The Ebb and Flow of Motivation

Photo by Jenny Downing

At the start of the summer, I spent a good deal of time laying out my goals. I diligently set milestones. I pared down superfluous tasks, quickly deciding that learning a language and reading more than a handful of books would be infeasible with my summer internship and side projects. Even having multiple side projects was not the best, so I scheduled which months would be for what projects. I was ready to tackle the summer.

One month later, I was behind in everything. In part, this was due to taking on too much. However, it wasn’t just that my projects weren’t progressing fast enough to meet their deadlines. They weren’t going anywhere. My motivation had almost completely vanished. I still felt it was important to complete my summer goals, but that wasn’t enough to make me to work on them when I got home from my job. Instead, in a classic example of ego depletion (See The Science of Getting Things Done), I would bounce around doing easy tasks or pseudo-work (for instance, reading the news for long periods of time).

What this says to me is that for every time we are riled up and ready to go, there will also be a time when we feel significantly less excited.

Of course, we’d like our motivation to be at 100% all the time. I don’t know if this is possible. The human body has an incredible ability to get used to almost anything, from harsh climates to level of income, and this applies to motivation too. Sources of motivation become familiar and less effective. For instance, the novelty of taking on a project often wears off once you begin the daily grind necessary to realize your goal. While certain people will persist even as their willpower diminishes, everyone inevitably encounters a relative drought in their motivation. Motivation will ebb and flow like this.

But if we can’t rely on consistent motivation, how can we ensure that we achieve our goals?

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to do this:

  1. Increase our effectiveness when motivation is high
  2. Reduce the frequency and duration of periods of low motivation

Most productivity tips and philosophies tell us what to do when we are motivated (for instance, see 3 steps to actually being productive over spring break). People are less willing to talk about times when they aren’t motivated, namely when they are burned out. As natural as it is, mild burnout still seems like something to be embarrassed of, especially for the productivity-obsessed.

This is a mistake. Even though planning your goals and optimizing your workflow sound much more exciting than dealing with burnout (at least, they do to me), effectively recognizing and remedying burnout is equally important for long-term productivity and happiness.

In a sense, burnout is like a mild illness. Left untreated, it may intensify and will likely last for longer than it needs to. On the other hand, if you diagnose yourself quickly and prioritize getting better (such as by going to bed early) will quickly restore you to good health.

Likewise, if you are burned out, you will need to spend a number of precious hours recharging, which may seem like a waste of productivity. However, you’ll gain overall efficiency, you’ll prevent yourself from reaching a debilitating level of burnout, and you’ll feel better too.


Even though motivation isn’t consistent, recognizing that fact can help you achieve your goals nonetheless. As always, when it comes to productivity, tips and tricks can only get you so far–at some point, you will need to deal with the physical limits of the human body. Knowing the details of those limits is the best way to work around them, allowing you to be as efficient as you can possibly (and happily) be.


2 thoughts on “The Ebb and Flow of Motivation

  1. Great post, Kevin! I always love how you are able to dissect universal (college student) issues with such clarity, structure, and perspective.

    I also enjoyed your discussion of burnout and the necessity of respite from productivity, but how would you recommend for a student to draw the line between recharging and simply procrastinating?

    • I’m glad you liked the post. As for drawing the line between recharging and procrastinating, one method that has been effective for me is to work in timed shifts. Humans are great at focusing for short bursts of time, and while everyone is different, a good starting point is to work for 25 minutes at a time with a 5 minute break in between. See the Pomodoro Technique (

      That works for day-to-day work. When it comes to alleviating persistent burnout, it’s harder to know how much of a break is enough, but I’ll be talking about burnout in a later post, so hopefully that will help.

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