Factors that can affect doing and not-doing

One of the most common topics that my clients bring to me usually starts with the following:

“Becci, I want to understand why I can easily do some things, and I cannot do others. Can you help me understand this?”

Yes, I can usually help most people to understand more about “doing and not-doing” and the factors that might help or hinder here.

As a specialist in zest – which is all about enthusiasm, cracking on with things, and feeling alive and motivated – this is something that I’ve read a lot about and have reflected on hugely, both personally and professionally.

At the heart of doing or not-doing a thing in the moment is something called situational motivation.

What is situational motivation?

Situational motivation is the level of drive you have to be able to act and do something there and then.

Situational motivation is different to broader, more general motivation, such as where you might have a longer-term, less immediately compelling motivation to have, be or do something. Let me show you the difference.

You might have a long-term desire to to improve your health through certain forms of exercise as you’re going on a trekking holiday next year.

However, when it comes to the immediate, short-term action of taking a training walk today, you might not feel a strong drive to take that walk right now. You still have the longer-term desire to be fit and ready for your trek, but the longer-term wish is not strong enough in the moment to propel you into going on the training walk.

So, although you have a long-term wish, the motivational drive to get your coat and trainers on and get out of the house is not there in the moment.

(This is super common for many ADHDers, by the way. We need what we want to do now to be interesting and compelling RIGHT NOW if we’re going to act.)

As a result, what often happens is that the smaller, regular actions that would get you to your wish don’t happen as often as you would like, meaning that the longer-term desire goes unfulfilled. Has this ever happened to you?

It has certainly happened to me. It was something I deliberately had to keep an eye on when training for Everest Base Camp.

There were really rainy days when I was tired and fed up and when I really felt like I had to fight with my brain to create the situational motivation I needed to get out of the house to train!

But, the good news is that it’s usually possible for most people to find a way to discover ways to boost situational motivation so your present self can muster the drive to act in service of your future self and the things you hope for in the future.

What factors can affect situational motivation?

I stumbled across a beautiful paper recently on factors that might affect how much effort we are willing to expend to complete a task (Bustamente et al., 2023). So, actually, in some respects, what the paper is indirectly talking about is situational motivation.

In the last few lines of the summary, there were some suggestions made about factors that might play a role here.

The authors (2023) found that the following factors might play a role in how much effort someone is able to put into sticking with and completing a task in the moment:

  • Anxiety
  • Cognitive function (which I will reframe to as “executive function”)
  • Behavioural activation (somewhat counterintuitively, this is about sometimes just making a start on the thing you’d like to do e.g. “just” putting your shoes on, if you want to get out for a walk)
  • Self-efficacy (your level of belief that you can “do the thing” or influence the outcome)

My thinking is this:

If you can work out which of these four factors might be playing a role in doing or not-doing, you might be able to engineer the conditions or feelings needed to help you start something you’d genuinely like to do, but can’t right now.

So what is the way forward?

I would suggest identifying something that you genuinely wanted to do on some level but that you found you couldn’t. Pick something recent so it’s easier to remember and fresher in your mind.

Once you have hit upon a recent example, try to cast your mind back and think about any factors on the day which reduced your situational motivation. If nothing springs to mind, review the four factors above and see if any of them might apply.

Then, once you have found a factor or two, reflect on whether those factors are ones that regularly play a role in doing or not-doing for you.

If those themes recur and you would like to have things be different in a few weeks or months time, then I’d recommend the one that’s getting in the way the most as your starting place.

You then have some options about how you can find out what is going on and choose how you’d like to help yourself with your chosen situational motivation factor.

  • You can journal about why that factor came up. Once you know why the motivational barrier came up, you can make tweaks to reduce the chance of it coming up again.
  • You can talk to a trusted friend or family member. My recommendation here is that if you have a close, trusted friend who is neurodivergent in a similar way to you, you can consider talking to them. They might be able to share similar experiences, which is comforting but, also, they may have useful ideas to share with you.
  • If you are part of a peer support group, you could take your motivational challenge to the group and talk through what happened and plan aloud with them how you think you might deal with that motivational factor in future.
  • Coaches and therapists, if you are working with one, can ask you questions about what affected your motivation and why, and they can help you to look at your will levels and skill levels (so, feelings and resources) so you can make a plan for having a different outcome next time. Having a second brain to help you really understand your motivational factors can be extremely enlightening.
  • Finally, if you are part of a social network that is affirming and helpful, you can also share your experiences and ask for ideas online.

Becci’s final thought: if nothing else, consider anxiety

In positive psychology, we consider that very strong negative emotions felt in the moment can result in lowered executive functioning and lesser ability to be creative and solution-focused.

I consider this a result of how we evolved and are wired as humans.

If you’re a hunter-gatherer being chased by an angry rival with a spear, what you want is a laser focus to get away. You don’t want to think about anything else in that moment. You won’t be thinking about inventing the wheel or a pretty hand painting for your new cave.

In other words, when times are tough, you’re not going to necessarily act in service of your long-term desires.

When we are anxious, our brain can only really fixate on trying to cope with the perceived crisis in the moment. We therefore can find it hard to centre ourselves and do other things if there’s a general level of higher anxiety.

You can imagine, then, if you feel broadly quite anxious at the moment, this could potentially affect your situational motivation. BUT it can also affect the degree to which you are able to creatively find ways to boost your motivation.

It’s a double-whammy, in other words. Not only can you not do the thing because you’re anxious, thinking about what you’re anxious about can block you from working out how to move forward.

Therefore, if you feel that you have been experiencing a higher level of generalised anxiety recently, I would recommend seeking support for this.

Any help you can get (that you want and feel comfortable with, of course) to manage anxiety will potentially unlock extra brain bandwidth and a slightly calmer nervous system so you can shortly access greater motivation in the moment.

Moreover, there are safe, comfortable and neuro-affirmative ways of supporting yourself with anxiety at home and at no cost. Going to the senses can be a low-effort and high-reward strategy here.

For example, if you know that regular baths or regular dog cuddles calm you down and help you regulate, ask yourself what your opportunity is to engage in one of these pleasant treats just for a few minutes a week. Over a few weeks, the difference can be huge.

In 2021, I did a 3 week study on myself which showed that just 10 minutes of yoga and mediation a day put my anxiety into remission. Yes, 3 weeks.

We’re all different and the sensory things you choose to sooth yourself will be unique to you, but the final point is that you can afford to be optimistic that anxiety can usually be somewhat improved, and perhaps more quickly than you think. Of course, choose what would work for you, and what would be safe for you, especially if certain activities trigger any trauma or physical pain.

Wrap up

In this post, I’ve explained what situational motivation is, what factors might affect it negatively, and how you might start to think about the way forward.

If situational motivation is an issue for you and you are experiencing a lot of general anxiety at the moment, then it might be that you choose to think about how you can reduce your broader levels of anxiety as a way of feeling more motivated in the moment in time.

If you have any questions, get in touch. Asking a question is always free!

Finally, if this post was useful to you and it is within your means, it’d mean a lot if you can make a small contribution to the ongoing production of these posts. I put a lot of time, effort, bandwidth and resources into learning and disseminating all of this information, and I want to continue to produce materials like this for free to support those who need them. If you’re able to make a small contribution here, you can do so via my ko-fi profile.

All best wishes and thanks for reading – Becci

Key resource

Link to Bustamente et al. (2023) paper if you wish to read more here.

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