Work isn’t always easy. Sometimes you've got to grind things out to get the stuff you need to do done. If you’re struggling for motivation, I’m here to help. I’m using at least a few of the techniques I’m going to cover just to write this article.
We’ve all been there. You’re sitting, staring at your blank screen dreading the thought of work. New emails keep trickling in every few minutes. Your To Do list is getting longer and longer. Your boss is wondering where the Michaels’ file is and you’re just doing… nothing. Maybe you open up a Word document, but then you check Facebook. Again. Then you go back to Word and type the first word of the title followed by checking Twitter for the 55th time today.
Before you know it, an hour has passed. If you’re really lucky, you’ve finished writing the title of the document you’re meant to be working on. You might even have managed to save it to a folder. You just can't seem to get motivated.
If this scenario describes you, you're not the only one. According to a recent Gallup poll nearly 70% of U.S. workers are either not engaged in their work or actively disengaged from their work. If you're not motivated to work, you've got plenty of company.
Being unmotivated really is no fun. You know you have work to do, but you just can’t drum up the motivation necessary to get it done. While there’s no silver bullet solution, there are a few ways to motivate yourself to get to work. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a designer struggling to get inspired or an office worker facing a massive pile of files, these nine tips to get motivated can help. Let’s dig in.
1. Challenge Yourself to Just Start
The hardest part of motivating yourself to work is getting yourself to actually start. When you’re looking at an ever-growing To Do list or the massive amount of words you have to write (around 2000 for this article for me), the prospect of getting it done can seem impossible.
The thing is, once you start, things tend to flow. This sentence has followed on neatly from the last one. The next one will follow on from this one, and so on and so on until I’m done. The hardest sentence to write by far was the very first one.
Once you’ve started, you build momentum. You can look back and see what you’ve done. You might even get into creative flow. So, how do you start? How do you motivate yourself to work?
Well honestly, the simplest trick I’ve found is to challenge myself to start. I set a countdown timer for 30 seconds, and when it gets to zero, I do the very first thing I need to do. If I still feel completely unmotivated and terrible after writing the first line of an article or responding to the first email, then I need to try something else, but at least half the time this tip works.
Your first go to should be the same. If you find yourself aimlessly staring at a screen trying to work up the motivation to begin, just set a timer and when it hits zero take the very first step. After all, that’s how every journey begins or every document gets written.
2. First, Do It Badly
Perfectionism is one of the biggest causes of demotivation. It’s really bad among writers. You kind of want to work, but because you feel like what you’re producing is utter crap, you can’t bring yourself to do it.
The trick here is to decide that the work you’re doing isn’t final: it’s the first draft. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad, you can fix it when you edit. All you need now is a base—no matter how terrible—to work from.
While this trick is super popular with writers, it works for pretty much anything. Whatever the task you’re procrastinating from, just decide you’re going to do a bad first pass or create a super rough outline. Once you’ve got something—anything—done, you can start to build from there.
3. Eliminate Distractions
Work often happens when you’ve nothing better left to do, so one way to make work happen, is get rid of every alternative course of action. If you keep checking Facebook or Twitter or Reddit when you’re meant to be working, get rid of them. It’s much easier to block them permanently in a single moment of strength than to constantly resist the temptation to check your favourite subreddits every second of every day. It’s the same with stuff like email. If it’s not absolutely critical for the task at hand, turn it off.
Whatever your go-to distractions are, get rid of them. If you’re drawn to the water cooler to chat with your colleagues, then talk to your boss about starting work earlier or staying later. That way you can get a couple of hours of uninterrupted time to really focus on work. If you work from home and keep just watching one more episode on Netflix, then go to a co-working space or coffee shop. Without the temptation around, you can’t be tempted.
You know yourself best, so whatever your go-to distraction is, try and mitigate it in a moment of strength. Personally, I use the Mac app Focus to block distracting websites and apps when I’m meant to be working. I have it set up so I only have to be strong enough to push a single button once for all my favourite distractions to be blocked for an hour. With nothing to distract me, what other option do I have but to get some work done?
4. Make Sure Your Goals Are Realistic
Often when people are struggling to get motivated, they’re making a mountain out of a molehill. Their task list isn’t too bad, they just don’t want to start. I’m as guilty of this as everyone. But there are some people who are actually facing a mountain. If you’re one of them, you need to step back and reconsider what you’ve taken on. If you've got too much work it's no wonder you're not motivated to work.
Start by setting some realistic goals for what you can achieve. There’s no point trying to respond to 700 emails in a single day. You’ll just be paralysed by the thought of what’s in front of you. Instead, tackle a small chunk every day for as long as it takes you to get through them. Similarly, don’t try and put together a full conference speech in a single day. Break the speech up into manageable chunks and take care of them one at a time.
5. Do Something to Recharge
The worst thing about procrastinating is how draining it can be. I feel much more tired after an hour of scrolling through Twitter trying to find any excuse not to work than after an hour of actually working. If you’ve been sitting at your desk slowly losing the will to live for an hour, then step away and do something to get some energy back.
I’ve found that what works for me is to make a cup of coffee, step outside for a quick walk, or listen to one of my favorite pump-up songs. I feel even better when I combine all three!
If the motivation to work hard really isn’t coming for you, do the same. Just take a few minutes of an actual break—even grab a nap if you can—and then come back at it stronger. It’s amazing how much stepping away can refresh you.
6. Remember Why You’re Doing It
No matter how disconnected you are from your work, there’s always a reason why you have to do the work in front of you. Even if the trials and tribulations of the company you work for don’t overly concern you, there’s at least a reason you’re sitting where you are. It might just be to feed your family or save up for a dream trip, but you’re not there for no reason.
Note: If you’re truly unhappy in your job and are constantly demotivated, then you need to start making a career plan and look at how you can get out of there.
Hating your job and doing it just for the money is the absolute worst case. It’s far more likely you’re doing your job because you find it an interesting challenge, you’re well compensated, people are relying on you, or you’re highly trained. When you’re struggling to get work done, take a few moments to remember why you chose that career. If you’re a designer whose work gets turned into physical products, grab one off a shelf and feel it. It’s cool that the work you’re doing on your computer is turned into that. If you’re a trader or sales person, think back over how some of your biggest wins made you feel. Pretty good, I reckon. That should help you find the motivation to work hard.
Everyone has down days, so don’t beat yourself up if you're not motivated to work. Just remind yourself why you’re there, and see if that gives you the kick you need.
7. Get an Accountabilibuddy
Self-motivation is always a challenge. It’s much easier if you’ve got someone else to hold you accountable. One simple way to get a bit of extra motivation without relying on your boss screaming at you is to get an accountabilibuddy.
Talk to a friend who’s also struggling a bit with motivation and agree to hold each other accountable. At the end of every day (or at lunch time or whenever you choose), check in and tell each other what you’ve accomplished. The thought of having to tell a friend you’ve spent all day on Facebook will almost certainly motivate you to get something done.
If you want to take things even further, you could give your friend permission to hand out rewards and punishments based on how you do. There are services like stickK that make it simple.
8. Do the Brainless Work You’ve Been Putting Off
You don’t always have to be firing on all cylinder to have a productive day. Even the most creative jobs have huge amounts of mindless admin work that needs doing. The following tasks are all low energy, but important enough that they need to get done:
- gathering together documents for your accountant (I’ve been putting it off for weeks)
- updating your tax information with your clients (same)
- responding to emails that have been sitting unanswered for weeks
The time to do these tasks is when you don’t feel like tackling something bigger.
The best thing about mindless tasks is that you can get to an almost Zen state with them. Going through your old accounts to flag business and personal expenses is time-consuming, but strangely relaxing. You can throw on some tunes and just get down to it. If it’s brainless enough, you can even listen to podcasts or audiobooks.
At the end of the day, you’ll still feel like you’ve accomplished something—because you've accomplished something. It might not have been your primary task, but getting something done is still a lot better than nothing. And it's a step towards how to get to work.
9. Give Yourself Permission to Do Something Else
If all else fails there’s only one thing left to do: step away and do something else productive or something you actually want to do.
Time spent procrastinating mindlessly browsing Facebook to dodge work is completely wasted. You don’t want to be on Facebook, you're just not motivated to work. If you’re not getting anywhere, then give yourself permission to give up and go and do something worthwhile.
Now, the key here is that the alternative has to be worthwhile. If it’s not, you’ll just feel bad about skipping work. However, if you clean your house from top to bottom, read a good book, or hit the gym, you’re actually using your time well. It’s basically positive procrastination.
While this option should definitely be part of your playbook for dealing with days when you’re completely unmotivated, it absolutely shouldn't be your first play. If you take the easy way out and just start cleaning every time work drags a little, then you’ll never get anything done. This option is for the one or two days a month when you’d really rather be anywhere else.
Final Thoughts on How to Motivate Yourself to Work
Everyone has days where they struggle to get work done. If you're not motivated to work, you're not alone. You've just learned nine tips for how to motivate yourself, though. So, now that you've got some tools to help yourself get motivated it's time to get back to work (or at least get started)!