Do You Use “Lack of Motivation” as an Excuse?

"I don't feel motivated"

A common excuse I hear for not setting goals, building mastery or sticking to important habits is the phrase, “I’m just not motivated enough.”

I wonder whether these people believe motivation will simply fall from the sky and strike them. As if sitting and doing nothing was the best way to break a cycle of apathy.

To me, this excuse brings up two important points. First, that motivation is as much a construction as it is an inspiration. You build motivation, it doesn’t just slap you across the face one morning.

Second, that sometimes this excuse is valid. In cases of dead-end motivation, no amount of construction will fix the fact that you hate what you’re doing. The problem is many people confuse temporary boredom or frustration with a dead-end.

Motivation is Built, Not Stumbled Upon

A surprising piece of our own psychology is that, it turns out, our emotions work both ways. That is, we smile because we’re happy, but also to an extent we can make ourselves happier by smiling.

The person steeped in his own apathy is often stuck for the reason of being stuck. If you’re dwelling on your lack of motivation, you’re probably triggering all sorts of habits that simply reinforce that pattern. Waking up by noon, excessive internet surfing, even your posture may be contributing to your apathy.

Ironically, the best way to get motivated is to get the momentum to start working. If you started triggering productive habits, those would cascade to feeling more motivated.

The problem is this forms a catch-22. How do you motivate yourself enough to get started when you’re still excusing yourself from a lack of motivation? How do you break the cycle of apathy?

Why Discipline Needs to Come First

Remember discipline? That thing our grandparents were so good at? Before we were conditioned to think that you needed to love your job and that happiness meant owning two cars and a 4-bedroom house even if you can’t afford it, people used to do things they didn’t like to do. Because they had to.

Okay, so maybe we’re not as lazy I claim, and perhaps my nostalgia for a time I never lived is a little facetious. But it always surprises me that “building more discipline” isn’t the obvious answer to people when they’re stuck in a motivation sinkhole.

Discipline is the productive habits you can start even when you don’t feel motivated. In practice, it should function a lot like a battery in a car: it provides the initial spark to get the whole process moving, afterward momentum will take over.

Take writing this article for example. I wasn’t sure what I would write when I woke up this morning. Writers block certainly isn’t a huge motivator for working. But, I had developed the discipline to give myself at least 20-30 minutes before taking a break.

Sure enough, after ten minutes of brainstorming, I had the idea for this post and started writing. Now that I’ve started, it is a lot easier to continue and I’m motivated to finish.

How Do You Develop Discipline?

I believe most of us are more disciplined than we normally act, provided we phrase the problem in the right way. If you phrase your situation as:

“I don’t have enough motivation to work.”

Then it might not occur to you that the solution is to use discipline and start working even though you don’t feel like it. However, if you phrased the problem as:

“I’m stalled at the moment and I need a push to get started.”

You might decide that you actually have that push in you, but had been sparing it because you didn’t think it would last the entire journey. The car battery doesn’t need to last the entire drive, just enough to spark the ignition.

This won’t work in every case. Procrastination isn’t defeated merely by labeling it that way. That’s why I’m such a fan of building productive habits. When you’ve set up a baseline level of output and organized your tasks to focus a few crucial pieces at a time, a lot of discipline is unnecessary. The internal angst and guilt to get started simply aren’t needed.

What About Chronic Low Motivation?

The idea that you can just kick-start your motivation once and it will run smoothly from that point forward is ridiculous. Productivity is a vehicle that is constantly stalling, needing the disciplined push to get rolling again.

If you suffer from chronic low motivation, there are two ways you can look at it. One, you might hate the particular tasks you need to do at this moment. As a medical student, you might have an inspiring vision to be a world-class surgeon, but absolutely hate your organic chemistry homework.

This, I think is also a case of discipline. If your motivation for the goal is strong enough, it should give you the basis to build the discipline to overcome frequent stalling in a boring patch of work.

The alternative is that you suffer from chronic low motivation and you can’t set any meaningful goals related to the work. In which case, why are you still working there?

If it is out of necessity, then your new goal should be planning your escape route. If it isn’t out of necessity, then you should stop right now. To paraphrase Gary Vaynerchuk, “there is absolutely no reason to be doing shit you hate.”

But I think most people are stuck in the former case. They do have big, interesting goals for their lives, otherwise, why would they have gotten started in that area to begin with? It’s just that those goals lose focus when it breaks down to what they should be doing this very second.

Everyone Lacks Motivation

When someone tells me that they, “lack motivation,” they don’t usually mean that they lack an objective reason for working. They mean they lack a feeling, some internal lust for working that they are supposed to possess.

Most people don’t have that internal lust. And if they do, it’s usually because their discipline and baseline is so strong that they never settle into apathy. Motivation shouldn’t be the excuse for not taking the first step.

  • paurullan

    Looking behind I can say all my «I do not feel motivated» comes from some crushing experience that my insides understands as «you are not good enough». Two weeks ago a professor told me to drop college and join a vocational. Today the same professor said that if we are not in for the money we will lack the ability to perform. These two examples are obviously lacklusters of will and motivation as powerful as failing that exam you worked so hard.
    I still have not decided how to fight this situations but the resolution is clear: refocus, remember why you are there and send to hell anybody that does not support your cause.
    Conclusions? I agreed with you and this great post has helped me to understand that my «lack of motivations» always come from frustration. So the next step should be try to manage frustation!

  • Dano

    Love it Scott.

    This is what I have been trying to say with my own internal thoughts on discipline and self motivation.


  • Paola

    A-ah, one more Wizard Scott’s straight focus.
    […]Motivation shouldn’t be the excuse for not taking the first step[…]
    Then you go searching for motivation, acting “as-if” you were motivated by anything, and the engine works on and on. Yes, this effectively helps. Anyway, when no “starting-click” seems possible – even though you know you can do it! – pale hope appears too feeble to make the struggle less painful. That’s really the time to read this post again, I’ll bookmark it for future hard times. Thanks.

  • Jason

    If you want to implement a new habit in your life (whether it be writing every day or exercising), I find the best thing to do is to set a daily minimum that is REALLY easy to achieve. (e.g. I will write 300 words a day). That is a pathetic goal by many writer’s standards, but because it is so small I do not find this daily goal intimidating at all. It just serves to build the momentum and I might even end up writing 2000 words instead of just 300.

    Sometimes I actually find it best to hold myself back and only hit my minimum to avoid burning out in the long run.

  • Mike

    Can I just say that this is a really nice blog, you have done a great job.

    O.K. not all that long ago I lacked motivation, a sense of purpose, I was a procrastinator, hell let’s just come right out with it… I was down right LAZY!

    I’m a recovering couch potato.

    So what changed?

    I realised I didn’t know when I was going to die. Although the longer I waited the more likely I could hazard an accurate guess.

    Don’t wait as long as I have to realise tomorrow could be your last day to make your mark on the world.

  • Bill W

    Thanks Scott, your message is just what I needed to hear.

    It reminds me of a motivational book I read by Mattress Mack, who has one of the most successful furniture stores in the United States. He stated something to this extent: ” don’t wait for the energy to act, just act and the energy will come.”

  • eee

    do you wear glasses?

  • Jim Greenwood

    Hi Scott, I love your energy in trying to find a specific reason for lack of motivation. Thought provoking. Inspiration and perspiration play a part in motivation. So does having a destination that stimulates purpose and reinforces values. Some would say it’s the decision, that leads to the discipline and that should be the first step. Overall I’ve been motivated to work and create and enjoyed it and I’ve been motivated to relax and enjoyed that as well … Moving forward has many steps. Learning how to combine them perhaps leads to life’s overall satisfaction. Not just focusing on one… Have a great weekend and have fun, Jim

  • Bob

    Maybe lack of motivation comes from watching people in society scramble for achievement and then what. What comes after climbing K2 or making 5 million dollars in 1 year? I had a friend who called me for lunch. When we sat down he was obviously depressed. I asked him why the glum? His answer was, I’m 38 years old, I made $5,000,000 this year, where do I go from here? From “here” he got into cocaine, alcohol and sexual immorality. He is an over achiever, able to set goals and reach them but every time he get to the top he is troubled by the same “why” and “where do I go from here?” I’m guessing the why needs to be answered before you deal with the what or the learning how.

  • Julian Summerhayes

    Hi Scott

    If you want to look for motivation then I recommend that you check out some of the awesome athletes from the world of professional cycling (Lance Armstrong is always a great starting place but George Hincapie is just as awesome). Anyone who can ride for three weeks over the Cols in France (without being assisted by some new drug!) is super-motivated. I have done a few myself and trust me to get yourself up and over those mountains every day requires a super human effort. Love the site. Now firmly bookmarked. I hope things are going well with you.

    Julian Summerhayes

  • AHA

    I have worked a LOT on my motivation over the years and here are some of my thoughts:

    One thing I have found to work is to read up on the psychology of basic human drives/ambitions and try to reduce your goals to that instead of trying to be motivated by a fairly concrete/specific goal. For instance, earning $100k might be redefined as the joy of building skills and experimenting, gaining security, the self-esteem boost you’re likely to get, and the anticipated pleasure/comfort of whatever it is you’re going to buy. The trick is to think emotions instead of concepts/words. Ideally you should get a jolt of good feelings when you think about your goal in this way, not just the typical “yeah, that would be neat to have”. (I suspect that some of this has to do with one’s mental model and brain-chemistry make-up, but this is what works for me at least).

    In the same vein, using Napoleon Hill’s “sexual transmutation” (ie associating your goals with poonanny) can be a very potent (heh) way to hack motivation.

    Try to attack your problem from multiple angles and build up a portfolio of inspiration. Visualisation can help. Tony Robbins believes that we should get emotionally “juiced up” every day in order to keep motivation high, but I’ve found that I do things best by adopting a more negative emotional approach (ie feeling constantly displeased and wanting to fix things ASAP) and plowing through the nitty-gritty day-to-day details robot-style. I do review my goals in an emotional context quite often, though.

    And yes, discipline is very important, although I think setting higher standards and becoming displeased with one’s current state is more important. Goals must be MUSTs, discomfort be damned, not just shoulds.

  • Craig Thomas

    Nice post. Indeed, motivation shouldn’t be an excuse for not taking the first step. Most of my motivation develops after the first step – I’d expect it to be similar for most people. 🙂

  • Buffy

    What an awesome post! Lack of Motivation is something I suffer with and your article helped shed some light on that for me, so Thank You!

    I have been keeping ‘my eye on the prize’ to keep me going, and will now use your advise wisely.

  • Richard | RichardShelmerdine.c

    I was literally thinking “You build motivation, you can’t use it as an excuse” and then your subheading popped up. Excellent brainwave there :). I hate when I use these excuses though and thanks for the reminder to catch myself doing it.

  • Louche

    Your articles are starting to confuse me… I just read an article where you said discipline comes last, after emotions and some other things you listed… then I read this, you say discipline should come first. ?????

  • Louche

    Okay, so here’s my problem… I was super motivated in January and focused and getting all my work done… but then I struggled with perfectionism and couldn’t complete any papers and got so stressed out to the point where I can’t focus on work at all… um… now I just feel really de-motivated and unfocused because I didn’t complete so much of my work… I can’t even focus on what I consider to be my life passion anymore because I still feel like I need to finish this things that are never to be finished… so I don’t much feel like reading anything anymore.

  • Scott Young


    I’m not sure exactly which article you’re referencing so I can’t explain my reasoning perfectly. But I believe the confusion is about motivation vs discipline.

    Motivation should be used before discipline, since it’s more sustainable. However, that doesn’t mean lacking motivation is the end, as I write in this article developing discipline means you should be able to keep at the problem even when your motivation dies out.

    Hope that makes more sense?


  • Matt

    This is a good article. Author John Maxwell talks about this in his book “Failing Forward.” I’d recommend it to anyone wanting further material on this subject.


  • epi

    Actually, I experienced that motivation DOES fall from the sky when I used to take Ritalin. So, sometimes lacking motivation can be a health problem. This article is very old fashioned and lacks deep understanding of psychology.

  • Helstah

    “….I experienced that motivation DOES fall from the sky when I used to take Ritalin”

    I pretty much experienced the same thing when taking Vyvanse (unfortuately, also made me panicky). Sad to think biochemistry may make for an exhausting lifelong struggle to get things done.

  • Sarah

    Thank you. That is the most useful thing I’ve read in a long time.

  • jnonimous

    This article could not have helped me out more. I am actually the person you’re describing saying “I lack motivation” and the whole time
    I read it the more I realized I really cant use that phrase an excuse. Really the truth is just that Im struggling and feel overwhelmed, and i’m exaggerating my thoughts on motivation struggles because i’m just scared for my future. I think that the more I tell myslelf I dont care and cant do something, the less realistic it’ll all be. In fact, right now Im procrastinating my homework while reading and writing in this blog. I just need to get over this idea I have implanted in my head and just get going with things, like everyone else does, despite if thats what they want to do or not. Thank you Ill let you know how Im doing in a couple weeks

  • Trevor

    Great post Scott 🙂

    I stumbled upon this website and can’t agree more with this post. Were not always going to feel like doing things, but sometimes we need to just do it anyways to get ahead.

    – Trevor