The Science Behind Why You Don’t Feel Motivated

UPDATED: December 18, 2019
PUBLISHED: January 26, 2016
The Science Behind Why You Don’t Feel Motivated

That half-finished project sits on the corner of your desk screaming at you.
You wince just looking at your overstuffed inbox of unanswered emails.
Your stomach aches thinking about this afternoon’s meeting you have to attend.

And all you can think is, I’m just not motivated.

Related: Do These 7 Things to Get (and Stay) Motivated

If you think the reason you aren’t tackling that project, responding to emails or preparing for the meeting is because you are not motivated, think again. Because one of the most important discoveries in motivation science is this: You are always motivated. The issue is not if you are motivated, but the reason you are motivated.

Consider these questions that explore the reason for your current motivation. Ask yourself, Am I…

Feeling overwhelmed and don’t know how to proceed?
Unable to find value or meaning in the project?
Feeling imposed? Is there someone pressuring me to get this done? Am I pressuring myself?

Feeling resentful?
Fearful of what might happen if I don’t do it? Am I concerned about disappointing someone else—or myself?

Doing the work in an effort to avoid guilt or shame?
Doing the work for the money?
Doing the work with hopes of gaining favor, power or status in the eyes of others?
Am I taking this on to impress someone else?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, your motivation is suboptimal.

Suboptimal motivation is like junk food. Think about what happens when you are low on energy and go for the quick fix—a candy bar, an order of fries, a caffeinated drink. Your blood sugar spikes and then you crash. That doughnut tasted really good going down, but it didn’t do your body any good—especially in the long term. When your motivation is based on disinterest, external rewards (tangible and intangible), or feeling imposed, you will simply not have the energy, vitality or sense of well-being required to achieve your goals.

Does money motivate you? Yes. Do power and status motivate you? Yes and yes. Pressure motivates you, too. But these are suboptimal reasons for being motivated that undermine your ability to get done what you need to do. Research shows that even if you achieve a goal while motivated for suboptimal reasons, you are unlikely to sustain your effort over time.

Related: 6 Common Motivations for Money Guaranteed to Make You Fail

Motivation science provides a healthy alternative, and you can take advantage of this new science to shift from suboptimal to optimal motivation. In particular, there are three nutriments that supply what you need to get things done—especially those goals and tasks that require energy and effort over time. They are as vital to your thriving and flourishing as your biological needs.

These three nutriments are autonomy, relatedness and competence—and they’re psychological needs.

When one or more of these psychological needs is missing, you simply don’t have the energy you need to get things done. Trying to function without healthy motivation takes its toll on your mental and physical health, creativity and innovation, productivity and performance—even your engagement and work passion. No wonder you procrastinate, stall or drag yourself out of bed in the morning.

The first step is to recognize and admit the type of motivation you have. Begin to notice what I call physiological disturbances—when your jaw tightens, your stomach is tied in knots, your energy is drained, or you feel symptoms of tension or stress. These are all indicators of suboptimal motivation.

The more mindful you are, the more opportunity you have to shift to an optimal motivational outlook. Motivation is a skill. You can learn to experience high-quality motivation any time and any place you choose.

So, what is your current motivation for the project languishing on the corner of your desk, why are you neglecting your email inbox or what’s beneath your reluctance to prepare for an upcoming meeting?  Identifying the reason may be all it takes to let go of suboptimal motivation and embrace a more optimal reason based on your values, sense of purpose and meaning, or remembering what you inherently find joy in doing.

Related: Top of Mind: How Do You Find Motivation When You’re Not Feeling It?

Susan Fowler is widely known as one of the foremost experts on personal empowerment. Her extensive experience and knowledge gained through 15 years of advertising, sales, production and marketing across the United States has fueled her quest to help individuals achieve their highest levels of success. Susan is a catalyst for CHANGE through Compelling evidence, Humor, Accelerated learning, Next steps, Global perspective and Emotional connections. She is the co-author of more than six books, including Why Motivation Doesn't Work... and What Does and Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager with Ken Blanchard and Laurie Hawkins.