Finding Motivation When You’re Depressed

One of the most challenging aspects of depression is the profound impact mood has on motivation. Depression often makes tackling even the simplest of tasks seem insurmountable. It can make it tough to go to work or school, keep the house clean, take care of basic hygiene, and even simply get out of bed. However, as the saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Depressed people often tell themselves that they must wait for the energy to return. They think, “If I wait it out, if I give in to the urge to stay in bed and to isolate myself, I’ll find myself recharged and reenergized and the depression will be out of my system so I can get back to living my life.” Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Depression tends to only cultivate more depression if it’s not actively addressed. Catering to one’s depressive urges actually reinforces
them, sucking a person further into depressive moods and behaviors.

While it’s important to try to understand what’s underlying depression, small behavioral changes are an important part of creating motivation. Taking even tiny steps can make substantial changes to one’s experience of their depression. These steps are crucial for reducing symptoms of depression:

1) Opposite Action – Opposite Action refers to forcing yourself to do something you know is good for you, even though it is the opposite of what your instincts are telling you to do. For example, your depression tells you to stay on the couch all day, even though you realize this behavior reinforces your depression. The opposite action would be to get up and go do something, knowing it’s a healthier behavior. Your behaviors create positive changes in your emotions, creating an easier path for additional steps forward.

2) Take Steps, No Matter How Small – Give yourself credit for all progress. Purposely set small goals, and then acknowledge when you have accomplished them. Don’t set yourself up for failure by telling yourself you’re going to do something huge you know you can’t do. Change is often achieved with five minutes here and ten minutes there.

3) Set an Alarm – Set an alarm for anything that relates to symptoms of depression, not just getting up every day. You might set an alarm to remind yourself when to eat meals, when to shower, or when to go out and run an errand. Alarms can be useful as a cue to draw your attention to any target area you want to change.

4) Make Your Bed – Getting out of bed can be tough with depression. So, getting out of bed and making it can help you symbolically leave your troubles behind for the day. Making the bed is an essential part of the process, as it signals to your brain that you can’t get back in bed for the day.

5) Get Clean – Structured steps for routine will be helpful. Washing your face and brushing your teeth can help you wake up in the morning. These steps help signal to your brain that you are getting ready for something, rather than simply a day of doing nothing.

6) Get Out of PJs – Like making the bed, this is an important step for separating sleep time from the rest of the day. This is particularly important given that most of us have been doing work and school from home for the last year. Getting dressed decreases the urge to lounge all day. Again, it cues your brain that you’re getting ready for something other than lying around.

7) Start Moving – Getting your body moving more is an important step in feeling better. Choose whatever exercise works for you and whatever you will be willing to do most regularly.

8) Make a List of Activities You Like – Brainstorm about things you might enjoy doing. Try to include both things you enjoy doing alone and things you like to do with people. As restrictions open up this spring and more of us are vaccinated, we can all find our lists of safe activities expanding.

9) Schedule Activities – Plan a few things and put them on the calendar for specific days and times. Writing things down is important for sticking to the plan.

10) Create a Daily Schedule – This is important if you’re having trouble getting motivated to do even the basic daily activities, like eating and showering. Choose specific times you’re going to do each activity every day, being as specific as needed to make sure the tasks get done. Put these things on a calendar and set alarms, if helpful.

11) Go Outside – Even before the pandemic, one of the obstacles to taking this step was that people are easily held back by not having anywhere to go. Remember that it’s not important to have a particular place to go; the goal is getting out of the house, not where you end up. A walk around the block will work.

12) Spend Time with People – This is more about connection with people than the activity itself. Being around other people is usually helpful for mood improvement. The more you can remove yourself from the environment associated with your depression – usually being isolated at home – the better your chance of overcoming it. And a lot of us are better at follow-through when we are committed to doing things with others. If it feels too hard to be around loved ones, just go to the park and people-watch. It’s a small step toward being less alone.

13) Therapy – It isn’t the desire to stay inside and lie around that causes depression; it is a symptom of it. Psychotherapy is an important step for many people, in order to reduce symptoms and prevent further depressive episodes. Even when you address the motivational issues by pushing yourself to take the behavioral steps above, the deep- seated internal issues at the root of depression may remain. Therapy is often the best place to address those.

You aren’t going to feel like doing anything described above. If you want to wait until you “feel like it,” that may never happen. Using opposite action will be an important first step – knowing intellectually that it will be helpful – despite the instinct not to. Fortunately, small steps forward often lead to a sense of accomplishment and improved mood and motivation. Then momentum makes additional steps forward a little easier.

Paige Fegan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist