How to Overcome a Lack of Motivation: Part 2 - Three Key Skills to Regain Your Sense of Purpose
Updated: Mar 10
Have you ever frustratedly asked yourself..."What's the point?"
You know the moment I'm talking about.
It's when what you were trying to do no longer feels like it will matter.
From questioning our job duties, to begrudging our health habits, to feeling so far behind (at whatever) that we'll never catch up, if we don't believe what we are doing will make a difference, there's hardly anything that can keep us feeling motivated.
The sneaky part is this erosion of motivation usually starts before we're even aware of it.
And once it's gone, it can have some pretty ugly consequences.
As it says in Proverbs 29:18...
"Where there is no vision, people perish."
Where there is no vision, (no sense of purpose) people lose their drive (they flounder) and in extreme cases, perish.
The slippery slope of a loss of motivation (purpose) can lead to a life of regrets, and that, my dear reader, is not going to be your story if I have anything to say about it.
TAPPING INTO YOUR WELLSPRING OF MOTIVATION
From surviving in combat, to pressing on through the grind of entrepreneurship, to showing up for work despite the sleep deprivation of early parenthood, to showing up for workouts we'd rather skip, we humans can be remarkably resilient...when we have a strong enough purpose--a strong enough why.
Having a feeling that our actions are serving a bigger, important purpose adds fuel for the motor of motivation.
For example, when we have...
Family that need us,
A recognition that our work matters,
The prospect of a event that requires us to be our best,
An active adventure we'd otherwise miss if we don't get in shape...
It's easier to feel motivated...or at least find sufficient will to keep going.
Here are four people that regularly remind me what I'm fighting for.
But, what if we don't have a someone else to be there for, or an event on the horizon that serves as motivation?
How do we tap into motivation for the everyday good habits that, while easy to do, are also easy not to do?
Before I give you some practical ways to reclaim your sense of purpose, let me first mention...
THE UPSIDE OF A FEELING OF PURPOSELESSNESS
It may sound ironic given the above, but a feeling of purposelessness can actually be a catalyst for good.
How's that you ask?
When working hard at something starts to feel pointless, it can prompt us to ask the all-important question, "Why am I doing this?"
Or...the close cousin of that question, "Why am I feeling unmotivated and what would I be motivated to do instead?"
Simply having the willingness to wrestle with those questions can open new categories of thinking and help us redirect our actions to what does feel meaningful.
With that in mind, let's turn our attention to...
THREE WAYS TO RECLAIM YOUR SENSE OF PURPOSE
In my last post you may remember I talked about how, at its core, a lack of motivation is a reflection of an unmet emotional need.
I talked about how our emotions, when reflected on soberly, can provide a great source of instruction and direction.
Today I want to take that concept a bit further.
Part of reclaiming a feeling of motivation is to get introspective about what fires you up--i.e. what makes you emotional.
By "fired up" you could think of either end of the emotional spectrum--from "all kinds of frustrated" to "seriously pumped about what you're doing."
And herein lies the first key to reclaiming motivation...
SKILL #1 - REMEMBERING
In either instance mentioned above, strong emotion is trying to tell you something--i.e. I really want to avoid X, or I could use more of Y.
The trick it to remember those feelings...and remind yourself of them often.
I think it was Darren Hardy who I first heard say "we humans need to be reminded more often than instructed."
So often the answers to what will keep up motivated are right in front of us--we just temporarily forgot them.
The mistake I think a lot of people make is they expect to feel emotionally fired up the entire time they work on meaningful goals.
Folks...that's just not how it works.
What's more important that feeling emotionally fired up, is a good memory about why you're doing what you're doing.
Here's why that's important...
EMOTION CAN GET YOU STARTED, BUT WON'T KEEP YOU GOING
The important thing to know about both ends of the spectrum--they are energy expensive.
Working yourself into a lather over something you're frustrated about (hello temper tantrums and pity parties), OR
Passionately burning through energy in a bout of intense motivation (e.g. "I've got a vacation coming up so I'm going to cut my calories way back and workout everyday)...
are BOTH going to create a crash and force you back to something sustainable--something less energy expensive--i.e. less emotionally intense.
Punctuated moments of pain or pleasure can (and should) remind us of why the effort we need to make is worth it, but we can't rely on intense emotions to keep us on track.
For that, we need (among other things) a bigger purpose that we are reminded of often.
Besides looking for ways to strengthen our "mission memory," we also need another important skill...
SKILL #2 - HIGH-LEVEL REFRAMING
Nothing reawakens our motivation (our sense of purpose) like a good story.
Paradoxically, nothing robs us of motivation like a good story.
What matters, is the story we're telling ourselves.
I recently finished the excellent book The Art of Possibility
In it, one of the authors (a music professor), realizing how important this concept of framing is, had the hare-brained idea (approved by his university) to give all his students an A at the beginning of the semester.
What's more...there was nothing the students could do to lose their A.
Their project was to write a paper, dated for the end of the semester, explaining in exquisite detail who they became, what they had overcome, who had been impacted by their work, and thus...why they had earned their A.
Think of it...if you knew you couldn't fail at something, and you went to work from the perspective of what it is like to have already overcome challenges and succeeded, what story would you tell?
What new meaning would your day-to-day habits take on?
What new ways would you view setbacks?
I won't spoil the stories in the book but suffice it to say, the papers his students submitted were fantastically inspiring, as was the quality of their effort throughout the semester.
The reason that was so was because students began framing their stories differently than they ever had before.
While framing (in great detail) with the end in mind is a great idea, we can also do it at a more tactical level anytime motivation is waning.
SKILL #3 - MOMENT-BY-MOMENT REFRAMING
More often than not, when a bigger mission emotionally resonates, but the day-to-day steps toward that mission don't seem congruent, usually one of two things is happening.
We have either forgotten why we are taking these smaller steps (#1 above), OR
We need to reflect on and reevaluate the smaller steps to affirm they are indeed important.
Just like an autopilot system constantly nudges a plane back on course in response to the wind, so too do our day-to-day actions need recalibration.
When we drift off course from true North it is because we didn't keep re-evaluating our current habits and direction.
Here's an important point...
There is a zero percent chance that life is always going to go as you script it.
You will get knocked off course.
Your best laid plans will be interrupted.
You will have to mix up the strategies you're using to accomplish your goals.
When disruption happens, if you're emotionally nimble you can always find a way pivot your actions and (re)frame events in favor or retaining your motivation.
Let me give you a few examples of how powerful moment-by-moment reframing is:
If you're an athlete (or "corporate athlete") far behind in competition, maybe winning today is unattainable, but you have the option to reframe what's happening in the moment, as a perfect environment to practice (i.e. get better) against real competition.
When unquestionably good health habits (like sleep, exercise, or eating well) don't seem to be producing weight loss, you have the perfect opportunity to pause and ask questions about the story you're telling yourself in the moment--e.g. your level of patience, other confounding factors you've not considered, or questions regarding the frequency or intensity of your health habits.
When day-to-day work duties start to feel meaningless, you may have the perfect opportunity to begin a fruitful conversation about your job duties. Maybe your boss will point out a framing (or memory) problem you have, or maybe there's a chance to set yourself apart in your company as an initiative-taking, process-improvement, problem-solver?
In any one of those instances, the actions that seemed fruitless moments ago, now take on new meaning as you reframe them as part of a larger learning curve--i.e. part of a needle-moving opportunity that hadn't presented itself until now.
In so doing, your day-to-day behaviors can take on an immediate sense of purpose.
And all you did was reframe how you were thinking about what was happening.
In a real way, the skill of framing is a way to accelerate your personal development and to become someone who is a possibility thinker.
No one likes to be around a "Debbie downer."
Everyone likes to be around someone who brings life and hope to what's happening.
Which of the two are you becoming?
Just like the music professor's students, you have a choice regarding the story you tell yourself and how you will let that story shape your actions.
You have an opportunity to see your day-to-day behaviors from a place of overcoming--indeed to step into the identity of an overcomer.
Reframing is simply the learned skill of finding the fascinating lesson or upside of whatever just happened.
So much of the success or joy we experience in life is often (maybe always) less about what happens to us, and more a reflection of the stories we tell ourselves.
None of the above is an admonition to "Pollyanna" your way through life...i.e. pretend everything is fine, or in the words of The Lego Movie, lie to yourself that "everything is awesome."
There is plenty of "not awesome" in life.
Disappointment is a real emotion we shouldn't stuff, but at the same time, those who live a good life find a way to positively reframe disappointment.
In short, if we accept that disappointment is part of life, and we slow down to reframe events as illuminating an important lesson worth learning, we become unflappable.
Let me drive home this point with a simple parable.
A TALE OF MISFORTUNE...OR IS IT GOOD FORTUNE?
Long ago, a man of little means, had a small plot of land, one horse, and a son.
One day his horse ran away.
The man's neighbors came by and said "How unfortunate that your horse ran away."
The man replied, "Maybe."
The next day the man's horse returned and brought with him several wild horses.
The neighbors return and said "How fortunate that now have many horses!"
The man replied, "Maybe."
The next day, his son was attempting to break in one of the new horses and the horse kicked him and broke his leg.
The neighbors came by and said, "How unfortunate that the horse broke your son's leg."
The man replied, "Maybe."
The next day the king's servants came by to conscript young boys for the army, but wouldn't take his son because he had a broken leg.
The neighbors returned and exclaimed "How fortunate they didn't take your son to war."
The man replied, "Maybe."
Do you see the point?
Learning to hold our narratives loosely, and having the ability/willingness to look for potential upside can be all the difference in our day-to-day happiness and motivation.
A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
What things have you been framing as negative that might just be the beginning of a new set of important questions, and a new sense of purpose?
If you were to "give yourself an A" for having accomplished a big goal, what story would you tell?
What did you do to overcome the inevitable challenges?
Whose life is better because you didn't quit?
What did you learn about yourself?
Who is proud of you?
I promise, you'll need a strong sense of purpose to get through some of the grueling and unexpected twists and turns of life.
And reframing is a skill you will need to keep finding purpose, and thus, stay motivated.
You won't go far without a sense of purpose--i.e. you'll perish without a vision.
You can't rely on intense emotion to keep you motivated.
You're going to need to the skills of remembering and reframing--both high-level reframing and day-to-day reframing.
FIRST: When you zoom out and look to reclaim your sense of purpose, look for three things:
A reminder of why you started in the first place.
A belief in the bigger mission--i.e. the reason you started.
A belief in the day-to-day behaviors that support that mission.
If you're having trouble with any of those, you may have just discovered where your motivation is getting away from you.
(NOTE: I'll cover several other motivation thieves in the posts ahead.)
SECOND: Examine closely, and as objectively as possible, the stories you're telling yourself.
Sometimes your stories are correct.
Other times your stories will range from partially true to totally false.
Yet, regardless of their accuracy, your stories will influence your motivation.
THIRD: Regularly practice the skill of reframing and you'll become ridiculously difficult to discourage.
Even better than trying to do this alone, find someone you admire who and talk it out.
Let a (trusted) mentor/thinker help you reframe what's happening and you'll be better for it.
You and I get one shot at this life.
Life is too short to go around floundering because we feel rudderless.
My hope is that you and I both leave this world in old age, exhilarated and exhausted, not exhausted because we overworked ourselves, but because we "left it all on the field."
May it be said of us that we kept finding new ways to see what's possible, and that that vision of what could be kept us taking inspired action our entire life for the betterment of others.
To paraphrase a quote I read recently.
May we die, still working at what's important, knowing that what can be done, has been, that we gave it our all, and that we set up those who come behind us for success.
As far as I can tell the only way for that to be said of us, is if we continually get better at practicing the three skills above.
I believe you've got some important work to do in this world.
If you're having a hard time staying motivated, the world will miss out on your gift.
Let's not let that happen.
Use the ideas above, and in the posts to come, and we'll keep your motivation strong.
You keep showing up...and I'll keep writing.
Until next time,
PS. If you've got some health goals, and your narratives around them could use some reframing, let's chat. My specialty is complicated health challenges and solve the knowing vs. doing problem.
PPS. Have you taken our Health-Transformation-Type Quiz yet? It's a free resource to help you identify how your personality informs the areas of personal growth you'll likely need to address in order to accomplish your health and fitness goals.