ask a boss

‘I Have Zero Motivation to Do My Job’

Photo: The Cut

Dear Boss,

I am absolutely done with my current job. I’ve been here for just over six years now and honestly, I probably should have left a long time ago. My co-workers are lovely, my boss is super supportive, and the benefits are amazing. I just hate my actual job.

I started getting bored about two years ago, and I’ve grown to realize I really don’t want to do this type of work anymore. I stayed for so long because I kept getting promotions and new projects. But I’m SO bored, and I have zero motivation to do anything. I spend most of my days online shopping, reading blogs, and reading the news. I do the bare minimum to get by without someone actually noticing I’m not working half of the time. I’m mortified by how far behind I am on some of my goals, and I’m terrified my boss is going to check in about them soon. Nearly 75 percent of my emails I open and think, “I don’t care,” and go do something else.

The thing is, I’m not like this! I’ve always been a really motivated worker. I used to be horrified when co-workers would say they spent most of their day watching YouTube videos. I’m actively applying for jobs, but that could take months. I’m also afraid that these awful work habits will follow me. How do I keep my act together and find motivation to work? How do I make sure to start my next job off on the right foot? I don’t want to leave this current job completely ruining the good reputation I’ve built here for the past six years. 

Two years of being bored at work will burn you out! People who have never been in this position sometimes think that being able to spend your workday shopping and reading the news sounds great, but most people who actually experience it find it mind-numbing.

You’re right to be actively working to get out, and you’re also right that finding another job could take months. So the first thing I’d ask is whether there’s anything you can do to mitigate the boredom while you’re waiting for your escape route. Can you take on a new project that you’d find legitimately interesting? Is there someone on your team who does work you find intriguing and who you could offer to help out?

But if things are past the point where that would salvage the job for you, then I’d see if you can change what motivates you. It sounds like in the past you’ve been driven by the work itself — which is a great thing as long as it works. Now that it doesn’t, you might need to find your motivation somewhere else, like in a desire to build your résumé (to help you get out) or to protect your professional reputation. If you can invest yourself in being seen as competent and productive — or, alternately, lean into a fear of not being seen as those things — that could give you the push you need.

You might also be able to use fear to motivate yourself. What would happen if your boss looked at your internet history? Or decides to check in on your goals without much warning? What if your boss gets replaced by someone who’s more hands-on and quickly realizes how you’ve been spending your time — and who doesn’t have a history with you to know that you’re capable of good work? I don’t usually recommend agonizing over the fear that you could be fired, but in your situation, it may actually be helpful. (To be blunt, this wouldn’t just be a mental trick. These are real scenarios that could happen, and you probably should worry about them!)

There are other things you can try, too. Can you build in some more structured accountability for yourself? I’m guessing your work doesn’t have a lot of deadlines (or someone would notice you missing them), so can you create deadlines for yourself that you share with your boss? Telling your boss, “I’m working on X and will have it to you by Friday” might create some healthy pressure for you to get it done. Anything that gives other people visibility into your work could help.

I’d also suggest tackling your workload in manageable chunks. It’s probably not realistic to decide that today you’re going to completely revamp your work habits forever (or you would have done that by now). Instead, try committing to doing task X and task Y today. That’s it — you’re just going to get X and Y done, and then you can watch YouTube videos the rest of the day if you want to. The next day, add in a third item, and keep going like that.

You might like the Pomodoro Method, which is where you work for 25 minutes and then take a break, then do another 25-minute sprint and a break, and so forth. It’s pretty hard to tell yourself that you can’t even do 25 minutes of work — and once you start, you’ll often keep going longer than that. (I wrote most of a book this way. I’d tell myself I was just going to write for 15 minutes — and usually it turned out that once I started, I’d keep going. For a lot of people, it’s getting yourself to sit down and start that’s the hardest part.)

Also, when’s the last time you took a vacation? A real vacation — at least a week and preferably longer? If it’s been a while, that might be part of why you’re so stuck, so consider that as well.

Ultimately, all of this comes down to getting clear in your own head about who you want to be, professionally. Do you want to be the person who slacks when she can get away with it, or do you want to be the person who consistently does great work, even when she doesn’t have to? Honestly, plenty of people pick the first option and simply accept the consequences (which over time can mean they have fewer professional options, lower raises, and less interesting projects), which is their prerogative. But since it sounds like you don’t want those trade-offs, I think you’ve got to get really clear in your head about your goals and what it will take to get you where you want to be.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘I Have Zero Motivation to Do My Job’