Is Your Motivation Still on Vacation?

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There are many reasons why you might be having a hard time getting work done after your vacation. Before you can take steps to energize yourself, you need to understand a little more about why you’re having trouble getting started. The author presents three common reasons why you’re slow to get back into the game — and what to do about them. First, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, turn abstracts task into specific steps you can complete. Second, if your work doesn’t feel important, look at the work you’ve done over the past few months and catalog what it has added up to. Finally, if you’re just feeling bored with your work, take steps to advance your career, either at your company or a new one.

Vacations are an important part of your work year. Taking time away to relax, reflect, and recharge comes with several benefits. Yet there are times when your vacation ends but your motivation to dive back into work doesn’t follow. If you work remotely, it may be particularly difficult to get back into your routine, because you’re not around other people who have been working steadily while you were away.

There are many reasons why you might be having a hard time getting work done after your vacation. Before you can take steps to energize yourself, you need to understand a little more about why you’re having trouble getting started. Here are three common reasons why you’re slow to get back into the game — and what to do about them.

The Mountain Seems too High to Climb

Vacations take you out of the office, and that creates physical and mental distance from your work. As I’ve mentioned before, lots of research suggests that the more distant you are from something, the more abstractly you think about it.

When it comes to work, distance is a double-edged sword. It can help you think about your priorities (we’ll take that up in the next section), but it can also make the sheer volume of what you have to accomplish seem insurmountable. If you have a big project to complete, you may find it difficult to see how you’ll actually get it done. That sense that a project can’t be done is paralyzing, because studies demonstrate that your motivation to complete it is increased by both the importance of the work you’re doing and the likelihood that you’ll actually be able to complete it. In other words, if you don’t think you can get a particular task done, you’re unlikely to muster the energy to work on it.

That means you need to turn the abstract task into specific steps you can complete. Go back to your to-do list and dedicate specific times to addressing particular components of the bigger project. Get some advice from others who have succeeded on similar projects if you need some help determining the next steps you need to take. Also, reach out to colleagues whose help you’re going to need to find out when they can be available to do their part. Use their availability to help yourself set deadlines for completing particular aspects of the work.

Nothing Seems That Important

A second thing that vacations do is change your perspective on your daily life. Your engagement with tasks depends on the motivational energy you put behind them. When you get into a routine of going to work and doing the next thing that needs to be done — you attend the meetings on your calendar, tick off items on your to-do list, and take care of the requests that colleagues and clients make — the workday probably goes by quickly. Then it’s followed by time at home that may also be a blur of family responsibilities, chores around the house, and a little time for relaxation. You don’t have a lot of time each day to focus on the collected impact of the work you’re doing or to think about the other ways you might spend your time.

When you go on vacation, you realign your priorities. Chances are, you spend some time with family or friends and reconnect with other passions like travel, exercise, or just lying around with a good book.

When you get back to the workplace, you may need to convince yourself that the collection of tasks you’re doing is worth the effort. Take the time to look at the work you’ve done over the past few months and catalog what it has added up to. What are the big-picture things you’ve accomplished? In what ways have you affected the lives of other people?

The real sense of mission in your work comes from that combination of seeing how the tasks you perform are connected to a more significant set of outcomes (even if you’re just one part of a much larger team). And a lot of research on happiness in the workplace suggests that when you feel like your work serves a broader purpose that connects you to other people, you also feel greater satisfaction with the tasks you perform. Coming back from vacation can help you focus on the ways that your work isn’t just a job, but also a calling.

You’re Stuck in a Rut

Even if you believe deeply in the mission behind the work you’re doing, you might still have trouble getting back into your work after taking time off. It may be that you’re just bored with the set of tasks you’re performing.

Work on concepts like flow suggests that people are most engaged with their work when they’re working right at the limit of what they’re capable of doing (that space between a task being too easy and a task being too hard), and where each action succeeds and naturally leads to the next. If you’re not getting this sense of daily engagement, the job you’re in may no longer be a challenge for you. Moving forward in your career (either with the firm you’re with now or a new one) requires two key steps.

First, identify a role that would provide the challenge you want. It might be helpful to work with a mentor to help you find new opportunities that might be appealing. Second, think about the additional skills you need to be a good fit for those roles. During the pandemic, a lot of people put off additional training and education that might enhance their skills. However, a lot of great training and other classes from universities and other providers have moved online. There’s also a wealth of degree programs and noncredit options tailored for people trying to advance their careers. New knowledge and skills can help you re-energize when you have trouble getting motivated.

The goal is to address the short-term and long-term factors that sap your drive. By having concrete next steps that feel connected to a key mission, you maximize your motivation to get work done. By thinking about the next generation of skills you need to acquire, you also help yourself maintain that motivation over the long term.

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