6 science-backed tips for getting your motivation back

We are all ready to see the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted our lives in multiple ways. In order to comply with “the new normal”, we have had to take on major lifestyle changes, and there has been nothing easy nor breezy about it. If the pandemic has sapped your motivation, don’t despair—there are research-backed methods you can employ to help you stay motivated in your daily life.

Experts note that the pandemic has had a negative effect on our motivation—creating a deficit in our “autonomy, competence and relationships”, as associate professor and director of the Self and Motivation Lab at the University of Buffalo Lora Park told CNBC Make It, remarking that COVID “wiped out like all three of those … instantly”.

According to the psychologists on, motivation plays a crucial role in our lives. Increased motivation allows us to “change behaviour, develop competencies, be creative, set goals, grow interests, make plans, develop talents, and boost engagement”.

Motivation is what helps us to “adapt, function productively, and maintain wellbeing in the face of a constantly changing stream of opportunities and threats” (aka life).

When our motivation is low, our ability to function and our overall wellbeing tend to suffer.

There are two main types of motivation—intrinsic motivation, which is doing something simply because you enjoy it, and extrinsic motivation, which is driven by external rewards or punishment.

“Your motivation can ebb and flow,” Park said. “So, you might start off very extrinsically motivated, but then over time as you get good at something, or it becomes part of your identity, then it becomes something that you truly enjoy.”

But how do we navigate the rocky seas of life and still keep motivated? Experts recommend the following techniques:

Don’t associate performance with self-esteem 

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We humans have a rather unhealthy habit of internalising external feedback or pressure and grading ourselves in everything we do. We subconsciously link how well we perform in life with our self-esteem and ego, but this isn’t good, as “negative feelings about yourself can hinder your ability to reach a goal”, Park noted.

To get your motivation back, be kinder to yourself. You’re not perfect, and it’s okay to make mistakes. Your sense of self-worth should not be defined by how well you perform in life.

Recognise triggers that affect your motivation

One vital tip is to recognise triggers that sap your motivation, so that you can act accordingly to help yourself. For many, not getting enough sleep can be a major one, triggering exhaustion, the feeling of being burned out and a lack of motivation.

Park added that getting negative critique is something we all struggle with, as it can be “very demoralising … when things are rejected or you get negative feedback, criticism or bad evaluations”. We all know how that feels.

Research recommends having a specific and concrete contingency plan for such moments when motivation drops low. Park suggested “creating a script” of what you’re going to be doing and “automating your behaviour so that you don’t have to be completely paralysed in that moment”. The plan might involve going for a walk, taking a nap, having some coffee or a snack, or doing something enjoyable like reading a book or watching something nice.

Cultivate positivity through activities that bring you joy

Speaking of doing things we enjoy, Park stressed that “finding ways to cultivate positive emotions everyday” can have an elevating effect on your motivation and productivity.

Experiencing positive emotions throughout the day contributes to improved mental and physical health, better performance at work, and healthier social relationships; meanwhile, negative emotions “tend to narrow your focus” affect productivity and happiness.

Take the time to do things that bring you joy throughout the day. That can be baking some delicious goodies, Zoom-ing with a friend, doing something creative or even indulging in funny dog memes online. Whatever makes you smile.

Employ the “rewards system” on yourself 

We all know that rewards can be extremely motivational. Adding to this, studies shows that the timing of the reward is particularly important. While there’s always the delayed rewards system (for example—after I accomplish this task, I can have this slice of chocolate cake), research shows that pairing an activity with something that you find enjoyable (and something that is not self-destructive) to do during the activity is very effective.

So, why not fold that pile of laundry or tackle that stack of dirty dishes while watching your favourite series? Or how about snacking on something yummy while getting tedious and boring admin duties done? The task-reward combinations are endless and will help keep your motivation running high.

Establish daily rituals and routines 

We all know that this is a good idea in any situation, but it especially helps with keeping hold of motivation. In 2018, a Harvard University study found that rituals, or “any predefined sequences of actions characterized by rigidity and repetition”, boost people’s feelings of self-control and self-discipline.

Park noted that rituals don’t have to be big things—just “a very small routine that you do every day”. It could be anything from meditating first thing in the morning to arranging your outfit for the next day’s work at night.

After a certain amount of time, a habit becomes automatic, which “frees up your mental energy”, allowing you to focus on other things that require more time attention or energy.

Create “cues” to help you stay on track

The way our brains are built is that we are “hard-wired to forge associations” between ourselves and environmental cues which trigger us to do an action. For example, when you first walk into your office in the morning and feel the office “atmosphere”, so to speak, you may feel determined and ready for work.

The pandemic has thrown our routines into topsy-turvy states, disrupting our “flows” and thus affecting our motivation. Everyone can admit to being tired and more than slightly disgruntled.

Park recommends creating cues in your physical environment to help keep you on track, motivation-wise. For those who had to adapt to working from home, the experts say that designating a workspace that is specifically for working will contribute to feelings of being mentally prepared and motivated to work, allowing you to relax and disconnect in other areas of your home.

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