When Depression Causes a Lack of Motivation

The lack of motivation that can be caused by depression and other mental illnesses can be debilitating. There’s some things that are so important they m must be done as soon as possible. But for those who battle depression, the motivation factor can be an enemy that seems insurmountable at times. Here’s what to do when depression causes a lack of motivation.

Lack of Motivation is Common in Depression

The United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has established a working definition of mental health recovery that defines recovery as: “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.”

You may have noticed all the elements of SAMHSA’s definition of mental health recovery require you to do something. “But,” I protest, “I can’t even get out of bed.” Depression saps motivation so completely, the depressed person can often find herself in the midst of a pile of tasks left undone and plans left unrealized.

Don’t Mistake Depression and Lack of Motivation for Laziness

This is often where the depressed person can be, mistakenly, thought of as lazy or apathetic. A depressed person’s lack of motivation is not the same as laziness. When someone is lazy, they don’t want to do work or other unpleasant tasks, even when they have the energy to do so. They may be motivated just fine, they simply don’t want to exert themselves in any way.

The person who is unmotivated due to depression usually wants to work and do other things, but feels as if they can’t. This is a key difference between laziness and depression.

Since we see that becoming motivated even in the depths of our depression, or other mental illness, is a huge part of the mental health recovery process, let’s look at three ways to overcome the depression-caused lack of motivation we might feel.

Three Ways to Combat Lack of Motivation

1. Identify the Essentials

When you’re depressed and lack motivation, you may need to adjust your ideas about what is essential and what isn’t. Doing the dishes is essential; polishing the faucet isn’t.

2. Break Up Large Tasks Into Smaller, Easier Ones

Okay, so the kitchen needs cleaning. There are dirty dishes everywhere. But it’s such a huge job when we’re depressed that we let it go and it becomes much worse. And this just serves to make our depression worse because we feel lazy and no good. So instead of telling ourselves, “I’ve got to get this whole kitchen cleaned up,” we should break it down and say, the first thing is to unload the dishwasher full of clean dishes. But this is even too much, so we tell ourselves, “okay, the only thing I have to do right now is unload the silverware.” Lack of motivation is a well known symptom or sub-symptom of depression. This article discusses how to battle thisThis is a job we can usually get ourselves to do because it’s short and easy and requires only a bit of our valuable energy. Once we’re done with the silverware, we can leave the kitchen and collapse on the couch until the next time we go to the kitchen for something and break off another small chunk by unloading just the bottom portion of the dishwasher.

By doing things this way, it allows us to at least get started on our immediate tasks. Granted, it takes a bit longer using this method, but it’s better than not doing anything at all.

3. Be Positive about Even the Smallest Victories

In mental health recovery, any small step should be celebrated. Use these victories to encourage and remind yourself that you can indeed overcome one step at a time. You’ll be able to say, “I know I can do it because I’ve done it before.” When depression causes a lack of motivation, know that you can still beat it.

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26 Responses to When Depression Causes a Lack of Motivation

  1. Beth says:

    Dealing with finances seems so overwhelming when
    I’m depressed. I can’t be the only one. What are
    Some suggestions about maintaining my finances
    My whole thought pattern revolves around
    “I’ll do it tomorrow…really I will.” And then I don’t.

  2. Renita says:

    I agree with what you are saying but what if the lack of motivation is due to anhedonia brought on by antipsychotic medication?

  3. Renita says:

    My apartment becomes one big giant mess when I’m depressed because all I want to do is sleep and even when I’m not particularly depressed I’d rather be doing something else than cleaning. But recently my apartment manager left me a note that said he needed access to my suite the following morning. I started to sob thinking how am I ever going to get this place cleaned up before tomorrow morning as it was already early evening. I was also struggling with a knee injury. I was afraid my manager would become upset with me if he saw my mess and I didn’t want to get evicted or anything so after I composed myself I made a very large pot of coffee and went at it cleaning what I could before I became so overwhelmed that I had to stop then I set my alarm and rested for 15 minutes and repeated this process through out the night and well into the morning. Sometimes all I could do was clean a couple of dishes or vacuum a small patch floor before I had to rest. It certainly wasn’t cleaned to perfection but at least when I was finished the following morning it looked more like the average persons manageable mess. I was barely able to focus the next day at work and as soon as I got home I went straight to bed

  4. Courtney says:

    I find that a good way for me to break up chores into small bits is do it while watching tv. When the commercials come on, I jump up and do something. You can do just about anything for 3-4 min at a time. I try to see how much I can accomplish during each break.

  5. Lahti Ann says:

    Renita, I do the same thing. But I MAKE myself invite someone critical (like my mother), over. It makes me at least get it presentable and pushes me, where I wouldn’t on my own.
    Beth, during depressive episodes, I tend to over spend and use retail therapy as temporary comfort. I get paid every two weeks. Every pay is different, but I know the baseline amount. I give every dollar a place to go. All my bills are written down and assigned before their due date to the paycheck closest to it. For example, I got paid 10th & 24th of april. April 10th paid all bills due 11th-25th and the 24th will pay all bills due 26th-may 2nd…etc etc. To start forcing myself to save, I have automatic deposit of an affordable amount to a credit union with the worst hours ever and no ATM card. It’s a pain to go there, and so the money stays. I was procrastinating my bills to avoid feeling more depressed, but was getting behind and getting snowballed. So this worked for me. I have a dated chart with vertical payday columns and horizontal bill rows. I hope this helps.

  6. The above really makes sense. Actually today I have spent 3 hours renewing old plants for new home grown ones. I have just started taking propranalol and wonder if they gave me the much needed motivation I didn’t have before? Thank you for this site. Cheers, Carol

  7. Kathleen says:

    I have been dealing with this, and the accompanying guilt for the last 3 years; switching medications, joining a yoga class and participating in NAMI (Nat’l Alliance for Mental Illness) helps so very much. Please consider any of these! NAMI is free of charge, operates everywhere in the US and was the first thing I reached out to when I didn’t have health insurance, severely depressed and very low on income. THEY WERE ANGELS. Just google NAMI. Please consider it!

  8. EboniW says:

    I suffer from depression. I got married 6 days ago. The month before things started going down. 1st my nephew was hospitalize and we almost lost him. 2nd everyone didn’t want to pay. 3rd 6 hours before the wedding the elder had to cancel due to death, and my cousin whom I looked up too, call and said that she prayed and holy spirit allow her to come, note this; she was in charge of the wedding reception. My wedding reception was a complete fail bc she had everything…my cake everything. I was so down, my honeymoon I spent so much time crying. My husband understood and comfort me a lot. I didn’t get any pressure from him. I feel so bad as of now.

  9. Michele says:

    I have been feeling major depression for 2 years. I still find it hard to function and I can’t work. I want to know if recovery is possible

  10. Tom M. says:

    I’ve suffered from depression for many years. I stay home most of the time. There’s no problem cleaning my living space or taking care of my 2 cats. My problem is hygiene. I’ll be going along fine for a few weeks, being really clean and polished, and then suddenly I say, “Oh, what’s the use. This is so boring.” Then, I won’t shower or brush my teeth for a week. Then, slowly the ability comes back. This is so annoying. I hate being this way, but can’t seem to overcome it.

  11. AccessAYW says:

    I always describe myself as the first R2 droid that Luke Skywalker and his Uncle Owen bought from the Jawas in Star Wars Episode IV… The droid malfunctioned and Luke said to Owen, “Uncle Owen, this R2 unit has a bad motivator!”

    I’m not lazy. I would gladly do many more things myself if I could. But I have many mobility limitations and I have a “bad motivator” from chronic depression so I can’t do most “normal” daily activities. But even with my very obvious physical/mobility limitations, I still frequently get accused of being lazy. It’s very frustrating how cruel and ignorant people can be.

  12. Louis says:

    In this day of electronic banking, it can be a huge lifesaver! I get paid every two weeks, all my bills get paid out of my checking account, automatically, on a pay day. I also have a few savings accounts set up for specific things: Car Insurance; Home Improvements; Vacation; etc. Whenever I get paid, I take small deductions from my pay and “feed” those accounts automatically. When car insurance comes due, I’m not stressing over where the money is going to come from. I have it. Whatever is left in my checking account, after all my automatic transfers and bills are paid, is mine to spend how I want because I know I’ve met my obligations.

  13. Ryan G says:

    Ive suffered from severe depression and anxiety with occasional panic attacks since i was 10 years old. Im now 21 and its only gotten so much worse. I dont have a job i dont go to school i just sleep. All day. No friends. Dont want friends. Dont go outside. I just sleep. I want to have a career but i literally just cant. I CAN NOT go and do something about it. Like my mind wont let me. Its been this way for a very long time. I dont talk to anyone i dont eat. I sleep at least 18 hours a day. Its gotten so bad i dont even know what to do. Anti depressants have not even put a dent in my problem. I feel so hopeless and worthless and its like i dont even care. I dont care about a single thing except sleep. My therapist keeps trying to get me to go outside and make a friend but i cant theres no way. Am i just stuck this way?

  14. Bill says:

    This is all mincing words. Depression causes laziness enough said. It’s just a big vicious circle.

  15. Dee says:

    Bill, the effect is “to be lazy” because depression doesn’t allow you the motivation to get up and do all you can do.

    Access, thank you for being so eloquent, and great quote. I was telling my therapist yesterday, Maybe I am just f((( lazy! and she asked, are you lazy?
    And now it seems she wasn’t doing her job, offering some kind of support regarding steps or ways to get around the motivation problem.
    But, the weekly venting, and “audience” (I am a performer at heart, when I can) is helpful, and I get some needed attention that was severely lacking from a childroom
    where my parents basically pawned me off to a pedophile uncle instead of giving me love and attention.
    We all have our reasons to be sad, I think daily living is difficult, and that is not the case for most non-depressed people.
    But not to feel guilty about it…don’t. We are doing the best we can.

  16. Sierra says:

    Glad I stumbled upon this thread. I struggle with a lot if the things you guys have mentioned and I hate it. The anxiety from not doing housework or foregoing a shower all weekend reeks havoc on my emotional state but absolutely no motivation to fix it. Therapy only helped me so much and I have been on several different meds with little to no reuslts.. Wish I could find a decent psychiatrist that could actually get the treatment right. People just assume I am angry and lazy, as if I would want to be that way. I’m high functioning and have a full time job but it is so hard to be pleasant and engaged on a daily basis, not to mention how I have to break my morning routine into small pieces and constantly compromise with myself to maintain that.

  17. Cynthia says:

    I have a business in-class essay tomorrow and I NEED to finish and memorise it today. I know this. I REALLY TRULY do want to get to it and finish this. I know that it will be over soon and I should just WORK right now but I just honestly can’t bring myself to continue with my work. It’s like I feel that I just can’t do it now even though i really need and want to.

    This has been bothering me for ages. Maybe its the stress and pressure from the last year of high school. I’ve been dry-retching every time I wake up during hard times, had restless sleep, no appetite and many more.

    I don’t really know what to do.

  18. Bob says:

    This is not a worthwhile distinction. You put in the effort to make progress towards your goals, or you don’t. If you don’t, it’s because you find the effort too painful. The immediate gratification of being free of stress/concentration/labor is more appealing to you than putting in work to get benefits down the line. What does it even to say someone has a fine level of motivation but then doesn’t do anything? That is nonsensical. Depression just makes it easier to give into your laziness. It’s still laziness.

  19. Ann says:

    I struggle with the same depressive issues many of you talked about. I can tell you it feels like a disease without a cure. I feel more worthless than good; even today I was asking myself why I’m still alive. I have no drive, no sense of why I’m living; there is no purpose to try and achieve anything. I hate this feeling to death but it can’t seem to go away. I want to do things or get things done as I sometimes do, but the amount of effort it takes is ridiculous. I am afraid of myself sometimes and wonder what went wrong.

  20. ROSY says:

    I live in the UK and finding it difficult to get started on small tasks and am worrying lots about thoughts that make no sense. I have been on sick leave for a week and have to go back to work this week in a clothes shop. I like my work but really need to get myself motivated at home before i go back to work.

  21. Regine says:

    I don’t know if I have depression and/or anxiety, but ever since I was in second year high school, I found it hard to actually get up and go to school. For me, I don’t like it when I arrive at school, all eyes are on me – I feel quite anxious and uncomfortable. I want to go to school, but I just feel so lethargic and lifeless that sometimes I end up just staying in my house. I also feel that it’s really hard for me to be motivated, no matter what I say to myself or what others say to motivate me. Can somebody give me an insight as to what I’m experiencing?

  22. CathyC says:


    I have been where you are. My daughters have been there. Adolescence sucks. It’s when everything crumbles and becomes difficult. Self consciousness gets worse, critical self thoughts. You lack adult coping skills.

    I want you to know it CAN get better. At around age 18-19 the cloud starts to lift for many. Your brain has reached a development level that’s crucial for thinkingcoping skills. It may come later for you. Have you considered online high school? The social pressure is off. There are rooms dedicated to these students in many districts. My daughter went to one at a community college. She graduated ( with a LOT of help and support) by the teachers there. Ask in your schol office. Call the districts home office and ask. You are having a bad patch now, and it will end sometime. Be good to yourself.

  23. Philip says:

    I have that dilemma too. Like Cynthia said above, I want and need to prepare work for class which is very important to me – and I am way past high school. But I haven’t been able to get myself to start, even though I love doing the work, and I especially enjoy mastering it. If I cannot get my act together by tomorrow evening, I will withdraw from college. Is it laziness? I think not. Is it the need to self-sabotage? Who knows. That’s why I sought out this website.
    I know I suffer from bipolar depression. I know that I spent the day in bed with the covers over my head, imagining I had no responsibilities at all. I KNOW I will pull out of this and be my usual, highly motivated self. But maybe not in time …

  24. catherine caird says:

    hi there im going through this endless vicious cycle and feel it has all stemmed from very low self esteem due to childhood pain and upset as wee dont learn about our emotions and how to deal with them katie

  25. catherine caird says:

    i feel as though if you can take yourself back to moments in childhood that where traumatic as difficult as it may be and realising and believing it was not your fault have a hearty cry and slowly try to bring yourself back from this because you are special and loveable katie

  26. Val says:

    I teach school, help take care of my parents in which my mom has suffered a series of strokes and it’s too much for my dad, help and manage appointments/medical issues for my husband who has many health issues that started with a brain stem stroke after 7 years of marriage, do the best I can to be a great mom to our 7 year old son, and just try to function in general with regular life responsibilities. I find myself going through the motions of doing things, like trying to pick up my home or do laundry or organize my closets etc etc etc and hours go by with no accomplishments. I end up on the couch with the tv on and tell myself I will relax a bit and then get things done. This goes on and on until I go to bed assuring myself tomorrow will be better and I will be motivated. I’m still waiting for the motivated “tomorrow” to show up. I am fully aware that I’m not functioning right but can’t change my mind set! I wish I could get back to my old self when I could do it all and feel good when my head hit my pillow at night. (The funny thing is… I work diligently to be a motivational teacher to my students and can hold it together long enough during the school day to do great things and make a difference in the lives of my students but can’t make a difference in my own world outside of my work!) It’s baffling!

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