Motivation: Lost or Just Misplaced?


Some Reflections by a Therapist

When a Brown student comes to my office with the complaint "I don't know what's wrong. I just don't seem to have any motivation", the wheels in my head start turning in a certain pattern. I begin to sort through a list of questions I might ask that which could aid us in figuring out together, WHY this has happened, WHY NOW, and WHAT MIGHT HELP. These are not "secret" questions taught only to therapists in advanced training so I thought it might be helpful to share them in such a way that students could begin to explore these issues on their own before (or while, or instead of) coming to see me or one of my colleagues.

First of all, we want to know if this motivation problem is a recent change or one that has been going on for a long time? The answer to this question begins to narrow down the list of causes.

Long standing problem?

If you've always had problems with motivation perhaps there is an attention deficit disorder or learning disability which has made academics, organization of time and belongings, or getting started harder for you than for others. This may not have been diagnosed before now because your above average intelligence has allowed you to compensate and perform at a high level until college. Almost without exception, a person with such difficulties believes him/herself to be "lazier" and less motivated than others.

Another possibility if the motivation problem is long-standing, is that there are psychological forces at work. What is an adaptive coping mechanism at one time of life can become a source of distress at another. For example, one may deal with the struggle between the wish to be accepted for oneself and the wish to please one's parents, meeting their high expectations, by doing just the minimum to "succeed"; but not being "motivated" from inside. This may work very well for a long time, keeping parents proud of you, but with your having the inner satisfaction that you have preserved your true self by not trying as hard as you could. In college things change. You may find yourself wishing you could motivate yourself more from the inside; that you had more motivation to do the extra work that would bring excellence or satisfaction.

In real life, of course, nothing is quite as simple as the above example suggests. The psychological reasons for a lifetime of "low motivation" are often not obvious at first and require some investigative work. (A therapist can be a worthwhile choice as co-investigator in this project.) Sometimes students become discouraged because the cause and cure don't come quickly, but if it took 18 or 20 years to perfect this pattern, it'll usually take at least a few months to develop a different one.

(It's important to remember that "lack of motivation" is a relative term. Certainly, admission to Brown University is not offered to those whose motivation is nil. Just filling out the application takes some motivation.)

Recent Problem?

What if the change in motivation is more recent? First, we need to rule out the obvious causes. Physical illness, depression, and alcohol, pot, and other drug use are possibilities at the top of the list. In the case of physical illness, there will be other symptoms besides decreased motivation. A visit to Health Services is in order.

If the problem results from depression, the change in motivation may be accompanied by feeling down, sad, hopeless, or just empty, with no zest for life. There may be changes in appetite and sleep patterns, decreases in the ability to concentrate and remember. Life might feel meaningless and the things that used to bring pleasure no longer do. You may even think of ending your life. You may be aware of what event(s) brought on the depression or it may be harder to pinpoint why this has happened to you at this time. In any event, it's worth a consultation at Psychological Services to find out if you do have a clinical depression, which is a common illness (10 million persons in U.S. every year) and can be effectively treated. With proper treatment, you can expect improvement within a few weeks.

Now, alcohol and other drugs. It's sad, but true that drugs (some prescription drugs, streetdrugs, and alcohol) can and often do interfere with motivation. The mechanism may be as simple as putting off doing your academic work because you're drinking and then getting farther behind, so you drink again and get farther behind, etc. Pretty soon, you're drinking a lot and studying a little, very little. In the case of marijuana, experts believe there actually exists an "amotivational syndrome" which results from steady pot use.

Whatever your drug of choice, if you're having motivation difficulties it's a simple experiment to stop the drug completely for a month and see what effect that has. If your motivation improves, the drug use may be at least a part of the problem. Of course, if you're addicted to the drug, it may take longer than a month to observe any positive effects of abstinence because of withdrawal symptoms.

Multiple Causes

Here I want to emphasize that there may be more than one contributing cause to your motivation problem. Alcohol use may be A cause, but not the only one. You could have a depression worsened by the use of alcohol after the break-up of a love relationship. You could have attention deficit disorder, self-medicated by marijuana.

The sky's the limit for combinations, commutations, and circular sequences of causation involving alcohol and other drugs. It makes sense to take all etiological factors seriously. Perhaps when you are no longer depressed and your motivation has returned, moderate alcohol use may not be a problem any longer. Maybe there's a more effective drug than pot to treat your attention deficit disorder.

Hesitations of Motivation

Particular points along the path to college graduation make one susceptible to "hesitations of motivation". Some students experience a big downturn in motivation sometime in their first year. They have relentlessly pushed and pushed and pushed themselves for 12 or 13 years to gain admittance to a prestigious institution of higher learning and here they are....realizing there's no rest for the weary. They have to push and push and push themselves for 4 or 6 or 10 more years before they can relax. (Makes me tired just to think of it.) They feel burned out and worn out and can't get the motivation up to do much at all. Sometimes they seem genuinely puzzled about why they can't keep up the pace forever. Inside, their minds are pleading, "PLEASE, give me a break!" Talking it through helps to gain a bit of perspective on the situation and reframe it so pleasure has a place alongside achievement.

Not uncommonly, some students' motivation takes a dip when their concentrations have been declared. All at once, a very unpleasant awareness settles in: "I'm in the wrong field. But it's too late to change now. I'll just have to go along for another 30 or 40 years as an engineer (or lawyer or doctor or whatever) and look forward to retirement because I can't turn back now. I'll try not to mind it very much (even though I detest it). I can stand anything if I just make up my mind to it. Besides, I HAVE to be an engineer (lawyer, doctor,...) because my father (mother, uncle,...) expects me to be." Is it any wonder that a student in such a dilemma would have trouble mustering the drive to zip through assignments with enthusiasm? An honest exploration of the choice of concentration may be in order, even if it seems at the time to stir up more trouble and threaten well-laid and expensive educational plans.

The approach of graduation is another time when motivation may wane. Could be it's plain old "senioritis" (the "for-goodness-sake-give-me-the-diploma-already" syndrome). Could be it's unacknowledged fears attached to the meaning of graduation (e.g. "If I graduate, I have to be totally independent. No more asking for help from anyone.") Graduation has so many meanings, unique to each individual and often only vaguely in one's awareness. Here's another time when a chat with the friendly neighborhood Psychological Services staff member might be of help.

Questions to Ask Yourself

There are some evocative questions I have found helpful in exploring my own and my client's motivation/ procrastination problems. I offer them for your consideration. You may want to simply ponder the answers for yourself, write out the answers (you may be surprised what comes out) or talk them over with a friend who can prod you to look more deeply.

1) Is this problem with motivation general or specific to certain tasks? What is the difference between the tasks I have no problem doing and those which I feel unmotivated for? This could be the difference between overall depression and a writer's block due to the fact that one's older sister is a writer and you really don't want to have to live under her shadow any longer, for example. "I love my math course; it makes me feel so smart. I hate my history course; the teacher doesn't take my point of view seriously. I don't feel like doing anything for him.." Or, " I do fine making myself study for multiple choice biology exams, but I just can't make myself start those sociology papers. I'm not very good at organizing my thoughts for these papers. Is it a matter of gaining more skill in doing that kind of writing, or do I have a learning disability or is it something about that course in particular?" Or, "I have no trouble motivating myself to do a top notch job on the Frog Leap Team. I practice all the time and give my all, but classes....I just can get myself going. Am I at the wrong school? Maybe I should be taking different classes. Maybe I shouldn't be in college right now at all."

2) What POSITIVE things might happen if I don't get motivated and what NEGATIVE things might happen if I do? This calls for some free association, as we psychologists call it--letting your mind go and looking at whatever answers come up, no matter how illogical. For example, "If I don't get motivated I might not graduate and (positive result) then I won't have to leave my friends and I'll get to stay at Brown another semester. Maybe by then I'll be ready to leave." Or, " If I really put my all into this project, I might not get good feedback from the professor and then I'd have to give up my dream of being an artist (negative result)."

3) Who, (besides me) thinks I should be more motivated or thinks I should do these things for which I have no motivation? And what might be going on in my relationship with that person? One answer: "My mother, and am I tired of her running my life!" Another answer: "Society, and I'm still trying to sort out whether I must simply do what I'm 'supposed' to or if I can start doing what I want to for a change." Yet another: "My Grandfather who is paying my tuition. I feel like I have to really excel here or else he hasn't gotten his money's worth, but on the other hand I really want to play some, too."

4) Am I a perfectionist? They say that perfectionism leads to procrastination and procrastination leads to paralysis. "They" may be right. Perfectionism can have a number of negative effects on motivation. First of all, it's a terrible burden and like all burdens it gets heavier the longer you carry it. Perfectionism can cause one to put off doing what needs to be done because of fear of not reaching the goal: "If I can't do it perfectly, I can't do it at all." Alternatively: "If I do it perfectly, then I will show that I have the capacity to do that and I'll have to do it perfectly every time."

5) 5) Am I stuck in the "work = worth" ethic? Do you feel like you should ALWAYS be working or that your can't play until ALL the work is done? Do you feel that if you finish this piece of work, there'll just be more to do, ad infinitum? With this refrain playing in the back of your mind constantly, it's hard to get motivated to do much. Where did this idea come from for you? Do your parents work constantly? Is it religion? (There aren't many of the original Puritan sect left, but the descendents number many.)

6) Are there messages from my family that are confusing me, getting in my way, holding me back? This is a tough one, because some of these messages are more or less learned unconsciously, never spoken out loud. Also, some of them are conflicting. For example, in my family there was certainly the value of hard work, but co-existing along side that was a disdain for those who achieved "success" (they are prideful, think they're better than everyone else, selfish, etc.). So, what's a kid to do? Work really, really hard, but get in your own way and don't actually succeed in order to follow all the injunctions of the family. This can easily manifest in low motivation. "Can't figure out why I just can't get going. The closer to graduation it gets, the worse it seems to get..."

Another example is the message from a family which has overcome great deprivation, danger, poverty, etc. Such parents are usually quite determined to give their children a better chance. While the parents may not have had the opportunity to go to college or may have had to overcome enormous obstacles to get their own educations, they have worked hard and sacrificed to GIVE their children what they didn't have or which came at such a high price for them. This is a truly wonderful gift, but what is often unexpected by both parent and child is that the gift is not without pain for the child. As the child-recipient there is a feeling of enormous guilt about a) not being worthy because you're not "working as hard as you can" and b) not having suffered as much as the parents in the first place. Students in this situation ask me, "Why can't I work 18 hours a day? My father did. My older brother does now (in medical school, of course). What is wrong with me that I can't make myself work like that?" There are many good and legitimate reasons, as individual as the person who asks the question. It sometimes takes a bit of exploration to sort out the answers in full. The short answer is that you were raised in a different environment and different family than your parents were. They may not have had much choice about how hard they had to work when they were your age. You do. Also, in spite of how much you love and respect your parents and how grateful you are for their generosity, there is inside you (as in all of us) a piece of you that resents expectations and living out someone else's dream (in this case, your parents' dream of having had an easier life or more opportunity which they are living vicariously through you).

Your role in the family may play a part as well. Are you the "star", the "standard bearer"? You may be tired of such a one dimensional definition of yourself and be struggling to find a more complex identity. One that includes slacking off, not having to always be the best, even being average. On the other hand, you may have the family role of "irresponsible screw-up" or "dunce". Believe it or not, there are many students at Brown, undoubtedly quite intelligent, who were for some reason labeled in this way earlier in their lives. It's amazing how hard we try, out of unconscious loyalty to our parents to fulfill their prophecies about us. We may find ourselves mysteriously unmotivated to succeed because of this.

7) Do you have competing needs which are demanding to be taken seriously? You know, it could just be that you actually DO need to sleep, eat, play, socialize and the reason you can't motivate yourself to do academic work, is that your competing needs are compelling. Listen up before it's too late.

Parting Thoughts

In summary, I'd like to leave you with a couple of final comments. First of all, the discussion above is by no means complete. There are many stories left untold; each one as unique as the person to whom it belongs. Also, contrary to what may seem implied above, there are no simple cause-effect equations in real life. These reflections are simply meant to be a starting point, to begin the process of examining the issues, to frame the questions a bit.

And last, it's my theory that a lack of motivation or decrease in motivation or feeling troubled about how much motivation you should have vs. how much you do have is a signal to pay attention to what's going on. As we've seen, there can be many causes, multiple causes. In each situation, however, there is something important going on and the motivation problem is the wake up call. In the end, that's not such a bad thing - to get in touch with something about yourself that is in need of notice and responding constructively to it. The solution will most likely not come in a form as simple as forcing yourself somehow to be more highly motivated, but instead it may grow out of exploring and understanding the sources of the problem and respectfully attending to them.

Best regards....and remember we're here if you need us.