The art of motivation

If we are compassionate with ourselves, a bit like a mother with her child at play, then we might have more luck with our motivation.  Photo by Xavier Mouton Photographie on Unsplash

Motivation is a funny thing.  It sometimes seems to come and go like the weather.  And there’s a reason for that… it really is a bit like the weather.  We live in unusual times, when there is a lot we are supposed to want to do, but don’t.  Compare this to our more animal past, when we stood up when the urge took us, walked when the urge took us…  The difference nowadays is that we have civilisation: a huge network of thought telling us what our urges should be.  And once we have that, we have a recipe for lack of motivation.


Watch a dog.  It wakes up, moves, eats, with an immediacy that sometimes escapes us.  OK, dogs get confused now and again, stuck between two decisions, just as we do.  Dogs are not free of pain – they can become agonised and tortured just like us humans.  But there is not the same divorce between motivation and action.  I am not one of those who believes humans are fundamentally different, but I do believe that humans have created a social world full of symbols which fight with our inner urges.

If you are an animal, then your motivation is pretty much the same thing as your action.  There is not so much in the way.


Watch a human.  It often struggles to wake up, and often lacks immediacy.  There is a lot that goes on inside a human’s mind.  A lot of weighing up.  But there is not quite the same synchronous relationship between thought and action.  Sometimes we see people at play, maybe at a party or similar: there, the animal instincts seem to come back, and we laugh, joke, move with a bit more simplicity.  But when we are alone, our internal urges and our internal dialogue are at odds, and, arguing with ourselves, we suffer from lack of motivation, which is really lack of harmony between our inner workings and our external actions.


If we accept for a moment that motivational issues are grounded in a divorce between inner urges and inner or social dialogue (i.e. our self-will and our self-talk are at odds), then some interesting ideas can arise surrounding anxiety and depression.

If we have more internal energy than can possibly be used by the permissions we give ourselves to act, then we have various forms of anxiety.  If we did not have any inner energy, then we would simply sit peacefully.  If we had inner energy that could flow, then we would have harmony in action.  But if we have inner energy that has no fair outlet, then a tension arises which we call anxiety.

If, however, we have less internal energy than we need to fulfil the world’s (or our own inner) dialogue, then we have various forms of depression.  Perhaps, resulting from grief, our energy levels have hit a new low, and we simply don’t want to get up at all.  This can be exacerbated if we punish ourselves with an internal dialogue which requires us to act.  That is not the position our energy is in.

In this way, we could see anxiety as too much energy with no fair outlet; and depression as too little energy for any outlet.


I just want to clarify that I think animals do experience fairly similar processes.  What I think is different in humans, is the extent to which we impose on ourselves and each other, reinforced by symbols and cultures, a kind of requirement to act in certain ways.  So, whilst a post-natal animal mother may well experience a lack of energy, and a tension between this and her wish to help her child… whilst this is true, and is a kind of depression… humans can make it much worse by giving the mother a million other expectations which she cannot fulfil.

It is a matter of degree.  Humans seem able to beat themselves up quite a lot.  So there is the experience of anguish, but magnified by the thought ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this anguish’, followed by a thousand other thoughts judging the experience.


What can we do to counteract this additional anguish caused by self-judgement?  Perhaps we can exercise self-compassion.  Instead of operating a personal rulebook in our thoughts which fights with our inner urges, perhaps we can replace that fighting rulebook with a far higher level of self-forgiveness and self-understanding.

This does not mean we act on our inner urges all the time.  That’s not what I’m saying.  But instead of killing any energy we do have with rules, perhaps we can acknowledge, receive, and embrace that energy, accepting it.


Next time you feel a lack of motivation, or any inner urge which is causing you anguish, find a safe place, and listen to it empathically and with understanding.  Embrace the experience you are having in all its complexity.  You don’t have to act on anything, but you can sit compassionately with yourself and see what’s up.  It is only what a good parent would do from time to time with a child.  Why not give yourself the same benefit?

In the same way, perhaps there is someone else who isn’t doing what you would like them to do. From your point of view, they are lacking motivation.  (Obviously you are applying your rules to them, so it’s not surprising they lack motivation!  They don’t want what you want!)  Instead of fighting them, embrace them, sit alongside them, and try to understand them.  In particular, accept them, exactly as they are.  It may be that new energy arises, since, when fighting subsides and acceptance arises, new solutions, new pathways to compromise, often magically appear.



Our developed civilisation is a recipe for lack of motivation.  It creates a fighting atmosphere where we are all at odds with ourselves and each other, trying to create actions which are not in sympathy with what’s going on inside.  We become inauthentic and hidden.  If energy is trapped inside by the rules, we get anxious.  If the rules demand more energy than we have, we get depressed.  However, if we demand less, and understand more, then a compassionate path to new flow can be found.  It is what a good parent does with their child.  So perhaps it is what we can do with ourselves.