We've all been there: the to do list is staring you in the face but you just keep [checking social media/browsing YouTube/doing literally anything else] rather than getting started on these very important, maybe even urgent tasks. Just last week a student came to me in tears about her lack of motivation. She is nearing graduation and finding it increasingly difficult to muster the energy she needs to do even the simplest coursework tasks.
There are lots of reasons why this can happen, of course. If you're thinking it's a lack of motivation that's keeping you from your goals, consider the following: when you say you're unmotivated, what exactly do you mean?
In the literature, motivation is not just one thing that we have a little or a lot of. Instead, it's multifaceted. These facets reflect the different reasons we do things, and that's a good working definition of motivation in general: reasons for engaging in goal-directed behavior (Schunk, Meece, & Pintrich, 2014). So when I have a lot of motivation for writing today, that means I have compelling, energizing reasons that get me going on that writing.
Different theories of motivation focus on different facets. One I like, expectancy-value theory (Eccles et al., 1983), focuses on two broad categories of motivation that are essential for reaching our goals: expectancy for success and value for the task. To be motivated, I need to have good answers to two questions:
"Can I do this?" and "Why do I want to do this?" (Linnenbrink-Garcia, Patall, & Pekrun, 2016).
In my own research, I find that even small shifts in these motivations can have important consequences for grades, major choices, and even career outcomes.
So next time you feel unmotivated, a first step toward getting motivated might be to ask yourself which you're lacking: feelings of competence and the support you need to succeed, reasons to feel like the task is valuable, or both?
Eccles, J. S., Adler, T. F., Futterman, R., Goff, S. B., Kaczala, C. M., Meece, J., & Midgley, C. (1983). Expectancies, values, and academic behavior. In J. T. Spence (Ed.), Achievement and achievement motivation (pp. 75–146). San Francisco, CA: Freeman.
Linnenbrink-Garcia, L., Patall, E. A., & Pekrun, R. (2016). Adaptive motivation and emotion in education: Research and principles for instructional design. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3, 228-236. doi:10.1177/2372732216644450
Robinson, K. A., Lee, Y. K., Bovee, E. A., Perez, T., Walton, S. P., Briedis, D., & Linnenbrink-Garcia, L. (2019). Motivation in transition: Development and roles of expectancy, task values, and costs in early college engineering. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(6), 1081.
Robinson, K. A., Perez, T., Nuttall, A. K., Roseth, C. J., & Linnenbrink-Garcia, L. (2018). From science student to scientist: Predictors and outcomes of heterogeneous science identity trajectories in college. Developmental psychology, 54(10), 1977.
Schunk, D. H., Meece, J. L., & Pintrich, P. R. (2014). Motivation in education: Theory, research, and applications (4th ed., Ch. 1). Boston, MA: Pearson.