If this past year has taught me anything, it’s how important it is to care for our mental health. While COVID has changed many facets of our lives, one of the positives to come out of the pandemic is our collective willingness to be candid about our mental health and the difficulties that we’ve been facing in our daily lives. By challenging the stigma associated with mental health issues, we can create an open and supportive environment and work together to care for ourselves and others around us.
At UCI, the health and well-being of our students are always our top priority. This is why it’s important for faculty, staff, and other members of the Anteater community to understand the common challenges that students face and how we can help. With this goal in mind, I’m excited to work with the UCI Counseling Center to gain better insight on mental wellness and share their expertise with the larger UCI audience. This way, we can better identify students who may need help and know where to refer them to.
At many points during the pandemic, I found it incredibly difficult to motivate myself. I often found myself staring blankly at my computer screen unable to remember what I was supposed to be doing and struggling to find the focus I needed to carry on with my work. Many of my colleagues also reported feeling listless, unfocused, and sluggish as well.
Unsurprisingly, UCI faculty and staff were not the only ones dealing with lack of motivation—our students were also hitting a wall. Without the structure of in-person classes, work schedules, and other activities, many students found themselves going through their days without set times and deadlines to guide them. To make matters worse, abrupt changes in our students’ personal circumstances paired with everything else going on in the world made it even harder for them to concentrate.
In order to learn more about lack of motivation and what we can do to overcome feelings of listlessness, I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Ylena Shayne. As a Licensed Psychologist, Senior Staff Psychologist at the UCI Counseling Center, and liaison to the UCI Disability Services Center, Dr. Shayne has significant experience with counseling students and providing psychoeducation on mental health topics for students and staff.
For Dr. Shayne, her desire to see people develop into the healthiest version of themselves is what makes her so passionate about her work. As someone who is committed to helping others overcome life’s challenges and achieve positive personal growth, I was excited to sit down with Dr. Shayne and get a better understanding of what causes lack of motivation and how we can combat it.
Vice Provost Dennin: First off, I wanted to thank you for sitting down with me! Today, I want to talk about lack of motivation. I think that when someone expresses that they’re feeling unmotivated, most people automatically assume that this person is being lazy or doesn’t want to put in the work. But I’m sure this isn’t really the case. Could you explain what lack of motivation is in more professional terms?
Dr. Shayne: Of course! So, to understand lack of motivation, it’s important to first understand what motivation is. You can think of motivation as consisting of three components. The first is activation, which is the initiation of behavior. The second component is persistence, the continued progression toward meeting a goal despite obstacles and barriers. Finally, the third component is intensity, which refers to the level of concentration, attention, and drive put forth to achieve a goal.
The source of motivation can be considered intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation arises from inside the individual based upon values, goals, or personal gratification. Extrinsic motivation arises from external factors such as social recognition, monetary gain, or the praise of others.
Lack of motivation is essentially the absence of a reason to engage in activity. These reasons can be internal, like feelings or thoughts that compel you to do a certain activity, or external, such as threats or expectations that drive you to do something. For instance, you’ve talked about anxiety before, and what’s interesting about lack of motivation is that it can occur in the absence of anxiety, which often prompts action, or in the presence of overwhelming anxiety that leads to behavioral debilitation.
Vice Provost Dennin: This might seem obvious, but how might a student know that they are suffering from lack of motivation?
Dr. Shayne: This is actually a really interesting question! We’ve all dealt with feeling unmotivated, but it’s important to recognize when these feelings escalate beyond what an individual might consider normal. For instance, one thing to be aware of is if you find it challenging to complete tasks that you were previously able to complete without significant issues. Barriers to motivation can include the following: looking for quick fixes; all-or-nothing thinking; unrealistic expectations; fixating on “one-size-fits-all” solutions; dwelling on the past; and feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and fear.
The signs of low motivation can differ depending on what’s causing the decrease in motivation as well as various sociocultural identity factors. However, those experiencing low motivation may find it difficult to wake in the morning and start their day and may have little interest in activities that once were pleasurable. They may also have difficulty staying focused or paying attention when attempting to complete tasks, may regularly avoid completion of tasks through distractions like scrolling on social media or playing video games, and may feel guilt or shame for delaying completion of tasks. Individuals who are experiencing decreased motivation may also find that they are withdrawing socially and/or struggling to stay on top of normal responsibilities like attending class or signing in for work.
Vice Provost Dennin: If a student is suffering from ongoing lack of motivation, what are some of the potential impacts of this? Is chronic lack of motivation an indication of more serious mental health problems?
Dr. Shayne: Lack of motivation may lead to impaired academic, employment, social, and relationship functioning. Such impairment can prompt sadness, anxiety, disappointment, frustration, and critical self-judgments of inactivity, and this can lead to a negative reinforcing cycle that prevents action.
While lack of motivation can be a sign of a more serious mental health problem, it’s not an uncommon symptom. This is especially true given that the remote learning environment, physical distancing, and social isolation have created a period of reduced stimulation and interaction that often results in individuals feeling listless and unmotivated. However, if lack of motivation is one of several symptoms someone is experiencing and their low motivation is a marked contrast to their routine functioning and mood, then it may be helpful to consider meeting with a trained professional to discuss further.
Vice Provost Dennin: You mentioned several characteristics of the pandemic that have contributed to increased lack of motivation. In your opinion, what are some of the other reasons why students may be feeling particularly unmotivated as they grapple with the pandemic?
Dr. Shayne: Going back to what I said before, motivation is generated by intrinsic and extrinsic factors, some of which may have been impacted by the pandemic. For example, students may be motivated to study if they are surrounded by others who are engaged in the same activity. The situational factor—others studying—is a visual cue that prompts thoughts and feelings that may motivate the student to engage in similar behaviors. In the absence of this external or extrinsic cue, the student has to rely solely on an internal or intrinsic prompt to study on their own. And, if you’re used to having these external prompts, it can be difficult to generate your own motivation.
Human beings are also very social beings, and social factors can be strong motivators. Physical distancing and decreased social interaction have decreased exposure to social factors that may serve as motivators. Lastly, for many students, the pandemic has forced them to move back home or reside in situations that may not provide the necessary implicit and explicit feedback necessary for motivation.
Vice Provost Dennin: While we are slowly coming out of the pandemic and transitioning back to normal, I know that many students are still dealing with low motivation. What are some tips or strategies for overcoming lack of motivation?
Dr. Shayne: Strategies to build motivation may include adjusting your goals to match your values and the things that matter to you. It can be difficult to motivate yourself to achieve goals that you are not passionate about. So, if you find yourself feeling uninspired or uninterested in the things that you have set out to accomplish, try to reframe these goals so they align with your passions.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by a big project or task, then it can help to break it down into a series of smaller steps or tasks. Seeing the project as a set of smaller, easily achievable goals can help you build up the motivation to work on it. I also like to recommend using the “SMART” strategy for setting goals. In this context, SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time-bound, and these are all characteristics that I encourage students to prioritize when setting good motivational goals.
Another way to overcome low motivation is by recalling your previous accomplishments and strengths. This reminds you that you are capable of getting things done and fosters a positive mindset that makes it easier to self-motivate. Some people may also find it helpful to engage in motivational activities such as making a gratitude list, watching a motivational movie, or reading motivational quotes or stories.
Finally, if you are having trouble finding intrinsic sources of motivation, you can try to find external forms of motivation. For instance, some people may feel more motivated if they are competing against others. Other people might find that they are more motivated when they are around others who are working. Setting up virtual study groups or even just face-timing a friend and working at the same time are great ways to stay motivated.
If you are still looking for help with overcoming lack of motivation, the Counseling Center offers workshops, such as Academic Boot Camp and Surviving to Thriving, that specifically address motivation and provide strategies to address motivational issues in order to promote academic success. We also offer peer coaching through our COACH program, and students can sign up for one-session appointments that can be used to identify strategies to address motivation. We also offer short-term individual and group therapy which can be used to address mental health concerns that may be contributing to low motivation. So, we do offer a lot of support in this area.
Vice Provost Dennin: That’s really great to hear, Dr. Shayne! I know that our students, faculty, and staff all appreciate you sharing your expertise. Thank you for sitting down with me today!
The UCI Counseling Center offers a variety of services and resources for students who may need additional support. All currently enrolled UCI students can access free Counseling Center services. Students can sign up for individual therapy appointments, join group therapy sessions and workshops, and receive referrals for off-campus mental health services on their website here. The Counseling Center also provides online self-help services. To determine which type of service is right for you, students can check this helpful guide here.
The Counseling Center has also compiled a list of mental health resources for students, faculty and staff, and parents and families. Their site also features a large collection of wellness resources covering topics such as managing stress during the pandemic, self-care during quarantine, and much more.
While the health and wellbeing of our students should always be a top priority, I want to remind UCI faculty and staff that their mental health is also important. If you need additional support, please know that UCI has services and resources to help. I encourage you to reach out to your supervisor or explore the UCI Faculty/Staff Support Services website here to learn about your many options. Faculty/Staff Support Services is a free and confidential resource available to all faculty and staff.