What to do

when you feel uninspired at work


We’ve all been there before where we find ourselves in a rut or hitting a wall (or several) that leaves us uninspired. Busy modern work schedules have always existed, but this generation’s situation has perhaps evolved faster than we can cope. So how do we continue to fuel inspiration at a time when creative work will increasingly be in demand?

The Progress Principle

One of the most common sources of lowered motivation at work is what Harvard researchers called the progress principle, which is the idea that making progress in meaningful work is the “single most important factor” in boosting one’s “emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday.”

The idea of small wins is a very popular means of tackling the day-to-day, especially where the list of tasks and nested subtasks becomes a veritable mountain of work: Moving the needle even a tenth of a degree reminds we are capable of effecting change. This goes hand in hand with chunking as a means of rationalizing a seemingly incomprehensible workload. But this isn’t the complete picture because it’s only a means of getting through work we have to do — it says nothing of the emotional value of the work or our perception of it.

The counterpoint is that when we aim to chip away at small wins, we lose sight of the bigger picture. The goals of many is often to tackle the biggest, most challenging task first, when we have an abundance of energy and attention versus deferring tough tasks towards the end. Oh wait, that’s procrastination right?

The Threat of Confirmation Bias

When individuals or a group of individuals finally arrive at “what works for them,” it can be an enormously cathartic moment that has lifelong ramifications (for them). The issue is when these ‘eureka’ moments then become the gospel that self-help books, lifestyle blogs, anecdotal and even scientific research say applies to a lot of people.

Unfortunately, the promise of “that one book” or “that one podcast” is tempting to jump on as a means of getting ourselves out of the mud and back into the game. But the reality is, although many other human beings have experienced what we’ve been through, looking through only their pool of answers distracts us from finding our own.

Fatigue and The Spectrum of Inspiration

A lack of inspiration has less to do with the amount of work or stress (people can have ‘good’ stress that comes from a fruitful and engaging lifestyle) and more to do with our distance from inspiration.

Whether our inspiration comes from internal or external sources, we can feel uninspired when we’re cut off from that wellspring: maybe you haven’t traveled somewhere new for a while, checked out any new spots or shows, interact with people that are important to you or even just had time to be alone with your own thoughts. In short, you’re stuck in the same dull place for too long—geographically or mentally.

It naturally follows that we need to bring back (read: reschedule) these inspirations into our lives or find new ones. However, an important caveat—especially in our current era—is that we must also have some tangible access to them. FOMO is a thing and the gap between what our situation could be versus what we can realistically achieve in our situation doesn’t always turn into the stuff dreams are made of: it decays into restlessness (despite the intended audience of this particular source, the symptoms certainly apply to all modern humans).

At the other end of lacking inspirational things in our lives is the excess of things that can drain our mental batteries that while constantly evolving, haven’t updated quickly enough to process the new glut of stressors (if they were ever meant to). When this happens, we might start a cascade of rushed, unconscious but poor decisions that take us to a place we might not have wanted to end up.

The Fall Back

Sigh, such is reality that try what we can, following the conventional wisdom of “you just need to chill out” is not always possible and we don’t know what else to do.

  • Do less or quit — temporarily: Where possible, cut out the tasks that will lead you to burnout.

  • Reframe: If the cause is that you’re too overloaded by the situation to even consider seeking out inspiration, is it possible to see this from another angle or find the silver lining? Are we unconsciously starting to catastrophize because of how we view the situation?

  • Counterbalance and offset: If you can’t substantially change your work situation and can’t leave, the only solution is to deliberately counterbalance that with what free time you have.

  • Medicate—RESPONSIBLY: Assuming your lack of inspiration isn’t a symptom of something more serious, responsible non-dependent self-medication remains an option. We already use technology to regulate and adapt to a stressful modern life. Used appropriately, chemical technology can give us the same helping hand. This isn’t a call to abuse substances, but to try out other options such as nootropics.

  • Soul search: If all the articles, chats with friends and podcasts aren’t helping take the “me” time you need to be alone and uncomfortable with your thoughts.

  • Forget “perfect,” just aim to learn: Going out and learning something provides you with a double dose of growth. Acquiring knowledge introduces new stimulus while also touching back on the idea of achievement.

At the end of the day, it’s not always easy to turn that feeling of “meh” into “chyeah!” but it is possible. Creativity isn’t driven by serendipity, it’s about constantly finding solutions through unexpected connections, something we’ve doubled, tripled, quadrupled down on. Like a muscle, it can be trained and enhanced through focus and practice.