How to manage when your motivation is at an all-time low

It’s common for motivation – and even interest – to drop once the start-up honeymoon has waned, particularly when you experience your first encounter with adversity.

Earlier this year, Charlotte Morley, the founder of thelittleloop, a rising star that’s been accelerated by Dragon’s Den investment, posted her vulnerability on LinkedIn: a photo of herself crying and the question, “How often do you admit when life feels shitty?

Her honesty about the challenges of being a founder when you’ve got more pressure than most on your shoulders was lapped up with over 1,500 comments. To sum up, Morley concluded: “Sometimes it’s OK to hit a wall.”

When you’ve got something to prove, a team relying on you, or mounting debts, the burden deepens.

If it were easy, wouldn’t everyone be choosing an entrepreneurial life? 

Some entrepreneurs are seemingly unstoppable. They maintain their drive in spite of every obstacle that gets thrown their way (and there are always obstacles). Some even thrive in times of challenge, diving right out of their comfort zone.

While the old adage “work like you don’t need the money” is a good one, we’ve heard of entrepreneurs who wake up each day pretending that they’re back to square one, with absolutely nothing in their bank account and with everything to fight for. They tap into a fear of scarcity to drive them.

But even the most determined entrepreneurs will at some point struggle with motivation.

Building your own business is a long-term commitment that takes a huge amount of time, effort, will and grit. Along the way, life will deal you hurdles – ill health, family pressures, loss – or you may just simply wake up one morning without your mojo.

It’s simply unrealistic to think you’ll be in the mood to grow your business empire 100% of the time. So what should you do when your drive disappears? 

There’s no one answer to handle motivation. What may work for one person may not work for you. But having a strategy to cope when your motivation has left the station before it happens is fundamental.

Before we look into some tried and tested coping mechanisms, it’s important to address why you’re feeling demotivated.

What is it that’s stopping you? Try to pinpoint the emotions you’re feeling. More often than not, it’s a specific incident – or several stresses in one – that has pulled you down.

Take time to understand what motivates you. Find out more with our quiz to find out if you’re extrinsically or intrinsically motivated.

Your business does not define YOU

Before you forget, let us remind you of this one important truth: You are not your business. 

Don’t be tempted to get all your happiness and self-worth from how successful your business is, or how much money you do or don’t have in your bank.

Your business is not just about you. Knowing that your employees, customers and investors rely on you can be a motivating factor in itself.

Establish accountability

This won’t work for everyone, but by sharing your intentions with trusted, supportive friends and family, you have a higher chance of motivating yourself when things get tough.

That’s because:

1. You have a support network to cheer you on

2. Once you have put your vision out there it’s a powerful motivator to follow through what you’ve committed to.

3. We’re social creatures who like to prove ourselves.

If you don’t feel comfortable sharing with others, still write your goals down and keep them somewhere visible.

Enjoy the ride

As American comedian Bill Hicks famously said, “It’s just a ride.” So, why not enjoy it? Business shouldn’t always feel like a challenge. Have some fun with it.

A philosophy of fun will allow you to feel curious and in turn take risks more easily (“I wonder what will happen if I do this”).

Think of business like you’re playing a video game – what tactics do you need to employ, or what boosters do you need to purchase to unlock the next level? 

Turn your small goals into competitions and countdowns that you and your team can get excited about.

There is no one way to run a business, so don’t be afraid to say or do things differently. It’s often those who stand out that shine.

Naturally, being a founder can be hard, and you may need to spend your energy doing activities that don’t particularly interest you or aren’t your strong point.

You have two choices here:

  1. Accept that you will do them with grace and get better, or
  2. Delegate to someone willing to do them. You don’t always need to put your energy into all the important, necessary stuff.

Being your own boss allows you to choose how you’re going to spend your time – whether that’s designing, posting on social media, or writing content on the company’s website. If it helps you stay interested and motivated, it’s worth the time.

Read, watch, and hear inspiring content

The best way to find your motivation? From within.

Self motivation is fundamental, as there’s no life coach or business mentor on the planet who is available to you 24/7, 365 days of the year.

Surround yourself with motivating words to develop a positive, can-do attitude.

Read the biographies of founders with successful companies, which will help with perspective. You’ll quickly realise the challenges you’re facing often pale in comparison.

Watch videos or listen to podcasts that focus on success. You can even create a music playlist to get you in the can-do mood!

Lean into learning to motivate you. Feed your mind with relevant business or industry-specific conferences, seminars and workshops. 

You can also create a scrapbox or box of all your successes, milestones, moments of celebration and recognition, such as an email or card from customers and friends that applaud you.

Consider your workspace environment. Does that take you closer or away from these goals? What changes can you make in it to help you? A cluttered space can be both distracting and spirit-sucking. If you need to hire a cleaner, or arrange things differently, do so.

Ask for feedback

Feedback is a great way to help you stay on course as you can quickly grasp how much of an impact you’re having on people. Don’t be shy – ask for it, whether that’s from your suppliers, clients, team, or even your spouse – and be ready to hear and feel it.

While positive feedback provides a great kick and and highlight when you’re on track, negative reviews can also spur you on to do better, and you can gain valuable insights into what improvements need to be made.

Keep your purpose close

Most start-ups begin with passion. When you’re slogging away, it’s easy to forget what you’re doing it all for. Keep this fire fuelled by reminding yourself on a regular basis.

Why do you want this life and this success? Why are you willing to make sacrifices? Usually this purpose is bigger than yourself.

Is it to solve a problem? Create a better life for yourself and your family? Get financial freedom? Help change the world? Be your own boss? Set your own schedule?

Have your purpose written somewhere you can constantly see it, and consider making it the first thing you read when you begin your day as this will help ground you.

You can keep it simple: a one-liner vision that defines why you are doing what you do and what you want to achieve. Or you could have a list of why you want to be an entrepreneur and all your goals along the way.

Every purpose needs specific, actionable goals to get there, so make sure these are written down and visible too. These don’t always need to be business goals – life goals are important too: “getting enough money to buy a home” or “spending more time with my family”.

Focusing your mind on the “how” will re-energise and help you overcome fatigue or boredom.

When connecting with goals, don’t be afraid to daydream and imagine what it will be like once you’ve obtained it, and how you’ll feel. Visualise the heck out of it if you need to.

Purpose should stay constant, but goals can – and should – be flexible to take into account circumstances. As Ross from Friends would say, you need to “pivot, pivot, pivot”!

Establish a daily routine that speaks to you

Find your groove.

Despite what appearances (of captivity ahem), a daily routine or schedule will really help you maintain motivation.

Developing a schedule allows habits to form that will help you stay disciplined and on track even on days when you don’t have much motivation. Plus, it allows you to create pockets of time for high productivity and self-care so that you don’t reach burnout.

If you find it hard to carve out time for yourself once your day has begun, then consider getting up 30 minutes earlier to ensure you have that all-important time for yourself, where you can sit and plan your day.

Checklists of tasks are a great motivator, thanks to the sense of accomplishment you get when you tick them off your list. Unfinished tasks are….

Exactly….they are irritating.

If you choose to use checklists, use them smartly. Set boundaries around your own expectations of yourself. 

Motivation is often caused by feeling overwhelmed because you’re doing too much. Write down everything you’re doing or trying to do and identify what serves you and what doesn’t in that moment. Prioritise. Is it urgent but not important? Then let it go.

While planning your day, consider what will have the biggest impact and benefit your big picture vision. What success looks like will vary from day to day.

Author Leo Babauta, author of The Power of Less and Zen Habits suggests you should choose just three achievable things on your To Do list each day, and switch off all distractions until you complete those three things. Find a time of day when you can be uninterrupted and when you’re feeling at your most productive.

Some entrepreneurs find breaking up days into sections will help. You’re not Elon Musk, so five minute blocks may be overkill, but two hour blocks might work for you. 

Build in time for strategic thinking or clearing your inbox, and includes distinctly separate time for family, leisure, relaxation, exercise, and sit-down mealtimes.

Use your calendar to help you. If you find it helps, let technology support your workflow, whether that’s with task management or smart email software.

Don’t be afraid to make tweaks to your schedule until it’s right for you, but once it feels right, try to stick to it and stay consistent.

While it’s good to schedule in breaks, sometimes an unscheduled break – even just for 10 minutes, can work wonders in clearing your head when you have lost focus or are struggling with a task.

If you find yourself particularly wound up, watch a comedy, meditate, arrange for a massage, but do make sure you relax!

Try to get up and go to bed at the same time if you can, including weekends, as this will aid in developing your signals for sleep – and establish a calming bedtime routine.

Create your own rewards system

Plan your day, week, and your year.

Effort doesn’t reap immediate rewards. The progress you put in today may not serve you until a few years down the line, and it’s unrealistic to think you’ll feel constantly positive and revved up while you patiently wait.

So instead, build incentives into your goals today. You don’t need large rewards, small ones related to the size of the task will work fine.

  • Finished that pitch? Go get a coffee.
  • Completed a big project? Get a massage or have a bath?
  • Secured some investment? Have a day at the beach.

Research shows that when we receive a reward, we get a feel-good factor in our brain, even if it’s from ourselves! This kick will encourage you to repeat the action.

Find your faith

When we mention faith, we don’t mean in the religious sense. We mean there are times when the chips are down that all you can do is believe.

Believe that things will get better, and believe in yourself.

Here’s a fact. Many small businesses that have hit rock bottom often get their big break not long after. What does that tell you? Don’t give up too easily.

Peer-reviewed studies show that a positive mindset is not only good for increasing happiness, it also reduces anxiety and is good for the immune system. In turn, this can breed success.

Add positive affirmations into your day, so you can be your own champion:

“I can do this”

“I’m great”

“I’ve got this”

Whether you choose to do this in front of the mirror or in a power pose, it’s entirely up to you!

There’s one more thing you can do. Adopt a growth mindset by reminding yourself of where you are today compared to where you started, and what you’ve learnt along the way. Practising gratitude is strongly connected with happiness and a positive mindset.

Another thing about faith is acceptance – you cannot fix everything, sometimes you have to stop at Crappyville for a while, because it’s part of the journey. 

Don’t dwell on what has been, or bad decisions you have made.

As Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) shows us, how you respond to an uncontrollable situation is often more important than the situation itself.  Listen to the voice in your head that tells you everything happens for a reason, it’s all going to work out, and that the slog is worth it. It’s a good voice.

In the hardest of times, remember this too shall pass.

Don’t feel lonely

It’s fundamental to protect your social wellbeing.

It can be especially hard to stay motivated if your friends or family are on a different path – they may want you to join them in partying all the time, which is at odds with your need to head to the office early or take that evening client call.

Surround yourself with the right people. Find your tribe and stay connected to them, both inside and outside of your business bubble.

People you can share your woes with when you’re down. Join and share within your local business network, chat to your personal trainer, or hairdresser. Whoever you can confide in or feel comfortable sharing with, do.

Life is for living, and as social creatures we need that connection. 

Hire a team who believe in your vision and love what they do for extra motivation.

Take a break

All work and no play makes Jack not only a dull boy. It makes him cranky, demotivated and even a little potty.

Entrepreneurs are portrayed on screen and on social media as sleep deprived go-getters that work around the clock. Not only is this portrayal inaccurate, it’s unsustainable.

To take a break does not mean two weeks in the sun only to come back to more of the same plate-juggling, hamster-wheeling madness. It means to build time into your life so that you are constantly taking breaks.

Find activities that inspire your creative energy. You don’t need to be Picasso, but picking up a paintbrush can be joyful.

When you take time out, make sure you’re fully switched off. Step away from your smartphone and notifications and embrace hobbies that aren’t connected to your business world, whether that’s chilling with your family, cooking, playing a musical instrument, tinkering in the garden shed or stamp collecting. Your phone has Do Not Disturb functions for a reason. Use them.

Make sure you take time each day to breathe in fresh air and natural light. Exercise, even just a daily 20 minute walk around the block, will help you gain perspective.

Many entrepreneurs use regular exercise to spur on productivity and ambition, whether that’s a rigorous workout out at the gym, cycling, hiking, swimming, scuba diving, or a yoga class.

Most people wait until they retire to live their dream life – whether that’s travel or enjoying hobbies. Entrepreneurs embrace life now.

Self-care is crucial. Take care of yourself by establishing boundaries around your time. There’s power in clear communication, the word ‘no’, and setting realistic timeframes for every project.

The weeks where you feel like you have no time to take time out, are exactly the weeks where you need to. Work smart, not hard.

Stop procrastinating

Of course you know all this already, so what’s stopping you? The biggest obstacle to motivation: Getting started –  especially with tasks that you don’t enjoy or are time-consuming.

You know that once you get going, it’s never that bad.

Splice up what you need to do into bite-sized chunks of time. Start with just 15 minutes, and see how you get on. Good luck!

For more advice and support, why not join our completely free community, Founders Hub. Talk with like-minded people and see other people stay motivated.