at the end of the day, or else pay her $5-15. I treat it like a fun challenge. You can also reward yourself with things you enjoy such as watching a show or movie after getting a certain amount of work done. Each of us can find our own idea/motivator. 

    • Create a schedule. Make a bit of a plan for the next day. It can be hour by hour or blocks of time (e.g., “morning” and “afternoon”). The goal is to reduce the stress of decision-making each day and to allow you to make a plan as the wise bus driver, not the stressed kid who already feels behind. 
  • How can I make myself exercise? As always, start small and celebrate each win! You might set a goal of packing your gym bag (not even going to the gym). Conversely, throw on a 5-minute beginner YouTube video when you get up in the morning (and load it up the night before!). You can gradually extend it into longer sessions. You can also set up a system with a friend for both accountability and to make it more fun. Check out Atomic Habits by James Clear to get more ideas about scaffolding your way up to a habit. 
  • How can I make sure I interact with people often enough? Make plans you can’t easily get out of and make them in advance; sign up for clubs, events or volunteer jobs; make plans that recur (e.g., a weekly movie night). And remember your values! Why do these things matter to you? What does the wise bus driver need to tell you?
  • What do I do when my self-criticism/shame/negative feelings keep getting in the way? Becoming a kind bus driver takes work and knowledge. Try relating to yourself in the way you would talk to a friend. You can also ask a trustworthy and reasonable friend for their opinion on your expectations for yourself. There are lots of resources you can read and learn about self-compassion. Therapy can be a really important part of overcoming overwhelming negative emotions or self-criticism that seem to keep you in the demotivated-loop. 

People often struggle to take control of their day because they interpret the lack of motivation as something wrong with them. There is nothing wrong with you! You are just experiencing the struggles of being human in difficult circumstances. Tuning in to your wise mind and finding strategies that fit for you can be a creative and invigorating process. You’ve got this! Wishing you a good fall semester!

Additional resources on how to get back on track after pandemic languishing: