The Case of the Missing Motivation

My motivation has dipped and dived over the last few weeks. Recently, it has nearly hit rock-bottom as each day has become more and more laborious, with the comfort of structure and routine no substitute for my exciting, glamorous pre-lockdown life as a globe-trotting professor on the international conference circuit (yes, lockdown is indeed getting to me!) Certain novelties have truly worn off — the constant sourdough, the Zoom catch-ups, the smell of banana bread, the romantic evening walks … and I am left quite simply deflated with an extreme sense of weariness.

Much has been written about motivation with ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory’ perhaps the most well-known. Maslow argued that human needs can be organised into a hierarchy — physiological, safety, social (love and belonging), esteem and self-actualisation, andthat lower-level needs (i.e. food, water, shelter, health, employment) must be satisfied first before human beings can progress to higher-level needs such as self-actualisation (the desire to be the best that you can be). In essence, if you are hungry, you are unlikely to focus on anything beyond sourcing sustenance and certainly not on celebrating your achievements on your LinkedIn profile.

Obviously, Maslow makes sense to a certain extent — we have seen this played out to extreme effect recently with societal behaviours consistent with the basic human need for survival — physiological (panic buying), safety (stay home) etc. Although many remain on the frontline (and we are so grateful for them), lots of us have retreated to our homes, into new virtual workplaces and into claustrophobic, unstimulating environments where we must aim to remain motivated at all times in order to continue to get the job done!

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us(summarised in an excellent 2009 TED Talk ‘The Puzzle of Motivation’), Daniel Pink very much dismisses the idea that incentives, bonuses and rewards (extrinsic motivation) matter in the workplace (and beyond) but instead highlights the importance of intrinsic motivation through the inclusion of three key elements:

· Autonomy (the ability to direct your own life and work).

· Mastery (the urge to get better and better at something that matters).

· Purpose (the calling to be of service in some bigger or deeper way beyond ourselves).

Autonomy is all about having control — what you do, when you do it and who you do it with. Mastery is all about the process — any awards, prizes or successes are far less important than the journey to get there. Purpose is all about connecting to the bigger picture.

So, how does all that help explain my de-motivation in lockdown?

Autonomy (a room of one’s own isn’t all it’s cracked up to be)

I am a classic introvert*. Give me a corner, a book (preferably one with a murder in it) and some noise-cancelling headphones and I am just fine. Contrary to popular opinion, introverts are not quiet, shy people. They’re not insecure or lacking confidence. They’re not even anti-social! They just struggle with over-stimulation and tend to be fairly choosy about where they spend their time and who they spend their time with! Whilst extroverts are re-charged and re-energised by external experiences, introverts seek activities which enable them to withdraw, recharge and process their internal experiences. In the ‘olden days’, for me, occasional working from home meant solid periods away from the hustle, bustle and noise of a University campus, an opportunity to focus my brain and concentrate on producing some quality work. Now working from home means constant background noise (who knew children whispering could be so loud or my husband eating his lunch could almost tip me over the edge) and an increasing sense of isolation. I really miss people. There is no balance of activity versus quiet, no social interaction, no bumping into colleagues on the mall, no quick chats, no ability to just direct my own time and my own experiences.

In essence, all autonomy has departed as without the option to either engage or retreat or to choose an effective working pattern for my working week, I am now just a lonely introvert trying to cope with way too much noise!

Mastery (procrastination is indeed the thief of time)

I am all for continuous learning. After all, I work in a University. That’s what we’re all about. But it’s hard to gain new knowledge and develop new skills when your concentration has disappeared out the window. Procrastination is now my middle name. Instead of relishing all this supposed ‘extra time’ and using the opportunity to tackle my endless pile of books or start that research I was planning, I am instead looking for every opportunity to avoid sitting in one place. I am prone to wandering my house to find parts that no longer ‘look right’! I have found the most amazing ‘missions’ to avoid doing anything concrete — 600 loose photos organised into albums, streamlining out-of-date spice jars, every single crumb removed from my cutlery drawer and daily soil touching to see if my pot plants need watering.

Whilst others have embraced new hobbies, I have no newly discovered talents, no hidden creativity. I am still not a cook, baker or seamstress. That type of mastery is a step too far!

I have, however, knocked almost a minute per mile off my running pace (delighted to be a 9-minute miler) but unfortunately that isn’t really helping with my workload.

Purpose (life is what happens to us while we are making other plans)

I have never lived in the present. Sometimes I enjoy living in the past. But usually, I thrive best by living in the future. I spend weeks future-living my summer holiday (primarily dreading the flight but that’s another story), never really enjoying it while I’m there (too much to process — so if I do find myself admiring a stunning sunset or appreciating an amazing piece of architecture, I usually catch myself on quite quickly). My favourite part of every holiday is getting home, unpacking, digesting the photographs and exclaiming what a wondrous time we had! Purpose for me means making plans, and then anticipating how they might turn out.

These days, I barely need shoes or a handbag, let alone a diary. These days, all plans are made to be broken. It’s kind of hard to see the bigger picture in all that.

I am looking forward to the Stage 3 path out of lockdown, looking forward to some social interaction with my hairdresser. But really primarily, over and above everything else, I am looking forward to the stage where my autonomy, mastery and purpose might return and hopefully along with them, my missing motivation.

*To find out more about the benefits of being an introvert, try Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking although I think she spent too much time and used too many words processing her thoughts so best to skip most of it and just read the chapter on the professor who escapes to the toilet and the conclusion. That’s plenty.

On a career break from higher education, creating action to support women in the workplace and in their lives, mum of four girls @deborahjsloan on Twitter