You are sitting in your cubicle staring at the computer while pondering over the meaning of life with utter despair.

You start to wander around thinking, why do I have to do this—the pay is miserly, my team members are slacking and not helpful, the KPI is too demanding, my boss doesn’t value my work, and all my friends are doing other cool projects and probably traveling around the world or having a baby.

What am I doing here, and why should I even care?

If this describes you, you are obviously unmotivated.

But don’t feel alone, you are not the only one feeling this way.

A study shows that one in two workers in the U.S. workforce is unengaged with their work and performs tasks without enthusiasm; 12% of the workers plainly checkout or are destructive at work. A Gallop Poll reports that 71% of US workers are separated and couldn’t care less about their organizations.

Search for motivation at work is hardly something new.

What can you do to stump this wanton dissatisfaction with work to not only make you more productive, but also to get out of the perpetual feeling of misery?

To change and search for motivation, first, you need to understand what motivation is and what the root causes of motivation issues are.


Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

There are many theories regarding what motivations are and where they come from.

One theory categorizes motivations as extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.

This theory maintains that motivation stems from personal interest as well as be driven by outside stimulations such as rewards and incentives.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is the outside motive that propels you into actions. You must accomplish the task to attain certain external goal or meet certain constraints.

There are a few examples that count for extrinsic motivation or environmental constraints:

  • time limits such as deadlines
  • incentives such as expected rewards, promotions, praises or other forms of appreciation
  • impending evaluation such as receiving a grade or job evaluation

Such ulterior motives could enforce self-determination and drive people to accomplish their goals.

Companies and organizations usually spend lots of energy studying extrinsic motivation to keep employees out of the pothole of feeling stuck.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to the internal drive and desire that orient one to accomplish her/his tasks. Some of the examples of intrinsic motivation include:

  • the desire to create such as artistic drive to express oneself
  • curiosity such as pursuit of learning
  • perseverance such as desire to finish marathon

Intrinsic motivation is also known as interior motive or internal drive. Factors such as personality, emotional state, culture reinforcement, etc. influence the intrinsic motivation.

This type of motivation is also what boggles the mind of most workers or anyone who tries to accomplish anything—what propels one to move forward?

Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation would interact and affect each other.

Sometimes, the extrinsic motivation strengthens the internal motives, while other times, strong intrinsic motivation affects one’s recognition of extrinsic motives.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory on motivation established a hierarchy for human psychological needs.

The five basic needs were self-actualization, esteem, belongingness, safety, and physiological needs.

Physiological Needs

Physiological needs refer to sustenance needs such as air, food, sleep, etc.

Maslow points out that physiological needs are the most fundamental needs for human beings.

All other needs would not appear as important if one cannot meet the bare requirements to sustain one’s life.

Safety Needs

Safety needs or security needs include personal security, financial security, health and well-being. It also refers to the needs against difficult livelihood or adverse situations.

If your life is shrouded in disasters, violence, or chaos and you are struggling to make means ends meet, you may be subjected to a constant state of anxiety.

It would be pointless to speak about other higher needs when you couldn’t ensure the basic safety.


Love/belonging includes needs for social caring, such as family, friends, and intimacy. No one wants to be ostracized from their community.

Love from and for other human beings are something we desire and crave inherently.

Loneliness, anxiety, and depression rise when one is deprived of love from her/his community. On the other hand, peer pressure and other social pressures could orient us to make certain decisions due to the desire to fulfill those needs.


Esteem speaks about one’s craving to feel important in the community one lives in. Esteem is the desire to have higher status and garner respect from others.

A poor, low self-esteem would bring depression, anxiety and unfulfilling feelings.

We all desire to be valued and respected by people. Whether the respect comes from your family, spouses, or the larger group you belong, it can boost your confidence and general well-being.


Self-actualization is about realizing one’s potentials. To meet this level of needs, you must have had all the previous levels of needs fulfilled. Self-actualization is to act on the needs to respond to achieve one’s calling or mission.

More specifically, self-actualization could be about seeking opportunities to express yourself, cultivate a hobby, be creative, or attain personal growth in anyway meaningful.

Goal Setting Theory

Researcher Edwin Locke came up with the goal setting theory, in which he found that individuals performed better when they set harder goals for themselves.

He specified five goal-setting principles to monitor progress. They are clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback, and task complexity.


Locke found that goals that are clear and specific could generate better results. He stressed that a goal with less specific terms had less motivational value.

For instance, a goal such as “read a book for 2 hours every day” is way more effective to implement than a goal such as “read more books.”


A goal that is too easy to suffice is not forward-driving.

When you work out, you would know that if you stick to the routine and do not push yourself for more intensity or longer duration, then your muscles won’t grow, and so does your strength level.

You don’t have to overwhelm yourself by setting a goal that is not achievable, but you should set a goal that could lead your somewhere else than where you started.


Commitment is linked to the difficulty of the task.

In general, the more challenging the goals are, the more commitment they so require.

The incentive to make one commit to the tasks is the reward by the end of the task.

Usually, the more difficult the goal, the higher the reward in the end.

To commit to the goal, you must acknowledge and agree with the reward as well as the necessary steps to take to get it.


You don’t want to walk in an endless dark alley without knowing how much you have accomplished.

In weight-loss, if you do not see the number on the scale every so often, you might question if all the workout and diet were worth it after all.

The increased doubt of the result of the goal will do you much disservice.

Task Complexity

Again, if the goal is too simple or easy, there’s no point.

More complex and layered goals will help you achieve higher expectations.

Another thing about setting complex goal is that it helps you break down more overwhelming tasks. Complexity often begets specificity.

The more specific, however convoluted, your goals are, the easier for you to follow through.


Now that we are clear on what consists of motivation, we can start to review some of the common causes for that dreadful feeling of being unmotivated.

Uncooperative Mind

Looking inwards, your lack of motivation may be a result of your personality, your emotional state, and whether your psychological needs are met. Your perfectionist personality may be a curse when it comes to fulfilling certain tasks.

On the other hand, when the task at hand does not align with your interest, passion or arouse your curiosity, you may experience loss of motivation too. And as Maslow will say, the task doesn’t fulfill your needs.

Here are some of the internal culprits that hamper your productivity.


You may think that perfectionism helps you chase higher standards and pushes you further.

It is true to a certain extent, perfectionists are more attentive to details and always pursue higher qualities of their work.

However, there are downsides to the personality traits as well.

A study shows that perfectionism could curb your motivation and productivity and are often linked to other psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Sometimes, when you set an impossible standard for yourself and get bogged down by the minor details and possible mistakes, you are more reluctant to complete the tasks.

Fear is what makes perfectionism go awry. You may feel debilitated when you become obsessed with imagination of other’s judgment of your mistakes.

Or you might excessively worry about disappointing the people you are handing your work to, fearing that they would give you a bad evaluation or hold lower opinion of you. Those feelings are counterproductive to move things forward.

Emotional State

Feeling overwhelmed by other issues in your life can affect your motivation as well.

Remember the Maslow’s theory, you have to pay attention to the needs in the lower order of the psychological hierarchy first.

Take care of yourself first. If you are struggling for financial security or other life issues such as relationships or coworker problems, chances are you are going to be distracted from your work.

Find the root cause of all your unhappiness and solve those underlying emotional issues before you can concentrate your energy on the work that needs to be done.

Unfulfilling Project

Sometimes, even when you are happy with life, and you are in the best mental state, you will still find work a bore.

And that is not uncommon at all.

In fact, a lot of jobs we have in life are not exactly what we dream to have.

The nature of the project could be boring to say the least.

Monotonous work may suck the life sap out of you, leaving you an empty bark–dull and drained. A creative mind yearns for meaning and needs refreshing sources to energize. It is important to take care of the creative needs that match your core desires.

Lack of Rewards

While the drama of the interior world can slow us down, the lack of incentives from the outside world could be equally enervating.

As a matter of fact, the lack of ulterior incentive is a significant cause of a lack of motivation.

Many workers are not engaged in their work due to low pays.

However, pays are not the only thing to engage and drive productivity.

There are other possible rewards that people are overlooking.

As we see from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they are other things that we humans yearn for other than monetary rewards. Feeling respected and having one’s potentials fulfilled are also important to the wellbeing.

Google is a good example for creating rewards for its employees. In addition to healthcare and increased salary, the company offers other perks such as free breakfast, lunch, and dinner, free haircut, work place gym and playground, etc.

However small, these extra perks make it feel like that Google is taking care of your needs.

The food there is prepared by the chef, and you can get free haircuts at the work place. More, workers found Google an easy-going place where they can express themselves fully.

Studies have found that self-expression is something people look for when they go to work. Good company culture and relaxing environment is a type of reward too.

And as a result, the employees are happier and more engaged with their work.

On the other hand, you may find yourself stuck in a workplace full of stressors.

Perhaps the company would pay a high enough salary, but it does not offer any other activities to engage you emotionally. It does not make effort to make you feel you belong to the place but make you feel replaceable.

Remember that esteem/respect is among the six psychological needs that drive us forward. If you don’t feel respected at your work place or valued for what you’re doing, it is of course suffocating to stay on the job.

All these external factors could chip away your motivation. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have control over it. We will introduce some methods to motivate yourself against the odds.

Lack of Support System

Support system is crucial in accomplishing anything.

Maslow’s theory teaches us that love and belong is of the top three most immediate needs for motivation.

We’d like to think we are all individuals, but we must admit that we are social animals too.

Our ancestors relied on each other to get where we are today. You don’t have to be all alone to prove that you are a capable and functional human being. Learn to lean on others when you need the support.

Conversely, the lack of support system only gets you more stuck and make you feel miserable.


Often, you have to be alone for some job or conduct tasks independently. You may feel you are in a situation where help is not available.

The sense of isolation can deplete your energy.

Even when the tasks are easy for you, knowing that no one else are out there to share the excitement or other emotions during the process could create a sense of isolation. Like what’s said about goal-setting theory, we all crave feedback and someone to value our work.

Otherwise, it can feel like working in a dark tunnel, not knowing when the end will be.

Lack of Support from Team

Team work could not be more emphasized in modern workplace. Majority of tasks in work settings are expected to be accomplished within teams.

When teamwork is good, it creates great synergy and helps you achieve personal growth. Research shows that team work could reduce stress and promote productivity. However, when your team is not supportive, it can hurt your productivity; even more, it can undermine your work and affect your self-image.

Lack of Family, Friendship Support

We should always be able to count on our families and friends. Remember from Maslow’s theory again, love and belonging are crucial.

However, we often ignore or under appreciate this type of support.

We found ourselves growing apart from the people we used to share intimacy and camaraderie. Work becomes the most important thing and we ignore the presence of the ones you cared most about.

To cultivate and maintain close relationships are not just valuable for staying motivated, don’t forget that is also what gives life meaning.


Now you understand what consists of motivation and the causes that drain our energy, it is time to act.

Here are what you should do to reverse the situation of not being in the mood.

1. Reframe the Situation

Extrinsic motives are not always available to us.

Conversely, overly relying on intrinsic motivation can result in burn-out and further stumping the progress.

You may have a poorly paying job or what you are doing may not appear to be something worthwhile; or you are in a situation where you find what you have spent so much energy is not appreciated.

It is then important to shift perspective. Before creating a new fresh perspective on the current situation, reflect and identify what it is exactly lowering your spirit.

Sally found herself unmotivated to finish her monthly report. Last month, she spent a week working on it, but her team leader brushed it aside when Sally sends in her report. What’s more, the leader presented her data at the monthly meeting without giving her due credit.

So how did Sally find back her motivation? First, she understood why she hated to do the task. She felt that her work was not appreciated by her team leader and she did not receive the credits she deserved. She had low incentive to do work because her esteem was hurt.

Sally realized that the responses from her leader was important to her. She decided to solve the problem by improving the communication with her team leader and getting direct feedback from her.

Instead of viewing the monthly report as something that would go unappreciated, Sally now looked at it as an opportunity to get feedback. Sally felt motivated to finish the report quickly, so she could have the response before the deadline.

After finishing her draft, Sally went to the team leader and told her in person that she just finished the first draft of the report, if she could give her some responses so she could improve. The team leader said she was busy at the moment but agreed to give her feedback tomorrow.

The next day, Sally got her response that her work was satisfactory, but she should include more data from some other sections that she overlooked. Sally got her feedback and was more than pumped to revise the work for Friday’s presentation.

What Sally did was that she shifted way of looking at the work and turned it into an opportunity to improve her communication and acquire feedback. Reframing the situation helps you create external incentives for yourself.

Sally didn’t have all the support and the required acknowledgment for her work, but she sought the way to reverse the situation where she felt stuck and was able to move things forward.

2. Change Up Routines

We are creatures of habits. It is easier to go with what is familiar. To motivate is to create change either in your behaviors or ways of thinking. As mentioned in the goal-setting theory, you are supposed to create goals that differ from your current ability. Being stuck in routines means rejecting change and growth.

Sean is writing his master’s thesis and feeling burnt out after reading the same materials for his thesis day in and day out. He claimed to have a writer’s block and is not motivated to write.

He went to his advisor for help. The advisor asked about his writing routine. Sean said he typically writes a whole chapter over a day or two.

His advisor suggested that he should start writing a paragraph or two everyday, even if the writing is complete “garbage,” instead of doing it all at once. He followed the advice and added writing two paragraphs to his daily routine and finally got his writing grooves back.

In another case, Clara felt unmotivated about going to the gym 5 times a week. She did all the workout exercises every session. Her trainer suggested that she could reorganize her routines by doing exercises that focus on different areas of her body on different days. The change was magical. Clara now looks forward to going to the gym because every day is different.

These small changes are effective in creating motivations. Our brain may love routines, but when we force it to make new neuro connections repeatedly, it actually becomes more active as it searches for information to create new neurological rewards.

Sometimes, the change of routine means taking a break. A study shows that participants make 200-400% increase in the quality of their strategies when they give their brains more space to envision the future when the strategy is employed.

The same study also shows that breaks or a relaxed environment increase people’s ability to influence others as they spend more time on giving more thoughtful responses in communication.

So, don’t feel you are wasting more time when you are under stress and not motivated to accomplish your work. Relax and give your brain space to reset.

Take care of your other emotional needs first. You will feel more recharged and energized when you come back to the task.

3. Set Up Good Goals

We introduced the goal-setting theory earlier, and it is time to put the theory into actionable terms.

As we learned from Locke’s theory, our goals need to be clear, specific and challenging, and involve a level of complexity.

In the meantime, we should also include supports in our plan to provide us feedback.

Sometimes we get sucked into long and difficult projects. In a case discussed earlier, when Sean was writing his thesis, his advisor told him to write a few paragraphs a day instead of trying to get everything done in bulk. This is helpful not only by changing up routines, but it also makes the project more manageable.

It is daunting to try to accomplish a 30-page report all at once, but if you break it down to 5 pages every day, your task becomes immediately more manageable. You can get it done within a week.

While it is important to make your goal actionable, don’t forget you also need to set it more challenging. A goal should be something more than what you did last time.

Let’s say if you squat 125 pounds and bench press 130 pounds, then you should set your goal to be 135 and 140 in two weeks’ time.

If you are a student writing a paper, a most obvious choice of a goal would be to get better grades. But you can also increase the quality of the paper by schedule more drafts for yourself. That way, you can get more feedback from others.

There are always levels of difficulty in doing things. Like playing a game, you are always seeking the higher level to achieve. When setting up goals, be sure to add intensity, duration, or length to make your goal more challenging in a measurable way.

4. Plan, Plan, Plan

To make the goal more actionable, you need to make effective, executable plans. Planning and making blueprints are important steps to accomplish a seemingly lofty goal. So what makes a plan effective?

A research shows that plan with implementation intentions instead of goal intentions leads to more actions.

A plan with implementation intention entails specific details such as when, where and how to execute it, whereas a goal-intention plan will focus more on why it is important to carry out the plan.

That said, it is better to draft a plan with more executable details.

You can try with the “SMART” plan method.

  • S stands for specific. You can try to be specific by asking what, when, and where and how you are going to implement the plan.
  • M stands for measurable. You should make your plan measurable. Earlier, we mentioned about setting up actionable goal. You need to make your plans measurable by asking the question “how much” – how much do I get done in a day or in a week?
  • A is for attainable. While it is important to set your goal high and challenging, when making up specific execution plans, you need to pay attention to the feasibility. Don’t stretch yourself too much.
  • R is for relevant. If your goal is to write a novel, then a relevant plan would involve planning the plot, defining the themes, characters, and then write 5 pages a day. An irrelevant plan in this case would be write 2 short stories a day. While it helps your writing somewhat, it would be not relevant to your goal of finishing a novel.
  • T is about timing. Make sure you set a time limit for your plan. Otherwise, your procrastination streak would sneak upon you and you may not have enough will power to stop yourself.

5. Checklist is a Friend

Checklists create a visual effect when you are executing your plans. When you have an outline or a checklist of what you need to do, you will find the complicated task easier to handle.

Your brain gets reward when it sees an accomplishment of an assignment.

The checks on the checklist also visibly let your brain know that you have accomplished some things, however insignificant the item you finished may be in front of the overall project.

Traditional checklists with bullet points of course work, but you can also be creative and get specific with your lists.

Microsoft Word has several templates that help you create your own to-do lists. The templates usually have columns for priority, due date, progress status, and when it is accomplished. Here’s an example of the template:

Time sensitive checklists are very useful too. You can use Excel to create a calendar to track your progress. Here is a helpful website that provides templates for you to create calendars and check lists.

There are also several different apps that you can use to monitor improvement. Here is a review of 19 useful mobile apps for to-do lists.

6. Seek Out Support

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback and supports. Remember the case of Sally. When she was bogged down by her report, she actively sought out feedback from her team leader.

Research has shown that effective communications between co-workers are crucial in reducing work stresses. Rely on your team and learn to trust. Don’t isolate yourself, spend some time to cultivate the relationships in your work place.

Include your family and friends as a source of your motivation too. Remember, love and belonging are important needs!

Supports from loved ones not only boost your confidence and nourish your wellbeing, they could also give you feedback to help you keep you on track of your goals.


Reading this article proves that you are actively searching for ways to resurrect motivation, and that alone already shows your intrinsic motivation.

You already have the desire for change.

Sometimes, we just need someone to validate us by telling us that everything is going to be alright. Be confident in yourself.

Getting bored by tasks actually shows that you are a creative individual, and that very creativity will lead you to new solutions to the problem at hand.

Good luck!

How to Motivate Yourself to Work Hard When You’re Really Not in the Mood

Comments are closed.