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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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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