What do we really mean when we talk about motivation? Are we really motivated to do much of anything? I mean that question with sincerity because I don’t think it is the task that compels us to do something, but rather the result. I love my job and am thrilled to have one that I am so passionate about, but I am pretty confident that I wouldn’t do it if you didn’t pay me-at least not in the way I do now. I do not leap out of bed every morning excited to run while I struggle to breathe and fight to ignore what might be shin splints-but I do like the feeling of accomplishment that comes after I do. I am not motivated to do dishes for any other reason than I need more dishes to eat with for future meals. Well, that and the fact that I find bugs to be pretty gross.
Motivation is often spoken of as though it is outside of us. We even phrase it that way when we say “I don’t have any motivation to do ___________________” as though motivation is this tangible thing that we hold in our hands. I think that lets us off the hook a little bit, doesn’t it? It lets us use that phrase “I don’t have any motivation” as the reason that certain things don’t get done. Accountability is something that we must own as a choice. How many of us say “I didn’t clean my kitchen today because I did not hold myself accountable to do it.”? I would venture to say not very many. I think that when we allow ourselves to use the concept of motivation to help us avoid unpleasant things, it can snowball and turn into allowing ourselves to avoid everything. It can also restrict us from putting forth the amount of effort necessary to change things for ourselves because “I don’t have the motivation to try.”
What if we shifted the way that we look at this idea of motivation and challenge its very existence? I talk to a lot of people about experiencing an extreme lack of motivation when they are feeling depressed or anxious. They legitimately are in a place of “I just can’t” with regard to every day life activities much less the larger tasks such as the classes they are taking, the work they do or maintaining order in their home. Well, of course you are not motivated to do those things. None of that has the potential for creating a strong enough reward to feel as though it is worth the effort when other emotions are so prominent in your mind. I argue that if someone said to them “listen, I will give you a million dollars just to get out of bed and take a shower” they would be a lot more likely to do it. My question becomes, what if motivation isn’t really even a thing? What if what is actually happening in those moments where are being productive is that something outside of our being is holding us accountable for doing the behavior or completing the task?
I wonder if we started talking about lack of motivation as though it was lack of accountability (either from outside of our personhood or from an internal place) if the conversations could be different. What if I was asking people: “What do you think would hold you accountable for completing your homework/getting up and taking a shower/exercising/drinking enough water/getting to work on time?” If we could answer that question, would it be easier to identify where and how we need support in our lives? If we could answer that question, would we be able to work backwards from “what do you think you need?” towards “what are you willing to accept when your needs cannot be met the way you request them?” If we could answer that question could we start to build support in such a way that it will show us how resilient we actually are? If we could answer that question, would we naturally start to wonder what we want to hold ourselves accountable for?
I would like to note that I do know how it feels to not have the energy to complete daily tasks, and I do not intend to say “all you have to do is think of motivation differently and all of your problems will be solved!” It is never quite that simple. I do think, however, that shifting our focus just a little bit, and especially shifting the way that we speak to ourselves about things of this nature, is an effective habit to get into. Take the power away from this illusive concept of motivation and put it back into your hands. Empower yourself to be in control of your own behavior and give yourself grace for those times that you do not hold yourself accountable so you can try again next time.