Hidden Truths: Why You Always Feel Unmotivated, Unfocused, and Exhausted

Man sitting at desk feeling exhausted

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you”  
– Anne Lamott

Do you feel that despite your best efforts, it seems like the harder you push yourself, the more elusive your attention, focus, enthusiasm, and productivity become? Leaving you feeling perpetually adrift in a sea of tasks left undone, goals unmet, and dreams unrealised? Feeling stuck in an endless cycle of pushing harder but achieving less?  You are not alone, in fact, there is a human energy crisis on the rise. In fact, according to Gallup, seven out of ten people are currently struggling with this. More than ever people are feeling physically exhausted, mentally strained, and increasingly isolated, and disconnected. A more recent report by Six Seconds on Global Wellbeing, revealed that our overall wellbeing is at an all-time low, with a significant drop in our relationships and connectedness with others. Additionally, Gen Z and Millennials seem to have been impacted the most. 
 
So what gives? What lies behind this pervasive sense of disarray and global languishing? From my own research, and personal and professional experience, I have a few hypotheses.
 
I do believe that we are doing too much instead of not enough. I also strongly believe if we were to allow ourselves more time to process our emotional lives and exist, the more motivated we would be to pursue the things that we want. I believe we are our own biggest roadblock, holding ourselves back from living a more fulfilled, purpose-driven, and successful life. Sadly, we did not intentionally become these proverbial roadblocks, we morphed into them – unconsciously
 
We live in a world where the average person consumes the equivalent of 72GB of data per day, whereas 500 years ago, 1GB would be what an educated person would consume in their entire lifetime! Now 72GB may sound quite arbitrary, but to put it in perspective for you, that is the equivalent of working the information of 16 movies per day – meaning words, sounds, emotions, dialect, all of it! Apart from the sheer amount of information we are faced with on a daily basis, I also believe that we have been lured into a co-dependent relationship with our devices – ever felt a bit lost when you have forgotten your phone at home, or heaven forbid you had to give your laptop in for repairs for a day?! Not only that, we have fallen trap to “unwind” by watching “mindless” videos on TikTok or Insta. There is nothing “mindless” about these interactions. You are still providing your brain with informational stimuli – period! By engaging in mindless tasks, such as building a puzzle, drawing, watering the garden, building Legos, 0r going for a stroll (with NO earphones!), you give your brain time to run through past and future content. In other words, you are processing what is already IN your brain, not just what is being fed TO your brain. Here are some of the key, yet hidden, human capacity depleters
 

More is better: The deceptive allure of abundance 

In a world where our options for things seem to proliferate overnight, making decisions can feel like guiding a group of squirrels through a maze with nut dispensers. The increased availability of options presented to us is one of the main reasons why we tend to fall prey to overanalysing and overthinking. More options = more overthinking. 

Contrary to popular belief, overthinking is not a bad thing. In fact, psychology research has shown that overthinking is associated with several positive outcomes. In fact, from an evolutionary standpoint, our brains overthink to aid problem-solving. When we overthink, we often end up brooding or daydreaming about possible solutions. It is also during these periods that we generate our own insights (i.e., self-insight) which is key a key requirement for any creative insight.

However, overthinking becomes “pathological”, or maladaptive as I would call it, when we get stuck in cycles of overthinking negative or anxiety-provoking thoughts (i.e., rumination). So, how does having more options have anything to do with overthinking or paralysis-analysis? As humans, we think we want more things to choose from, however, research shows that the more options we have the less likely we are to make a decision OR be happy with what we’ve selected. This is better known in psychology as the principle of choice overload, a concept which was brought to light following the famous jam jar study by Barry Schwartz and Sheena Iyengar – which is very well articulated in this pdf.

In their research, the scholars delved into how choice overload influences consumer behaviour in a gourmet food store setting. They set up an experiment where one table displayed a wide array of 24 different jam flavours, while another showcased a more modest selection of just 6 flavours. Although the larger assortment initially attracted more interest, it was the smaller selection that resulted in significantly more purchases. This illustrates that despite being initially attracted to the abundance of options, people were more inclined to make a decision and buy when presented with a more concise set of choices. The study thus underscored the detrimental effects of choice overload on our decision-making processes.

This choice-overload then also leads to indecision, resulting in several unmade decisions floating around at the back of your head. We also know that unmade decisions are key contributors to increased anxiety levels.Additionally, when you leave decisions floating around in your head, they take up unnecessary RAM space in your brain (i.e., short-term memory), preventing you from properly paying attention to the present and leaving you mentally exhausted. 

Fixation on the cons and blinded to the pros

In addition to the above, research also shows that we as humans tend to be geared for risk aversion. Meaning, we tend to pay much more attention to risks, or that which we think may lose out on, or cause harm, rather than the things we may gain. Moreover, our brains tend to do this funny thing when we are overthinking things, whereby we can actually experience the negative emotional and physical cascades associated with a decision, situation, or outcome, however, we do not seem to experience the same when it comes to the positives or pros of the same decisions. In other words, your body will physically experience the stress response or anxiety that is elicited by the negative thoughts, however, your body does not produce the dopamine associated with the positive thoughts.

Let me make this more practical for you … 

Imagine you’re invited to a social event with friends. Initially, you feel excited about it, but then the doubts start creeping in. You think about whether you really feel like going, where you will be going, who will be there, how long it will last, what you have planned for the rest of the day, what to wear, and so on. These thoughts trigger anxiety and stress hormones flood your body, making you feel the weight of these negative emotions.

On the flip side, you might also consider the positives: you’ll get to see your friends, it’ll be good for you, you’ll be going to one of your favourite places, you’re excited for the drive. But strangely, despite these positive thoughts, your body doesn’t release dopamine like it does with the negative ones. This lack of dopamine release leaves you feeling stuck, unable to fully commit to the positive decision. It’s this asymmetry in how our bodies respond that often leads to analysis paralysis, where the fear associated with negative outcomes holds more sway over us than the potential for positive outcomes*How rad, right?!*

Neurotic much? Your personality has a finger in the pie 

It’s truly fascinating how individuals who score higher on neuroticism often find themselves grappling with motivation, especially when they lack the presence of proactive peers. Recent psychological studies illuminate the profound impact of social surroundings on the ambition and drive of neurotic individuals, particularly evident in their struggles when embarking on entrepreneurial ventures or adapting to remote work environments. These ambitious souls crave the energy and action of others to tap into their conscientious side, relying on external stimuli to ignite their own productivity. However, when left to their own devices, they can easily spiral into a state of analysis-paralysis, where fear and doubt overshadow their potential.

Moreover, research underscores how neuroticism intertwines with maladaptive coping mechanisms like rumination and avoidance, intensifying the grip of depression and anxiety. The perception of everyday challenges as looming threats further compounds their vulnerability, leaving them susceptible to profound physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. In essence, the journey of the neurotic individual is a poignant narrative of resilience amidst the tumultuous tides of internal strife and external circumstances. Yet another quintessential reason why I believe that learning about your personality makeup and who you are is fundamental to creating a life that works for you, not against you.  

Dopamination and Overstimulation 

I do believe that most of us are well aware of how our modern world has led us to overstimulated beings, unconsciously seeking out that next dopaminergic high. In her book, Dopamine NationDr Anna Lembke so beautifully explains our modern epidemic of overconsumption and addiction, particularly in the context of technology, drugs, and behaviours that hijack our brain’s reward system. Lembke highlights how our modern society is increasingly driven by instant gratification and the pursuit of pleasure, leaving us anxious, depressed, unmotivated, and mentally exhausted. 
 
When we are constantly bombarded with stimulation, our minds struggle to process our existing emotional experiences. We bounce from one dopamine high to the next, only to crash into a deep depression when the excitement fades. It takes days for our dopamine levels to return to normal, naturally, without chemical intervention. But just as we begin to recalibrate, another dopamine rush hits, throwing us back into the cycle. It is like we are turning our minds into bustling theme parks without a moment for maintenance. Just at a time when we need our brains to function at their best – work, meaningful pursuits, or saving society – we are hit with a complete human capacity depletion. 

So, what are we to do? The continuous and rapid technological developments are far outpacing our human capacity to adapt. Consequently, this results in a human capacity “lag”, where we feel unable to keep up with the adaptations that this “new world” demands, including the ability to digest the sheer amount of unsolicited information cast towards us.  

As such, having an awareness of the impact of our technologies on our overall wellbeing, as well as how we are personally affected, is arguably the most important first step. Knowing that if you do not manage your relationship with technology and, in turn, your attention, it will unconsciously manage you! It will drive your behaviour and you will end up pathologising yourself; believing yourself to be “broken”. If we are to save ourselves, and society at large, it will have to start with intentional changes.

If you make excuses about why you cannot reduce screen time, or why you have to stay informed about the latest news, or why you cannot reduce your presence on social media, well then just be conscious of the consequences you are saying yes to. Take back control, sharpen your internal locus of control, and stop outsourcing your attention to mind-zapping technologies. 

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