How to Build Motivation to Overcome Depression

How to Build Motivation to Overcome Depression

Don’t wait for the motivation to show up—action leads to motivation.

Posted Apr 19, 2021 | By: Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.


  • People who are depressed often don’t feel motivated to do what they should. But a lack of motivation need not prevent positive action.
  • A commitment to one’s values and goals can help drive action even when motivation is lacking.
  • Taking action can itself increase motivation, and self-reward can help sustain positive behaviors.
Nik Shuliahin via Unsplash

One of the key features of depression is the lack of motivation to do things that you know you should really do. For example, you may think that you don’t have the motivation to exercise, or spend time with friends, or work on that project that is overdue. And as I’ve indicated in previous posts, we know that depression is a vicious cycle. It includes avoidance, isolation, self-criticism, perfectionism, and hopelessness. We can add lack of motivation to this vicious cycle because when you lack motivation, you end up not doing the things that you need to do to build self-esteem, to overcome avoidance, to build your support network, and to feel effective so that you don’t fall into a rabbit hole of hopelessness.

In this post, we are going to look at some of the distortions in your thinking that add to your lack of motivation, and we’ll examine some techniques that you can start using today to turn your motivation on its head.

1. You don’t need to wait for motivation to actually do something.

The belief that “I have to feel motivated first in order to get something done” is one of the myths that underlie depression. You don’t have to feel like doing something in order to do it. You simply need to choose to do it and then actually do it. For example, I exercise almost every morning for an hour before I see patients or do any writing. I cannot say that I feel highly motivated to exercise. And I often don’t feel motivated to write. But I have committed myself to that habit because I think it’s a healthful habit and I have committed to doing the exercise even if I don’t feel like doing it—even if I have no motivation. In fact, every day that you go to work you probably are doing things that you’re not particularly motivated to do, but you’re committed to being successful in your job. This is a key element. Commit to action and values rather than waiting for the motivation to show up.

2. Action creates motivation.

We typically think of motivation as preceding behavior, but motivation may result from activity as well. For example, if you exercise vigorously you may find that your energy level increases and your motivation to do other things increases. Activity is like jump-starting your battery. The more activity you engage in the more activity you may feel motivated to engage in in the future. This is like thinking that activity creates its own momentum. You can reverse the vicious cycle of depression into a virtuous cycle of activity and more motivation. 

3. Choose your purpose.

Set specific goals you want to accomplish in the next day, week, month, and year. Waiting for the motivation to show up is often a trap that you get into that leads to further passivity and isolation. We know that passivity and isolation are major factors in depression.

I would suggest that you focus on valued goals or purposes. This could be your physical health and include exercise and diet. It could include building a positive support network, which may include or involve your reaching out to other people, making plans, and following through. Or it could involve tasks that you have at work that are part of your identity of being an effective person in your employment. Rather than ask about your motivation, you ask yourself about your purpose or your goal and then focus on committing to actions that lead to those goals.

You can start by listing two goals for today and four goals for the week and six goals for the month. Then keep track of your progress toward these goals and recognize that you can accomplish goals even if you don’t feel like doing it. You need to master the control of your own behavior. And this means developing the ability to do what you don’t want to do.

4. What did you do when you weren’t depressed?

Act against your depression by doing some of those things. If you are currently depressed you might notice that your behavior is much different from what it was when you were not depressed. You might be avoiding people, exercising less, making fewer plans, and getting lost on the Internet or in your rumination. Let’s call this your Depressive Behavioral Profile. What it reflects is what you look like when you are acting like a depressed person.

Now I want you to identify what you look like when you are not depressed. What are you doing, who are you connecting with, and what activities are you engaged in? The behavioral activation approach to dealing with depression places a great deal of emphasis on acting as if you are not depressed so you can behave your way out of depression. As one of the founders of behavior therapy once said, “When facing adversity, behave.” In other words, if you’re feeling down, take positive action. Make a list of all of the activities you can think of that you engaged in when you were not depressed and start scheduling those for the next week.

5. Reward yourself for every step forward.

When people are depressed they seldom give themselves credit for any of the positive things that they do. For example, one man who was depressed told me that over the prior week he had worked on his resume, he had reached out to colleagues in his network, and he had exercised several times. But then he said he did not think he was making progress even though he was feeling a little bit better. We can think of this as the lack of self-reward that characterizes much of depression and that underlies your lack of motivation.article continues after advertisement

If you don’t reward yourself for even small steps forward you are going to become discouraged and give up and lose motivation. And in fact, anybody who has been depressed knows how difficult it is to engage in these behaviors when you are depressed. It’s like climbing up 10 flights of stairs with a 100-pound weight on your shoulders and then wondering why it was so difficult. If you had employees and expected them to work 40 hours a week, would you think they would be motivated to work that hard if you never paid them? So you need to reward yourself for every step forward. In fact, even reading this post is something that you can give yourself credit for because you are trying to learn some strategies to overcome your depression.

The advantage of self-reward is that you are always there to give the rewards to yourself. You are always there to be the cheerleader that you need to keep you motivated in moving forward. Praising yourself, giving yourself credit for trying, and keeping track of your progress—even if it seems like small steps—is a way that can keep your motivation moving in the right direction.

Keep in Mind…

When you are confronting your difficulty with motivation, you may feel discouraged because things do not get better all of the sudden. Sometimes we need to engage in positive behavior for some time before the feelings and the rewards and the effects kick in. You need to invest in yourself by committing to the right habits that will move you forward. But it will take time and you will need to be patient with yourself and you will need to reward yourself for every step in the right direction. The more steps you take in the right direction, the more your motivation will build up, the more effective you will feel, and the less depressed you will feel. But it takes time.