It is an inevitable part of having a job. At some point we all feel a little uninspired. Maybe you’re not excited about a new project or you just can’t pump yourself up to finish something that’s been dragging on, but you know when the feeling hits.
But it is a problem that can be solved.
“Often people lose motivation because they no longer find their work meaningful and that can take many forms,” said Liz Fosslien, the co-author of No Hard Feelings, which looks at how emotions affect our work lives.
“Losing that spark can hit at any time and sometimes you might not even realise you’re in that slump until it’s pointed out to you,” added Mollie West Duffy, Fosslien’s co-author.
“I think it can be a slow progression,” said Duffy. “It’s sort of like the boiling frog, it slowly starts getting more and more distracting to you, and you might not realise it.”
Feeling uninspired or demotivated can sometimes lead to burnout. The overlap in symptoms is clear: it’s that “blah” feeling when you approach a task or the feeling of just being stuck in a rut. It can sometimes be hard to pinpoint or recognise that you’re in a slump, but it is quite common. One American study from 2018, found that one in five highly engaged employees is at risk of burnout.
So if burnout can result in deep job dissatisfaction and unhappiness, the road there is a slippery slope of a lack of inspiration. But there are ways to counter it.
One of the most common sources of lowered motivation at work is what Harvard researchers called the progress principle, which is the idea that making progress in meaningful work is the “single most important factor” in boosting one’s “emotions, motivation and perceptions during a workday”.
“Often you’re not motivated because your goal is too big,” said Fosslien.
“So, if you can just break that into mini milestones, like what are you going to do today that you can cross at the end of today?
Even tiny units of progress, like sending an email you’ve been meaning to write forever, can contribute to a sense of accomplishment, which can boost your overall motivation,” she added.
But ticking items off your to-do list can take you only so far if you’re in a spiral of a lack of inspiration. Focusing on your relationships, instead of your actual work, can remind you of the impact you have.
“Take note of how your work has impact on the people at the company you work with. There’s not always external impact, but there’s internal impact,” she said.
One technique she has found success with is to take a timeout during the day and write down three ways your work has helped your colleagues. These small moments can help to put you in the mindset of remembering that even if you’re dealing with a lack of motivation, you can still help those around you.
“Anywhere you can look for little reminders of the impact that your work has, whether it is your colleagues, the people your company impacts on or the people affected by your personal projects,” Fosslien said.
Fostering those relationships can often be the motivation you’re looking for. Research has shown that motivation at work often comes from working with people you care about and people with friends at work tend to find their jobs more satisfying.
According to a 2018 poll from Gallup, “When employees possess a deep sense of affiliation with their team members, they are driven to take positive actions that benefit the business – actions they may not otherwise even consider if they did not have strong relationships with their co-workers.”
When all else fails and you just can’t find that spark of inspiration, fall back on a tried-and-true strategy – take a little time away from your job.
“Often when work is negative, it is because you’re working too much and it is taking over our mental capacity,” said Duffy. “Remember that work doesn’t define you, but it is only a part of you.”
Said Fosslien: “When it feels really bad, it is the hardest time to do it, but it is also the most important time to seek out something not work-related that brings you joy.”
She added: “Keep doing the things that bring you lightness.”
This article first appeared in The New York Times.