Sometimes we just feel unmotivated to get things done.
In this post, I want to share some quick solutions for how I get things done even though I feel unmotivated. These include making intentional decisions and choices for how to get something done, setting a time limit and scope, negotiating with yourself, introducing novelty and making the task more fun, and imaging your future self and how you will feel once you’ve completed the thing you need to do.
There are a thousand other things we’d rather do than updating our latest resume. Or applying for grad school, or paying the bills. Thinking about starting it fills us with dread.
We just don’t feel motivated enough to get started. Perhaps because we know that there is no immediate consequence for not doing it.
We do feel at unease though because we know that there will be long term repercussions for procrastinating.
I went through this thought process when updating my resume a while ago.
There was no hard deadline for doing it except for the one I set for myself. I didn’t feel like reviewing my resume and editing it. I even felt unmotivated to just open the file.
Eventually, I did it though. After some resistance, I finally started, worked on it for a few sessions, and finished on time, as planned.
I encounter this kind of bump on the road here and there.
So I asked myself: What exactly did I do when I felt unmotivated to do something? How do I still get it done?
There are 5 things that I now regularly apply when I am unmotivated to do something. These 5 things are interconnected.
WARNING: When done in combination, you will be surprised that you feel more motivation more frequently.
Here are the top 5 things that help me get something done when I feel unmotivated:
- Make intentional choices and decisions
One reason why we might feel unmotivated to do something is that we feel that we don’t have a choice.
Most people prefer to have a choice.
If we feel that we are forced to do something and have no choice about whether to do it or not, it can sap our energy.
Even if there are things that we have to do, we still prefer to have a choice as to when to do it or how.
The next time you need to do something, like updating your resume or any other task, try to make an intentional decision about it.
Granted, writing a resume is something you have to do to apply for a job (although this is debatable, as you have the choice not to do it as long as you are ready to live with the consequences).
However, within the task of ‘writing a resume’, there are many choices that you can make that will give you a feeling of autonomy.
You can decide when you want to do it.
You can start and finish it within a 5-hour session on a Sunday. Or you work on your resume for one hour each day for 5 days.
There is an unconceivable number of ways to break down this task, and it’s up to you.
You can write it on your couch while listening to music, or at your favorite café while enjoying the murmur.
You can choose how you want to get the thing done.
If a fire’s burning, of course, you have to put it out immediately. But for all other things, if you feel unmotivated to do them, try to take a step back.
Give yourself some room to decide when and how you choose to complete these things
2. Set a limit for time and scope
I feel more motivated to start doing something if I have a concrete time limit.
I hate the feeling of not knowing how much time I will spend on something.
That is why I try to break up goals and tasks to the level of detail at which I can estimate how long it will roughly take.
I will break up tasks and allocate these to sessions. I know myself well enough that I won’t schedule a session longer than 3 hours. So most of my working sessions would be between 30 minutes and 3 hours, depending on the type of task.
I’ve written and updated my resume at least 10 times now throughout my life. So it’s become a bit like a routine now. Which doesn’t necessarily make it more exciting.
And I know that updating it will take me a couple of hours, depending on how thorough I want to be. Or if I want to update the design.
I’ve been dodging my resume and linked in for weeks. I felt unmotivated to update these, but I knew that I needed to do this.
This is where setting a concrete time limit helped tremendously.
I decided that I would update my resume within 4 sessions, lasting one hour each. I knew that it would take me a bit longer as I was adjusting my resume to my most recent career change.
So I applied number 1, which is making an intentional choice about how I would go about it. And combined it with number 2, which is setting a time limit.
I also limited the scope. Without a scope, you can work endless hours and days on something.
In some cases, it makes sense, like when you’re writing a business proposal.
But I wouldn’t want to spend 10 days updating my resume.
So I limited the scope in advance.
I decided that I would enter updates of the past 2 years in my resume. Trim some of the bullet points in each section to make everything fit into 2 letter-sized pages (switching from an A4 format). Increasing the header and updating the overall look.
What this did for me was preventing me from spending too much time on things that were not important. That way I stayed focused on my goal.
But the most important thing was what it did for my motivation.
Knowing that it would only take me 4 times 1 hour, and not longer than that, increased my motivation.
This task was no longer this dreadful thing which would take me an indefinite amount of time. It would be contained within those 4 hours. It became foreseeable and manageable.
3. Negotiate with yourself (don’t be a tyrant to yourself)
I love what Jordan Peterson said about this: “…Do you ask yourself what you want? Do you negotiate fairly with yourself? Or are you a tyrant, with yourself as slave?…” in his book ’12 Rules for Life’.
Reading this was an enlightening moment for me.
Oftentimes in life, we oppress ourselves by forcing ourselves to do things.
What we should rather do, is to negotiate with ourselves.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t need to have discipline in certain things. After all, brushing your teeth every morning doesn’t mean that you are tyrannizing yourself.
We need to find a balance between our shoulds, needs and wants.
We cannot constantly tell ourselves what we must do, without paying the least attention to what we need.
This is what it means:
Don’t tell yourself ‘You lazy <fill in the blanks yourself>, write that resume right now. Hurry up and better finish it within the next 2 hours or else you’ll be doomed’.
Instead, ask yourself:
‘What would it take to make this process of writing the resume acceptable to you? Do you need to take a walk first, or maybe a coffee? Or how about watching 3 youtube videos on writing resume first, to get some inspiration? Then work on the resume in the kitchen, and afterward, you can grab a piece of bark thins chocolate and make yourself a latte.’
I know it sounds silly.
But everyone knows that they have a dialogue, or monologue taking place in their heads.
And since everyone has some kind of radio show going on in their heads, we might as well direct it in a way that motivates us, instead of making us miserable.
4. Introduce novelty
Fun is a life-saver when you’re unmotivated.
When something feels fun, we tend to become more motivated.
Granted, adding some fun to the process does seem like a short term solution (as are most motivational hacks btw).
For sustainable, long term motivation, we have to look elsewhere.
But to start things that are imminent, we need an immediate, short term solution.
So why not inject a dose of fun to get motivated?
Sometimes it takes a minor thing to change your state of emotion from feeling unmotivated to become motivated.
It sounds silly, but you’re surely familiar with the concept that adding a couple of beers to a conversation between friends can make everything merrier?
I’m not suggesting that you grab yourself a six-pack before starting to write (although nothing would speak against it if you’re at home!)
What I mean is, that daily life and our hardened routines can get extremely boring.
Sometimes it just takes adding something new and fresh to the mix to make it exciting.
It could be as simple as getting a new set of nice notebooks. Changing the screensaver on your desktop (yes, change that screensaver that you had for the last 2 years). Or even putting on some new background working music.
It sounds banal, but it works.
If you have a bigger task or project to work on, something that is highly important or very difficult, you might even consider applying the Grand Gesture.
The Grand Gesture is a term coined by Cal Newport in his book ‘Deep Work’, which I covered in one of my videos you my youtube channel multiplecareers.
Quoting a key passage from his book:
“The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of this task. This boost in importance reduced your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy”
In a practical sense, this means introducing something new into the process. Something out of the ordinary.
J.K. Rowling checked herself into a luxurious hotel suite near Edinburgh castle to finish her book The Deathly Hallows.
It was something novel (pun intended), out of the ordinary and different from her daily routine. It allowed her to concentrate and made her task seem even more important than it already was.
But I’ll be surprised if staying at that hotel didn’t also include a huge dose of fun!
So how can this concept be applied by us, normal people? In a way that doesn’t break the bank?
If you feel unmotivated to get something done at home, try to take it to a different location. It could be your favorite Starbucks outlet. Or perhaps a more fancy café where a latte costs 6 dollars.
Purchase some new equipment (that is within your budget) to shoot your youtube videos, if that gets you motivated.
I’m not telling you to go overboard. What I’m saying is simply that we are not as rational as we think we are. Our emotions can be swayed by surroundings and experiences.
5. Imagine your future self
This one takes some practice.
We often feel unmotivated imagining ourselves doing something we don’t really like. For example, finishing that resume.
The process seems tedious. We may think that no one will read the details anyway. And plenty of other reasons.
The danger is getting stuck in that one scene. Imagining the part where you open a blank word document. Feeling clueless about what to write.
Oftentimes that image of the process we have is much worse than the reality.
Things often look scary when left untouched (I may remind you of unopened bills or unchecked emails).
So one way of shifting from an unmotivated to a motivated state is to imagine the scene after completing the task.
Imagine how you feel after you’ve finished. Think about how content and relaxed you would feel after you pressed ‘save as’, and entered the title. Converted the resume into pdf and uploaded it to indeed, monster, or wherever.
This is also called visualization, a technique often talked about in self-improvement books and articles.
The only emphasis I would make here is, that this is no lofty, 5-10 years from now kind of visualization.
Here what you need to do is imagine the outcome and the feeling after completing your 1-hour resume-writing session.
Imagine your future self. How would you be and feel different after that 1 hour? How would your view of yourself change?
Think about how after completing that thing, you can go on with your life and do the next thing you need to do. Or even better, the next thing you want to do. Perhaps that is cooking dinner. Or watching an episode of your favorite series.
Remember that these things above are short term fixes.
Using a piecemeal approach works at times, but it’s no replacement for a long term solution.
If there are things that you need to work on in the long term, you need long term solutions. These include working on a system of goals, habits, routines. Using willpower and grit.
To accomplish long term goals, you need continuity. If a plant needs daily watering, you cannot just skip 10 days. You need consistency to make it work.
I’m not discounting the above 5 things though.
A business needs a strategy in the long term. But in the short term, there are a lot of ad hoc things that need to be done.
While in the long term you need a system, in the short term you need to apply whatever works for you, to make progress.
This means that every time that you feel unmotivated, you can pick some or all of these 5 things, and apply them very quickly.
This could look something like:
1. I don’t feel like doing it (unmotivated)
2. But it has to be done eventually
3. Apply a combination of the short term fixes (the 5 things)
4. Decide and choose how you want to do it
5. Get it done
If you repeat this sequence regularly, and if you become very good at applying these, then the combination of these can become a habit in itself.
Over time, you will be able to get out of an unmotivated state faster and faster.
At this point you might be asking: So is there no room for being unmotivated?
Isn’t it okay to not be okay at times?
Of course, it’s okay. In fact, it’s unavoidable.
Everyone experiences times when they are unmotivated. And here is where I refer back to number 1 and number 3.
Make an intentional choice about when you will do it.
Negotiate with yourself how or under what conditions you would do it. What would be acceptable to you?
Lastly, two important things to note:
If you feel unmotivated all the time, about everything in your life, you might be facing a different problem.
It could be that you’re going through depression or grieving, which is a different thing that I am not qualified to advise about.
It could be that you are not unmotivated, but that you’re afraid of doing the thing you need to do.
There could also be a severe misalignment between what you think you need to do and what is truly important to you.
Also, there are of course things in life that are practically non-negotiable.
If you have a job and have to be at work at 8.30 am, then you have to be up by a certain time.
In such a case, where there is not much wiggle room, you have to engage your willpower.
As a closing note, it’s wonderful that we are not motivated to do everything all the time.
All that motivation is, is a desire or reason to do something.
It doesn’t say anything about whether the thing itself is something good or not. Something that you want in the long term or not.
I often feel motivated to drop by McDonald’s and indulge in some chicken nuggets. Sometimes I’m extremely motivated to do that, especially on days when my meal planning didn’t go as expected.
Likewise, I always feel highly motivated to drop into a sale happening at Zara or Best Buy or the mall.
You may experience strong motivation to do something, but it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily beneficial to you.
Do I want motivation to be the thing that guides my life and be the basis of my choices? Nope.
So if there’s anything that I’d like you to take away from this post that started structured and ended up in a rant is:
In the long term, don’t (solely) rely on motivation. It’s a bad plan.
But in the short term, by all means, make use of quick fixes that get you motivated.