We all go through fallow periods when it comes to our work — it's normal that we're not all going at 100 percent every day (that's a recipe for burnout). The truth is, most of us should be taking more breaks, not fewer. But, if you've had some time off and you're still not feeling motivated, or it's been many months since you've gotten anything significant done, it's time for a kick in the pants.
But what's the best way to get motivated? Research has some answers.
1. Get happy by feeling the feelings: First of all don't be so hard on yourself. No, that's not just lip service; I mean it. You're have to move past feeling crummy about yourself because the most productive workers are happy, and you won't be happy if you're constantly beating yourself up about what you aren't getting done. You must find a new, positive space. I'm not going to tell you to just "get happier" or "move on." To achieve those things — to get unstuck — you have to do some uncomfortable work, but trust me, it's effective. You're going to have to deal with your negative feelings. (Crazy? Not so much, says science).
From the book "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking": "… when experimental subjects are told of an unhappy event, but then instructed to try not to feel sad about it, they end up feeling worse than people who are informed of the event, but given no instructions about how to feel." So, deal with feeling crummy, don't repress it. How? Have a good cry (roll around on the floor, sob so hard you have to catch your breath — be totally indulgent for an hour). Or get pissed off! Yell or scream, punch some pillows, kick a (big) tree until your foot hurts. Then write yourself a letter (or speak out loud) about what an unmotivated idiot you've been and how you don't want to do that anymore. Feel the feelings! Then — and only then — you can move on.
2. Choose your friends wisely: Eric Barker interviewed Carlin Flora, author of "Friendfluence," about the importance of friendships to success: She told him, "Research shows over time, you develop the eating habits, health habits and even career aspirations of those around you. If you’re in a group of people who have really high goals for themselves you’ll take on that same sense of seriousness." If you're hanging out with a bunch of people who sit around complaining about never getting anything done, try to find another group of motivated people to balance out your influences.
3. Make a (realistic) to-do list: Lists can be helpful if you use them as a tool — not as a way to get yourself down about all that you haven't done. Writing down what you need to do (and when) can lessen the anxious feelings of "I have so much to do and not enough time to do it!" that will float around in your head and push you towards procrastination. According to research summed up in the book, "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity": "The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.”
You must deal with what needs doing, so get organized. Lists are like creating an attack plan, so think of them that way. If you know a long list will be overwhelming, only make short lists with, say, 10 things on them. And make those 10 things stuff you can do in a day or two (if your to-do list is filled with things that take weeks to do, break it down into manageable bites). And when you accomplish the things on the list, celebrate/reward yourself (see details on that below).
4. Work less, sleep more: According to the New York Times, "... insufficient sleep takes a substantial toll on performance. In a study of nearly 400 employees published last year, researchers found that sleeping too little — defined as less than six hours each night — was one of the best predictors of on-the-job burnout. A recent Harvard study estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity." When basketball players were told to sleep 10 hours one night, their performance improved significantly. Once a week, sleep for nine or 10 hours. The rest of the time, get at least seven to eight. After a week of getting the rest you really need, see how much less stuck you are.
5. Make progress and celebrate it: If you were teaching a dog a trick, or a kid how to spell, it wouldn't be very effective to ignore them or tell them to work faster when they got something right. Treat yourself kindly — and when you do cross that third tough item off your list, take a walk in the sunshine, get your nails done, or make a date with a friend to grab a glass of wine. Rewarding yourself works. Successful people know this, and they use rewards to motivate themselves and their employees.
6. Also, take naps: Naps make you smarter, more productive, and more relaxed. Studies have shown a 20-minute nap (which is about the length you want to aim for; see more details about ideal nap times here), is a more effective way to focus your attention and keep you going than a cup of coffee.