Dealing with lack of motivation

Let’s start with a definition of motivation. The word motivation derives from the latin word “movere” which means to move. Psychologically speaking there are only two ways we can move. Away from pain or towards pleasure. Those are the only two motives that exist for us to do anything. 

Lack of motivation to get started

Often a lack of motivation stems from not knowing why we are doing something. Like in school, when we get homework to practice something that we don’t feel helps us with our current concerns. 

“Why should I memorize the elements table, if I’m having trouble with my parents/boyfriend/girlfriend? I have more important things on my mind!”

As we can see in this example, the benefit of memorizing the elements table does neither offer enough pleasure nor does not doing it cause enough pain to motivate this person to even get started.

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Dealing with lack of motivation

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Dealing with lack of motivation

Unfortunately, the risk of low motivation levels seems to be especially prominent when it comes to intellectual tasks and challenges. The reason for that is that our emotional part of the brain (the limbic system) generally wins over the intellectual part (pre frontal cortex). Research has shown that about 80% of our decision making is emotionally driven. Only 20% of a decision is made rationally. It’s usually that last bit, where we already made the decision, but now come up with reasons/excuses why it’s a good idea.

It’s like when you go to a music workshop or a lesson, get all hyped up and promise yourself to reestablish a practice routine, but then something comes up and you say “Oh well, I guess I’ll start next week. There is just no way around it.”

This pattern is one of the biggest motivation killers. Like Bertolt Brecht said:

“If you fight you might lose, if you don’t you have already lost.”

Procrastination can send us down a nasty rabbit hole of discouragement. The longer we procrastinate, the more we will judge ourselves for not having practiced. Starting to practice after a period of procrastination often causes more pain, because we will have to confront ourselves with the fact that we haven’t advanced as we’d hoped to, by now.

In some instances, we run risk of feeling even worse after practicing at this stage. What we need to get out of the slump is a big win!

One way to bypass the discouragement caused by lack of progress on your instrument is to completely focus on the challenge of establishing a practicing routine. Because the truth is, even when we have a well-established practice routine we will have bad days and good days. In that sense, it’s rather to suck at practice and do it anyway, than not doing anything at all.

The worst thing we can do in this scenario, is waiting for motivation to magically kick in.

Because here is the catch. Motivation in most cases, does not cause action. More often than not, action causes motivation. Even worse, as we just learnt non-action causes motivation to shrink.

Two ways to fight procrastination

So we are left with two options:

  1. Raise the pain or pleasure level (by whichever means) to a degree that motivates us to take action.
  2. Overcome the resistance to do what we originally set out to do. No matter how unmotivated we are.

Other typical examples for resistance are making changes towards a healthier diet, working out on a regular basis, calling our parents more often. Obviously, everyone is different and you might have a completely different set of activities that cause resistance in you. In short, things that are hard to do will most likely cause some degree of resistance.

The good news is, beating resistance is a skill that can be trained. One way to do so is paying more attention to your dopamine levels. Dopamine is known to be the motivation neurotransmitter. Its job is to encourage us to act, either to achieve something good or to avoid something bad. In other words it floods our brain when something good is about to happen. 

The dopamine trap

It’s one of the reasons most of us have no problem to scroll through our social media wall without end or checking our phone every 2 minutes to see if we missed an “important” notification. Because all these little notifications make us feel enough, worthy and important. So each time we check our phone and we see there is a notification, we get a little dopamine hit. 

The bummer is, that dopamine hits being so easily accessible kinda makes us lazy. Because, why would we do hard work like practicing an instrument or working out to get that feeling, if we can have it via the click of a button? And as mentioned before, we almost don’t have a choice. The limbic system won’t allow us to stop scrolling and start thinking. It really just wants to keep us safe and familiar. This is what kept us alive for centuries. 

Risking failure by trying something hard like practicing a new technique or song, is not part of that program. But without risk there can be no growth!

How to kick resistance's butt

Now, if you want to strengthen your ability to overcome resistance, you can do so either by restraining yourself from blindly executing automated actions like checking your phone first thing when you wake up. Or by deliberately doing hard things like having cold showers.

By doing so you are telling your brain that you are in control and you make the decisions. It really is an awareness training. Becoming more conscious of your subconscious programming. And then making conscious decisions about wether to run with the program or go against it.

Because what causes us to not even get started with our new years resolutions is generally unconscious automated patterns slipping through the cracks. Leading us back to a safe and familiar environment and therefore state of being. 

Change is not safe! Or so thinks the limbic system. That’s why in most scenarios change feels really hard and we second guess if we really want that change in our life. That’s just the limbic system trying to talk us out of our desire to grow. Let’s kick that mother*ucker’s butt and show it who’s in charge.


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