When Self-Motivation is a Struggle

What to do When Self-Motivation is a Struggle

Not even a month in, and I find myself wondering why I chose to start a motivational series of blog posts on Mondays. Perhaps I just liked the alliteration of a "Monday Motivation" series (probably).

Today I find myself struggling to find the motivation to write, or do much of anything other than curl up with a good book. If the series' posts came later in the week, I could tackle them earlier through batching. But that doesn't happen with Monday's blogging very often. Or at least not the final drafts.

I had another topic planned for you today. That post did get outlined last week. It would have been a follow-up on using gamification techniques.

But today didn't feel like a gamification kind of day (though you'll get that post in the next week or two).

The thought of going to my office and typing even one more word felt like torture after the past week (when I wrote more than even I could have imagined between blogging, client work, the NaNoWriMo novel, and personal writing).

"Forget this," I thought (though in less polite terms). "I'll put the post up tomorrow."

I pulled my blankets up over my head, browsed through my Kindle e-books, and settled in with a cozy mystery for a couple of hours.

Then the guilt set in.

How can I talk about motivation when I can't even motivate myself to do what needs to be done?

So that's what we're going to talk about today -- self-motivation, and coping with days when you struggle to find it.

Digging Deep to Find Motivation Within

Normally I'm good at motivating myself to do what I need to do. I can psych myself up to do things that scare me, such as with public speaking or interviews. I can motivate myself to work out when I don't want to, or do something else I don't consider "fun" most days without a problem. And I can find the self-motivation to push through writing projects big and small.

I've talked about some of my favorite productivity tips and tools before -- give those a try if you're still finding a system that works for you.

But some days, like today, are a struggle.

On those days, it's not a simple matter of saying "Jenn, this what needs to be done," and then just do it. (Though YAY for to-do lists, because they do make those normal days so much easier. Todoist is basically my brain, digitized.)

And it's not enough to fall back on typical self-motivation techniques like visualizing end results when you meet your goals or using challenges to drive yourself (though there's something to be said for all of that).

No. On those days, it's time to dig deeper.

Here are some things you can do, and some things to keep in mind, when you're struggling to find self-motivation.

Reward Yourself First

I've talked about using rewards systems for motivation here before. But every once in a while, as long as you don't make a habit of it, it can be a good idea to reward yourself before you do what needs to be done.

Sometimes, nothing is going to get your head where it needs to be until you give yourself what you need first. I don't necessarily think rewards like a big bowl of your favorite ice cream are helpful in this case. Save those for after. But think about "rewards" that might help you center yourself and re-focus.

For me, this might be as simple as stepping away from my office for a while in the morning, making a pot of coffee, and sipping it out on my deck as I watch the sunrise from across the valley.


Or when I'm having a particularly rough day, I'll walk away from work for a while and head to my favorite lake. It's basically my "happy place" -- where I can just enjoy nature or be alone in my head when I need to be.

Lake from the evergreen grove

The photo above was taken from beneath one of the evergreen groves by the lakeside. In that grove is a tree I often climb up into. I curl up in that tree for a while with a book or my tablet and I could spend hours just reading and listening to the lapping water and chirping birds.

Lake in the rain

Or sometimes I'll go for a long walk along the lake's edge, like on the day I took this photo during a walk in a cold rain, watching the ducks and geese prepare to head south for the winter.

When I really want to treat myself and disconnect for an entire day, I'll go to Longwood Gardens to wander around the park-like grounds, the gardens, and the conservatory.

Longwood Gardens

Longwood Gardens Tower

Photography in general is very meditative for me, so I'll occasionally take photo day trips or even just go outside at home for a while. I've always been fairly observant, but when I have a camera with me, I tend to focus even more intently on the little things.

For example, the gazebo in one of the photos above from Longwood Gardens is one of the most photographed areas there. And it's beautiful. But my mind focuses on the details too, like the design in the grating above it and how it frames the sky.

Longwood Gardens Gazebo

Or I may stop dead in my tracks in my back yard when I notice the intricacy of a spider's web on my deck railing, and sit there looking at it for quite some time (even sometimes watching a spider spin a new one).

Spider Web

Or one day I was sitting on my deck having coffee and I noticed one of my friendly neighborhood spiders herself. Normally they freak me out, but on this day this particular one fascinated me. I sat there watching her climb around her web for a while, just paying attention to all of the little details on her body, from her rich red belly to the little hairs (or whatever they are) on her legs.


I might step outside, see a particularly ominous sky and just sit there watching it for a while, paying attention to the leaves flying, the sound of the wind in the trees, or the way the breeze feels on my skin while I try to capture it in photos or videos.


There are times I'll be driving (long drives to nowhere are another thing I do for myself when I want alone time to re-focus), and a specific view will just grab me. So I'll pull over, get out of the car, and just spend a bit of time there observing and photographing the area. This is a hill I pass all the time, but it never really caught my attention until the day I felt a need to stop and take it in for a while.


I had just been talking on Twitter about how my area is almost literally nothing but farms and woods. And I suspect that's why it caught my attention then, being a perfect example of that.

Photography is definitely something I do just for myself for the focus and fun of it. It might even be the best example of how I use these sorts of "rewards" as motivation. That's because many of the photos themselves inspire stories later. I even use a lot of them in story setting inspiration posts at my horror author blog, like photos from a recent ghost hunt (so they do double duty by giving me things to blog about).

When I come in from the deck or come home from the lake or a day (or just a few hours) out for photography, I usually feel much better.

Nature has a way of doing that for a lot of people. So reward yourself with some time outdoors if that's your thing.

Think about what you want to accomplish. Or heck, think about nothing at all. Just focus on what you need -- it's OK to put yourself first sometimes.

Think About Others

While sometimes it's best to put yourself first, sometimes self-motivation can also come from knowing others are counting on us. So when you're struggling to find the energy or drive to write, think about who else might be affected if you skip it.

This might be clear-cut, such as a freelance writing client. But don't just think in terms of arbitrary deadlines and not pissing them off by missing one.

Think about the actual benefits they'll reap from your work. They're counting on you for a reason. Make it about genuinely helping them -- not just ticking something off your to-do list.

Another example might be knowing that your writing supports your family. You do it because you want to, but also because you have to. And on days when desire isn't driving you, necessity just might.

In other cases, it's not so obvious. Would anyone have really cared if I didn't post something on the blog today for example? No.

But might someone benefit from this? Yes.

Sometimes that has to be enough.

If you have a friend or colleague who serves as a sort of accountability buddy, they might be counting on you too. If you're there to motivate each other, your success helps them just as seeing them succeed can help you. So on days when you can't be bothered to do it for your own sake, do it for theirs.

Or maybe you've asked your accountability partner to read something before you publish it and give you feedback. (I highly recommend this.) In that case, they've made time in their schedule for you based on when you said you'd finish a draft.

Don't do the work, and you screw with their schedule, not just yours. Do that, and they just might not be there for you the next time you are ready for their help.

Tying self-imposed deadlines to someone else's schedule is one of the ways I push myself through the worst times. I can't bear to be that kind of a burden or annoyance to someone else. So I find a way to get the work done.

Sometimes it's not even about pushing through your own projects for someone else's benefit. Maybe you can find inspiration from them instead.

For example, I'd been planning to overhaul and re-design this site all year. And while I'd finally started making progress, it was slow-going.

But then I was working with another writer in recent months, trying to help him with his business. And seeing him get excited about the changes he was making to his business brought back some of that excitement I used have in mine.

Without that added inspiration, there probably wouldn't have been any changes publicly before next year.

Then, a couple of nights ago, I was up late when a Twitter notification came through on my phone. It was a message from a friend -- a musician and illustrator -- in Scotland who I hadn't talked to in a few months.

He was getting in touch to give me what might be the only good news I've had all year. He's finally going to record some new tracks (I've been pushing him to for what must be 7 or 8 years now, so to say I was downright giddy is the understatement of the century).

This has been a bit of a transition year for me business-wise, trying to decide what's next and what, if anything, I want to leave behind. And there were times, recently, when I thought about leaving some pretty big things behind me. I haven't felt confident all the time in my ability to go back to what made me strongest.

Chatting with him about his music and seeing that he could come back after all of this time and all of the distractions life can throw at you was, in and of itself, inspiring. Things like that are helping me stay committed to the path I chose, to bring back aspects of my business that really helped me gain visibility early on and made me who I am professionally.

So look to others and pull inspiration from them when you can. And share your own successes with friends and colleagues, because you never know when they need to hear those kinds of stories too.

Take a Creative Break

This is similar to taking time for yourself, but not quite. Sometimes when I need a more drastic push, I let myself be inspired by the creative work of others. That might mean going to the theater to see a play. Or it could mean watching a movie. Or it might just mean listening to certain music for a while.

An example of a movie that works well for me is Last Holiday. It's not a particularly good movie in any way. But it's fun. It's amusing. And there's an inspirational message to it. I watch this one every New Year's Eve to put me in the right mindset for the next day. Another one I turn to far more often is my favorite film, Amelie (which I just learned is being adapted to a Broadway musical -- Yay!).

But more often than not, I use music. You might have one particular song that really picks you up. If so, put it on repeat for a while until you're ready to let go of whatever's holding you back and focus on your writing. Or you might set up a playlist for these very days.

That musician friend I mentioned couldn't have gotten in touch at a better time actually. Not only was seeing him move forward with his creative work after all this time motivational in itself, but he exposed me to some new artists.

He likes to push me to listen to Scottish hip-hop every once in a while (which I like, much to my surprise). He gave me a new artist to listen to and sent me a YouTube link for one of their videos.

While I was listening to that track, I caught a glimpse of another artist he'd pointed me to in the past (MOG). The video wasn't labeled as being his, but I recognized the face and decided to check out that video next. It looks like it's a collaborative project he's involved in. This is that video.

I knew what to expect from MOG, but not the guy he's collaborating with. The moment I heard him start to sing, it was like "Woah... who is that?" Every once in a while I hear an artist whose voice or style just resonates with me. His did (though admittedly I have a bit of a weakness for a Scottish boy with a guitar -- so in an otherwise lousy week, that may have been enough).

Anyway, I looked the guy up. His name is Adam Holmes. And he's been around that scene for a while now. Given how much I tend to follow singer-songwriters over there, I'm shocked I hadn't come across his work before.

Holmes is the kind of artist I used to love coming across in my indie music publication days, because you can tell he has raw, natural talent. If you watch his live performances you'll see what I mean. He makes it look so easy. Here's an example:

There were a few of his songs that really hit me though, so I bought them and have been listening to them nearly non-stop for two days now. This one in particular:

And here is the second one I've been playing an awful lot these past couple of days. Lovely, no?

It's actually his sadder songs that have been the most helpful as far as motivation goes. Sometimes you'll want to hear something that just perks you up. And that's fine. But sometimes it's better to listen to (or watch) something that helps you deal with whatever's distracting you from your writing. And sometimes it's best to focus on something you simply connect with on an emotional level, regardless of what those emotions are. Holmes' voice seems to suit that style best, so I think that's why I connect with those more.

So there you go. On those really tough days when self-motivation escapes you, maybe some of these ideas will help. They might not be conventional motivational techniques. But I've been at this a long time -- long enough to know sometimes you need to go beyond the conventional. These things work for me. And I hope they help some of you too.

If nothing else, today showed me exactly why this post series should not only continue, but be a regular Monday fixture.

Mondays can set the tone for the rest of the week ahead. So if there is any day we could all use a bit of a pick-me-up, something to remind us why we do what we do, or even an occasional kick in the ass, it would be Monday.

How do you manage to motivate yourself when you just don't feel like writing, or doing admin, or marketing, or anything else? If you have a technique that works well that isn't mentioned here, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

Subscribe to the All Freelance Writing newsletter to get freelance writing updates from Jenn in your inbox.

10 thoughts on “When Self-Motivation is a Struggle”

  1. Jenn… not sure about the music… I’ll give it a try, but your other suggestions ring true. But what really moves me is your timing… like how did you know that I’m in a real slump! Lol, this one does feel like it was written especially for me. It’s good to know others occasionally feel this way too… not wishing it on you, you understand, but identifying and being grateful I have someone to identify with.

    • It doesn’t have to be the same music that works for me Anne. I just used Holmes as an example (and I love giving great artists a shout-out once in a while where I can). You might before something very different, from energizing dance tracks to classical or jazz (Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong are all fallbacks of mine).

      And I don’t know… it must be something in the air! LOL And I get it. We all go through this sometimes. It’s been rough year in particular for me (and for a lot of folks I know), so I’m with you — it’s nice knowing we’re not alone. 🙂

  2. Jenn, this was so timely. I’ve been in a slump phase for a while now. I keep pushing through, but my heart isn’t really in it. There’ve been a couple of days where I’ve rewarded myself (for doing nothing) by curling up with my book for an hour. It actually helps me get started again. I wonder if there’s a 10-year itch for freelancers? I’m in my 11th year and definitely feeling the urge to shake things up.

    • I know this is terrible of me to say Sharon, but I’m so glad you and Anne are in a similar boat. LOL It really is nice being reminded I’m not alone when these slumps hit.

      Maybe you’re onto something with the 10-year itch thing. Or maybe it’s partly that the industry is changing so much. I wish I knew!

      I suspect it’s a mix for me — boredom like KeriLynn mentioned, just needing a general shake-up to feel excited again but also (for me at least) politics, as odd as that might sound. But I won’t get into politics here now for everyone’s sake. 😉

      If you decide on a big shake-up, I’d love to hear what you’re up to Sharon. 🙂

      • Yes, politics!!!! That’s definitely part of the malaise, though it started before the election results (though perhaps after Brexit, hmm). Still working through what’s next, but I’ll keep you posted, Jenn. 🙂

        • LOL I was trying not to go there. 😉 But yes, after Brexit is when it hit me hard. So many big plans, including ones that would dramatically affect my business, had to be scrapped or postponed because of it. Left me lost for quite some time and it’s made it tough to figure out what I should commit to (though I think I’m on a good track again now).

  3. Great post, beautiful photos 🙂

    For myself, I find that when I’m struggling a LOT to get motivated, it’s usually a sign of burnout or boredom. It means that something big needs to change, and I need to start doing some thinking and introspection to figure out what’s wrong.

    • Thanks KeriLynn. 🙂

      Boredom is a tough one for me. I don’t handle it well. Having a mix of projects helps a lot, but sometimes even that isn’t enough.

      And great point on introspection. That’s so important from time to time, bored or not.

  4. This is a timely post for me because I haven’t been motivated to work on my personal writing projects or even writing for my websites [feeling burned out]. For example, I’m supposed to ‘tweak’ one of my screenplays for my meeting on November 30. I’ve worked on it but not that much. I’m also thinking about scrapping the whole thing. 🙂

    • Geesh. Apparently we’re all in a bit of a slump! LOL Maybe it’s just an end-of-the-year thing. It’s understandable to feel a bit burned out as things are winding down. Don’t quit yet though Amandah! You still have time. 🙂


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