Motivation and Bipolar Disorder

The way I see it, bipolar disorder presents a problem with motivation (you know, among all the other bipolar problems). Many people in acute bipolar moods suffer from too much, unrestrained motivation or no motivation at all. Either way you slice it, it’s a bitch.

I’m Bipolar, I’m Motivated

Motivation is a funny thing. It’s guided by pleasure and/or lack of pain. Not surprisingly, we’re motivated to do the things that bring as pleasure or the things that help us avoid pain. We’re motivated to eat ice cream – pleasure; we’re motivated to work so we can pay rent – avoidance of pain.

And when you’re manic, or hypomanic, boy do things often feel good. Everything seems like a brilliant idea. Why would you pain all the walls in your house purple? Well, obviously, it’s genius. And expressing genius is awesomely pleasurable. Sex feels great so grab lots of it. Seek pleasure out with all might and at all expense.

I’m Bipolar, I Have No Motivation

Unfortunately, the flip side of the mood also represents the flip side of motivation – I have no motivation. Depression equals a lack of motivation. That’s a standard symptom and something I have experienced many times. When depressed, one has the motivation to sleep – often because that’s the only thing that doesn’t feel quite so painful.

Handling the Challenges of Bipolar and Motivation

So the question is, how does one deal with bipolar and motivation, or particularly, lack thereof?

One thing that I find helpful is lists. It’s hard to be motivated when just thinking of an overwhelming mountain of do-to items, but if they’re organized on a list, somehow they’re more manageable, and you have the reward of crossing an item off the list when you complete it. If you make your list carefully, this can even work when you’re manic as you might be able to convince yourself to keep really crazy things off the list when writing them down forces you to take an extra moment to think about them.

Bipolar and Lack of MotivationWhen suffering from no motivation, I like to time-box things. Basically this means that I promise myself that I will spend a certain amount of time on a task, whether that completes the task or not. So, for example, I will spend 15 minutes writing an article. That might not finish the article, but it makes progress and progress, even a small amount, beats back the bipolar-lack-of-motivation phenomenon. And at the end of 15 minutes, I might find it wasn’t so bad and I might be able to talk myself into another 15.

I also use rewards to try to motivate myself. Like, if I finish an article I will be allowed ice cream, that sort of thing. Sure, it makes me feel a little like a five-year-old, but it works.

I think the important thing to remember with motivation is that even a little progress matters and that every win should be celebrated. It takes an extraordinary amount of work to find the motivation sometimes to get off the couch to take a shower – so that shower is a big deal and a cause for celebration. It’s important not to measure our motivation and our productivity against others. A win for us might not be a win for someone else, but that’s okay. Only we know how much work it took to scrounge together the motivation we did to wash the dishes.

I think it’s important to recognize that motivation is a problem, lack of it is a symptom, acknowledge it, and then use tools to defeat it as best we can – just like we do with every symptom of bipolar disorder.


About Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is an award-winning writer, speaker and consultant from the Pacific Northwest. She has been living with bipolar disorder for 18 years and has written more than 1000 articles on the subject.

Natasha’s New Book

Find more of Natasha’s work in her new book: Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. Media inquiries can be emailed here.

  1. Pingback: Evaluating My Current State of Wellness | The Art of Chaos

  2. Aw, this was a really nice post. In idea I would like to put in writing like this additionally – taking time and actual effort to make a very good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and by no means seem to get something done.

  3. I monitor my symptoms and ” adjust” my medication accordingly ( my Dr knows )
    There are classic bipolar high symtoms
    If you have rapid speech and rapid thoughts with ADHD and heaps of energy…prob
    Your on a high ( you may be into impulsive spending to)
    You feel you can achieve almost anything …you can certainly “out think ”
    ” the average person”
    When on a high your highly social to.
    Jokes appear funnier and you see the world through ” rise coloured glasses”…every thing seems “possible”
    Your creativity is exceptional
    When on a magor low everything
    Is opposite ….
    You have no energy; you just want to be alone and quiet.
    creativity is there but reduced ( probably with a “dark side “..)…there is ” “little colour” in your life.
    You are depressed and withdrawn; anxiety may well be present…time to talk to your Dr and increase your medication for depression.
    It’s easy to understand how others may think you are on “illegal drugs “when in fact you are not!

  4. Natasha, I am so relieved to read your article, as I have been suffering from lack of motivation, or bipolar paralysis, as I call it, for a very long time (4 years since my diagnosis). I’ve often wondered, worried, deeply, daily, being plagued with the inability to get up off the couch and do even the smallest chore on my to do list, i.e., finishing a few loads of laundry that have been sitting in the washer & dryer – for days.
    Straightening the kitchen & clearing dishes, running the dishwasher, and emptying the dishwasher is just plain insurmountable. I try to be kind to myself, and forgive myself for being bipolar, telling myself it is not my fault. I used to be a high powered professional, easily multitasking and completing several things (like 3-5) in one day. The profound change in my inability to even get up off the couch, further depresses and immobilizes me further. What’s wrong with me? Where did “I” go? I tell myself I have to be patient, as the crippling paralysis will pass, at some point. In the interim, I think I do need to change my expectations to get only one or two things done, (not including getting myself into the shower). I’m forever grateful to know that you understand me, better than anyone I know. We are partners, living with and navigating bipolar illness, trying to stay in a place of acceptance, so as not to surrender into s downward spiral. Thank you.

  5. Thank you for your posts and keeping up this blog no matter how much you struggle. I hope us readers continue to be a motivation for you. I get by with the bare minimum of things I need to do and everything else is like trying to climb a monstrous mountain while chained at the bottom of the sea. I’m just absolutely exhausted all the time, even when the anxiety is full swing. I’m in the nightmare of medication roulette as most of us are and I appreciate this little moment of knowing I’m not alone. Thank you.

  6. I’m so glad you wrote about this, Natasha! Specifically, lately, your example speaks to me. Taking a shower, getting out of bed… Huge issues for me, but I do feel the accomplishment. It’s amazing. Whereas when I am healthy, taking a shower is just an everyday thing I do, times like now, a shower is a CHORE & once I finally drag myself to do it, I feel empowered!

  7. My biggest hurdle seems to be over scheduling. I have a hard time telling my little sister no about certain things! I have also committed myself to getting an education, working part-time (close to full), homeschooling my kids, and trying to keep my home organized and clean. I seriously struggle to find a balance with all of this. I’ve tried to come up with solutions, but at the end of the day, my housework and schoolwork always take a back seat to everything else. Any ideas?

  8. So of you are really doing it tuff!
    While I also look after my 86 yr old invalid mother which limits my social life
    We also have a dog which gives us another point of focus besides each other.
    The dog doesn’t care if I’m bipolar but she seems aware my mum is weak.
    I wish all us BP s could socialise and keep an eye out for each other.
    I’m an Athiest so there’s no comfort from “God” for me…
    I think Jesus suffered from pyschosis and most likely Schitzerphrenia as well;
    certainly he had mental health issues like many profets and healers of his time.
    But I digress do the seasons affect you? I’m best Spring and Autumn; Winter I’m really depressed;
    I’m down in summer to which I find strange
    How do the seasons affect you

  9. Like most everyone with bipolar disorder, my motivation comes and goes. I try to deal with it in a similar way. I try to stick to a schedule that is pretty much the same every day. I try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, eat about the same amount of food every day, exercise about the same amount every day, drink about the same amount of water every day. I make to do lists and schedule my time for work and social activities. I go to work even when I don’t feel like it, and I usually get more done than I thought I would, and it is definitely more productive than staying at home. I try not to worry about it. I don’t broadcast my changes in motivation. I don’t really think anyone else notices it as much as I do. If I’m really struggling, I try to at least get started on tasks. I can always go back to them later.

  10. Too much motivation (mania) or more commonly the lack thereof (depression) for me is my biggest hurdle. Trying to find that delicate, fragile balance can on most days feel like an impossibility.

  11. That first guy doesn’t get it. Many people don’t. They seem to think we CHOOSE to live this way-and how wrong they are! As far as motivation, I can only be kind to myself and do the best I can. Some days I can accomplish a lot, and other days I can’t. On lower days I do not waste time and hurt myself by either pushing myself or mentally beating myself up. I do what I can, get the rest I need, and figure tomorrow will be better. And it usually is.

  12. Motivation can be a fickle mistress. I think that when we take unwanted behavior/personality and label them as real treatable imbalances, as if they were as apparent to science as blood sugar to diabetes, we find ourselves introducing many dangerous harmful substances to our minds with a very real measurable off-put to a fragile equilibrium. This causes cognitive impairment and duller thought process, depression, apathy, lack of motivation. When I’m in a library I imagine each book, the author is just manically talking to themselves on a word processor for hours on end until every last racing thought is captured enough to cover the walls and shelves of every floor of the fiction section. Had the author reported his beautiful racing thoughts to a psychiatrist MD, we’d have another story. He would be obliged to poison himself into mediocrity and be over 300lbs with drool stains on his shirt watching daytime tv. Fantastica from Neverending Story II would be swallowed up by the Great Nothing. I don’t even like to read, but I do notice a hypocrisy in who gets diagnosed and who gets to be free.

      • this is comment about letting go of people with mental illness. i was not able to finad correct place to reply.
        i have taken a litany of cocktails.
        i cope with the instincts of a rabbit. you it appears healthy just before it dies.
        as my bipolar has become worse i take great pains to avoid people so cause no problems. w
        people say they understand and then fade out you said… dropping them…. with out them rerealize they have been the trigger to the whole situation.
        western civilization is basicaly a self and narccistic one. the individual is more important than the whole. sp while you all spend your time with lack of compassion for some one with a disabilty i try so hard to hide.. but came out on face book… you all are able to give us the room to be our selves. if 1/3 of my skull was missing semi paralyside and lacked most abstract thought… how long before you walk away then.

    • I’m having problems going to my first Bipolar support group here in Seattle, now we are moving all next month. I’m working on getting my motivation/courage up to go. Tomorrow I go too see my Dr. she suggested I might have anxiety attacks, it’s made worse by my tinnitus getting worse, the swooshing, now it matches my heart beat, my ENT Dr said their is a way to help but it’s risky surgery, and that she would do it. I’m at the point I’m willing to risk it. She already rules out tumors, nothing showed in the MRI, and an MRI with dye. I’ve already had a hearing test, and I was told it’s exceptional.No meniere’s. Two of of other possibilities are my neck injury which has gotten worse, TMJ that’s pretty severe but if it’s that I’m up the creek without a paddle, that one won’t be covered by the insurance. Malformation of the capillaries. I’m going to demand they test for everything else. The only solution that others have tried to cut the nerve to the ear. No way, i’d rather have the ringing and hearing, then deaf. Some say they still hear it. How maddening that would be.

  13. You know, Natasha, you’re right about the highs and lows being a bitch; and I can definitely testify about the motivation swings. Are you bipolar, too? My mother was diagnosed schizophrenic [back in the late ’60’s] and I only found that out about 2 years ago. But I do know there’s a strong, familial disposition and that the two disorders are closely tied to one another. I think my son is perhaps also bipolar or ADHD [or a mix of both] but I won’t be disengaged, like my father was, who didn’t really try to direct me in life, thus “training” me/my brain to not know how to gain direction in life [this is scientifically supported, btw]. I will/do counsel him on the need to gain the skill of setting goals and striving toward them–something I still struggle with today. Bipolar disorder: it isn’t just for kids anymore. :-|

    • Hi Charles,

      Yes, I’m bipolar too.

      You are right that serious mental illnesses do run in families. People with a bipolar parent have a more than 50% chance of having a serious mental illness themselves.

      There are many things you can do as a parent to help a child with a mental illness. I would recommend getting professional help for you and your son to help raise him with the skills he needs to handle any illness as effectively as possible. Find a therapist who specializes in childhood mental illness.

      You are right not to be disengaged. It might be tough, but then, being a good parent always is :)

      – Natasha Tracy

  14. Great stuff!

    Feeling lack of motivation is not pleasant at all. Breaking things down into smaller steps is brilliant, like you suggest. I also love that you’ve recognised the need for us to celebrate seemingly small achievements, such as taking a shower. I hadn’t thought how important this might be.

    Talking to ourselves in a kind, encouraging way I also find helpful, like talking to a small child.

    I have found Bach Flower Remedies very useful as each remedy balances a particular emotional state. I think Wild Rose and Wild Oat would be helpful here.


  15. You are so on par with this post. Motivation is the biggest problem I have. I hate feeling that everyone thinks I am lazy because I am not. I kept feeling like such a failure for not getting things done but I had to force myself to just congratulate myself for getting little things done because I know that’s all I can do that day. I have arthritis too so not only is motivation a problem but it literally hurts sometimes to get out of a chair so I have that stacked against me too. I learned to just try to accomplish as much as I can and not get too down on myself if I had a hard day because maybe tomorrow will be better.

  16. I like this article! It is like you reached into my mind and read one of my most troublesome aspect of my illness. I DO have days when just taking a shower seems like such a great task. I keep saying I’ll do it today or on the next commercial comes on. All along I can smell my failure to carry it out. Sometimes I can tell myself just do it and get it over with and that does it. I think that is the Soldier in me, LOl , I would say get out of my head but you have my interest now so go for it,,Andie

  17. Motivation is always a problem I have reached an age together with years on medication that when I am overly motivated its a normal to slow day for many. Being motivated does not mean that the illness will allow me to succeed I have a battery life that does not fit in with daily life as we know it on planet earth. Lacking motivation or energy to move far or fast leaves me with days that lack in structure. I am usually reinventing myself to give myself a break. I AM MOTIVATED TO KEEP ON TRYING.

  18. To induce motivation I use visualization. Simply seeing what I want to do allows me to do it – this requires effort.

    Beyound the minds’ pictures is thought without language. I attempted to get a response from a speech pathology professor on this topic (1975). He was mute on the subject. Recently I have come to the conclusion we think, ‘we think’. Are we reciting a script written for us, or do we choose the words we use to arrive at conclustions? In other words are there other influences involved in our reality? What do you think~

    • You’d be better off going to a philosophy professor for this answer, although I’m sure there are some speech pathologists who philosophise, they tend to be asking the questions rather than answering them – being more concerned about the production and comprehension of language than its origins. Although those who do dabble in philosophy tend to come up with the best interventions.

      For me, I tend to come to conclusions fairly rapidly without having any idea how I got there, so language is useful for filling in the gaps and explaining to others – it’s a bit slow though. I don’t see pictures in my mind, though I tend to have fairly good spatial abilities.

      Now then, Charles Mistretta, what was your question? Do we generate our own language? Now, my relative has had a stroke and has Broca’s aphasia. He’s trying to express himself, but he can’t remember the words or formulate grammatical sentences. Otherwise though, he’s all there. So, it seems that the idea of what he wants to say is in his mind, trying to get out, but his damaged brain cannot create the language properly – his message can be understood partially through the tone of his voice, the ebb and flow of his utterance, and fragments of language.

      An overriding theory of linguistics, depending upon the school at which you were educated, is that grammar is innate. However the meanings of words are picked up across the lifetime. I suppose that people can be conditioned to behave in such a way in a particular situation, so that there is an outside influence on what they might say. But I tend to think that language is secondary to thought and that although language can be a tool used to communicate between our thoughts, and therefore influence thought, it is only this – a tool.

      Now that’s all very interesting, but what has it got to do with bipolar disorder? Other than, if you analyse this sample of language it will give you an insight into my thoughts, particularly as to whether you think I might still be hypomanic or if the increased lithium has done it’s job?

      Man I’ve got to get to bed, and I’ve got to limit my computer blog-commenting time to an hour a week. People are starting to think I’m a moderator here, when actually I live in a whole different country from the person who writes this blog and we’ve never met.

  19. Thank you, honestly, a shit ton for this: “If you make your list carefully, this can even work when you’re manic as you might be able to convince yourself to keep really crazy things off the list when writing them down forces you to take an extra moment to think about them.”

    The reason my to-do lists are impossibly long when I’m depressed is precisely because, in superhero manic mode, I signed myself up to do more than any human being could possibly do if they still wanted to eat and sleep (which are the only two things I DON’T do in superhero manic mode, which of course contributes to my fatigue and lethargy after the inevitable crash). I’ve always tried making to-do lists ONLY when depressed, and sometimes looking at the mile-long list of incomplete tasks and projects overwhelms me so much I actually feel worse and give up and throw them away and cry on the couch.

    Now the only trick will be making myself remember to sit down for a second and actually make a list while I’m in manic mode. I’m thinking I might ask my friends to watch out for the return of Manic Me and have THEM remind me? (This will involve telling them about the whole bipolar thing, but hell, these are the same folks who carted my ass to the hospital when I tried to kill myself a couple months ago, so it’s not like it’ll come as a great shock that I am mentally ill.) Has anyone ever asked their friends to watch out for them like this? Or does this put, like, unfair pressure on your friends, do you think?

    Thanks. I’m new at this whole admitting-I-am-not-sane thing and still navigating the ethics of it.

    • Having friends look out for you can be a great thing, and if these are people that took you to hospital then they will most likely be happy to be part of your support network. The thing I would suggest is to let them know the sort of things to look out for in the Manic You – eg. speaking to fast, calling them at 1 in the morning, suggesting constant activities or whatever it is that they are likely to see, just in being your friend.

      Then you need to discuss with them HOW you want them to tell you. A lot of people when manic, don’t want to hear it – we’re having way too much fun! But if you’ve discussed what you want them to say, you’re not asking them to keep you safe or be responsible for you, but just to give you some feedback when you’re behaviour starts to change.

  20. Same problem as mentioned above, stuck. I was so excited yesterday to find that Google had a little yellow legal pad thing for my home page. I used to use legal pads at work to stay organized.
    I’m still admiring that little app, I hope I can put it to use soon. Time is ticking away.
    Thanks Natasha.

  21. I know you’re right but it’s so hard just to write the to do list! (My BP is mostly on the down side, not helped by Dysthymic Disorder. Me, I’m a bundle of joy!)