Magazines 2021 Jul - Aug Staying motivated during a pandemic

Staying motivated during a pandemic

09 August 2021 By Dean Davey

An expert on pastoral health points us to the physical and mental habits that fight burnout and instead reignite a zest for life

My wife and I were out for a walk on a drizzly afternoon winding our way through a Vancouver suburb when I said to her, “I should write an article on staying motivated during a pandemic.”

She politely agreed, “Yes, you should do that.”

A few steps later I replied, “The only problem is I feel so unmotivated to do so,” which brought out a laugh and loving slap to the shoulder.

Recently my conversations with Bible college students, interactions with business owners and participation in a gathering of pastors have revealed a similar theme: “I feel so unmotivated these days.”

If you are struggling to stay motivated, know that you are not alone.

In my circles, even those who are typically high achievers have found their motivation waning as we ride wave upon wave of a pandemic. From Zoom fatigue (caused by too many online meetings) to a lack of personal connections and seeking to navigate the constant shifting currents of Covid complexities, there are all kinds of reasons all kinds of people are feeling it.

Reasons people are feeling it

This, of course, is no surprise when considering what we have endured as a society. One way to think about it is in light of Christine Maslach’s Multi-dimensional Theory of Burnout (in C.L. Cooper’s Theories of Organizational Stress, Oxford, 1999). From her extensive research, she identified three primary dimensions of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and inefficacy.

Maslach astutely acknowledges that the path to burnout starts with feeling a lack of efficacy. Aren’t most of us feeling that thanks to the pandemic? The standard we often used pre-Covid to assess our effectiveness has been entirely altered, leading us to a crisis of uncertainty about where (and if) we are being effective in anything we do.

On top of that, having to move our work either home or online has left most of us feeling a sense of depersonalization. We feel disconnected from meaningful, personal interactions. We feel lonely and isolated.

One student, wrestling with his lack of motivation, told me, “People say to make sure you take time for yourself to practise self-care, but I’ve got too much time for myself. Just stopping and resting is not going to help. I need something to reignite my spark for life.”

He may not have used the word burnout, but it certainly sounds like he’s talking about “that which once burned brightly does so no longer.”

As my wife and I walked in the rain, the questions burning in my mind were simply these: What can reignite my spark? Where can I renew my motivation? If you are feeling as though this emotional marathon of a pandemic has worn you out, may I offer a few practical tips to schedule into your day to reignite your motivation?

1. Make your bed

Many advice-givers in our day point out that this is your first accomplishment and step to success. You may want to dismiss this as modern self-help folklore, but just try it. Try it for 30 days and note the change in you. If there is no change, feel free to leave your room a mess.

2. Embrace and end the day

Embrace the day by clarifying your purpose, and end the day by declaring your gratitude. This doesn’t have to take long.

Each morning remind yourself of your purpose: What am I here for? and Who am I here for? Victor Frankl, a psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, taught wisely that people find meaning in work and relationships (see his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning). Focusing on these two questions at the outset of your day sets you on a path of purpose. You may also want to remind yourself of the context of this path by meditating on a short verse such as Psalm 118:24, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

The day can then be concluded as you lay your head on your pillow with this simple statement: Today, Lord, I am thankful for these three things... This gratitude practice has been used across centuries (including other pandemics) to help generations of believers keep the spark of hope alive.

3. Get outside

Regardless of the weather, plan into your day a 30-minute outdoor activity where you can look out and up at creation. Even those in an inner-city urban environment without many natural features can still take time to appreciate, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). The relationship between wellbeing and nature-connection is significant (as noted in the International Journal of Wellbeing). Connection with creation renews us as creatures.

So much of life this past year has been cloistered indoors and on screen. For 30 days, schedule a time to simply step outside and look around. It will help provide perspective beyond present debilitating circumstances. Seeing creation as a gift and a gateway to connect with God provides a larger vision for life.

4. Imaginative projection

An aspect I have found businesspeople and pastors struggling with is the demand of constant pivoting to accommodate Covid restrictions. At times they feel like they are spinning in circles and losing all sense of direction. It is hard to stay motivated when it becomes unclear where you are going.

Imaginative projection is a practice that invites people to dream beyond the present (as taught in Dr. Paul Wong’s Positive Psychology 2.0, which I learned at a 2017 conference held by the International Network on Personal Meaning,

It is not a wistful longing for the old days, or even a blissful hope of a new post-pandemic normal. Rather, it is tragic optimism – both acknowledging and accepting the suffering of the human experience, while also embracing the hope-filled reality of life (Frankl would have agreed). It is admitting what you are experiencing, embracing fully the tragedy of the present circumstance, while also projecting where you want to be at a specified point in the future.

Using the tools of your imagination, it is an opportunity to get out of the muddle of Covid convolutions and move into a renewed sense of what you want your life to look like a year from now. Recognizing and affirming this can provide the direction and motivation for your present moment.

The old adage “This too shall pass” is true. This will pass, and you are heading somewhere, either by the shifting seas upon which you sail, or by the rudder of your purpose as you navigate these tides.

5. Live rhythmically

Practise good physical rhythms by having a set routine for sleeping and eating, ensuring a quality diet and fluid intake. I realize this sounds obvious. But my question simply is, “Are you practising this?” So many I have spoken with while exploring their motivation levels affirm this practice, but when pressed abashedly admit they stay up too late on screens while snacking on potato chips.

Again, simply try to incorporate a healthy physical routine for 30 days – consider it an experiment! Much of our lives has seemed beyond our control this past year. Here is one area where you can take control. Practising a healthy physical rhythm can become a daily liturgy and means of grace and motivation, as J. K. A. Smith explains in his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos, 2016).

6. Process life with a life coach

For some, the pandemic has had significant effects on their mental health, and a counsellor would be most helpful to assist. Many, however, do not feel the need to see a registered counsellor, but they would benefit by having someone guide them in a process of (re)discovering their purpose. A life coach walks alongside you providing a safe space to consider the impact of life, taps into the values you hold and outlines the steps forward in light of these. Three sessions with a Certified Professional Life Coach can be the catalyst to realign and reignite your sense of purpose and motivation.

These are only a few recommendations, but I trust they are enough to get you started on renewing your motivation. Well, I have got to run; the sun is shining, and my wife is waiting to go for a walk. Here’s to brighter days ahead!

Remember: When you lay your head on your pillow tonight, simply ask yourself, “What are three things I am thankful for today?”

Dean Davey is vice-president of student development at Pacific Life Bible College in Surrey, B.C., and conducted PhD research on pastoral health and failure as a transformative process.