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A Mindful View of Motivation

focus foundations joy May 22, 2018

By Henry Emmons, MD

In an earlier post, Dr. Culbert discussed more about motivation and apathy and some very practical ways to deal with these concerns. In this article, I want to offer you some ways you can apply a mindfulness perspective to help you when you just can’t get yourself going. 

First, a confession: I’m not always very motivated. But, neither are you…or anyone else! The reality is that motivation is a transient state. Sometimes you have it, and sometimes you don’t. That’s an invitation to stop seeing yourself as bad, broken, or lacking when you feel unmotivated or apathetic. You are human, and like everything else that you desire, motivation is impermanent.

It’s also helpful to know that motivation exists on a spectrum. You have varying degrees of motivation that are constantly in flux from one moment to the next, from one day to the next. On the days that motivation is low, try to remember that yesterday, a month ago, or last year, it was higher. And it will be higher again in the future.

Perhaps 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 (as you’ve likely experienced a thousand times) to get things done even when you feel your motivation tank is empty.

Remembering the above points can help you use mindfulness to work with low motivation. Although it’s a dynamic process, there are four key steps you can take to guide your practice and support your motivation.

1. See What Is

Mindfulness is non-judgmental awareness. That means the aim is to try and see things not as you want them to be, but as they actually are.

Here’s an example: assume that you are lacking in motivation. That is something of which you can be aware, without judgment. Seeing that, you say to yourself, “At this moment, I do not feel motivated.” That is simply a statement of what is, and there is no judgment in it. 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 actually a lot easier than it may seem. Many people think that acceptance means you allow something negative to remain as it is, without trying to change it. That’s not how I understand acceptance. Taking lack of motivation as an example, you may try to change it and boost your motivation. But, acceptance is more about seeing and accepting that at this moment, your motivation level is low. 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.

3. Make A Choice

Lack of motivation is, in a sense, a 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 power over your own life. You can make a choice about 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 awhile. 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

You’ve likely had the experience of being in a prolonged, unproductive, unmotivated funk. Maybe it’s from repeated discouragement, the effect of a long winter, depression, or something else. Whatever the case, it has become “the way things are” and it’s hard to see how to get out of it. You can find some good ideas for how to move yourself out of such a state in the Natural Joy mini-course and in the other blog posts for this month. It also helps to see this as a process, and not as something that you can always shake off with a couple of quick actions. To that end, I invite you to consider engaging in our 30 Days Challenges this month (from the 30 Days Newsletter). The idea is pretty simple: we are all creatures of habit, so let’s make conscious choices about what habits we want to create. This does not require perfection. It just asks that you make a choice most of the time that moves you toward being more fully alive. When you do that, motivation will, eventually, arise of its own accord.

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