Motivation is not a trait: it's an engine

Taking care of your mental health is how you keep the engine running.

I am not a natural athlete. I got roped into gymnastics at school, and my coach told me that in his 30 year career, he’d “never known a student to injure themselves as creatively” as I had. Despite a deep seated aversion to physical activity, I’ve managed to stick to some fairly intense exercise, 3 days a week, for the past year. By comparison, I’m two weeks past the deadline I set myself for writing this article. So why have I been procrastinating at the comparatively easy task, and slogging through the tough one? The problem is that I needed a reminder of how motivation works.

There are loads of tips and tricks to deal with the symptoms of poor motivation and thousands of good articles listing them. Instead, I’d like to focus on the underlying cause. For many it’s an external problem - poor environment and unhelpful approaches to productivity (multi-tasking, I’m looking at you). For a lot of others, the problem is either what you’re fueling your brain - your motivation engine - with, or how you maintain it. This World Mental Health Day, I’d like to look at motivation through the lens of mental health and wellness.

Fuel for your motivation engine

1) Connection

How many of us have stared at a piece of work, thinking “why am I even doing this”? Unless you can answer this question convincingly, it will sap your chance of getting things done. A convincing answer has the opposite effect. What is the overall goal? Why is it important? What is the task ahead of you, and how does this contribute? It doesn’t have to be profound - but you do have to believe it.

2) Acceptance

There are these myths of universally fulfilling jobs, and universally able people. These are not just false, they’re the opposite of reality. Every single job is at least 80% boring work, and we will all be crap at some things. Accepting this is the difference between wanting to engage and wanting to avoid. It’s ok and normal to find things boring and difficult - even when you’re passionate about them.

3) Confidence

Accepting the negative must come hand in hand with accepting the positive: that you can contribute meaningfully. This can be really difficult - especially if your mental health isn’t at it’s best. Which brings me to...

Maintaining good mental health

Everyone has a mental health that needs taking care of. The alarming proportion of us with poor mental health won’t necessarily develop a severe mental illness (though it does put us at a higher risk), but a poor psychological state still drags heavily on daily life. We need to actively maintain our mental health, in these three ways:

1) Physical

We often talk about our minds separately to our bodies, but your brain is as much an organ as your kidneys are, and your physical and mental health are tied together. You need to sleep enough, exercise, eat well, and get a chair and desk situation that doesn’t suck. Not just for your back, but for your focus, productivity, and mental health.

2) Social

Taking time for your social life can feel indulgent when you’ve got a million things to do at work. But if you think of your motivation as an engine, keeping up your social life is part of the  upkeep. Productive people aren’t automatically happy, but happy people are much more likely to be productive.

Stop expecting life satisfaction to come from success. Cultivate satisfaction directly, and you'll reap the benefits in your professional life. This isn't to say you should skive - purposeful work is an important part of life. But without real balance, you'll very quickly find yourself running on empty. Spend quality time with friends and family, connect with your local community, and cultivate healthy working relationships. Volunteering is a particularly effective way to build satisfaction and get involved with your community.

3) Psychological

Going through depression was profoundly useful for me. It forced me to develop useful life skills, especially for helping with motivation. There’s a big difference between productively mulling over a problem, and destructively obsessing over one - what psychologists call ‘rumination’. In a work environment, it’s important to both accept that failure is going to happen, and to use failure as a stepping stone for moving forwards. Fear of future failures prevents action, while dwelling on or hiding from past failures makes you more likely to repeat them.

In order be our most effective selves, we need to put our physical and mental wellness first. Happiness and wellness are not caused by productivity and success. In fact, it’s the opposite - they contribute. We often think about motivation as a problem to be solved. I see it as a product of a healthy life. My motivation life-hack is maintaining my mental health, and feeding my brain good fuel for motivation.