How to Overcome a Lack of Motivation: Part 1 - Exploring Unmet Emotional Need
Have you ever been puzzled by the "knowing vs doing" problem?
You know the problem I'm talking about.
It's the one where you know WHAT to do, but can't make yourself WANT to do it.
Going to bed on time
Getting up early
Turning off your social media feed
...are all good habits to practice, right?
BUT, the will to act in line with what we know is often missing.
THE MOTIVATION PROBLEM AT ITS ANNUAL PEEK
Each week before the group coaching calls in our Healthy-Lifestyle Reset program Nina and I do our best to think of one profound question, one aspect of personal growth, for us all to focus on in the week ahead.
I've observed that this time of year, well into winter (it's mid February), is often the time where strong resolve is the toughest to come by.
So, I gave a think to the thieves of motivation I've noticed in myself and my clients.
In my eagerness to articulate a post regarding why this happens, something fascinating occurred.
For starters, the post became a list, a long list actually, which I will be breaking apart into multiple posts, so stay tuned.
The second thing that happened is that while setting out to write about "motivation thieves," my wife had our 5th baby, which provided plenty of moments for me to reflect on what's really motivating (or demotivating) me.
A BOUT OF FORCED, SELF-AWARENESS
In an ironic twist, the more I worked on this series, the less motivated I felt about it.
I consider myself a fairly introspective person, but figuring out what was draining my motivation to write forced me to really get curious.
What I found is that when I really step back and ask myself...
Why do I feel motivated right now, OR
When I don't feel motivated to do write, why, and what do I feel like doing instead...
There's a level of clarity and self-honesty that emerges when you sit with questions like that.
A DEEP EXPLORATION OF MOTIVATION -- MY OWN, AND OTHERS
In the next several posts I'll share a mix of personal sticking points, client stories, and some fascinating peeks into human psychology about what fans the flames of motivation, and what throws a bucket of water on them.
My bet is this series can springboard you to reclaiming that precious feeling of motivation to keep you on track and with your important goals.
To whet your appetite and give you a practical takeaway from this post, here are some high-level thoughts.
EMOTIONS ARE EVERYTHING
Emotions are the drivers of all our behaviors--the good behaviors, and the not-so-good ones.
Emotions both rev up motivation, and rob us from feeling motivated.
What's tricky about emotions is how they can shape our behaviors without our conscious awareness.
The simple phrase "I know what to do but can't make myself do it" is another way of expressing a lack of self awareness of what's really driving us.
In fact, Nina and I have found self-awareness to be such an important component of behavior change that we even created a quiz to help people better understand how their personality contributes to reaching (and not reaching) their health goals.
WANT TO KNOW FIRST
Rarely (as I've become keenly aware of in myself) are any of the motivation thieves isolated.
Usually these bandits come in pairs if not groups, and once one gets in the door, it's easier for the rest to enter.
So, as you read through what's below, and the posts in the coming days, see which motivation bandit(s) seems most relevant to you, and see if you can identify which one is allowing the others in the door.
As Sun Tsu put it in The Art of War -- Knowing your enemy is the best way to defeat him.
With that said, here is what seems to me to be the first enemy of motivation.
UNMET EMOTIONAL NEED
In a very real way, this bandit is basically a summary of all the other motivation thieves yet to be mentioned--thus why I wanted it to kick off this series.
The important thing to know here is you're not weird (or weak) for having emotional needs.
In reality, you'd be weird (i.e. not human) if you didn't have them.
Here's a beautiful, unifying thing about emotions--at our core we humans all have the same basic longings--we all want purpose, romance, adventure, significance, dignity, play, autonomy, security, and so on.
Perhaps even a cursory read of the above list can help you step back and examine what emotional need you may have that feels most unmet in any given moment.
The point is, when any important, base emotion is unmet, that lack creates emotional tension--and that tension (poorly understood or poorly aimed), can create a ripple effect of poor choices as we instinctively, unconsciously, seek to meet a genuinely good, basic emotional need.
UNDERSTANDING "EMOTIONAL LEAKAGE"
It's important to understand that, for all of us, our "emotional-satisfaction buckets," leak.
In other words, emotional needs are recurring.
Similar to physical hunger or physical starvation, we can also have emotional needs that range from normal recurring hunger, to unhealthy emotional starvation.
While trying to stay disciplined (with health habits for example) during a bout of emotional hunger can be difficult, trying to stay disciplined during a bout of emotional starvation can make the simple act of drinking water feel as difficult as running a marathon.
The challenge is, because of a lack of awareness of or emotional drivers, or because of a genuine challenge in satisfying them, we can develop patterns of seeking to fill unmet emotional needs by looking in the wrong places.
We grab ice cream in a misdirected attempt to fill the loneliness ache.
We buy new stuff to attempt to fill the longing for significance or recognition.
We can even develop unhealthy patterns with good things (like exercise) in an attempt to fill the emotional buckets of dignity or a sense of control.
LEARNING TO TAKE BETTER AIM
When you're hungry, you don't go pick up a book to satisfy your hunger.
Yet, because food can change our mood, we attempt to satisfy emotional needs by eating.
The point is, it is our ability to understand our unmet emotional needs that can unlock a greater sense of clarity about where to appropriately satisfy them.
The more we understand who we are, who we matter to, and what will really meet our emotional longings, the better we can aim ourselves.
But...(for this post anyway), here's the last important point to keep in mind.
HUMANS ARE COMPLICATED
There is a duality (a multiplicity actually) to being human.
Said differently, we all have competing desires inside us all the time.
We want to get in shape, but we want to sleep in.
We want to eat the cookie, but we want to lose weight.
We want to give generously, but we also want to be frugal.
We want to be a disciplined person, but we want to stay up late.
RECOGNIZING UNMET EMOTIONAL NEED
While we could probably make an endless list of subconscious, emotional tensions driving our less-than-optimal behaviors, here's a short list of strong emotional undercurrents that nudge us off course...often without us noticing it:
Lack of feeling appreciated
Lack of a feeling of fairness
Lack of feeling confident
Lack of feeling important or needed
As I said, no doubt the list could be much longer--I'll tease out other unmet emotional needs throughout the rest of this series. For now...
The simple point I'm trying to make here is to encourage you to understand that the learned practice of stepping back and getting curious about what you're feeling, is a powerful but overlooked aspect of reclaiming motivation.
To give you some practical examples of what I'm talking about, consider these scenarios where you might be confronted with a puzzling loss of motivation:
Putting down your phone and going to bed on time can be difficult either because you feel like you haven't had any downtime, or because you're lonely. Ask: Where might you find more meaningful moments of play or human connection instead?
Going through the effort to cook can be unappealing when your family doesn't seem to appreciate all your culinary efforts. Ask: Where can you involve them in the process?
Making it a priority to exercise can create a feeling of unfairness when it seems you to have to bear all the work required to run your home. Ask: Where can you create a fairer distribution of labor?
Going above and beyond at work can seem pointless when you're never acknowledged for a job well done. Ask: When was the last time you complimented one of your colleagues for their contribution?
A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
A question you can ask yourself is...
"What normal, healthy, human need do I have that feels unmet right now?"
Sometimes the answer is obvious (e.g. I'm lonely), and other times it takes a caring friend, counselor, or coach to help you identify the emotional undercurrent.
Developing stronger awareness of how our emotions are influencing our behavior often takes nothing more than the simple act of pausing to observe our feelings.
Once you've identified an unmet need, you can follow up the above question with this one...
"What simple step might I take right now that is a healthy way to begin meeting that need?"
Get curious about your emotions and you're well on your way to a level of emotional agility that can keep you on track despite the roughest storms in life.
In my next post I'll tackle the all-important topic of how motivation is tied to a deep sense of purpose.
Until then...stay curious about your feelings--they have a lot to teach you.
Here's to motivation that doesn't quit,