Published: Dec. 2, 2020

If movement is requisite for life, then absolute stillness is perquisite to death. A simple definition of “motivation” could very well be cause to move towards. If, in your day-to-day, you find yourself often nearer to stagnant stillness versus excited movement, you aren’t alone in this.

Take absolutely nothing away from the staff, faculty, and campus leaders who have worked tirelessly to imagine, reinvent, and adopt creative adaptations in order to meet the demands of uncertain times. However, an unfortunate byproduct of many of these rapid changes to campus operations have left some employees spinning and dizzy in an attempt to keep up with the evolving needs, and others feeling like their primary responsibilities have shifted beyond recognition from the job for which they were originally hired.

In this article, we’ll explore the factors that researchers suggest motivate us in life and in the workplace, how the pandemic has affected motivation, and simple and practical tips that can support the maintenance of motivation not just in work, but within your important relationships and hobbies.

So, what moves you?

We all have unique motivations for working. Self-Determination Theory has consistently found that people require regular experiences of autonomy, competence, and connection with others in order to support thriving motivation.

Let’s consider how each of these components may have been affected during the pandemic-induced shifts in operations:


Autonomy is the feeling that you have the freedom to make meaningful decisions about the work you do. Implied in autonomy is trust—trust that your supervisor and colleagues around you will support and believe in you when making decisions or having a say in a matter.

The campus response to COVID-19 has asked many employees to make dramatic shifts in their daily functions. For some, their job duties have shifted entirely. These significant changes impact our perception of control and autonomy—if it feels like “others” are making major decisions about what we do day-to-day, this perception lends to the belief that we are not in control in making meaningful decisions, greatly reducing workplace motivation and satisfaction.

If you’re struggling with a loss of autonomy, try to take up activities at home and at work that help you feel empowered and strong. Here are some examples:

  • Regular exercise, particularly push and pull exercises if possible
  • Start manageable (2-days or less) home projects
  • Have a daily routine and be disciplined about it (note: research suggests starting the day off with movement and exercise improves focus throughout the day)
  • Make conscious choices about what foods and liquids you put into your body
  • Talk to your supervisor about their vision for what trust looks like on the team


Competence is akin to having capability to be effective at what we do. When a task falls short of our capabilities, we call this boredom. When a task greatly exceeds our capabilities and/or the quantity of work isn’t manageable, we observe anxiety. Somewhere in the middle, when our capabilities are challenged enough to arouse us beyond boredom, but doesn’t cross into overwhelm, is when you typically feel “in the zone,” or what positive psychologists call “flow states.” Experiences of flow tend to motivate us to get better at something that we deem important as well.

My guess is that if you’re reading this, you’ve experienced either boredom, overwhelming stress, or have bounced back and forth between the two at different times of the year. This is doubly impactful because workplace competence is so directly linked to perceptions about self-worth and value in the U.S. If you feel, at least in part due to significant job changes, that you are not contributing enough, or that you are being asked to perform beyond your means, you will undoubtedly be experiencing a loss of joy at work.

If you’re struggling with feeling insecure or anxious about your competency in the workplace, try to add passion into your life and work, and examine your personal understanding of what defines your self-worth. Here are some suggestions:

  • Do something you love
  • Pick-up a jigsaw puzzle that you can work on sporadically throughout the day
  • Learn a new skill that excites you
  • Have an earnest conversation with your supervisor about what initiatives and projects need to be put on the backburner
  • Define for yourself how you derive meaning from your work
  • Acknowledge that your productivity is not the singular definition of your worth and value

Connection with Others

Having at least a few high-quality relationships with others has been frequently linked to happiness and well-being. Some research even suggests having a good friend at work is the highest correlated deterrent to leaving a workplace.

But when physical interactions and connections become severed, so do our old notions of what it means to really feel connected. Although I’m certain we’ve all oscillated between gratitude and disgust with having virtual video meetings, we must admit that the vast majority of us are, in a sense, trained to navigate relationships and dynamics in an in-person reality.

This isn’t to negate anyone who enjoys or takes solace in a remote working environment, but let’s acknowledge the inexplicable loss of not being able to step into your colleague’s office to check-in with them about how their spouse is doing after a surgery, excitedly share a breakthrough in research with your advisor, or commiserate about how sore your quads are after taking that spin class together.

The workplace is not simply a place where we keep our heads down and get to work—it’s been a place where we form human connections. The difference in how we formerly connected is felt and will have an impact on our sense of connection to others, to the work, and to the campus.

If you’re struggling with feeling disconnected from others, try to focus on helping others and being part of something bigger than just yourself.

  • Write a letter of gratitude to a loved one once a month
  • Participate in or help organize charity events, like canned food drives
  • Embrace a good-enough mentality when it comes to virtual meetups with friends and family
  • Share stories with an elder or young person in your life
  • Spend time in nature and/or with animals
  • Reconnect with your team’s mission and vision

There’s always the possibility for choice.

Let us not take a single moment for granted, nor chase future happiness or peace. Rather than wait for something magical to resolve our sense of stagnation, be proactive in identifying what your needs are in work and in life regarding making meaningful decisions, effecting positive change, and growing important connections and relationships. And finally, please take up the mantle of making thoughtful choices about your own life’s well-being.

If you’re wanting to explore these concepts further with a professional counselor, please contact the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program for free and confidential counseling and consultation. Spanish-speaking services are available.

About the Author

Stanley Ly, MA, LPC is the Director and Licensed Staff Counselor with the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program in the Department of Human Resources at CU Boulder.