As the pandemic wore on in 2020, people began experiencing declining levels of motivation. Many kids, teenagers, and college students described feeling no motivation to attend class, study, or complete assignments. Adults struggled with home schooling their children or completing work assignments. Avolition, a term which describes a lack of motivation or ability to perform daily tasks, is a common symptom among people struggling with depression or anxiety. It wasn’t surprising that I heard this so often in therapy in the past year; however, it is important to distinguish between true avolition (no motivation to do anything) and a lack of motivation for specific activities. This distinction is important because the latter is easier to address than the former.
People who are not motivated for specific activities like exercising, socializing, or schoolwork should first consider what may be contributing to their lack of motivation for performing these tasks. We often experience competing motivations. Sometimes we are motivated by an activity we find rewarding and sometimes we are motivated to avoid an aversive experience. Both motivations can operate on us at once, making the motivation to avoid certain behaviors particularly powerful. Why we aren’t doing something is less important than what we are doing instead. And what we are doing is *not exercising, *not socializing, and *not doing schoolwork. All these behaviors require effort and humans evolved to expend as little effort as possible. Instead, social media, movie streaming services, and online computer games offer instant gratification with little cognitive or behavioral effort. One way we can increase our likelihood of performing a difficult task is to remove the possibility of engaging in the more rewarding task. I am often more productive when my internet is out or when I have run out of shows to stream on Netflix. It is amazing how much I accomplish simply because there is nothing else to do.
Sometimes it helps to tackle something small before we attempt the bigger task. John Perry, a professor of Philosophy at Stanford University, calls it “structured procrastination” while University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel calls it “productive procrastination”. Whatever the term, the idea is that by choosing a less aversive (but still necessary) behavior over a more aversive one, it is easier to tackle the more daunting task. How often have you found yourself cleaning or organizing instead of doing x(studying) or y(working out)? These productive procrastination tasks give us a sense of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the confidence one feels that one can accomplish a goal. People who lack self-efficacy are more likely to approach challenging tasks with dread, decreasing the likelihood that they will complete difficult tasks.
Many psychologists point out that motivation is unnecessary to begin a task. Author James Clear point out that motivation often follows an action, rather than proceeding it. Much of his description of motivation resonated with me. I often begin most tasks with the thought “I don’t want to do this right now” and yet, somehow, it gets done. As Clear points out, an object in motion stays in motion. That is, once we start doing something, it is often easier to continue than to stop. When it comes to exercise, Harvard anthropologist Daniel Leiberman points out that the “runner’s high” doesn’t even start until 20 minutes into a run. When we begin doing something, performing the task itself is self-reinforcing. We become more confident and prouder as we realize we are one step closer to accomplishing our goals.
One of the reasons declining levels of motivation was so prevalent during the pandemic is because many of our routines and schedules were disrupted. We are creatures of habit. As many scholars of motivation point out, once something is a part of our behavioral repertoire, we continue doing it out of habit rather than motivation. Changes in environment, schedules, or/and routines can disrupt our well-established habits. For some, this allowed them to consider changes in their lives that they would never have otherwise followed through with. For others, this interruption made it difficult to get things done. We also lost social motivation. Many tedious activities are more fun when we’re doing it next to or with someone. Social contagion describes the phenomenon of a behavior or attitude spreading among group members because one observes it in others. Social contagion has a powerful influence on what we choose to do.
If you were one of the many who found themselves feeling unmotivated, be kind to yourself and others. Self-compassion and empathy may help people get back on track sooner while reducing stress associated with this lack of motivation.
I am passionate about making academic research in psychology accessible to everyone. This blog will include research based information to address common concerns people have about improving their psychological functioning and fulfilling their individual potential.