Motivation and Elephants

Written by Lacey Cottingham

Motivation is fickle, isn’t it? You look at something, you know you need to do it, but you just can’t.

Some people try to will power their way through the task. It might work.

Other people try to set aside time, hoping that would be enough. And sometimes it is.

Still others to give themselves an external reward to motivate them into finishing. 

If it works, it works. But what if there’s something else going on?

What if the problem isn’t that you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough, but something else is pushing you away from completion?

What if you aren’t lazy? What if your engine(brain) is revving at 80 miles per hour, and an elephant is sitting on the brakes?

No wonder you feel burnt out!

Let’s take a look at what these elephants may be! Keep in mind, this is not an exhaustive list.

Fear of free time.

You have a project you’re in the middle of, but you’ve been “in the middle” of it for months. Maybe it’s a restoration project, it’s a dress.  You’re spending time thinking about it, planning to do it, arranging the order of the tasks in your head, being anxious that it isn’t done, working your energy up to doing it, then conveniently getting too tired and… you end up not doing it. You might even feel a little bit of relief, telling yourself it will be there tomorrow. 

Imagine for a moment, what would happen if the task wasn’t there? What happens once it’s done? If the very idea sent a shiver of anxiety down your spine, it’s time to find a qualified therapist and figure out what that means. For some people, it’s a symptom that you’re avoiding something bigger. Common things include realizing your nest is empty, realizing a relationship isn’t what it used to be, realizing it’s time to leave a job, realizing you don’t enjoy a hobby/pastime anymore. This elephant thinks it’s saving you from something by not letting you have free time. Free time would mean you have space to realize something has changed, and might not change back.

Fear of doing it wrong.

There are so many reasons this one might be existing that I could write a blog post on this alone. Imagine you want to paint a picture as a birthday present. You might buy the canvas and paints a month in advance, then not touch it for weeks. Then, in a fit of anxiety, you paint it very quickly the night before. But why? You could have painted it as soon as you got the supplies! For some people, the fear of doing it wrong and thus the fear of disappointing people, leads you to wait until you get your courage (or feverish anxiety) up to speed through it. You might even mildly dissociate, and make a mistake, then brush it off as an intentional thing.

Fear of having to move onto the next thing.

This one is similar to the first thing I mentioned in this list. If you practice driving, you’ll have to take the practical driver’s test. If you check the mail, you might find a bill to pay. If you clean out your closet, you’ll have to see and deal with the stuff your ex gave you.

The issue is not the task in front of you, it’s what can or will happen next. If you have an excuse to not engage in the scary thing, your elephant will hold onto that thing in the name of protection.


This elephant is my personal favorite. Resentment. The task represents something. And that something is loaded with unmet expectations, emotional (or physical abandonment), or being ‘put upon’.  

Maybe when you and your partner moved in together, you both agreed on a splitting of household chores. And for some reason, they simply aren’t doing them. Every time you work up the energy to pick up their slack, you have to confront your feelings of resentment. Maybe it’s even got so bad that you’ve decided it’s better to let roaches infest the house to punish your partner than it is to work through what’s not working about the arrangement. 

For some couples, there might be a valid medical reason the person can’t do the chores. Even if the more mature side of your brain can extend grace and empathy, there’s another part that feels hurt at the lack of support.

When completion feels pointless.

The hardest elephant to work through is the feelings of it being pointless to complete. The tasks that fall victim to this elephant are typically laundry and dishes. For some households, picking up toys in the living room are on this list. These individuals let the dishes exist in a slow burn of not done, the laundry exists in piles, and the legos lay scattered around. Then suddenly, someone wants to have a friend over, and it’s like someone kicked an anthill. One or more members of the house speed run through the chores, the friend comes over, and the house descends into clutter once more.

Next Steps

If any of these elephants resonate with you, and you’d like therapy to assist you, feel free to schedule a consult with one of our therapists.

If you are a first time therapy-goer, feel free to see this blog post to learn about what questions to ask in your 15 minute consult, and what to think about as you navigate the therapeutic relationship.