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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

3 Reasons You Can't Motivate Yourself at Work Anymore—and How to Overcome Each One

person getting motivated at work

We’ve all faced days at the office where we’re just not feeling motivated. Off days happen to everyone and it’s tough—if not unrealistic—to constantly do your best work. There are bound to be times when you procrastinate too much, lack focus, or struggle to start important projects.

You may react by getting down on yourself, wondering where your determination has gone. It can be disappointing to feel like you’re not living up to your aspirations, especially when there’s important work to be done—which there almost always is. Speed, efficiency, and productivity are what drive results, and when our energy doesn’t match our ambition, it can be frustrating.

When you lack enthusiasm, a single day at the office can feel like an uphill battle. A long-lasting motivational slump can leave you stressed out, feeling guilty that you’re not doing enough to advance in your career.

The effects on your well-being can be numerous: You may have difficulty sleeping, find yourself getting sick, or notice a decrease in your ability to concentrate. Your mental health takes a beating from emotional exhaustion, with anxiety and pessimism overshadowing your mood.

But you don’t have to stay stuck in this rut. With some exploration and reflection, you can get to the bottom of what’s sapping your energy and dig yourself out of it.

Here are three reasons you’re unmotivated along with solutions to getting back on track fast.

1. You’re Caught in the “Busy Trap”

Today being busy is a status symbol, a sign that you’re sought-after and in-demand. While your ego may enjoy the validation, existing perpetually in “work mode” and being available round-the-clock can lead to burnout.

Operating under the illusion that staying constantly busy is helping you advance professionally can backfire, earning you the title of office pushover—or leading you to resent your job, boss, and co-workers.

To disentangle yourself from the busy trap, you've got to ruthlessly prioritize and eliminate non-urgent tasks, which will allow you to invest in work that’s truly important.

To get over your chronic busy-worshipping, begin to unhook yourself from responsibilities that are actually someone else’s work. Practice saying “no” more often. When you do agree to take something on, do so with a clear intention. Try saying, “I choose to…” rather than “I have to…” It may sound simple, but your words create your reality, and this subtle verbal shift invokes autonomy and personal choice, which stokes motivation. It feels very different to say “I choose go to tonight’s networking event” instead of “I have to to go to tonight’s networking event.”

2. You’re Relying on Willpower

Convincing yourself to accomplish a task out of sheer will is difficult. When willpower fails you, focus on creating habits that make your success inevitable. Often, getting started on a big goal or complicated project is the hardest part. Once you actually get going, the whole project feels a lot less daunting.

The trick to staying motivated is to create small habits that help with productivity and make you feel good about what you’re accomplishing.

Conquer willpower dips by lowering barriers that get in the way of your beginning a task. If you have a hard writing assignment to tackle, for example, focus on getting just the the first sentence down (even if it’s a stream of consciousness). But, once you write that first line, you’ll likely feel your anxiety melt away.

You can also try developing a warm-up routine that sets off a positive chain of events to help you generate momentum. For instance, maybe you have a cue like brewing your morning coffee or checking your email that serves as a transition into work mode. Many entrepreneurs I work with like to start their day with 10 minutes of meditation. This can be an excellent way to prepare for your day and cue your mind to get in the mood for work. Instead of conjuring willpower, you'll organically move into the professional state of mind.

3. You’re Emotionally Exhausted

If you feel like you’re sleepwalking through your workday, it’s likely you’re among the 70% of people who feel emotionally disconnected at the office.

Don’t underestimate your social needs when trying to pinpoint your motivational barrier. Maslow’s pyramid ranks belonging as the third most important aspect of our mental health, coming only after physical needs and safety. Feeling accepted and useful at work is essential to sustaining the drive to stick with your duties day after day.

In fact, “psychological safety” has been found to be the most important trait successful teams share. Groups characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect are not only happier, they’re also more productive. When employees have a sense of confidence that their co-workers will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for speaking up they accomplish more and thrive in their careers.

To repair your emotional exhaustion, begin deliberately structuring social opportunities into your workflow. An easy way to start is by showing up five minutes early to meetings. Use the unstructured time for light conversation. This informal small talk is not just meaningless chitchat, and it goes a long way to building stronger relationships with colleagues.

If you’re a manager, try reigniting your team’s motivation by giving day-to-day tasks more meaning and circling back to shared goals. Empathic leadership has everything to do with lifting up other people, which can be accomplished by reinforcing how your direct report’s efforts tie into to big-picture goals and the company’s mission.

No one among us is motivated and productive 100% of the time, but if you’re feeling lethargic and blasé about your work more often than not, then you’ve got to find a way to climb out of the slump. Reading inspiring tips and career advice is one thing, but taking action is another. Doing something to alleviate the lethargy is the real antidote to getting unstuck and out of a work rut.