What to Do When You're Motivated to Do Nothing

There’s no shortage of things to do, whether at home or in the workplace. If we don’t take action and make steady progress, we stay stagnant and fall behind. But there will be days when we feel like doing nothing. What to do depends on the reasons you're unmotivated and unproductive.

There’s no shortage of things to do, whether at home or in the workplace. If we don’t take action and make steady progress, we stay stagnant and fall behind.

But there will be days when we feel like doing nothing.

We get bored, lazy, and indifferent, or burnt out, depleted and drained, while the work piles up.
Do we need to buck up and get moving as quickly as possible? Or do we need to sit with the feeling, and slow down and rest?

Sometimes you’re giving up too easily or quitting too early. Other times, you do need a good, long break, more me-time or more fun in your life. What to do depends on the reasons you’re unmotivated and unproductive.

Welcome to The Incrementalist. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach who will help you make big changes in small steps.

What can you do to build your motivation and get unstuck?

Let’s start with the Procrastination Equation by Dr. Piers Steel.
Motivation = (Expectancy x Value) divided by (Impulsiveness x Delay)

Motivation is the willingness to do the task; it is the opposite of procrastination. Due to our biological wiring, it’s normal to procrastinate. The prefrontal cortex part of our brain gives us willpower. It’s for planning, strategizing, making decisions and other executive functions. The limbic system is the primal part of the brain. It’s for reactive, self-preserving behavior, like the fight, flight or freeze responses.

Procrastination is irrational delay: putting off what you need to do now. This results when the limbic system overrides the prefrontal cortex. It wants instant gratification. This is why we often put things off until the deadline approaches, when the limbic system and prefrontal cortex can more easily work together.

To have more motivation, and less procrastination, you want the numerators -- expectancy and value (E and V) to be high – and the denominators -- impulsiveness and delay (I & D) to be low.

Numerator 1, Expectancy, is how much you expect to succeed at doing the task, and how much you expect to get the reward. Your motivation is higher when you have self-confidence, self-efficacy and trust that you can finish the project with desired results.

Numerator 2, Value, is how much you enjoy doing a task and how much you expect to enjoy the reward. The more value you get from the task and the more satisfaction you get from the reward, the sooner you will act.

Expectancy and value are the results of your action. You have more motivation when the reward is high and is likely to be received.

Denominator 1, Impulsiveness, is your tendency to get distracted by other things that bring more immediate gratification. This is the#1 reason for procrastination.

Denominator 2, Delay, is the time lapse between taking action and receiving the expected reward. You have less motivation when the due date or target completion date is far away, or when it will take long to finish the project.

The Procrastination Equation says you need to maximize expectancy and value to increase motivation, and minimize impulsiveness and delay to end procrastination.

With this in mind, you can apply these 10 tips to get out of a mental slump:

1. Stop clinging to desired outcomes that are outside your control. New challenges and unexpected problems will continue to surface and knock you off your feet. The different cycles in life bring meaning and richness to your experience. In one season, you’re hitting all your targets and feeling clear and confident. In another, you’re falling fall behind schedule and feeling lost and confused. What worked then doesn’t work now.

Sometimes your timing is off. You struggle with a task because you’re working on it at the wrong time. Maybe it’s too early to get the desired results. If you wait for the conditions to become ripe for it, the task becomes easier to do and you get amazing results.

Wishing for things to be different is often counter-productive. Appreciate the good days and the bad days for what they are. This doesn’t mean you give up the moment things get hard or you stay in a depressive mode when things don’t go your way.

Rather, you ultimately accept uncontrollable circumstances, whether it’s a temporary illness, a medical diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, or a rift in a friendship. When we accept a situation for what it is, we reduce doubt, overwhelm, anxiety, worry, and fear, and can respond more skillfully.

There will be sheer luck, coincidence, the universe at work, acts of God, economics, politics, and events and experiences that are not ours to reign in. While we can influence and shape our circumstances, we cannot bend everything to our will. To build your self-confidence to create desired results, focus on what you control.

2. Stop pushing yourself too hard to get all the things done. Having too many commitments can take you away from the vital few. While working harder and putting in longer hours can bring rewards, this is hard to sustain. And your self-worth should not be tied to what you produce on a given day. Striving to do too much can leave you burnt out, depleted and drained. Sometimes you do need to just be, go with the flow of life, pause, and let ideas percolate. You don’t always have to be achieving goals, making things and producing outputs.

Leading an intentional life instead of a distracted one means you do less, but better. You say no more often to protect time and energy for the vital few. You pare down your to-do list and focus more skillfully and effectively on the key things you choose to do.

3. Stop neglecting sleep and active rest. Self-care is not just a reward for when your work is done. It affects your ability to do your work, and your capacity to enjoy your work. It is a key part of your motivation. You’ll procrastinate more when you’re tired or not well rested.

When you don’t get enough, high-quality sleep, your prefrontal cortex doesn’t function well. When you lack deliberate, active rest, you end up with low energy and brain fog. Make time for healthy habits and energizing activities. Exercise, play music, tend to your houseplants, enjoy a cup of tea, take a stroll through the garden, walk the labyrinth, and enjoy the changes in seasons on your breaks. Self-care puts you in the right mindset and moves you out of energy dips.

4. Stop the flow of digital distractions. Limit your use of social media and mindless Internet scrolling. When you’re constantly online, looking outwards, it’s harder to tap into your inner wisdom and get superfocused. Your tech devices are quick sources of dopamine hits. The instant gratification trains your brain to quicky shift from one content piece to another. This weakens your focus muscle and distracts you from things you really need to do.

Distraction is the opposite of traction. It creates impulsiveness and delays, which lead to procrastination. It’s tough to write an in depth, research article or read a well-researched book when we’re used to being spoon fed with watered-down, online content.

Check out the episode on Digital Minimalism for more on how to break your technology addiction.

5. Stop overthinking things. While thinking or reflecting is good, ruminating too much or too long is not. Overanalyzing situations, obsessing over every option, worrying about missed opportunities, and brainstorming ideas without execution keep us stuck.

There’s nothing wrong with getting the critical details right. But overtweaking and perfecting trivial things create diminishing returns. Beyond a certain point, changing words in your report doesn’t improve the content, but just makes it different in minute ways that are only noticeable to you.

You don’t have to know all the answers to add value. There’s always something more interesting, more exciting and more important to discover and explore. You can’t go on forever in research mode if you want to finish anything. To move forward, you set a limit on how much information and ideas you gather, and define the quality standards to call a project good enough and done.

6. Start taking small action steps. When you’re in a rut, drop the high goals and high expectations, at least for a while. Forget about the end results and the finish line. Focus on the process and the messy middle.

If you’ve spent the last few days lounging around, playing video games and binge-watching Netflix, don’t beat yourself up for that. These could be exactly what you needed to do. But you will not get out of a slump unless you start moving out of it. Take a shower, do the dishes, make the bed, or go on a drive and run an errand. Mundane, routine activities help you build momentum. They also encourage mind wandering and diffused thinking, which allow your subconscious to solve problems and generate ideas.

Create success spirals by taking one step after another and building on small wins. Each time you succeed, you expand your comfort zone and self-efficacy to reach the next level. Small tasks that require less effort and thought provide quick fixes and mental boosts for the primal part of your brain. From there, you build momentum to do bigger tasks with the prefontal cortex part of your brain.

Action doesn’t always require or follow motivation or inspiration. They work together in a loop, more like a cycle, and not a linear relationship. You can get inspired by a book, a Youtube video or podcast episode, which motivates you to take action. But you could also end up overconsuming information and doing nothing with it. Instead of waiting for inspiration or trying to boost motivation, just take the next doable step. This is how you move forward even when you feel like doing nothing.

7. Start choosing just one highlight to call your day a success. The paradox of choice says the more options you have, the harder it is to make decisions and feel satisfied with your decision. Having too many things to accomplish adds to impulsiveness and delays. To solve this issue, just hone in on a single, daily highlight. This could be finishing an important project, starting a creative project, or enjoying a fun activity.

In their book, Make Time, authors Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky write that a highlight is a medium-sized task that involves meaningful, creative and productive work. It takes about 60 to 90 minutes to do. It’s in the sweet spot between the very minor (like checking emails) and the very major (like working on high, hard goals). Your highlight could be what’s most pressing and urgent, what brings the most satisfaction, or what brings the most joy.

8. Start designing your workspace with intention. If you work from your home office, give it a fresh coat of paint to bring new life to it. Change your desk setup to improve work flow. Maybe you add an ergonomic chair, an extra monitor, a bigger desk or a mechanical keyboard. Or you tidy up, declutter, and organize what you have. Keep just what you need on your desk. This includes not only your office equipment and supplies, but also your water, or a cup of coffee, or your notebook and pen. Establishing order protects time and space for your priorities.

If pure silence doesn’t work for you, you could wear your headphones and listen to music apps like brainfm. This can help to improve your energy and focus, and make boring or hard tasks easier to do.

Workspace design could also mean moving to another location. A library is one alternative for focused work. Being surrounded by books in a quiet, calm space is ideal for deep research and writing projects.

Or switch to a coffee shop or co-working space, where you have people and background sounds to boost your mood, creativity and concentration. Experiment to learn which environment works best for a given task, time of day, and your personal circumstances.

9. Start something new to renew your energy and rewire your brain. You might outgrow an area of interest or hate things about it. If you’ve mastered a favorite piano piece, you can learn to play a new song or learn to play another instrument. If you’ve had too much alone time, reach out to friends or join a club for social interaction.

Creative hobbies and human connections fuel your energy, pique your curiosity, and boost your overall motivation. In turn, you can make necessary pivots and changes, and rise and thrive in any situation.

10. Start planning, tracking and reviewing your day and week.
Planning helps you to define clear goals to meet, which boosts motivation and reduces procrastination.

This might seem contradictory to tip #6, which is to focus on the process, take doable action steps, and forget about the end results. But clear goals are your to-dos or priorities for the day. They are not your high, hard goals or life mission.

That said, when you plan, it’s good to consider what motivates you and why. Do you seek to maximize your potential, build relationships, make a difference, learn a new skill, solve a challenging problem? When you hate doing certain tasks, connecting them to your higher goals, mission, values, and desired outcomes can help you to start and finish them.

In your planning, avoid rigid schedules to force yourself to do things. Plan to do tasks when you will really feel like doing them. Work with your natural levels of focus, energy and motivation, which ebb and flow throughout the day.

Tracking your progress helps you to measure what went well and what didn’t. Identify a highlight that gave you deep satisfaction. What did you to do to achieve it? What were the conditions that helped you accomplish it?

Review where you fell short, and let go of the guilt. Even though you didn’t start project B, you finished project A. By reviewing your day, you recognize the small wins and set plans to catch up. You don’t have to hit all your targets all the time to stay motivated and to be truly productive.

For more on how to get unstuck and stay on track, check out my book, The Incrementalist, available at leanpub.com/incrementalist. To dive deeper on the incrementalist approach to leading a productive life, you may contact me for coaching or a speaking event.

If you have feedback or topic ideas, drop them in the comments section of the YouTube channel or send me an email at dyan@dyanwilliams.com.

If you found value in this episode, hit the like and share buttons. This will help the show grow and reach you and others. And if you want to keep learning how to create big results in small steps, be sure to subscribe. Thank you for being with me and join me again on The Incrementalist.

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