One of your friends is learning to brew beer. Another has decluttered and reorganized every closet in her house. Your neighbor has started earning his online Master’s degree. Everyone you know is posting pictures of the recipes and crafts they’ve made at home since COVID-19 came calling.
Pre-Rona, you always thought about all the amazing things you would do if you had more time—like learning to tie flies for fly fishing. Now you have more time, and you haven’t tied a single nymph, grasshopper, mayfly, or hornet. Getting out of bed to use the bathroom or get together a meal seems exhausting. Forget taking a shower.
What can you do to get your motivation back? Where does motivation even come from? Here’s what we know.
Different types of motivation
Traditionally, people have thought about motivation in two ways. Psychologists describe intrinsic motivation as doing something because we want to. For example, some people play musical instruments because it gives them satisfaction. Runners go out in all kinds of weather because the act of running makes them feel good. In contrast, extrinsic motivation is when we are offered an external reward for performing a task. Children who complete homework and study hard receive good grades. When we work, we are given money for our efforts.
People often believe that intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic motivation. They suggest that doing things because for internal satisfaction makes us happier. Getting rewards, trains people to expect prizes for their actions. When there’s no material reward, people have a hard time finding a reason to do anything.
Professor Steven Reiss of Ohio State University thinks that this point of view is mistaken. He made his argument in a 2005 issue of Behavior Analyst. This researcher says that there are many more types of motivations and that when we divide motivation into two categories, we are oversimplifying. He lists 16 kinds of motivation, including power, independence, curiosity, and acceptance.
He writes that there is no evidence that one kind of motivation makes people happier than another type. When people separate motivation into intrinsic and extrinsic, they are making an unnecessary judgment.
He takes the example of children in the classroom. He explains that some of them are naturally curious and get great satisfaction from learning. More of them do not enjoy performing the tasks that teachers ask, but like being rewarded with grades.
He explains, “There are many children for whom the important reward to them is the grades they get, the competition among classmates. This goes against what some psychologists say, who think competition is bad and a non-competitive attitude is good, and that learning and curiosity are intrinsic values that everyone shares. They are pushing their own value system on to everybody.”
It may well be the case that you are a person who enjoys receiving rewards for performing a task, and there is nothing wrong with this. Knowing it will help you get organized. You can use it to your advantage. If you are looking for motivation to clean your home, separate it into smaller tasks. Then think of a reward you can give yourself when you complete one task. You are the person who knows best what will be a good reward. It could be a short drive in the car after doing the laundry or inviting a friend over for a coffee when you have finished with the kitchen. Maybe it’s watching an episode of your favorite series. Ask your partner to hide your cell phone from you until you’ve completed the things you need to get done. It can be your prize.
If you’ve lost your job because of COVID and looking for another one, it may be hard to find the motivation to apply to different positions. You know that few employers are hiring and that competition is fierce. You need the money, but the effort to find a job seems like too much.
On the other hand, your employer may have switched you to a work-at-home schedule. Even though you have all the same responsibilities as before, it is harder to get things done from your home office. When there’s no boss there looking over your shoulder, it’s easy to get distracted and do something that you enjoy more than your job.
Motivation changes over time. When we begin working towards a goal, you dream about how it will feel to achieve it. For example, if you are looking for a job, you probably dream about working in a place that you like and getting a more substantial salary. You may dream about the independence you will gain. Self-realization is a dream for many. These dreams will motivate you to start looking at job postings and send in your resume.
Unfortunately, once you have the job, it can feel like this motivation disappeared. Different motivations appear fear of losing your job or being criticized by your boss. You become worried about the negative consequences of not following through.
Scientists from the University of Winnipeg and University of Manitoba conducted a study to see how people’s goals change over time. In the beginning, motivation is intense and exciting. They feel promotion motivation. As they get closer to our goals, our motivation changes to responsibility and keeping negative things from happening. This is called prevention motivation.
Being more aware of what motivates you in your work will help you. If you find prevention motivation boring, you might want to make smaller goals. You can dream about these as you work towards them and bring back some of the excitement. On the other hand, thinking more about the consequences of not performing work is another way to find more motivation.
Or maybe it’s ok…
Before you get too worried about your lack of motivation, analyze if it is a problem. There is nothing wrong with doing nothing as long as it doesn’t harm your physical or mental health. If you have enough money to live comfortably and no pets or children are depending on you to take care of them, then you may find that staying in bed and watching Netflix is just what you need. When you are ready to emerge from your self induced hibernation, you will.