The Problem With Self-Motivation

Like a lot of people, I have a bad habit of only doing things when I’m told, instead of taking initiative. I’d say I’m reasonably competent when other people set tasks for me to do, but without external motivation, I really struggle to push myself. In school, I’d stay up all night revising and editing an essay; on the other hand, when it comes to personal writing projects, I can barely get past the first draft.

Being stuck in lockdown has given me a lot of time to think about my motivation problem. As I stared down my many unfinished projects, I felt overwhelmed by a sense of dread and anxiety about the future. I was an adult: why was it so hard to motivate myself, instead of relying on other people? 

How we think about work 

As we were growing up, most of us received rewards from our parents when we did something good: it could be a piece of candy, an hour of playing video games, or even just a word of praise. On the other hand, doing something bad (like neglecting homework out of laziness) got us punished.

Whether it’s a piece of candy or a word of praise, parents give their kids rewards for good behaviour.

Unfortunately, this kind of conditioning can lead to an unhealthy attitude towards work. Personally, I never enjoyed doing my homework or my chores: I always viewed them as something that was imposed on me, something to push through so I could do what I really wanted to do – which was absolutely nothing. I got good grades and I helped out with housework, but only to avoid getting yelled at by my parents. Left to my own devices, I usually just loafed around. 

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation 

During a class I took in university, I heard about a psychologist named Mark R. Lepper. In order to study human motivation, he made groups of children draw and gave rewards to some, but not others. He noticed something interesting: when the kids knew they would be rewarded, the quality and creativity of their drawings took a nosedive. They also generally spent less time drawing. 

Lepper’s experiment is proof of something we all intuitively know: while extrinsic motivation works in the short term, it can damage our desire to engage in a specific activity. The children didn’t enjoy drawing as much, because they were more focused on the reward. 

Ideally, we’d be able to get to a place where work becomes its own reward – but that doesn’t happen overnight. In the meantime, you don’t need to dismiss the work you did because of others. Instead, think of it as evidence of what you’re capable of doing. The fact that you were willing to push through when somebody else was motivating you should serve as a reminder that you can get things done. The only catch is to be willing to work as hard for yourself as you were willing to work for someone else. 

Baby steps

As a self-proclaimed lazy person, I still  feel a bit out of place for giving tips on how to motivate yourself. But I’ve been taking small steps to improve, and hopefully these steps might also work for you. 

  1. Start with things you can manage. Clean your room. Wash the dishes. Make your bed. When you walk past the same pile of clothes for weeks without picking them up, you’re reinforcing the  self-image of someone who neglects things and puts them off. When you start taking care of those day-to-day things, it proves that you’re capable of getting things done: and every time you see your clean room, you’ll be reminded of that fact. 
  2. Keep the momentum going. The hardest part is getting started, so don’t interrupt your focus by taking breaks too early. Obviously, there will be times when you need to rest. But do your best to keep a daily routine: when you take too many days off from your project, it becomes harder to get going again. Get in the habit of consistently chipping away at it, even if it’s just for a few minutes every day. 
  3. Recognize that you’re probably going to have room for improvement, but don’t let that stop you. Put yourself out there anyway: do the best you can, and face your weaknesses head-on. The sooner you do this, the sooner you can actually work on getting better. 

Learning to motivate yourself requires patience. As I said, it doesn’t happen overnight. But by understanding why we struggle with motivation and taking small steps towards self-improvement, we can ultimately become better at getting things done. From one “lazy” person to another, I wish you the best in this endeavor.

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