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Stop asking “why am I so unmotivated to work?” and start asking “what do I need to do my best work”

You show up for work. You occupy your chair, but that’s about it. In terms of inspiration, creativity, and effort, you might as well be absent.

Because you're an overachiever, you do the minimum. You are good enough that if you don’t tell them, most people don’t even notice that you are struggling at work.

You thought it was a phase. You put your head down and kept going. Because that’s what you do—you persist. The daily grind is familiar. In fact, you used to take comfort from it. You are what you do. And you do it well, so you get validation from the grind.

But the slog hasn’t let up and now you are struggling to feel like you are making a difference.

It’s time to change the question. Stop looking at the lack—the loss of motivation and passion and energy—and start looking at the fullness. What supports you to do your best work?

To adopt this new perspective, ask yourself three questions:

  1. What do I want to feel at the end of my life?
  2. Am I moving closer to that feeling?
  3. Am I more interested in growth and fulfillment or comfort and fitting in?

The Feeling – this is the goal.

Decide now how you want to feel at the end of your life. Orient your decisions toward what gives you this feeling.

Studies confirm that if your success is based external expectations, rather than self-determined desires, you will struggle to find satisfaction.

If your current job and success are based on a performance orientation, where you set goals to achieve what is expected rather than what makes you feel alive, you must reorient your framework to find the fulfillment and motivation you are searching for.

Start by investigating what you want to feel at the end of your life. When you are on your deathbed looking back over your life, will you wish you spent more time on what you are currently doing?

It’s a resounding “No!” then intentionally decide what the feeling is that you want to have when you are lying there in your last moments. Then use that feeling as a lens to help you make decisions that move you toward that feeling.

Over time, small decisions that honor that feeling add up to where you want to be. So don’t underestimate the power of mundane decisions. Getting the outcome you want is found in the ordinary moments of life.

Once you’ve identified what you want to feel, implement this strategy by labeling this feeling as the goal. Rename all your current goals as strategies. Then check to see if your strategies are moving you closer to your goal.

If your current plan isn’t getting you to the feeling, you’ll need to rework your approach. Read further to explore what that would look like in the next section.

If the answer on your deathbed is yes, you would want to spend more time on what you are currently doing, then likely the motivational issues you are struggling with relate less to a duty orientation than to variables in your immediate environment.

Check in with yourself. When was the last time you connected to your meaning – the bigger picture of what you are working toward? How recognized do you feel? How are you and how well are you measuring your contribution? Does your approach give you room for First Attempts in Learning (FAIL)?

Even when you are on the right path, your sense of motivation may fluctuate in response to your evolving context. 

To maintain inspiration, creativity, and will, you need to feel connected to your why, your raison d’être. Take time to visualize your work within the bigger picture. Tap into your vision—what are you working toward?

Ask yourself if you feel you matter and if you can concretely point to recognition you’ve received. Is there an imbalance between what you are giving and how appreciated you feel? What can you do to bring that into alignment?

Because you can’t change other people, it’s your responsibility to set boundaries that help you safeguard your time and energy. Rather than expecting someone to take notice, you must speak up and voice your need to be recognized.

If you feel you aren’t good enough, what’s driving that story in your head? Is it the quantity of work you are facing and feeling unsupported by your administration? Perhaps you find yourself looking at the mountain of to-do’s and feeling like you’ll never get it all done. Or you leave the office rewriting encounters in your head, focusing on how you should have done this or that differently?

Change the storyline by reflecting on what you did well and what went right. Look back at your progress over the last few months, rather than at your unending to-do list. Hug your inner critic into silence.

A perspective of not feeling purposeful, not being able to contribute, and continually failing motivates you to stay in bed with covers over your head. If you want to change the direction of your motivation, change your mindset.

The Path

Operationalizing sentiments into concrete actions can be daunting. If your current trajectory doesn’t add up to the feeling you want most, what do you do next? How do you begin making choices based on what you want to feel?

Maybe above you realized that you want to feel empowered but, if you put most of your recent decisions under that lens, you see that the sense of disempowerment extends beyond work.

It makes sense because recently you’ve noticed that your lack of motivation shows up as indifference or resentment in friendships, with family, and in your passion projects as well.

As you start to understand the scope of a life built toward a performance orientation where the tunnel of goals and doing never ends, it can be hard to re-orient toward a mastery approach where the goal is the feeling and the doing is simply being.

The gap that being “dys-oriented” can leave you with may make it hard to know where to start to move closer to the feeling. It can also leave you with a sense of futility: everything you’ve done to date has moved you further from the feeling you want.

Take comfort: in your current orientation everything you’ve done has value. There are lessons and messages that you needed to get to where you are in this moment. Reorienting simply means pivoting, not starting from scratch.

To put this approach into play, start small with decisions that come up from this point forward. Practice choosing options which move you toward how you want to feel.

Maybe that looks like saying no to dinner with a friend to safeguard time for yourself, rather than feeling obligated to accept the invitation.

Maybe it looks like saying yes to dinner even though it’s hard to go because the feeling you will want more of at the end is connection.

As in the example above there are no right or wrong choices; there are simply alternatives that get you closer to or further away from your goal.

Each choice depends on the feeling you are trying to cultivate and the patterns you have been running up to now.

The next time you're confronted with a significant decision, make your normal pro/con list but then put it under this lens.

If you are running a performance orientation, and all signs point to go, this lens gives you a very different understanding of how this decision will inform the shape of your life.

If you knew in advance that this was a socially accepted choice that checked the boxes, but got you further from how you wanted to feel, what would that do to your decision?

Pivoting, moving toward more of what you want and less of what you “should” usually feels risky.

You may find yourself wondering how others will feel about your new choices. If this is the case, remind yourself they aren’t on your deathbed. They aren’t the ones who will look regret in the face.

The Discomfort – broaden and deepen your comfort zone to be able to tolerate the risk of change 

How often and how far you get outside of your comfort zone influences how risky pivoting feels. 

If you are a person who tries new foods, sits down with groups of people you don’t know, learns new languages, has encountered adversity, and or has a varied schedule, choosing something new or different will be closer to your zone of comfort. 

Your comfort zone has depth and breadth so new things feel more familiar. Hard things will feel less difficult.

comfort zone vs life graphic

If the reminder that it’s you who is accountable for your life doesn’t work, and you are continuing to make decisions that correspond with social approval—decisions that make you feel like you don’t have a choice—then look at how you can widen your comfort zone to lower your sense of risk.

Your parasympathetic nervous system—the system that houses the neural networks for learning—turns off when you are stressed.

When you are too far outside of your comfort zone, which causes you to feel stressed, you will struggle physiologically to make the growth choice.

Again, the daily ordinary choices are where you begin the implementation process.

Practice sitting with the discomfort of the little things to broaden and build your comfort zone. 

Experiment with it. Choose to push back where you wouldn’t. Decide to pause when normally you’d dive in. 

Start—instead of procrastinating until you miss the deadline. Do it just to see how it impacts your ability to choose what you want instead of what you should

Then gauge how motivated you feel for each choice and overall.

By Megan Warren

Megan is an experienced public health professional with a rich background in programmatic operations and executive coaching. She is an ICF-certified executive leadership coach with more than fifteen years of experience in public health and business development.