The Secret to Staying Motivated During This Pandemic

UPDATED: May 22, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 24, 2020
staying motivated during this pandemic

These are unprecedented times. At least that’s what every email from each corporation I’ve ever thought of frequenting has said. Unprecedented times. A time of uncertainty. Of stress, of isolation. As control of what used to be “normal” slips through our over-washed fingertips, it’s tempting to let other things slide through the cracks, as well. I mean, who wants to [ insert tedious task you’ve been putting off for weeks ] during a global pandemic?

While acknowledging your limits and refraining from over-tapping your emotional capacity during “these times” is pivotal, adamantly searching for the silver linings will play an essential role in helping you stay positive, and in turn motivated, for however long this uncertainty lasts. Which matters. Because as the world stands still, the voices that fill the silence will carry—and I, for one, prefer those echoes empower others so who and what emerges after quarantine is better than how we left it.

This may be easier said than done. Everyone reacts to crises differently. Some people cope by baking 10 loaves of banana bread. Others turn to Tiger King. The self-motivation pendulum swings in any given direction based on a few factors that may explain why we’re seeing one friend run a marathon on their balcony while contrastingly another has adopted PJs as their new work attire.

Ph.D., behavioral specialist and former psychotherapist to the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers Dr. Steven Rosenberg says self-motivation is connected to brain chemistry. “The ‘go-getter’ has higher levels of dopamine in the reward and motivation portion of the brain. On the other hand, people who typically experience low self-motivation have their dopamine found in the area of the brain associated with risk and emotion.” 

People whose brains are naturally wired with a surplus of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens (aka the reward center) are highly motivated because they inherently anticipate a reward will follow their efforts. These are the balcony marathoners. Often they are intrinsically motivated and perform tasks because it matters to them personally, whereas others may be more motivated extrinsically and perform an activity for a specific reward or to avoid punishment. If you find yourself relating more to Pajama Sam, this doesn’t mean you’re incapable of self-motivating; brain chemistry is only a piece of the puzzle.

Your life experiences combined with the problem-solving techniques you’ve perfected over time serve as building blocks for the next time you need to propel yourself toward action. In more layman’s terms, motivation is not a feeling; it’s a habit. And there are a few ways to strengthen that habit successfully.

According to the self-determination theory, people are motivated to grow and change when their needs for competence, autonomy and connection are met. Do you have a sense of mastery and have the skills for success in your field (competence)? Do you feel in control of your behaviors and believe you can take direct action that would spark change (autonomy)? Have you developed close relationships and have a sense of belonging, in and/or outside of work (connection)?

“There are innate traits that can make self-motivation easier,” explains Thomas McDonagh, Psy.D. a San Francisco-based psychotherapist and founder of Good Therapy SF. “But competence, autonomy and connection are things that can be worked on to improve motivation.”

When looking at these three basic needs, it’s no wonder why people feel a lack of motivation during this pandemic. Our connection is physically limited; our ability to directly help others feels impeded. For those whose companies may be at risk, their competence may be tested. Quite frankly, looking at the picture with such a wide lens is overwhelming. How do the balcony marathoners do it??

By breaking things into manageable chunks. The smaller the better.

Dr. Rosenberg believes the best way to improve motivation is to set goals. “Achieving those goals allows you to cross off a checklist and gives you a sense of accomplishment.” Or competency, if you will. He advises people focus on one thing at a time, setting new goals by small, tangible increments to build motivation to reach the next. Maybe for you that’s to write just the mission statement of your new business. Or send an email to one company you’d like to collaborate with in the future.

“It can help to approach competence from a curious or learning perspective, as opposed to a ‘I have to do this’ mentality,” says Dr. McDonagh. “This also increases autonomy because it is putting yourself back at the center instead of an externally motivated approach.”

You can set similar small goals to meet the other basic needs in your life as well—as we find ourselves working from home, work-life balance should more accurately be deemed work-life integration. It’s difficult to motivate your work self when you don’t feel wholly up to the task. To boost feelings of autonomy, send a card to someone self-isolating alone, or donate to a charity in need of support to remember the positive impact your actions can generate. Schedule daily phone or video calls with your closest friends to ensure you’re connecting with others. By the same token, eat your veggies, sleep eight hours and meet your body’s basic health needs during these emotionally charged times. Yet perhaps most importantly, be gentle with yourself and realistically manage expectations of what your own productivity will look like during quarantine.

I have an autoimmune and take an immunosuppressant that puts me at high-risk for viral infections like COVID-19, and must take extra precautions the moment I step outside of my apartment. But the other day I just forgot. I realized hours after doing laundry in our communal machines that I hadn’t wiped them down beforehand, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember if I washed my hands afterward. What had I touched? Was I overreacting? Did that matter? I was so distracted that I stopped what I was doing (this article) and Clorox-wiped my entire apartment.

These are unprecedented times. It’s important to recognize productivity in the midst of a pandemic is a luxury, not a necessity. Respecting when you need a little room to breathe without an agenda is the best practice of self-care to adopt both now and moving forward.

“You cannot sustain being a firefighter if there is a fire every day,” says Rob Fazio, Ph.D. and founder of Hold the Door, a 9/11 inspired nonprofit focused on growth through adversity. Dr. Fazio advises in times of high anxiety, people engage in the Three R’s: Recognize their stress triggers. Reset with active stress management, humor or self-care. Rebuild their strengths, and personal growth.

If you thought the secret to staying motivated during quarantine was going to be a list of action items like listen to your favorite inspirational podcast, get ready and dressed like you were going to the office, yoga thrice weekly, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. A list like that isn’t… unprecedented. (Apart from anyone advising me to stop wearing my sweatpants.) Right now is our opportunity to take stock of our lives and think carefully about what we want to bring along with us post COVID-19. For many of us it’s the first opportunity of a blank slate we’ve entered fully self-aware. Sure, it’s overwhelming. But it’s also unmarked in all of its uncertainty. Who knows, it could be full of promise.

Read next: Finding Courage Amid Uncertainty

Photo by Ekaterina Bolovtsova/

Megan Nicole O’Neal is a writer with a passion for storytelling, traveling and whenever possible, mixing the two. The UCLA alum lives in Los Angeles; more specifically westside coffee shops with equally strong wifi and dark roasts. Connect with Megan on Twitter at @megan_n_onealor her website