Lazy is a Four Letter Word: Compassionate ways to Increase Motivation

It is bad enough to want to accomplish things when we just don’t feel we have the time, energy or motivation. So why make yourself feel even worse by calling yourself lazy. When we accuse ourselves of being lazy, we are blaming and shaming ourselves. And this only serves to further diminish the motivation we do have. I have always had a personal problem with the word lazy, which means unwilling to work or use energy. How do we judge when someone is unwilling, when there is always (and I mean always) a good reason for what we do.

While we all have our inner critics, depression is a common culprit for the internal dialogue that says, “You are lazy, worthless, not producing enough.” The problem with this is that clinical depression can render one physically and emotionally unable to complete everyday tasks. Others often view symptoms of depression as laziness, which only serves to make depressed individuals feel more depressed. It’s a vicious cycle. The negative self talk inherent when we blame ourselves for what we’d like to do, but can’t, is inherently counterproductive. I’d like to help you understand what does help with motivation so you can be more compassionate with yourself next time you “just don’t feel like it”.

Let’s start with the chemical in your brain that actually gives you that jumpstart you need to get things done. You have dopamine to thank for the natural motivation you do have, and the amount of dopamine you have in your brain has a whole lot to do with how much and how hard you work. The neurotransmitter dopamine is already famous for it’s link to the experience of pleasure. It is extremely satisfying and pleasurable to accomplish goals and it feels great when we are energized to take on our daily tasks. No surprise, really, that the brain chemical involved with feeling good is also responsible for motivating us to act.

University of Connecticut professor John Salamone confirmed the link between motivation and dopamine, after years of battling the scientific community that dopamine was more than just a feel good chemical. Fifteen years of Salamone’s research revealed that low levels of dopamine in the brain made people and animals less likely to work for things. In fact, dysfunctions in dopamine levels have also been linked specifically to the lack of motivation experienced in depression. Other studies with soldiers have shown that dopamine is the brain chemical that motivates us to act to avoid something bad from happening; the fight or flight brain chemical. Soldier’s dopamine levels increased considerably when they heard gunfire, causing them to act. Stress creates a huge surge of dopamine to the prefrontal cortex, as do stimulants like coffee, chocolate, sugar, cocaine and amphetamines. If you are naturally low on dopamine, you may rely on stress or stimulants to provide the motivation you need to get things done. We all know that stress, up to a point, increases motivation and productivity. There is a physical reason for this.

Researcher Howard Blum, PhD, in his paper “Reward Deficiency Syndrome,” identified that 35 percent of Americans carry a gene that misprograms the production of dopamine in their brains. In fact, certain classes of antidepressants have been designed to mimic the stimulating activity of catecholamines like dopamine. Julia Ross, M.A. is a mental health professional that uses nutrition to treat mood symptoms like lack of motivation. Instead of drugs like antidepressants, she prescribes the amino acid tyrosine to increase the activity of dopamine in the brain. She makes the point that while things like physical activity and exercise can be great for raising dopamine levels in your brain, if you are naturally very low on dopamine (and other catecholamines) to begin with, forcing yourself to work out will only further exhaust you.   Once catecholamine levels are functioning at a more normal level, it becomes possible to eat healthy and exercise to foster natural energy for other tasks.

In addition to the dopamine-motivation connection, there are countless other theories on why we procrastinate and sometimes just “don’t feel like it”. Carol Dweck’s mindset research is inspiring work on why some of us are more inclined to seem unmotivated. Dweck is the Stanford psychologist who highlighted that praise is the monster depleting today’s children of internal motivation. She found that children who avoid challenge are initially equal in ability to those who seek challenge and show persistence. Praise seems to contribute to something called a “fixed” mindset, where one believes that if they fail, they are a loser. If you are “fixed”, you believe that your ability is a fixed thing that you are either born with or not. This “fixed” mindset leads to avoiding tasks that might lead to failure. But not everyone has this mindset. There are people who relish challenges and think that talent is something you can nourish by doing stuff you’re not good at. Dweck refers to these individuals as having a “growth” mind set. For growth people, challenges are an opportunity to learn and strengthen their talents. The inspiring part is that one can change their mindset from an internal monologue that is judging to one that is growth oriented. You can cultivate a motivating mindset if you can learn to talk back to your inner critic.

*A note for parents who would like to see more motivation and less “laziness” from their children. While children might get lectures about it being important to learn from mistakes, they will not internalize this message unless they are allowed to see and make mistakes-lots of them! Letting your children see your mistakes, your works in progress, will help keep them motivated when they fail, and help to avoid cultivating a “fixed” mindset, that is harsh and critical.

So, as you can see, there are many reasons we might opt to sit on the couch or put off the work assignment of the day. We might feel depressed. Our dopamine levels might be low. Our mindset may be fixed. But sometimes we just need a little incentive to get us motivated. Pavlov and his fellow behaviorists developed many incentive theories on motivation. These suggest that people are motivated to do things based on external rewards, such as money, food, or recognition. While rewards are often most effective for very short-term behaviors, this can be useful at times. My kids have been motivated to eat very green vegetables on more than one occasion when inspired by the promise of* dessert.

I’d be remiss here if I failed to mention that until your basic needs are being met, it’s just too easy to feel unmotivated and “lazy”. One of the most prevalent and powerful theories of motivation is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Anyone who has taken Psychology 101 has heard of this. Look at your needs like a pyramid. At the bottom level are your basic physical and survival needs, such as food, water, air and sleep. These physiological needs must be met to have the energy for higher level needs such as safety, security, love, and friendship. Once you address all of these more basic needs, you can work on self-actualization. This final level of growth involves growing and developing as a person so you can achieve your full individual potential. This seems like common sense, but we often blame ourselves for being lazy and unmotivated when in fact we are just tired, hungry, or forgetting to breathe!

Below are some gentle reminders on how to give yourself that motivational boost when you need it.

7 Ways to Increase Motivation

1. Make sure all of your basic needs are met: If you are hungry, thirsty, tired, in physical or emotional pain, you cannot truly be productive until you attend to those needs. While it is possible to force productivity in the absence of these conditions, one is rarely motivated when their experience is one of deprivation.

2. Set small, incremental goals: Natural ways to boost dopamine production in the prefrontal cortex, where it counts most, are through the positive feedback associated with meeting small, incremental goals. Any coach advocates this method anyways since it makes large goals and tasks feel more achievable and less overwhelming.

3. Develop a “growth” mind set: Remind yourself in any challenging situation that you will nourish your talent by doing things you are not good at. Failing at a challenge does not mean you are a failure. It will make you more interesting and adventurous if you feel you will grow from your mistakes. And you will be kinder to yourself.

4. Treat depression: If you feel like you only lack motivation because you are depressed, or may be depressed, don’t blame yourself for it, get help. See a mental health professional, talk to friends, consider medication, nutritional supplements, and nourish your body. If any of these things feel overwhelming, start small by mentioning how you feel to someone you trust and let them help you to take the first steps.

5. Try nutritherapy: Low calorie and high carbohydrate diets deplete catecholamines like dopamine. High protein foods boost the production of amino acids like tyrosine, an amino acid necessary to producing dopamine. Amino acid supplements are also available at health food stores, like Whole Foods. Increasing consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables also provides the vitamins and minerals that work hand in hand with boosting these healthy brain chemicals.

6. Reward yourself: External rewards can be great for helping to motivate yourself on small, discrete tasks.

7. Stay positive: Affirming your achievements and cultivating a sense of inner optimism will undoubtedly increase your motivation. Sharing your hopes and goals with others who will positively support you will help keep you accountable. And if nothing else, remembering what is at work in your brain that may be holding you back may at least help you go easy on yourself.

About this Contributor: Laney Cline King received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology at the University of California, San Diego and her Masters in Social Work from Columbia University, New York.  She is an LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) with over 10 years of experience helping children and families in a variety of nonprofit settings.  As a certified LEAN nutrition coach, she currently provides workshops to families wanting to lead healthier lifestyles.  At this time, Laney is most involved with the toughest job of her career, raising her three children in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information on Laney’s work, visit

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