How to Motivate Yourself When You're Depressed

How to Motivate Yourself When You’re Depressed

Depression zaps energy and motivation. Learn how to motivate yourself when you’re depressed using a combination of self-compassion and accountability.

It’s hard to motivate yourself when you’re depressed.

Karen was having an off day, feeling depressed, and totally unmotivated. You know the kind — when you just feel like crawling back in bed. We all have days when everything feels like an effort and we don’t want to do anything.

Karen’s a busy, single Mom with ambitious goals and never-ending parenting duties. As much as she wants to call it quits for the day, she also wants to cook a healthy dinner and read to her kids at bedtime. Some days it’s hard to get motivated. And let’s be honest, there are also some unpleasant tasks that are always hard to get motivated for.

depressed mother

Notice your thoughts.

Negative self-talk and procrastination set in. It’s easy to sink into self-criticism when you’re not productive. Without even realizing it, Karen starts thinking she’s lazy and useless. “I’m a crappy mother,” she thinks, “who doesn’t even have the energy to fix a proper meal and read a bedtime story.”

This creates a toxic cycle of low motivation, criticizing yourself for procrastinating or not doing something, and then feeling worse.

Berating yourself is not motivating. Often we think the way to get more done is to crack the proverbial whip – to be harder on ourselves. People tend to feel bad when they aren’t meeting expectations (either their own or someone else’s) and spiral into self-criticism. You won’t get more energized or motivated by being tougher on yourself.

To increase motivation when depressed, you need the right combination of self-compassion and accountability.

You have to start with self-compassion. Instead of beating yourself up, pause and acknowledge the struggle you’re experiencing.

Whether you have clinical depression or it’s just a bad day, the pain is real and everyone experiences feeling down, overwhelmed, or unmotivated from time to time.

Offer yourself kindness, like you’d give to a friend who was going through a tough time. Acknowledge that it’s normal to feel tired, down, or unmotivated and consider that your productivity isn’t a measure of your worth.

Most people worry that they’ll never get anything done if they’re “easy” on themselves. Self-acceptance isn’t the same as self-pity or wallowing in your problems. 

Compassionately accepting how you feel in this moment actually releases you from the negative self-talk that perpetuates your lack of motivation and productivity.

So, instead of criticizing yourself when you’re unmotivated, try being kind to yourself.

Once you start treating yourself with compassion, you may begin to feel more motivated. Happiness does lead to greater productivity. But, for most people, action is what creates motivation not the other way around. So, instead of waiting until you feel motivated, you need to give yourself a little push toward action.

Here’s how Karen tackled feeling overwhelmed and unmotivated. She’d had a very stressful day and just wanted to curl up alone in front of the TV. She didn’t feel like cooking, cleaning up, and reading bedtime stories.

She thought about what a crappy mother she is for ordering pizza and fast food way too often.  Karen felt like a failure because she doesn’t make many home-cooked meals and sometimes skips reading to her little ones.

Getting down on herself didn’t make her more likely to cook something healthy; it only reinforced her feelings of shame, failure, and inadequacy.

Karen’s solution began with replacing her self-critical thoughts with compassionate ones like: “I’m not a lazy person. I work full-time and parent two busy kids. It’s hard work! It’s OK to order a pizza sometimes. This doesn’t make me a bad mother.”

She recognized that she was stressed and tired and needed to treat herself well after work. She created a new routine of coming home and taking a long, hot shower and meditating for 10 minutes.

She still needed to take action on her goal of serving a healthy dinner, of course. She then made a goal, pushing herself a little, to make a salad. Over time she cooked more and more and she didn’t feel ashamed when she didn’t.

To motivate yourself when you’re depressed, you need to start with self-compassion and then take a small step towards your goal.

©2017 Sharon Martin. All rights reserved.
Originally published on PsychCentral. Photos courtesy of

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Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

2 thoughts on “How to Motivate Yourself When You’re Depressed”

  1. Lovely story. Self-talk can be your best friend and your worst enemy if you don’t catch yourself thinking negative thoughts. I see this with some of my fitness clients who spend so much time berating themselves it’s a surprise they found a moment of positive thinking to get started on a body transformation. :-)

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