“I’m Not Motivated” … What to Do?

One of the most common things people ask a psychotherapist like me about is motivation.

“I should be doing such-and-such. But I’m not. I don’t feel motivated. Am I depressed?”

Right there, in asking such a question, you’re revealing that you do have motivation. To be concerned or upset that you’re not doing something you believe you should be doing is, itself, proof of some motivation. If you totally lacked motivation, you wouldn’t be feeling concerned that you’re not doing whatever the activity is.

For example, “I should be getting my bills paid. But I keep putting it off. I feel anxious that I’ve done so. But I can’t muster up the motivation to do it. Am I depressed? Do I have ADHD?”

For some, it’s tempting to rush to descriptive psychiatric labels. Perhaps it will provide an excuse, or at least an explanation. But then what? You’re still left with the fact that you’re not doing what you believe you’re supposed to be doing.

The problem is rarely that a person isn’t motivated. The more common issue is with how you motivate yourself.

Let’s consider the nature of a human being, as opposed to a plant or your cat or dog. Human beings operate by logic. The part of logic most relevant to psychology and motivation are “if – then” combinations.

The person who’s not paying his bills probably tries to motivate himself by saying things like, “I should pay these bills. I must do this. Why do I keep putting this off? What’s wrong with me?

These are absolutely terrible ways to try and motivate yourself. Imagine trying to motivate someone else this way. Imagine if you said to someone, “What’s wrong with you? Are you an idiot?” There are people who try to motivate others this way, of course. But many who would never try to motivate another this way have this kind of internal self-talk within their own minds and feelings. This is what lands them in the position of wondering if they’re “depressed,” “ADHD,” or otherwise mentally faulty.

These psychiatric labels, I’m learning, are not merely a way to provide an excuse. They’re also a way to try and answer the question, “What’s wrong with me?” Bad question. Wrong way to go about it.

A better way? Try reasoning with yourself. “Let’s look at the consequences of not paying the bills. Let’s also make a list of the benefits I gain by putting off paying them.” Try to come up with a series of if-then statements to help motivate you. “If I want to feel better about myself, I have to pay my bills.” Or, “If I want to enjoy my upcoming vacation, I have to get these bills out of the way.” Or, “If I want to feel more in control of my destiny, I have to pay these bills.”

It’s not that there’s some magical statement to cure your problem. You have to do the thinking yourself. You have to use your own mind to get away from the pointless self-condemnation and move towards the cool, fresh breeze of reasoning.

Reasoning does not always mean “nice” over tough. Sometimes we must apply tough love to ourselves — at least if we’re going to lead effective and productive lives. Reason can help us face the hard facts. “I can’t have it both ways. If I want X, then I have to do Y. If I don’t want X enough … well, that’s my own choice.”

Probably one of the worst things human beings have done to themselves is attempt to apply principles of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” to standards of morality and productive living. While these commands might be well-intentioned, they’re disastrous from a motivational point-of-view. Human beings don’t operate by commands, not when they come from outside or within. Human beings can only function in a context of facts, objective truth, reason, logic and logical propositions.

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