How to Self-Motivate

Question: OK, I’m convinced I’ll start feeling better as soon as I start doing something. In fact, I’ve always known this, and I know exactly what I would do. I would start cleaning up my place, and walking. It’s so simple, except for this: I can’t do it. I just don’t have the motivation to move off the couch. How do I get past this?


Yours is a good description of a common predicament. Depression robs you of motivation. You might also experience fatigue and poor concentration, and it may well be that you seem to have a disabling stream of negative self-talk. Lines of thinking such as “anything I do I screw up anyway” or, “there is no point in anything any more” can take on a logic of their own.

You might consider that even getting out of bed and to the couch can be considered a start, since you could ultimately choose to stay in bed all day if you wanted. So, almost anything you do next is an advance.

Second, it makes sense, in a way, to be very hesitant about what you set yourself up to do, because it is not a time when you want to experience defeat. In some ways it may be better to remain cautiously inactive than to suffer repeated false starts. Make sure your goals are modest enough.

So you should start small, of course, with something you are likely to succeed with, but also you should choose something likely to be as rewarding as possible. You can keep in mind that there are two categories of gratifying activity. One is accomplishment, such as cleaning up a room (or even one surface area). The other category is pleasure. This means anything enjoyable, such as people-watching from a park bench. Some activities, like walking somewhere scenic, cover both categories. Put some thought into which area will give you more bang for the buck.

During and after the activity, remember that depression dampens your perception of the experience. This means that you do not want to take your initial assessment of the experience at face value. Look hard for everything positive you can get from it. An initial thought, “that movie was awfully flat, and getting there was exhausting” might translate to “I see I haven’t lost my knack for panning a bad movie, not that was 100% percent bad, and getting there was an achievement.”

Don’t look for motivation. Remember, motivation is simply too scarce when you’re depressed, so you need other mobilizing forces. Here are ten of them. Together they spell “PRESCRIBER”. Use as many as you can to be your own prescriber of a cure:

P – Plan the activity ahead of time.

R – Reinforce the commitment by writing it down and involving one or two others.

E – Expect considerable difficulty so that you are not caught off guard. Use inevitable failures and setbacks to instruct you in your next effort.

S – Schedule the time to do it and put it in your calendar.

C – Commit yourself. “I will do this” not “I will try”.

R – Rearrange your environment ahead of time. For example, place your walking shoes in front of the coffee pot. Place a reminder note on your TV remote, or a neglected friend’s phone number on the refrigerator.

I – Ignore the negative inner dialogue, which uses funny logic to argue that you should stay on the couch. Recognize that this depression chatter does not reflect what you really value.

B – Build a routine from what you’ve done so that the later repetitions start to become automatic. It is likely that you have already done this with certain activities, like brushing your teeth.

E – Enjoy the hidden rewards. Your perceptions otherwise will not be oriented in this direction.

R – Record your efforts in a brief, simple format: What worked and how well, what did not, what got in the way, and how was your mood before and after. This provides more good reinforcement as well as useful information.

None of the advice makes this easy. Every one of these items deserves (and will get) more discussion, but following any of them to any degree will help you to get momentum. You might choose just one to start with if this is all you can do, as long as this is enough to give you a sense of traction. It is still work, and it requires that you persevere. Keep in mind that while the short-term incentive is a bit of respite from your depression, the long-term aim is rich one: A life with more meaning.

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Tom Linde M.S.W.
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