The Number One Reason You Can’t Get Motivated

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If someone is having trouble getting motivated to do something, is it because they don’t want it badly enough?

“You just don’t want it badly enough.”

That’s the accusation frequently leveled at the unsuccessful or unmotivated, and particularly at the unsuccessful and ambitious. It’s as though the sheer power of wanting something is all it takes; the people who succeed are the people who wanted to succeed, and the people who fail, well, they should have wanted it more. If only they’d wanted it more, they’d have what they claim to want — and since they don’t have it, they must not really want it, right?

Does this strike anyone else as terribly reductive? It makes it sound as though there’s a specific criterion of “wanting” that’s both necessary and sufficient to make things happen. Or as though none of us have ever met people who are really successful at something, but just aren’t that emotionally involved with their success, or flat out don’t even care. Never mind the outright lack of compassion inherent in grading someone on their feelings.

But what actually makes the difference? Lots of people have wants and hopes and wishes and dreams. Sure, some of them are just plain lazy; others claim to want something when what they really want is something different. Some will even jump out and grab whatever it is they’re after with both hands. In the middle are a lot of people who aren’t exactly lazy. They know exactly what they want. They’re perfectly capable, perfectly willing, and many of them feel the weight of their wants so heavily that they lie awake at night or think of little else. Yet many of those people also have difficulty getting moving and making their dreams real, even if they’ve done such things successfully in the past. Why?

If there’s something you truly want to do and you’re having trouble getting motivated to do it, it doesn’t mean that you don’t want it badly enough. It means you’re not ready to make it happen.

Here are some reasons that might be the case:

  • You’re not physically ready. This is most commonly reflected in terms of time: you haven’t found, or simply don’t have, the time you need to devote to whatever it is that you want. It’s also possible that you don’t have the physical resources you need, whether they’re external (equipment, space) or internal (your physical conditioning, or state of physical health).
  • You’re not financially ready. Depending on what pursuit you have in mind, this may not apply at all, or it may be an enormous barrier.
  • You’re not mentally ready. You don’t have the knowledge or skills you need to do what you want to do.
  • You’re not emotionally ready. This is the most common barrier. You’re afraid of the consequences and the bad things that might happen. Or you’re afraid of success, and the expectations and knock-on effects therein. Or you haven’t come to terms with the shifts in priorities and self-identity that would come with whatever it is you want to pursue. Or your decision would affect other people, and you’re not ready to address those consequences. Mental, physical, and financial un-readiness can also feed into not being emotionally ready. For most people, the emotional barrier is the single biggest one.

The reasons why you’re not ready may or may not be fixable by simply wanting it. There are many circumstances that could affect how ready you are to take these things on, and some of them aren’t going to be things you can control. But they will all be things that you have to figure out how to address. If you’re not ready, there’s only one person who can make sure you get ready, and that’s you. No one else is responsible for making you ready.

Lest I sound dismissive, I’ll put myself forth as an example. I’ve always loved to write, and I’ve wanted to be a professional writer for as long as I can remember. But I had tremendous emotional barriers of fear and self-doubt, which disillusioned me in my teens and kept me from even thinking about it again until my late twenties. It took until my early thirties to overcome these barriers and decide to go for it — only to find all-new things to get ready for. I was working a demanding job, which left me with little time and energy to write. I also lived in an expensive city, so I didn’t have a lot of room to cut my income by working less. Then, making myself ready to address these problems dredged up new emotional barriers: the heartache of leaving the city I loved, and the dissociation of turning away from a career where I’d invested a lot of time and money, and had the potential to accomplish great things.

In the end, after a lot of hand-wringing and soul-searching, after a lot of equations and spreadsheets, it finally became clear to me that as much as these things were hurting and scaring me, none of them hurt or scared me more than the thought of spending more of my life separated from the word and the page.

It took me thirty-one years to be fully ready to face that fact, and therein find my motivation. It almost certainly could have been less. It definitely should have been less. But at least it wasn’t more.

If you’re not sure you want something, or you don’t know what you want, that’s one thing — and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

But if you do know what you want, and you just can’t seem to make yourself do it, then the next step is to figure out the ways in which you aren’t ready. Very likely, you have at least some emotional work to do. You may or may not also need to get mentally, physically, or financially ready. You may well find that getting yourself ready for one thing only reveals two or three new things to ready yourself for that you hadn’t even thought about. The only way out is through, though — and no one else can do it for you.