How the Pandemic Killed Your Motivation, and 6 Simple Ways to Get It Back, According to Science


From working remotely to getting comfortable with at-home workouts, the Covid pandemic has uprooted most of our routines, and interfered with our motivation.

Motivation tends to drop when you feel a deficit in three key areas of life: your autonomy, competence and relationships, Lora Park, associate professor and director of the Self and Motivation Lab at the University of Buffalo, tells CNBC Make It.

"Covid wiped out like all three of those like instantly," Park says.

The good news is there are ways to set up your life and routine so that you feel more motivated about your goals, whether you're trying to stay focused at work or attempting an ambitious New Years resolution.

Here are some research-backed ways to feel more motivated today:

Create daily rituals

A 2018 study out of Harvard University found that rituals — any predefined sequences of actions characterized by rigidity and repetition — increase people's self-control and feelings of self-discipline.

"Rituals don't have to be this elaborate thing, it could just be a very small routine that you do every day," Park says. For example, putting your workout clothes beside your bed so you can exercise first thing in the morning is considered a ritual. So is taking time to meditate or relax once you get your kids set up for the school day or walking your dog after work.

Over time, rituals automatize behavior, Park says. When a habit becomes automatic, "it frees up your mental energy to then be able to focus on other things that require more time attention or energy," she says.

Set up routine 'cues'

We're hard-wired to forge associations between ourselves and cues in the environment that trigger us to do something, Conroy says. This could be anything from knowing to answer a Slack when you hear or see the notification to taking out your keys to unlock the door when you get home.

During the pandemic, cues that would typically prompt you to do something (like walking into an office and feeling ready to work or stopping at the gym on your commute home) have been disrupted, Conroy says. In fact, people who are working from home might be subconsciously confused by cues (like your couch or TV) that they would usually only encounter on the weekend, he says.

Creating cues in your physical environment will help keep you on track, Park says. For example, if you're working from home, designate a workspace. That way, you'll feel set up and mentally prepared to work when you enter that space — and be able to disconnect when you're in other places.

Reward yourself the right way

Rewards can increase your intrinsic motivation or desire to do an activity, Park says. But research shows that the timing of the reward matters. Essentially, you have to pair an activity with something that you find enjoyable to do during or right after the activity, she says.

So, while you run on the treadmill, you could watch a favorite Netflix show as a "reward." Or, you could have a treat like a cup of coffee or a piece of chocolate while you tackle a tedious work task. (The key is to make sure the rewards are not self-destructive, she adds.)

Make room for moments of positivity

Finding ways to cultivate positive emotions every day can have a real impact on your motivation and productivity, Park says. This can be as small as watching a funny video or sending a text to a friend, she says. Research has shown that experiencing positive emotions can improve your performance at work, as well as your physical and mental health, social relationships, community involvement and income.

Negative emotions, on the other hand, "tend to narrow your focus and make you not want to get out of your comfort zone," she says.

Don't be too hard on yourself

There are two main types of motivation: intrinsic, which is doing something for the pure enjoyment of the activity itself (aka "flow"), not focused on the outcome, rewards or even punishments; and extrinsic, which is driven by external rewards or punishment.

"Your motivation can ebb and flow," Park says. "So, you might start off very extrinsically motivated, but then over time as you get good at something, or it becomes part of your identity, then it becomes something that you truly enjoy."

One thing that often gets in the way of motivation is when people internalize external pressure or feedback, and connect their performance to their self-esteem and ego, Park says. (In psychology, this is called "introjected self-regulation.) That's because when your self-esteem and ego is wrapped up in your performance, negative feelings about yourself can hinder your ability to reach a goal.

So it's important to acknowledge where pressure is coming from and not be so hard on yourself.

Know your triggers

Everyone feels unmotivated sometimes, so it's important to recognize what your triggers are, and adjust accordingly to help get your motivation back, Park says. For example, when you're feeling overworked or burned out, and you're lacking motivation, that can be a "screaming signal" that you need to slow down or take some time off, she says.

Another common trigger for a lack of motivation? Getting negative feedback. "It can be very demoralizing, in many fields, when things are rejected or you get negative feedback, criticism or bad evaluations," Park says. In those moments, you may feel like your ego has been threatened. "One way to naturally rebuild the motivation is to put it away, do other things and then come back to it," she says.

Research has shown that having a very specific and concrete a contingency plan for these moments when you feel your motivation dip can be effective, Park says. "Create a script in your head of what you're going to be doing," she says. "It's kind of automating your behavior so that you don't have to like completely paralyzed in that moment."

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