Everyone needs a future they can look forward to.
Every student in every class I’ve ever taught has, at some point, felt a loss of motivation.
I can relate.
When I was student, it was sometimes all I could do to drag myself out of bed and trudge thru the snow to get to my undergraduate physics lectures.
Even though I wanted to learn physics, there was something blocking me from showing up in class, taking notes, and following instructions.
It wasn’t the difficulty of the challenge. The material was always within my grasp.
So, what was holding me back?
One theory on loss of motivation is related to dopamine (e.g., Wise 2004). According to this theory, learning and memory are more effective when they are accompanied by dopamine supply to the brain. And when your brain is low on dope, it presents such a serious psychological problem that you’ll do almost anything to get it.
The alternative to getting the dose of dopamine your brain craves is to sink into a malaise — a low energy state of apathy — as if the only alternative to feeling bad is to feel nothing at all.
Those are the days when it’s most difficult to get out of bed.
What’s the poor, dopamine starved student to do?
First, understand some of what’s blocking you. Maybe it’s one of these:
1. The Feeling That Nothing You Do Matters, Anyway.
Students sometimes learn, either in school or at home, that they have no say or no choice in the tasks assigned to them. Life can seem like an endless stream of worksheets and homework assignments, exams, and papers, none of which make any positive difference in their lives, or lead to the things they want for themselves.
At that point, many students ask themselves (rhetorically) “What’s the point? Nothing matters anyway!”
These students have lost a sense of self-efficacy. That is, they no longer believe that they have the power to make choices that will improve their lives and their state of mind.
Maybe they indulge in blaming others for the loss of belief in themselves, or maybe they’ve been punished so many times for trying that they’ve given up.
Either way, the feeling that nothing they do matters makes it almost impossible to stay motivated to do anything.
2. Grief — The Loss of An Imagined Future
Sometimes a setback, like a poor grade or a rejection, will create a change in the expectations that a student has about their future. Maybe they were looking forward to a scholarship, or a spot on a team, or admission to a prestigious college or graduate school, and their expectations have been dashed by rejection.
When that happens, the future that they imagined is taken from them, and they may lose their motivation to keep trying because they are suffering from grief. That is, they are mourning the loss of their imagined future, and they will likely continue to experience their low mood until they can imagine a new future to take its place.
When I was a college student, one of the things I did to pass the time was draw comic strips. I was just sort of OK at it, but to my credit I practiced a lot.
On the other hand, drawing comics was one of the ways that I distracted myself from the physics lectures that I wasn’t motivated for in the first place.
When I was in my junior year, I had a unique opportunity to interview one of my comic strip heroes, Charles Schulz. In his daily strip called Peanuts, he created Charlie Brown — the most famous comic strip character of all time. At that stage of his career, when he was published in over 2,000 newspapers daily, he rarely granted interviews.
But he called me. And I wrote an article about it for the school newspaper.
One thing he said stuck with me, all these 35 years, and long after his death.
I asked him, “When you returned from the War and you were drawing and submitting your cartoons, and no one wanted to buy any of them, how did you handle the rejection?”
He said, “I always had something in the mail.”
He told me that he would go the mailbox every day and there would be two rejection letters waiting for him there.
So, every day he would take those two rejection letters out of his mailbox and put back in two new cartoons, in fresh envelopes. And he would tell himself, “These are the cartoons that will get accepted. I don’t have to worry about those old rejections, because the Editors are going to love these new ones.”
Every new submission was a future to look forward to.
3. Not Solving the Real Problem
One of the most difficult causes of loss of motivation is that the thing you feel like you are supposed to do is not the thing that will solve your real problem.
I remember one afternoon when I was picking up Emma Seager from the airport. She was coming home from a trip, and part of me was looking forward to going back to work together on some storytelling project that I was enjoying more than she was.
But I knew that she wasn’t all that into it, and before I picked her up I wanted to think about why.
What finally came to me was the realization that she was a relationship-driven person. In contrast, I am an achievement-driven person.
So, inviting Emma to work towards achievement doesn’t speak to her motivation. In other words, it doesn’t solve her most important problem, which at that time was building new relationships that would help her heal the emotional wounds she suffered when her mother and I divorced.
For her to be motivated to work on the storytelling project, it would have to address her real problem, which was feeling that she lacked the meaningful relationships she needed to feel secure.
4. Anxiety. (And lots of it).
The final obstacle to motivation is anxiety, and it can be difficult to trace back to its source.
What Victor Frankl calls “anticipatory anxiety” is the worst. That’s the feeling that, even though nothing bad has happened yet, you can’t shake the feeling that you are, at some point in the future, going to feel just awful.
In Eric Greitens’ book about becoming a Navy SEAL after earning his PhD (The Heart and the Fist, 2012) he describes the single most difficult moment in the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training.
It wasn’t the cold.
It wasn’t the fatigue.
It wasn’t crawling thru the mud with live ammunition whistling inches above your head.
It was standing on the beach, knee deep in the surf, just before dawn, on the first day of what the Instructors called Hell Week, listening to them describe how miserable your life was about to become.
According to Greitens, more trainees would “ring out” (i.e., quit) at that moment than any other single time during their training.
Greitens recalls telling himself, “I’m on the beach at dawn. This is what some people do for vacation. Nothing bad has happened, yet.
“Why should I quit now?”
It wasn’t the experience that was causing the trainees to quit. It was the anticipatory anxiety of an experience they weren’t having yet.
Our imagination is sometimes a much worse place in which to live than our reality.
What to Do?
When your motivation is gone, you need to start looking to find it again.
One thing that my Mother used to ask me, whenever I lost something was, “Where was the last place you know you had it?”
It’s a good question in this case, too.
When you’re suffering a loss of motivation because you’re experiencing a deficit of dopamine, it’s wise to know where you were when you last felt motivated to do the thing that’s dragging you down at the moment.
Go back to that place.
Who were you with?
What were you doing?
Remember how fired up you were when you were looking forward to the thing you are procrastinating about now? Find that place in your mind and recall what was so exciting about it to you.
1. Run An Experiment
When you’re suffering a loss of motivation because you are convinced that nothing matters anyway, tell yourself that whatever you’re not motivated to do is just an experiment. Whether you do the thing or not is less relevant than changing your mindset about it from a sense of permanence (e.g., “This will never work.”) to one of curiosity (e.g., “I wonder what will happen if I … ?”)
Staying curious about an experiment will help you adapt to the results, and change your mind. You might also discover that you do make a difference in your own life.
By running an experiment, and recording the results, you will likely find out that you can make things a little better, or a little worse. You might discover that you can create, for your future self, feelings of pride, or regret.
Having the results of this experiment might help strengthen or restore your sense of self-efficacy.
2. Create a New Future
When you’re suffering a loss of motivation because you a grieving the loss of your imagined future, tell yourself a new story about a new future.
It doesn’t matter if you’re “lying” to yourself, because you’re not making predictions right now. The point is to restore your powers of imagination.
Future Authoring (Finnie et al. 2017) is program of story-telling and goal setting that helps students explore possibilities that they might have otherwise foreclosed. Holding these possibilities in their imagination helps them consider which of them they prefer. That is, it allows them to explore different futures and their feelings or reactions to them.
One of the jokes that Emma and I sometimes share is about my future. When I’m about to embark on some new, risky business venture that could (once again) risk my entire, non-existent life savings (her future inheritance?) on a hare-brained new venture I sometimes tell her:
“Well, I might wind up living in a van down by the river, but it’ll be a nice van, and it’ll be a nice river, and you can come visit me any time you like.”
Although that’s not the future I prefer, telling myself a story about the possibility that I might go bankrupt, and kidding about it, helps me manage the feelings of shame that might accompany the criticism I’m sure to hear about the mistakes I make.
I also imagine much more positive outcomes, and I hold them in my imagination, too. For example, I imagine what it might be like to have the financial freedom and independence to support a large family, and to invite them all to dinner at my favorite restaurant some night, on a whim… in Helsinki.
When a positive vision of the future takes hold, it’s helpful to work backwards in time from the future worth looking forward to. What happened just before we boarded the plane? What happened before we bought our tickets? What happened just before we saved the money to afford the trip?
Working backwards far enough will eventually get us all the way back to the present, and in that present moment it will be clear to us what incremental step we must do to create the possibility of the future we are now looking forward to.
3. Solve the Real Problem
When you’ve lost your motivation because you no longer can describe the real problem that needs to be solved, it’s time for an honest examination of What Problem Are You Trying to Solve?
For example, as I read back thru the comic strips I was drawing during my undergraduate years, I can see that my real problem wasn’t physics.
It was girls.
Partly because I was enrolled in an engineering school where three quarters of the students were male, and partly because I was introverted, too young for my classes, and overweight, I was lonely and felt unattractive.
In case you haven’t tried this experiment, I discovered that physics homework was not a good way to meet girls.
Comic strips were much more effective for attracting positive attention to myself, on the off chance that there might be some young lady who sees my comics and thinks of me as worthy of dating.
In fact, it eventually worked out very much like that. I met my first serious girlfriend thru my work on the student newspaper, and the comic strips helped.
Of course, by that time I was finished with all three required physics courses, and my motivation may have strayed even further from my studies. But that’s not the point.
The point is that understanding the real problem allows you to compartmentalize what you are not motivated to do, separating it from that which you are. Rather than fall victim to a general malaise, it’s OK to say “Although this activity does not solve my real problem, it is still a good thing for me to do, and maybe I can accomplish it in a way that moves me closer to a solution to my real problem at the same time.”
In retrospect, that would have suggested forming a co-ed physics study group — which, come to think of it, is pretty much how I aced Land Surveying.
5. What About Anxiety?
Although Masten Kipp is famous for popularizing the saying, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear,” that saying alone may not be enough to restore your motivation to do the really scary things.
When you have lost your motivation because your are experiencing anticipatory anxiety that seems unbearable, then it will be wise for you to find deeper meaning in your work.
Victor Frankl suggests, “He who has a why can bear almost any how.”
Reminding yourself of why you felt motivated at one time is an excellent way to restore your motivation. And it’s even more effective when your motives are unselfish.
For example, there was a time in March 2020 when orders for ice baths at our startup company Morozko Forge stopped entirely. COVID had just been declared a pandemic, and the economy looked like it was coming to a standstill, and nobody wanted to buy an ice bath.
We were at zero, and we didn’t have the cash to continue operations or paying employees without new orders.
I felt like a failure, and I began to imagine what it would be like to quit.
My partners and I met around the kitchen table and we talked about “How much money would it take to feed ourselves and keep the lights on?”
We asked ourselves, “What would we do if there were no more Morozko Forge?”
I remember one partner, in particular.
He told me, “Tom, it doesn’t matter. You could pay me or not pay me. I’m going to keep building ice baths.
“What else is there for me, anyway? I’m a bartender, and all the bars are closed. I have nothing else.
“I am going to keep working at Morozko Forge.”
That made a big impression on me. Because I am a tenured professor, I knew I could declare bankruptcy and still find a way to feed myself, and that not all my partners enjoyed that security.
So I said, “OK. I will keep working, too. But nobody wants ice baths? What can we do instead that our community needs?”
My partners pretty much said, “Well, Tom you’ve got a PhD and we think you’re a pretty smart guy. Can’t you figure out what’s going on with this COVID thing? Our community needs you to do that.”
So I did.
We heard from dozens of people who felt like their experiences finally made sense. And we heard from dozens of critics who accused of being irresponsible.
And even as I contemplated financial ruin, I realized that there was no way I could abandon our customers, our employees, our suppliers, and our readers. I became enlisted in a cause that was larger than myself: public health and counter-propaganda.
In the aftermath of The Curve…, the orders for ice baths started pouring in. It’s not that my fears were unfounded. There were good reasons to be scared for our financial lives, and (truth be told) we’re still not out of the woods.
The point is that when I lost my motivation because I was so anxious, I found it again by dedicating myself to a cause that was larger than myself.
Reminding myself of the importance to others of the work that I was doing restored meaning to my challenges, and it restored my determination to continue to run new experiments to discover what might work better.
When students lose their motivation for learning, it may be because they’ve lost a sense of self-efficacy, or it may be because they’ve lost track of the future they were looking forward to, or it may be because their education isn’t solving their real problem, or it may be because the anticipatory anxiety of something awful that hasn’t happened yet is crippling for them.
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt make a series of recommendations in their book The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) that draw on Lukianoff’s experiences with cognitive behavioral therapy. In summary, they recommend reframing beliefs to remove cognitive distortions that colleges might actually be encouraging.
It’s good advice.
Nothing I’ve written here is meant to contradict Lukianoff and Haidt’s more detailed descriptions.
This article is more confessional than it is scientific. Take it as my description of what has happened to me, how I made sense of it, and some of the things that have worked for me when I’ve felt low.
Maybe, some of them will work for you, too.