This is the sixth in my series of mental health posts that will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.
My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.
January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Grief | August – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships
Lack of motivation might not be one of the first things that comes to mind when you think about mental health. Procrastination and the occasional bout of laziness are a normal part of life and we all have days when we simply can’t be bothered to do something, especially if the task is one we don’t enjoy (I’ll take reading a good book over cleaning the bathroom any day). Usually, this behaviour doesn’t cause us too many problems. At some point we convince ourselves to get on with the tasks we’re putting off and are able to move on with our lives.
For those of us who struggle with mental health problems, it’s not as simple as that. Lack of motivation that goes beyond idle procrastination is often a by-product of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. It is a sign that our own minds are sabotaging our efforts and draining us of the mental energy we need to perform even the simplest of tasks.
When this happens, we can find ourselves locked in a self-defeating cycle. We have tasks to get on with that keep increasing in number, which can cause us to feel overwhelmed and anxious about not being able to get everything done. We can feel useless and angry with ourselves for our inability to manage our lives and for letting things get out of control. These feelings increase in severity along with the number of tasks until we reach the point that we don’t know where to begin and have no motivation to try.
Making lists of outstanding tasks can help, but even they can make things worse as they can become a visual representation of our failures if we are unable to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves. They taunt us in their incompleteness and are used by our mental illnesses as manufactured evidence of our weaknesses and lack of will power.
Lack of motivation can also apply to the things we actually want to do. Ironically, I had trouble motivating myself to write this post. I have a lot of competing priorities and big changes happening in my life right now that are quite overwhelming, and some days I feel like I’ll never have time to do everything, so finding the will to sit down and write a coherent post has been quite difficult. The only reason I pushed myself to finish it was because it’s getting very close to the end of June and I want to make sure that I keep my commitment to myself to publish a post every month. As tempting as it was to use my day off to lie down or try to tackle other things on my to-do list, I knew how angry and disappointed with myself I would be if I didn’t get this done.
It can be difficult for people who have not experienced significant issues with motivation to understand why we can’t simply prioritise our tasks and complete them one by one (in other words, “just get on with it”). Of course, we understand that doing this would make us feel better, but knowing that and actually being able to accomplish it are two different things.
To explore this idea further, I want to look at an example of when lack of motivation can have a debilitating impact on our ability to take positive steps forward in our lives – being unable to complete job or university applications. This is a really common problem for people who suffer from mental health issues and is about so much more than procrastination.
Imagine yourself sitting in front of your computer trying to work on a job application. Now imagine there is someone sitting next to you who does nothing but spout a relentless barrage of criticism. They bring up every mistake, every insecurity, every perceived weakness you have, and every reason they think you’re not good enough to get this job. To make matters worse, you can’t escape this person. They follow you wherever you go and refuse to leave your side. You try to ignore them and focus on what you’re doing, but they only get louder and louder until they’re screaming insults in your ear and you can’t focus on anything else.
Could you fill out a job application under those circumstances? Could you even summon the will to try when you know this person will always show up to sabotage you? Could you convince someone to hire you when you feel like you’re not even worth their consideration?
Probably not, and therein lies the problem.
Having a mental illness like depression or anxiety can cause us to feel exactly like this, only it is our own minds providing the constant stream of criticism and self-doubt rather than another person. We are not lazy. We are not putting it off because it’s boring. We are struggling with the very minds we need to carry out this task in the first place, which can make it feel impossible to make any real progress.
So, how can we deal with this?
Getting some help for any underlying mental health conditions is really important, but there are other, smaller things we can do to help become more motivated in the meantime.
I mentioned before that making lists can be counterproductive as they can make us feel like we’ve failed if we don’t manage to accomplish everything we planned to, but that can often be a result of making the lists too long or wide ranging. For lists to be effective at managing everything we need to do, they have to be achievable and suited to how we’re feeling at the time.
There will be some days when even small, seemingly insignificant tasks will require a Herculean effort, and we need to make allowances for that to avoid trying to do too much and feeling like we’ve let ourselves down if we don’t achieve everything we set out to do. If we’re tired or having a particularly challenging day with our mental health, then it makes sense that we’ll find it more difficult to get motivated.
On days like those, it’s important that we try to adjust our expectations of ourselves. For you, maybe doing the laundry is an achievement. If it’s something that you normally don’t manage to do, or do with great difficulty, and you’re able to do it, then that’s an achievement and you should view it as such. Accomplishing a task, no matter how small, gives your self-esteem something to work with in its battle against feelings of worthlessness, so it’s important to acknowledge it.
When I know I have a lot on my plate and I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed, I write a list of absolutely everything I can think of that needs doing, even if it’s not urgent. Then, I break it down into smaller, more manageable lists, making sure to include things that I actually want to do. It’s amazing how trying to catch up on a TV show that I’ve fallen behind on can actually feel overwhelming and turn into a task itself. Sure, it’s not vital to my day-to-day life that I stay well-informed about the lives of fictional characters, but the fact that I don’t feel like I have the time to do that can be very frustrating, so things like that go on my to-do lists as well.
To help combat the part of my mind that tries to make me feel lazy and useless, before I go to bed I make a mental list of everything I’ve achieved that day, down to the smallest task. If I haven’t had a particularly productive day, I try to remind myself that quiet days where I just sleep or watch TV are also important for my wellbeing, as they help me summon the energy to do more the following day.
What I’m aiming for is a balance of productivity and relaxation that allows me to keep on top of things that need to be done, like paying bills and housework, while also making time for things that I really want to do, like spending time with friends or finding out who the hell ‘A’ is on Pretty Little Liars.
This isn’t always easy, and even now I’m struggling with feelings of anger and disappointment with myself that my day off did not go as planned. That said, before I go to bed tonight, I will still be able to list some achievements for the day that will temporarily silence my internal critics, this blog post being one of them.
Fighting a daily battle with mental illness is a full time job. We won’t always get everything done. We won’t always feel up to fulfilling every commitment. We won’t always be able to get out of bed. The thing we have to try to do is accept that this is okay. These jobs don’t give us vacations or benefits, so it’s up to us to manage the workload and take time out when we need to.