When stay-at-home orders were issued in New York City back in March, I immediately came up with a list of goals to tackle during my extra free time: "I’ll meditate every day." "I’ll read all the books piled up on my bedside table." "I’ll finally learn how to do a yoga handstand!"
Two months later, the tally of goals I've reached equals... zero. I still have a job (thankfully), but aside from work, I’ve had little energy or desire to do much else. And as the coronavirus pandemic intensified and worsened, I realized that it was okay to give myself a break and not be productive in the midst of all this. As one of the quotes being shared on social media states: “A pandemic isn’t a productivity contest.”
Still, at this point, it's becoming pretty clear our former routines and schedules won’t resume for at least a few more months, especially in New York City. And given that, I do want to actually start working toward some new goals — but I've found my desire alone isn't enough to get me going.
Reasons You're Feeling Stuck
Whatever you want to call it — laziness, lethargy, demotivation — there’s a good reason for it. The mind-bending scale of this global pandemic has taken a toll on us — mentally and physically. All of the scary things you read or hear on the news use up your body’s stress response, explains Cheri Flake, LCSW, a therapist in Atlanta.
Even if your immediate environment is perfectly safe, your body reacts to these so-called “pink flags” as if it might be in danger — all the time, she says. This mental stress can translate to feelings of exhaustion, even if you haven’t been especially physically active. (This also explains why you might be sleeping more than usual right now!)
What’s more: “We’ve never been through something like this before,” says Flake, which means we can’t look back on a past similar experience that we’ve navigated successfully for instructions on how to deal with it. In response, many of us are turn to coping mechanisms that help us feel better in the short term (even if they’re not always in our best interest in the long run).
"Mental stress can translate to feelings of exhaustion."
Our nervous systems tend to respond to stress in two ways, explains Lia Avellino, LCSW, psychotherapist and Director of Head & Heart at THE WELL. One response is ramping up — doing things constantly to keep busy, coming up with chores and tasks, while another is shutting down — endless scrolling, binging on Netflix, zoning out in other ways. “This is just the body's way of letting you know it is experiencing too much and is in ‘survival mode,’” she explains.
Our minds are seeking safety and comfort more than usual — and sameness equals safety as far as our brains are concerned, Flake explains. Say you’ve been sitting around watching Tiger King and eating cake all day. Even if you want to change for the better, the primitive part of your brain is going to keep returning to that status quo, since it feels safe.
The problem? In our ancient ancestors’ lives, this repetition was beneficial for survival. But now, it can sometimes hold us back.
How to Get Motivated
If you’re waiting for motivation before you start working on any new goal or habit, you’re confusing it with inspiration, Flake says. “Motivation doesn’t come before action, it comes after.” Here’s how to get it going:
1 Start small — like, really small.
Break down your goals into bite-sized pieces. “Our nervous systems need to experience success before it feels comfortable taking bigger risks,” Avellino explains. “Think of training for a marathon — you need to be able to run one mile before you feel confident trying to complete five miles, and so on.”
The smaller and more achievable the task, the more opportunity for a sense of triumph, which opens up new pathways in your brain. Say you want to start working out in the morning. Instead of setting your goal to be a full workout, maybe it’s simply to stretch for 10 minutes when you get out of bed. Or, if you want to start reading more, start by reading one page of your book. “Desire follows will, so if we are able to get started we are more likely to pick up momentum,” says Avellino.
2 Stop before you want to.
This sounds contradictory, but you want to stop at the height of your new activity or joy. This helps your brain feel good about your new goal or habit — instead of feeling overwhelmed or bad about not fully completing it, Flake says. Run one mile, rather than three. Meditate for five minutes, instead of 20.
“When you capture the joy of doing something and stop on a high note, before you run into hurt muscles or cramps, you’re going to feel like a champion,” says Flake. This, in turn, creates more motivation to keep going, and going, and going — until you solidify the habit and reach your goal.
3 Schedule it in, and don’t break your promise to yourself.
If you don’t schedule time for it, you won’t do it. “It’s that simple,” Flake says. If you don’t sign up for a yoga class in the morning, you’re going to sleep in. If you don’t put "meditate" on your calendar, you’re going to skip it.
It’s also important to treat your commitments to yourself just like you would treat plans with a friend, insists Flake. If you had to cancel lunch with a friend, you wouldn’t just not show up altogether, would you? No, you’d call ahead and reschedule. Treat your obligations to yourself as non-negotiables — if you can't follow through, move it on your calendar instead of skipping it altogether.
If you don’t schedule time for it, you won’t do it. It’s that simple.
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve started small on two main goals: meditate every day and start exercising in the morning. I scheduled my meditations in advance — a mix of the meditations on the Calm app and THE WELL daily live meditations on Instagram — and I put an 8am workout on my calendar for every weekday. I didn't go crazy, either; I started with 10-minute meditations and taking a walk or doing a 20-minute yoga flow.
Since making these shifts, I’ve stuck to my goals pretty well, only missing a few times. I've even found myself waking up before my alarm and feeling ready to begin the day with exercise, even on weekends! At this rate, I will end up exiting this "pause" with a few new healthy habits. And if it goes on longer, I now know how to kick off a few more.