Where’d My ‘Get-Up-And-Go’ Go?
By Rebecca S. Blakeman, PhD
My father was a journalist and writer, with a life-long love of words. One of his favorite words was “spizzerinctum,” which he defined as one’s “get-up-and-go.” A search of various online dictionaries indicates it is a challenging word to define, but is generally considered as being related to determination, motivation, a will to succeed, passion, and an eagerness to pursue an interest or goal. So I’ll ask you a common question from my childhood, “How’s your spizzerinctum?”*
At the start of the COVID crisis, many of us naively thought that we might be home for a couple of weeks, maybe a month, and then life would get back to ‘normal.’ With what we thought would be a relatively short, time-limited shutdown ahead of us many responded by making great plans for productivity and taking advantage of the ‘free time.’ Perhaps there was a goal to exercise every day, to cook and eat only healthy meals, to paint the bedrooms that have been so desperately needing it, to start a garden, to organise all the closets, to write a book…the possibilities, and the goals, were endless. Many of us may have started out quite successfully in pursuing our goals in the initial weeks (though some of us noticed right away that our desire for the end goal was not matched by our desire to do the work). However, as COVID-19 continues to spread, and our shutdowns extend further and further into the 2020 calendar, you might have noticed a change in your “spizzerinctum.” Your ‘get-up-and-go’ might have got-up-and went. Here are some tips for understanding why motivation may be waning, and how to maintain a reasonable, realistic level of motivation.
There are several factors that can contribute to our loss of motivation as the COVID-19 crisis lingers on. First and foremost, it is extremely difficult to maintain high levels of motivation for prolonged periods of time under any circumstances. The marathon runner begins training with extremely high levels of motivation related to training and nutrition…but because it takes months to prepare for a marathon, it is not possible to maintain the enthusiasm and motivation experienced at the start of training. Surely many of us have started Monday very enthusiastic about a new diet, only to find by Friday evening it’s not so exciting any more. Motivation is like any other emotion; it will wax and wane and will not always be present. Sometimes this fluctuation in motivation may pose no problems (e.g., inconsistent motivation for pursuing recreational interests like hiking or creating art creates no significant burden), while at other times it may create challenges because we cannot simply avoid the activity without considerable negative consequences (e.g., home repairs may need to be completed for a house before it goes on the market or the value will be lower).
Another factor that can contribute to lower motivation as shutdowns extend is that it is not possible to see into the future in order to know when the end is in sight. The marathon runner knows at the start of training when the last day of training will be because it’s time-limited; likewise, during the actual marathon, the runner knows how far away the finish line is, and that each step gets them closer to the end. While it is true that each day gets us closer to the end of the COVID-19 crisis, the fact that we do not know whether to mentally prepare ourselves for coping with weeks or months of shutdown makes it more difficult to regulate our motivation. Not knowing when the crisis will end also makes it virtually impossible to plan for our future, because we simply do not know what to expect. Will my son have a graduation ceremony in July? Will he move into a college dorm in August? It is impossible to know, and therefore impossible to plan; this can leave us with a sense of helplessness, which is the antithesis of motivation. Being motivated when we cannot see the end in sight or make plans for the future is extremely challenging.
So sequestration is lasting much longer than we anticipated, we have no way of knowing when it will end, and much of it is out of our control…you may be wondering how on earth anyone can stay motivated in the face of all this. But there are steps you can take to improve or maintain your motivation.
Be realistic with your expectations. There is a saying that declares “expectation is the root of all disappointment;” there is much truth to this. If we set our goals and expectations unrealistically high, we are certain to be left disappointed in the end. This does not mean that we should avoid setting goals or making plans towards goals; rather, it means we should be careful not to set the bar for success too high. Making a goal of “improving organisation in the home” or “finding clothing to donate to charity” is probably much more realistically than a goal to “clean out every closet in the house” during sequestration. Perhaps you will ultimately clean out every closet, but by focusing on the intent of the goal (better organisation, giving items to charity) rather than perfection (every closet organised and cleaned out), you will be more likely to succeed at your goal, as any step towards better organisation means you have improved organisation, and donating clothes from even one closet means you have met the goal. Likewise, setting a goal to “have more healthy meals each week” or “eat vegetables more days each week” is likely more realistic than planning an entire overhaul of your cooking and eating habits. For large goals, focus on the intent behind the goal (e.g., better organisation, more physically fit, healthier) and avoid setting yourself up for failure with exceedingly high expectations for perfection. Feeling a sense of failure will zap your motivation, while experiencing success is likely to fuel motivation for the next endeavour, so set your goals for success.
Plan for the long haul and pace yourself. As we have learned, sequestration has lasted much longer than most of us anticipated in the beginning. We still do not know when it will end, so it is best to think like a marathon runner, rather than a sprinter. Focus on small, steady steps towards a goal, rather than a rush to the finish line. It may be helpful, and easier to maintain motivation, if you plan to work in smaller segments of time, rather than planning to spend an entire day working on a project. Likewise, it may be easier to maintain motivation by focusing on smaller segments of larger projects, rather than aiming for all portions of the large project to be completed. Again, setting the goal too high is more likely to result in disappointment and not reaching that goal; pace yourself and aim for smaller successes that will ultimately lead to larger success.
Go with the ebb and flow…to a degree. There will be days when the motivation simply is not there. It’s ok to give yourself permission to have a day when you spend less time working on a goal or project…or even to take the entire day off. Commit to exercising for 10 minutes, but give yourself permission to quit after that if you ‘aren’t feeling it’ (with exercise this often results in feeling better once you’ve started and continuing the workout, though it is ok to quit if you still aren’t feeling into it after 10 minutes). Decide that you will set aside one weekend day as a complete rest/relaxation day. At times, trying to push ourselves through low motivation can backfire, zapping our motivation even more. Take time to reflect on whether you have been pushing too hard towards a goal. Have you worked days on end without a break? Have you been working to exhaustion? Have you been neglecting relaxation or opportunities for fun because you have been devoting your time to your goal/project? Never taking a break, and neglecting opportunities for relaxation and fun, is likely to result in depleting your motivation. Take a break occasionally!
Be mindful to limit your ‘down time.’ Remember, go with the flow to a degree. Just as overworking can zap our motivation, so can too much avoidance. There are also some tasks that must be done, whether motivation is there are not, so it is important to be mindful of how much down time you are taking. For mandatory tasks, it may be helpful to break your work segments into manageable chunks, and commit to following a schedule in accomplishing those ‘chunks.’ Select an amount of time to work that does not seem overwhelming and set a timer, so that you take a break after that time period; allow yourself a break (shorter than your work time) and set the alarm to know when to begin working again. It might also be helpful to divide work segments into amount of work completed, rather than by arbitrary time on the clock. Identify the steps to your project that need to be completed, and select a number of steps to be completed before taking a break; it will be important that the steps selected not seem overwhelming, and that the length of the break be predetermined.
In going with the ebb and flow, be deliberate. Decide in advance how much down time you are going to take, and how you are going to take it. Allow yourself to sleep in, but for only one day, and only to a given hour (not the entire day in bed). If you are going to skip cooking a healthy meal, decide in advance that you will give yourself one day of eating your favourite, albeit less healthy foods, and then return to your healthier cooking habits. Designate one day a week as pajama day, but dress on all the other days. Decide in advance that you will take two days off from exercising but commit to exercising again on the third day. As you navigate the ebb and flow of motivation, be aware of signs that your lack of motivation may be crossing a line into depression…are you over or under sleeping? Are you not getting out of bed? Are you not eating, or mindlessly overeating? Are you not keeping up with hygiene? Are you not getting dressed? Are you avoiding social interactions (even if via phone or computer)? Are you becoming more irritable in your interactions? Take note of the behaviours that, for you, indicate you are not mentally or emotionally in a good place, and begin to fight against those tendencies; seek professional counselling via telehealth if you are finding it difficult to do this on your own.
Take stock of your accomplishments. Sometimes when we are working towards lofty goals we become over focused on how far we still need to go to reach the finish line, losing sight of how far we have already come and how much we have already accomplished. When motivation feels low, take time to identify the things you have actually accomplished, even if they seem small (there are days when I write ‘Make a To Do List’ on my To Do List, just to make sure I get to mark something off right away). Without our small successes we will never have our large successes, so give yourself credit for the things you have already accomplished.
Remember this is temporary. It is true that we do not know how long we will be dealing with COVID, and how long our activities will be limited. But we do know that, as with all things, this is a temporary situation. So when things get hard, and motivation seems low, review the suggestions in this article and decide which one fits your situation best at that moment, be deliberate in choosing your approach, and remind yourself that things we not always be the way they currently are.
*This was only common in my household and is not a commonly used American word