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Susie, an experienced software engineer, joined our regular Wednesday video coaching session a few minutes late. She is usually a bit early, eager to discover what new thing she would learn about herself today.

“What’s up?” I asked.

Everything about her slumped, from her shoulders to her tone when she talked. “I feel so glum,” she said. “I don’t feel motivated.”

She had been planning a vacation for months, only to have it continually pushed back for one “urgent” project after another. She was starting to feel burnt out.

“I’m ready to leave now. My manager has promised not to add more work, and I believe he will uphold that promise. Still, I have all this work to finish before I leave. How do I get everything done without browbeating myself into it? I know that just makes me angry at myself.”

Susie was stuck. She had work to do, and it kept expanding faster than she could finish it. So while the end seemed to be in sight, her motivation was nowhere to be found.

She didn’t want to force herself to do it. If she hadn’t postponed her vacation so many times, she would be excited about finishing this work, even with the ever-expanding scope. She and the rest of her team had been working on this for months. She knew the impact it was going to have on her customers.

And, she had already put in so much work towards finishing. How could she motivate herself to keep working through everything that was left?

As we talked, I helped Susie identify three options to try:

  • Identify the actual issue
  • Become aware of her feelings
  • Leverage what does motivate her

Identify the real issue

When people say, “I just don’t feel motivated,” that’s a clue something else is wrong. Rather than blame her vacation, Susie can use the work she needs to complete as a focus for inquiring into what’s draining her motivation.

As we talked, Susie realized she was feeling daunted by the amount of work she needed to complete before leaving on her vacation. “It’s no more than I usually have on my plate. Usually, though, I know I can continue if I don’t complete it. This time, I have a deadline. I’m not postponing my vacation yet again!”

I suggested she try working in timeboxes. Working in timeboxes would narrow her focus from “all that work!” to “the next chunk of time.” After considering a few different durations for her timeboxes, Susie settled on 40 minutes. “That’s about the timebox I normally use—I need a break by then.”

Become aware of your feelings

Next, I asked Susie how she felt about making a few notes at the end of each timebox. “Before you get up, write down a few words about anything you’re feeling,” I suggested. Then, as she settled in the following day, she’d take a few minutes to group the words she’d written down the day before. She’d review these groups every few days and note any larger patterns. “That sounds great. Except I’m going to make notes as I walk on my break—when my 40 minutes are up, I can’t stand being at the computer any longer!”

As she started identifying patterns, she would focus on her feelings about those patterns. We often have emotions about our emotions. These feelings about our feelings can affect us even more than the original feelings.

We had talked about this before, and now Susie laughed. “I have been feeling guilty, and I haven’t understood why! When you reminded me about my feelings about my feelings, I realized I am feeling guilty about feeling unmotivated. “Knowing the team needs me to do this should be enough,” I can hear my mother saying. Thank you for the reminder!”

Leverage what does motivate you

I knew from our previous conversations that Susie loved learning. “What learning opportunities do you have in this work?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t understand some of the technical details of the framework we’re using. I don’t see much else….”

I reminded her of what she had said last time, “There is always something more to learn!” She thought about this for a bit.

“Well, I still don’t see anything more I can learn. But you’re right: there must be more to learn here. I’ll check. At the very least, tracking these emotions will teach me something about myself!”

Engage your curiosity to become unstuck

As we neared the end of our session, Susie said, “You know, each of these tools is really about engaging my curiosity.”

I asked her how she wanted to leverage that curiosity as she applied these tools.

“I have been telling myself what I’m feeling. I’m curious what I’m actually feeling.”

She sat quietly for a few moments.

“I’m curious whether my 40-minute timeboxes are my ideal. Maybe I’ll try different durations.”

She reflected a while longer.

“And, I’m curious what I’ll find to learn!”

With our time coming to a close, Susie and I went back over the issues we had identified and the tools she was going to use to solve them:

  1. Her lack of motivation was a symptom of a deeper problem. She discovered she was actually feeling overwhelmed. She’s going to use timeboxes to reframe her work into manageable chunks.
  2. She was stuck partly because she hadn’t realized the overwhelm she was feeling. She will track and reflect on her feelings to help her identify other issues keeping her stuck.
  3. Susie knew she could find learning anywhere, yet she hadn’t tried to find it here. She’s going to search for opportunities.

Susie had started our session feeling glum.

“How are you feeling now?” I asked.

“Energized! Now that we have things for me to try, I’m feeling I can actually complete all this with a little room to spare.”

Her newfound energy was apparent. She was smiling radiantly and practically bouncing in her chair.

“I no longer feel stuck!”

Use these ideas when you feel apathetic

When you feel apathetic, transform that apathy into energy with the same three ideas Susie is trying:

  1. Apathy is a signal something is wrong. Peel back the apathy and discover what’s underneath it. Then, reach into your toolbox for help resolving that.
  2. If you can’t identify what’s underneath, track and reflect on your feelings. You will become more aware of what’s underneath.
  3. Apply what does energize you to the work you need to do.

Each of these is a form of engaging your curiosity. If you are like me, that’s a sure-fire way to convert your apathy to energy 😃

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