How to Motivate Yourself When Everything Is Awful

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I sort of wish that, before 2020 even dawned, I had already gotten in the habit of timing myself in finishing certain tasks, not because it sounds in any way pleasurable or healthy, but because it would confirm my suspicion that everything takes me thrice as long as it reasonably should these days. Since the pandemic kicked off in March, my sense of time has gone all wavy, and I never know what day it is. Within this disorienting new reality of extreme time blindness, it is hard to motivate myself.

I would probably be more alarmed about this state of being if so many people weren’t right there with me. “Feeling stressed out, fatigue — these kinds of emotional and psychological stressors actually put a lot of strain on the body,” Kimberly Grocher, a psychotherapist and executive coach, tells the Cut. “There’s not a lot of energy to get things done; there’s a lot of anxiety about what is happening and a lot of times, anxiety can be paralyzing.” And that, in turn, leaves a lot of Grocher’s clients struggling to motivate themselves.

This lack of drive manifests in a number of ways, like procrastination, “missing deadlines, not being able to complete tasks,” she says, and “having difficulty focusing or even just getting started.” Another big one: “feeling slightly disoriented, period.” All of these sap people of motivation, but there are steps that can be taken to manage the mental trudge through molasses. Below, we’ve compiled ten tips from experts to help you motivate yourself.

Acknowledge that everything is bananas.

Before you do anything else, let yourself sit with the understanding that “this is not a normal time,” Grocher suggests, “whatever normal is. There are things that are contributing to my feeling this way, and it’s not easy. It’s legitimate.”

The challenging circumstances could, of course, be as evergreen as a breakup, or a move, or a change of jobs. They could also be as extreme and specific as the ones we’re currently living: “The anxiety around dealing with COVID-19 and all the things that means for your life,” Grocher says. “Not even just the illness, but being separated from family and friends; being home all day; being separated from your social life; all the different layers. The racial injustice that we’re facing in this country and its accompanying trauma. Acknowledge that things are not okay with the world and therefore not with you, either. That doesn’t mean you get to suspend all activities until the situation resolves, but it does mean that you get to operate a little differently than you typically would.

And set aside time to take care of your health.

“It feels like there’s too much going on, and there’s a shared sense of overwhelm,” Annie Lin, founder of New York Life Coaching, tells the Cut. “It is really difficult to concentrate on our own wellbeing” because of the constant, intense action.

“When we are so exhausted, we cannot think straight, we cannot have motivation to do anything healthy,” she adds. “So we want to make sure you have proper sleep, proper nutrition, proper food.” This may sound quite basic — we all know we technically need seven to nine hours of sleep per night, and yet anxiety has a skillful way of intervening — but given that a higher-than-average baseline stress level can take a concrete toll on your health, consider building time for things like grocery shopping; food preparation; actual eating; fitness; and nighttime wind-down routines into your schedule. These kinds of things are crucial to making sure you have energy to get things done, but also easy to scuttle when large deadlines loom.

Plan ahead to minimize “decision fatigue.”

And yes, you should make a schedule! According to Lin, a large contributing factor in her clients’ sense of overwhelm is “decision fatigue” or the sense of being utterly inundated by a surplus of choices. But planning ahead and establishing a routine closes some of those “open loops,” she says. “The more choices to be made, the harder it becomes for our brains to handle,” Lin says. “In the end, people just let go, like, I don’t care. You repeat what feels easier.”

Lin recommends planning your day the night before: what you’ll eat, what you need to do — at work and in your personal life — “so that you feel that you are somewhat in control.” You might also establish a morning routine or a luxurious little bedtime ritual, Lin explains: “A set of things that you do to nurture yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. The more you automate it, the more it becomes part of your life. You don’t have to make a new decision every day.”

Get up and do something.

If you find yourself doodling absentmindedly in your notebook like a dang teen while you’re supposed to be putting together a time-sensitive presentation, or scrolling through your enormous backlog of cat photos as a deadline hurtles toward you, consider taking a break for physical activity. This could be a short walk, or standing up and doing the dishes, Grocher says; regardless, “get moving.”

“Sometimes, physically changing your body’s position can change your mindset, can change your energy, can change your outlook,” she explains. You don’t need to pause your workday to accommodate an hour-long workout class or DIY spa session. Instead, just try looking away from the obligation and making yourself do another thing in another setting. Even if you are not doing something endorphin-boosting, switching gears for a bit can clear the mental decks.

Change “should” to “could.”

“Should is not the kindest word,” Grocher notes, but it’s one we use a lot: I should go to the professional happy hour, although I really want to sit in the bath and read; I should get up early to work on my story, although what I really want is that extra two hours of sleep. Often, the obligations written in “should” are self-imposed. Grocher suggests swapping in “could,” which “helps you identify, first of all, is this something you really want to be doing? Does this align with your interests, does this align with your priorities?”

And then, if that item does align with your priorities and your interests, the question becomes, Why aren’t you doing it? What’s getting in your way? If getting up two hours earlier means going to bed two hours earlier, but nights are the only time you have to see your partner, then perhaps you need to reconfigure your writing schedule to accommodate both. Once you’ve identified the obstacles, you can take small steps toward removing them.

Break the task down to its parts.

Start chipping away at the intimidatingly large assignment with “small actions,” Grocher recommends. If, for example, you have a large unwieldy article to write, and your brain feels exhausted even by organizing the research you’ve done into an argument, break the assignment down to its parts. Maybe that means “sitting down for 20 minutes and committing to writing an outline,” Grocher says. If, after those 20 minutes have elapsed, “you feel like doing more, once you’ve sat down and got it going, then you can do more,” great for you. “But if that’s all you can get done in that time, you’ve started.” Just do something and behold: progress.

“I’m a big believer in building momentum,” Grocher says. “A lot of times, once we start, once we just take that first step, time, energy, the universe, whatever, kind of finds a way to help us along.” And then, find ways to reward yourself for having done the thing, whether that’s with a physical treat or a social call with a friend or a little cat nap.

Create a support system.

“Some people respond really readily to their internal expectations,” Lin notes, but “the majority of people can use a little bit more support,” someone who will hold them accountable to eviscerating a to-do list, or sticking to a fitness goal, or writing their thesis on time. You could enlist a professional, or — because a hell of a lot of people seem to be struggling to focus right now — you could ask a friend to “do a weekly accountability call” with you, Lin suggests. Tell one another what you want, and/or need, to accomplish in the week ahead, and then clear time for a call or two to gauge your progress and “help each other move forward.”

Focus on what you can control.

One of the more challenging things about this particular moment in time is all the many unknowns each day presents. Of course, the whole thing about the future is that much of it will always be mysterious to us, but in a climate where one’s health and well-being depend in large part on the actions of others, control over one’s life becomes supremely desirable and, unfortunately, elusive. So, Grocher suggests, narrow your focus to the things you know you can control.

“We tend to spend a lot of our time and headspace” worrying about things we cannot control, she explains, and right now, that circle encompasses more areas of our lives than usual. “We don’t know what September is going to look like, we don’t know what October is going to look like.” But we do know what tomorrow looks like, and potentially even the day after that; if you can bring your brain back to the realm and focus on what you can control and plan for now, that may help restore some of your internal order, and alleviate anxiety around the sensation that everything is spiraling and you are powerless to stop it. Focusing on the immediate future, Grocher says, may mean “finding some acceptance with the things that are out of your control. Not agreement, not happiness with, but understanding that there are some things that are going to be out of your control.” And once you have freed up that brain space, it may be easier to move forward with the things you need to do.

Develop a mindfulness practice.

Part of that process of acceptance may be developing a meditation or mindfulness practice, which is to say, a set of exercises or small activities — breath work, for example, if you like the idea of having a cathartic adult tantrum — that help you pay attention to the present. “You can call it mindfulness or you can call it an attitude of inquiry,” Lin explains, but you want to be able to answer the question: “What am I actually feeling, what is going on in my head, how am I relating to the world right now?”

Increasing your awareness of yourself and your needs, Grocher explains, can help you determine a realistic output and “what you need to be pulling in” to achieve it. But also, as Lin notes, situating yourself within the moment may also help you to view yourself as part of a whole, which may be more motivating than considering your day-to-day actions as choices that have consequences only for you. “The more we can embrace and accept that this is our reality,” she explains, and that “nobody chose to go through it,” the more we may understand that each of us has “a responsibility not just to [our] personal wellbeing but also to the collective health.”

Remind yourself why it was important to you to do the thing in the first place.

Grocher recommends keeping a Post-it, a memo, or some kind of physical reminder handy that highlights why a particular task was important to you in the first place. So even when you’re hammering away at something you don’t necessarily want to be doing, you can keep in mind the larger goal you’re working toward, whether that’s finishing your thesis or putting money toward student loans. From a practical standpoint, visualizing the sofa you would like to buy or the debt you’d like to clear may help make the task seem more meaningful and easier to complete.

But also, being able to find “a sense of purpose, even in the chaos, even in the unknown” may help you sustain momentum and energy over time, Lin says. “Connect with your vision or connect with that natural drive of well-being that we all have and we want: We want to become a better or healthier version of ourselves. Connect with that, write about it, visualize it, really embody that kind of aspiration or vision,” she says. “Motivation driven by fear is not long-lasting … try to embark on certain tasks because you are called to do it, because you want to do it, not because you are forced or you are afraid.”

How to Motivate Yourself When Everything Is Awful