Ask Dr. Andrea is a series from The Lily with Dr. Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist and advice columnist. She will be answering questions about relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for Bonior, please send us an email.
Dear Dr. Andrea,
So this is not a big problem, and I feel a little silly even writing in about it. But I have become totally unmotivated. I guess it’s happened gradually over time, made far worse in the year of working from home. But it’s like I can’t bring myself to do anything that I need to do but don’t want to: from small stuff like dishes to big things like work tasks.
I just put it off and it’s gotten worse. I am skating by with absolutely minimal effort at my job (good thing this is anonymous) to keep the illusion that I am on top of things. I live by myself and do just the bare minimum to keep my apartment livable. I don’t think I’m depressed, even though as I write this out, it sort of sounds like it. I’m bored at home like everyone else right now and looking forward to getting out more once I’m fully vaccinated (soon). But anything that needs to be done that I don’t actually want to do — I just drag it out and take forever to do it. So then I spend hours thinking about how unmotivated I am instead of just doing stuff.
What is going on? And how do I change this?
— Totally unmotivated
It’s certainly not silly, and you certainly are not alone.
We have a tendency to talk about emotional wellness in yes-or-no ways: You’re depressed or you’re not; you’re functioning or you’re not; you’re healthy or you’re not. But mental health is a lot more nuanced and dimensional than that. Whether you meet criteria for depression, this is an area of your daily life where things feel like they have slipped, and it’s causing you distress. That’s meaningful. And though it’s very, very common right now — it could even be considered normal, as a reaction to such an abnormal period of our lives — that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps to take to try to change it.
What you don’t mention is what you are doing when you procrastinate. There are many flavors of procrastination and amotivation, and the why and the how can help illuminate solutions. I am guessing your procrastination is of the self-perpetuating guilt variety, where you’re doing things you feel like you shouldn’t be (mindlessly scrolling your phone? Watching TV?). That then makes you feel worse about yourself and even less motivated to change anything, while also tainting the enjoyment of the activity you’re actually doing — so you never actually get a true feel-good break. So your first step should be identifying the triggers that push you further into that hole. Being tired, cabin-feverish or lonely? The siren song of a phone notification? The thought that the tasks don’t matter anyway?
Next, do what you can to counteract those triggers: from getting a better night’s sleep, to planning more social time, to starting each day with a walk outside, to turning your phone off for certain periods or reminding yourself that though the tasks can be put off, you are choosing to pay a mental health price when you do that.
You’re looking forward to things, which is good sign that this is less a mood problem than an inertia and habit problem. And thankfully you can condition yourself out of habits with small, consistent steps. Amotivation and procrastination thrive on all-or-none thinking, like “It would take forever to clean this house so I might as well not do a thing” or “I’m already off-track for the evening, so I might as well give up.”
So, notice and disrupt that thinking with a commitment to get just five minutes done of a task, and then letting yourself move on to the procrastination activity guilt-free. Putting away seven dishes is better than putting away none. And even better, since starting is often the hardest part of the task, chipping away for even a few minutes gives you more momentum to pick it back up the next time, especially since you stopped not from hitting a wall but because that was part of the plan.
As for work tasks, small, consistent, accountable goals — free of judgment about not doing more — will help you there, too. Reward yourself for even the smallest of steps, and then nudge the goal upward just a bit the next time. Try to reconnect with why you got into this job in the first place. What’s the big picture of why you’re doing this? Can you do anything to feel more connected to your co-workers or the values the job espouses?
So start small, but start somewhere. Right now there’s a huge gap between your expectations and your actions. Narrow that gap by adjusting on both ends — and being kind to yourself in the process.