apathy

How to Overcome Apathy (If You Can Be Bothered…)

I write a lot about productivity. But productivity only matters if you have a reason to be productive. If you don’t have the motivation, then waking up early, setting up to-do lists and changing habits seems silly. When you feel apathetic, you might have a lot of extra time, and still end up procrastinating.

Recently, a reader asked me what to do about this problem. He wasn’t depressed, he was just bored. There was no motivation to do anything more than the bare minimum.

Apathy is a common problem. I’ve had certainly had motivational dry spells. While I don’t think there is an instant cure to this problem, I’ve noticed that apathy is usually caused by one of two problems:

  1. You don’t have any goals.
  2. You’re working on the wrong goals

Setting Goals to Combat Apathy

Apathy sets in when you forget what you want. Finding motivation needs to start by focusing on your desires. Not the goals other people have pushed on you. Not the goals you think are reasonable or practical. Not the goals you feel you should have. But the goals that fill you with enthusiasm.

If I find myself starting to slip into apathy, I try to reconnect with what I want. I get out a piece of paper and write out all the things I’d like to do, be or accomplish. These can be little goals or huge, unrealistic dreams that might never be finished. The point of this exercise isn’t to be reasonable. It’s to focus you back on the things that drive you.

If you write down ideas on a piece of paper, but you don’t feel inspired, you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes it takes a few minutes of writing out mild interests before you break into your true desires.

When you’re finished the brainstorm, you might not have a lot of usable ideas. Many of your dreams might seem completely out of reach or highly improbable. That’s okay. But at least you have a starting point. You now have a roadmap of the things that fill you with motivation.

Usually, at this point, it’s a good idea to pick one or two of the idea you’ve written down and set a goal around it. The next step is to write it down, make a plan and set a deadline. Those last steps are helpful, but they aren’t as important as having a goal that motivates you. The motivation and working on a goal are far more valuable than actually reaching it.

When You’ve Picked the Wrong Goals

A more common reason to feel apathetic is that you’re focusing on the wrong goal. You’ve committed yourself to a goal that doesn’t motivate you anymore. Sometimes this happens because you’ve changed since you made the initial commitment. You were once inspired by the idea, but now you aren’t. Other times you were never inspired by the goal, but felt like you needed to pursue it in any case.

I was in this exact situation when, fifteen months into a big project, I hit a wall. The project had initially inspired me and I was extremely motivated. But, over time, I gradually lost interest in seeing it completed. I finally hit my breaking point when, in the middle of working, I stopped and never started again.

Economists call this a “sunk cost”. You’ve invested so much of your time and energy into a goal, you feel you need to finish in order to break even. You’re scared that if you quit now, all that energy and time will have been wasted. So you keep driving away at a goal that has lost meaning to you.

This line of reasoning is wrong on two counts. It’s wrong because, even if you don’t finish, your time and energy wasn’t wasted. It’s also wrong because, even if that time was wasted, it’s gone now, and shouldn’t be factored into the current decision.

The Purpose of a Goal is Motivation

The time spent working on a goal isn’t wasted, even if you never reach the goal. This is because the whole point of setting a goal is to connect you with what you desire. Actually finishing the marathon, earning a million dollars or starting your own business are less important.

I have goals that aren’t finished today. I might achieve them in the future. I might not. That doesn’t matter. What really matters is that my goals fill me with enthusiasm right now. Even if I never reach the end, thinking about my goals makes me enthusiastic about life. That’s the point.

So, if you give up on a goal midway, that isn’t a failure. The goal still served it’s purpose. It made you enthusiastic at one time. When it can’t do that anymore, you’re probably better off finding a better goal.

Should You Persist Through Lost Motivation?

Even on inspiring goals, it is still easy to lose motivation from time to time. Temporary failures, a harsh critic or a new project idea can disrupt your motivation. Sometimes it can be hard to decide whether your apathy is just a brief flicker or a sign you need to quit.

My rule of thumb, which works in most cases, is that if trying to motivate yourself results in feeling less motivated, you’ve probably picked the wrong goal. When you try to get enthusiastic but feel even more apathetic, the goal is broken. But if thinking about your goal still makes you excited, you probably just need more patience.

Fighting apathy isn’t easy. There are so many reasons to feel lost and so few reasons to get excited. But if you focus on the few reasons that do get you excited, you might find that there are more than enough to be happy.

Photo: thejbird.

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  • http://richgentlemenhide.com Bitcloud

    Interesting Article,

    You’ll lose interest in around… 100% of all projects. You have to be able to find another motivation factor to drive these to completion.

    This is where the phrase “10% inspiration 90% perspiration” comes from. It’s understanding that leaving your ideas unrealised – just because actually putting them into existence doesn’t offer the same rush as coming up with them – is THE mistake that drives apathy and procrastination…

    Competition is another good motivator. If you surround yourself with people in your field, read material from them, communicate with them through email, conferences or conventions, this helps you see the bigger picture.

  • http://thoughtsintime.co.za Albert (http://thoughtsintime.co.za/)

    Great post. What is the the point of hurrying to a destination that is not clear or interesting? A lot of the productivity blogs miss this point.

    One more thing from my own experience: Often apathy is often a sign of burn-out or fatigue. So have a good night or weekend’s rest before you decide to quit your job and move to Guam!

  • http://thoughtsintime.co.za Albert (http://thoughtsintime.co.za/)

    Oops, one more thing. This post also reminded me of an old Robert Fulghum quote: “That which isn’t worth doing, isn’t worth doing well”.

  • http://www.mysuperchargedlife.com Jeff@My Super-Charged Life

    This is a great article! I’ve dealt with motivation issues from time to time and I think you are right on track here. One key for me is to remember not to make any rash decisions about goals or projects when I’m tired. It is easy to feel apathetic when you are run down. I usually table the matter and sleep on it. Sometimes it helps me to give the whole thing a rest for a few days or over a weekend. Once rested and relaxed, I usually find the energy to regain my motivation and direction.

  • http://www.reachingabetterplace.com Richard (reachingabetterplace.com)

    I find the best way to overcome apathy is to recognise that it makes me feel worse than I do when I’m stuck in with the work of the latest goal – I might resist that work for a while at first but I’ll eventually get into it and feel fine again.

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog Scott Young

    Bitcloud,

    I completely agree, that’s why I needed to include an exception in my conclusion.

    I wish there were an easy answer for when you should persist and when you need to switch, but there isn’t. I tend to lean towards persistence, but there are key moments where it is better to lean the other way.

    Generally it’s a good idea to consult why you started the goal in the first place. If you can still reconnect with that core drive, even if it has been diminished from frustrations, you probably need to keep pushing on.

    Great comments everyone.

    Best,
    -Scott

  • http://stanleybronstein.com MrPositioning.com (Stanley Bronstein)

    Scott:

    You hit the nail on the head when you said productivity only matters if you have a reason to be productive.

    THAT is what we are all looking for in life, a purpose !!!

    I ask the readers of this blog, do you have a personal mission statement? What is your reason for being? We should all be able to some up our reason for being in a few sentences. By knowing who we are and why we are here, we will be able to determine what it is that we need to do and how we should spend our time.

    For example, my personal mission statement says:

    My purpose in life is to help others find their purpose in life, and achieve it !

    One sentence that says it all …

    In my books, I’ve shared many exercises designed to help others figure out their purpose in life.

    Excellent article, I love your topics. Please keep up the good work.

    Stanley F. Bronstein
    Mr. Positioning
    Attorney, CPA, Author & Professional Motivational Speaker

  • Nadine

    I picked this article to read because today I’m feeling apathetic, possibly because I’m low on energy due to a cold, but apathetic none the less. I tried your idea of listing goals/desires, and after I wrote down about the 15th one I felt inspired and got up to work on a small project. So thanks for a great idea!

  • http://www.livewhatyoulove.com/ Peter

    What a great article and as I read through I found the soundest piece of wisdom I could ever hope to find amongst all these thousands of self-help “gurus”: productivity only matters if you have a reason to be productive.

    Everyone needs goals and direction in life and without a dream or something to focus on working towards then we drift around aimlessly, half finishing projects with no real purpose.

    I definitely believe that if it’s not working then there’s something wrong – if you don’t have the motivation to keep you going then you need to look at just what it is you’re trying to achieve.

    I’ve just finished reading a book on a very similar subject. It’s called Live What You Love by Bob and Mel Blanchard. They are two people who one day decided to actually see what it would take to achieve their dreams. They followed a guide that involves Deciding what you want to do, Researching your options, Evaluating your goals, Acting to make your plans a reality and finally Maintaining your dream to make it last. Yes, that all spells D.R.E.A.M which is a bit gimmicky but the book is full of sound advice and well worth a read.

  • http://www.acrista.com Alexandrina

    Really great article! I’m facing some motivation issues recently and I found your thoughts very useful!

    Thanks and keep on going!

  • Amanda

    I found much of your article to be informative and useful. Your advice to list goals was a wonderful idea. I did, however, find that it seems to allow room for people to wiggle out of things that they do not want to do and do not feel motivated to do. If we have a goal that we want to accomplish, there are times that we have to push through the apathy and see our goal to the end. At the moment, I have no motivation. None. I am totally apathetic. I have ignored my housework. The house is a mess. I have not done anything to move forward in life. I have always depended on others to help me out of situations that I have caused through making poor choices. I now realize that I have to find a way to push forward toward the goal of having my children wanting to be around me again. I have allowed myself to fall into a pattern of trying to change things, getting frustrated and going back to square one over and over. Unless I find a way to motivate myself to become independent, I will never gain my girls’ respect. So, while I see your point, I cannot agree that we can always move toward another goal until we see certain goals through. Finding the motivation to do these things is difficult. I should be motivated out of love for my kids. They stay with family most days because of my lack of ability to follow through on things. They do not trust that I will make sure that they have clean clothes or get them up for school on time. I have become so lazy that I do not even know where to begin. I do know that I have to begin to make change and not one idea or motivational thought I can write down will be a bit of use unless it gives me some goal to work towards that will contibute to the main goal. That is the hard part. I’m now so bogged down with things that I do not want to do that I have no clear picture of where to begin. I only recently took responsibility for the fact that, I alone, have caused most of my difficulties in life. I did not have to take the easy way out. I should not have taken the easy way. In the end, that has been the worst mistake I’ve made. Now, at nearly 40, I have to change almost everything about the way I handle life. What your article lacked was a way to move past the apathy and find a way to work towards something that is necessary. It is fine to work towards other goals that make one enthusiastic. It is not good to focus all time and energy on those goals and overlook the ones that we do not the steps we must take, but need to find a way to take them anyway. Perhaps, I missed something when I read the article or am missing the point. I just felt that it could cause others to give up on something that they may later regret. Personal relationships are not always able to be repaired and we lose loved ones at times. By remaining apathetic in regard to what we need to do to repair our personal lives, there might be a time we feel regret, but find it is too late to do anything about it.

    • v

      sounds like adhd

  • Vinnie

    What if nothing at all gets you excited?
    What if you’re so lost in it that nothing interests you at all?

    I have no purpose whatsoever in life. I think that things don’t have an inherent worth, it is people who add worth to things, to activities, to other people. and thus find motivation and a reason to live;

    But I can’t just rationalize my way out like that, and just decide to add worth to my life. It doesn’t work.

    It may sound weird, but I’d rather be overwhelmed with sadness than to just feel nothing at all like this, like a living zombie.

    I’ve been feeling like this for 5 years now…I think, and nothing I’ve read, or heard from someone ever helped me the slightest bit, because I keep hitting dead ends.

    Honestly don’t know what to do…

    • Attrill_megan

      This is what I was about to reply. A patch of ‘blah’ is not the same as having chronic apathy. This article focuses on those who are suffering a temporary down-time or rut. If you can still spell out your purpose in this world and list interests/aspirations – then it’s not a true apathy problem you have.
      It is the difference between feeling blue and having depression.

      Also, procrastination suggests that you have a goal that matters to you that you feel you should be working on to achieve the sensation of accoplishment (fulfillment of a desire). Apathy is not having the desire to even set a goal to begin with, therefore you don’t get the sensation that you’re putting off the steps to achievement.

      This article is started with ‘If you don’t have the motivation, then waking up early, setting up to-do lists and changing habits seems silly’, which is pretty well bang-on. But then the meat of the article is started with ‘Setting Goals to Combat Apathy’…. see the paradox?

    • Attrill_megan

      This is what I was about to reply. A patch of ‘blah’ is not the same as having chronic apathy. This article focuses on those who are suffering a temporary down-time or rut. If you can still spell out your purpose in this world and list interests/aspirations – then it’s not a true apathy problem you have.
      It is the difference between feeling blue and having depression.

      Also, procrastination suggests that you have a goal that matters to you that you feel you should be working on to achieve the sensation of accoplishment (fulfillment of a desire). Apathy is not having the desire to even set a goal to begin with, therefore you don’t get the sensation that you’re putting off the steps to achievement.

      This article is started with ‘If you don’t have the motivation, then waking up early, setting up to-do lists and changing habits seems silly’, which is pretty well bang-on. But then the meat of the article is started with ‘Setting Goals to Combat Apathy’…. see the paradox?

    • The Way I See It

      I don’t really have an answer for you there.

      I suppose it wasn’t even a question directed at me, but I know what you’re talking about. I’m about as inspired as you make yourself sound.

      I’ve spent years in a state of apathy. Yes, I suppose I smile when someone tells a joke, and I am physically capable of being angry…but a real emotion. One that comes from somewhere and means something?

      It’s been a long time since I’ve felt an emotion like that. Honestly, I don’t even remember what deep feelings are like anymore. I know I cried in seventh grade, but I don’t remember what sobbing feels like. It’s been 8 years since I last cried now…I guess I shouldn’t be surprised I don’t remember -.-’

    • dafoota

      It’s sounds as if your concern isn’t so much be apathetic, but rather without goals. Is there anything you like or like to do? I’m sure there has to be something!

      I have noticed that I like doing things that i did not like doing last year, last five years, or last decade. Time Change and we Change!

      I did not like cooking, but seeing how i can show love through it makes me happy = set goals = motivation.

      Finding what makes you happy can in turn help you set goals and be motivated. Usually it deals with helping people. Whatever it is I wish you well! God Bless!

    • privatizedwealth100

      A football player once said when I started feeling like lifting weights and training was a chore was when he knew he was no longer interested or inspired or motivated to play. Thats how Ive felt about life for years now. But have to keep going because of family. Always had problems making friends plus a slight learning disability. I hate the world its like I’m trapped on a roller coaster and can’t get off. No desires anymore always irritable how are you supposed to function with feelings like this??? 27 still live with my parents still no friends or a girl so ready to quit out of this bullshit game but can’t. I don’t live in a third world nation and am not blind or death but omfg it hurts

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  • dasdfghj

    advice…if you wnat an apathetic person to read this..it should be in bullet points with minimum words. im sure its a great article though

    • Poppy

      I get your point dasdfghi as I have had problems with depression and apathy from childhood. I try and try to overcome it by setting goals, etc. but that is so short lived. True apathy leaves you with no desire to do anything. It is crippling and I hate it. My father was the same and so I think it is a genetic problem.My brother is even more apathetic to the point of doing practically nothing but watch t.v year in and year out. It has not responded to meds or TMS therapy.It feels like dragging through molasses to do even the slightest thing like shower or to move from room to room sometimes. Something in my brain is not working correctly.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Megan-Attrill/100001445033016 Megan Attrill

        This is exactly what I experience. Do you also have a problem with anxiety/shame/embarressment  surrounding people perceiving you to be simply lazy or weak-willed?

  • Daniel

    Its not that I don’t have goals, its just that I feel hopeless that I ll accomplish them. I was too apathetic to finish the article BTW. 

  • Climo21

    I just can’t help but think there is an “on ad off” button to apathy, and the most difficult part of it, it is to try and find what is the detonator for each state. I figure if we can find our own personal off button, no matter what part of your life it’s the detonator for our apathy, we can always reset our state of mind to carry on with our lives. At the end, it’s about enjoying the ride and stop over thinking.
     

  • Maria

    What about when you have to finish writing your dissertation and you are on the last stretch? Abandoning it after 4 years of hard work doesn’t seem wise, no matter if the original goal is no longer exciting. There is a quote that says “When you’re tempted to quit, remember why you started in the first place.” That “why” may no longer apply in the enthusiastic naïve way that it did when you lacked experience with the project, but usually there is a reward for finishing it. It may be a different reward but one that can still open doors to other, more exciting projects.  

    • Guestyguest

       Then your dissertation is obviously not in economics.

      The concept of sunk costs is solid.  Lets you’ve spent 4 years on a dissertation and only have 3 months to go.  Take a snapshot of your current moment. Would you spent 3 months to get a PhD?  Most people would say yes, 3 months is worth one PhD.  Some would say no.  But *that* is the decision to make. The 4 years already spent have passed, are gone, and are worthless. You can’t get them back. All you can do is see where you are today, and use that to decide what to do.

      “The past is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why it is called the Present.”

  • Matthew Bunday

    I am currently fighting apathy. Being so disinterested in pretty much everything helped to break up my marriage and it cost me my job. I have gained a good 4 stone just sitting around all day. What I have found helps is to go out for a walk or a run. You will find yourself making every excuse you can think of, but you have to push yourself. Start small and built it up. It works!

  • ApatheticRUs

    I think you all have completely missed the point. What if all of the people surrounding you are apathetic, due to a system problem in the employer’s management chain?