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Taming the Unmotivation Monster!


by Karen Tilstra

We’ve all felt unmotivated a time or two, right?  Perhaps we face a task we’ve got to do but just can’t muster up the energy. The bad feelings of not getting “it” done plague us and add to the mental anguish of a motivational drought. A vicious cycle begins and before we know it, we’re unmotivated to get motivated. Is there any hope?

Yes! The good news is that lack of motivation usually stems from being overwhelmed, not knowing how to start, or fear of failure. There are times when being unmotivated is due to a medical problem, but for the most part, being unmotivated is rooted in not knowing how to begin.

Take my friend Thelma, for example. She wanted a flower garden. She’d bought gardening books, attended the yearly flower shows, even cut pictures from magazines. Yet, year after year she didn’t plant a single flower. I heard her say many times, “What if the flowers die? What if I plant at the wrong time of year, or use the wrong flower for my zone?”  She had a hundred reasons for not starting her flower garden, and yet, she spoke about it constantly.   

A key question is, why didn’t she make it happen? Why does anybody spend energy wanting something—yet do nothing to make it happen? Let’s take another look. 

Kevin, a landscape artist, lived about five houses down from Thelma. Kevin was friendly and worked in his yard daily. Thelma kept a constant eye on Kevin’s garden and feared that if she planted her own, it would never be as lovely as Kevin’s. She even feared Kevin might criticize her efforts.

Year after year Thelma continued to talk about having a garden of her own, but she never planted a thing. She lamented to her next-door neighbor until that neighbor moved away. When Lisa, the new neighbor, moved in Thelma headed over to welcome her and within minutes she had revealed that she couldn’t get a garden planted. 

Lisa began to laugh and asked, “What’s keeping you from planting?” When Thelma launched into her reasons, Lisa stopped her mid-sentence. “Let’s invite Kevin for lunch and ask him to teach you how to create a flower garden.” At first Thelma refused, but finally she gave in and even joined Lisa in her laughter. Thelma admitted she had been pretty silly. 

That very afternoon Thelma invited Kevin over. Once he learned Thelma’s desire, Kevin swung into action. He showed Thelma how to get started, gave her a few inexpensive tools, and a garden hat, and told her that starting was the key. He reassured her that a few plants would die, but that was just part of the journey. So Thelma planted her first flower, and before long Thelma’s flower garden was taking shape. 

We don’t all have experts down the street; however, we can all do what Thelma did—take the first step and reach out for help. Thelma’s reaching out to someone got her unstuck and started on her garden. 

But, why was Thelma unmotivated in the first place? What was she so worried about? Experts say that when our passion isn’t aligned with what we are doing we are unmotivated. But that wasn’t  Thelma’s problem. Her passion was aligned with what she wanted. So what was the problem?  

Often it’s a cultural reason that keeps us unmotivated. We in the Western world are taught at an early age that to be successful, we must know everything before we begin. Rational thinking is best; we must eradicate risks, and avoid failure at all costs.  

Most of us were listening when those rules were being taught; Thelma certainly was. She applied them to her flower garden, creating a mindset that paralyzed her from ever planting a single daisy. 

When Thelma became open to moving on her idea, her motivation became actionable; we are no different. By adopting a rapid prototype mindset, we free ourselves to start before we know everything, tap into rational and random thinking, embrace feedback as a gift, and allows ourselves to  “fail fast and cheap” in order to accelerate learning.    

There are simple ways to activate this level of motivation and possibility within us. We can become motivated even when we don’t feel motivated!

Develop a bias toward action. A friend of mine was commissioned to write a book, but could not get motivated to start. Finally he gave himself permission to write only one sentence a day. That simple decision freed him to begin writing. People get stuck when they are overwhelmed, are afraid of failing, or don’t know what to do. Giving yourself permission to begin slow and take baby steps makes you more motivated. 

For those who like to plan: create a time-line and chart your progress. For some, seeing progress and next steps creates motivation. Whatever your approach, developing a bias toward action helps us to move forward, even if it’s only one small step. Like the Chinese proverb says: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. 

Embrace failure. Give yourself permission to fail. We learn more from our failures than our successes.  When Michael J. Fox quickly rose to stardom, he said, “I don’t know what I did to get here, only after I made some mistakes could I determine what I needed to do to sustain my success.” Adapt the mindset “Fail fast and cheap to accelerate learning”.  Margaret Wheatley reminds us that everything is a failure in the middle, so if we are failing, keep moving until we are successful. 

Challenge your assumptions. Don’t be held captive by unspoken or unchallenged assumptions, such as, “I’m too old”, “I’ll look foolish,”  “I can’t afford that”,  “it’s too hard”, or  “that’s too scary.” Energy is ignited when we rethink what’s possible and ask “What if?”  Every idea that has ever changed the world has had behind it a person challenging assumptions. When we move beyond our habitual way of thinking and acting, we move to new, exciting places. Embracing new ideas disrupts our current thinking. Understanding the freeing power of challenging beliefs or assumptions motivates us to take action.

Share your idea, and then laugh about it. Research shows that both sharing our ideas and laughing about them motivate us. Being unmotivated causes us to lose touch with reality, but it’s laughter that helps us to bring life back into the proper perspective.

Laugh every single day! Have fun. Don’t take yourself too seriously; stop comparing yourself to others. Superstars will always be around, so embrace them as motivators instead of barriers.  

Reward yourself and celebrate (alone or with others). Celebrate! Always celebrate in some way. When meeting a weekly goal, you could go to the movies, or call a friend. I made myself agree to that reward; I made a public commitment to a friend or to my husband. Ask your friends to make public their goals and share them with each other. Become cheerleaders for each other; celebrate your victories! It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive; it may be as simple as a chart on the wall. Move a pin, star, or sticker to the next stage when successful—make a game of it.  Take a friend to lunch or have guests over for tea, but if you can’t get motivated to make tea, just serve water. Whatever it is, celebrate your successes!

Commit to being OPEN and seeing feedback as a gift. Often when we are unmotivated, we’ve isolated ourselves in our fears, judgments, and cynicism; however, when we commit to being open we create energy. When we become open, we seek feedback and see if as a gift. Write this on your wall, mirror, or in your brain:

An open mind rejects the voice of judgment

An open heart rejects the voice of cynicism

An open will rejects the voice of fear

NIKE was right: Just do it. Committing to working on your project every day—no matter how you feel—creates a mental pathway for positive emotions and feelings. Waiting to feel motivated often means we simply won’t get it done.  Research shows that in most cases doing something, even when unmotivated, ignites motivation.  The book The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield, talks about a dreaded “motivation killer” monster that strikes whenever we want to be creative. Every time we try something new, create a project, or solve a problem, the monster raises its ugly head. Acknowledging this and pushing past that initial hangup allows for motivation to emerge.  We may need to fight off that monster time and again, but once we realize that this is part of the creative process, we know what to expect. 

The whole creative process is an adventure that ebbs and flows. Once, I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t get motivated to prepare a talk for a group of teachers, even with a rapidly approaching deadline.  So, I gave myself three days of doing nothing on the project, but on the morning of the fourth day, I resolved to spend one hour on the project—and I even planned how I would start. I would do a Google search for that hour as an ideation session. Then, on day two I’d take my new ideas and begin organizing the talk.  I got so involved in the Google search that I spent two hours before I knew it.  

Try some of these ideas and watch your natural creative capacity emerge.  

Suspend judgment, laugh and develop a bias toward action. The next thing you know, you’ll be changing the world. 

Karen is an Educational Psychologist with a doctoral degree in Creativity, Innovation, and Leadership. When she's not busy being creative at home, you can find her teaching others to be creative at work. Karen is co-founder and director of Florida Hospital's Innovation Lab in Orlando, Florida.

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