Asperger’s / autism, inertia, and motivation [Mental Health Monday]

You’ve probably heard the words…

“Get moving.”

“Don’t wait until the last minute.”

“You’re lazy.”

“You’d do so much better if you applied yourself.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

If you’re anything like me, motivation can be an ongoing Achilles heel.

What are we really talking about here?  According to Oxford Dictionary, “motivation” can be defined as:

1 – A reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way.

‘escape can be a strong motivation for travel’

1.1 – [mass noun] Desire or willingness to do something; enthusiasm.

‘keep staff up to date and maintain interest and motivation’

And if you’re anything like me, there might be some days where you wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to greet the sunshine, let out a whoop, and say “I’ve totally got this”…

…and there might be other days where emerging from the bed-cocoon is the absolute last thing you want to do.

It might not stop there.

Once up and around, or at the office/workspace, or wherever else, you might realize that this Inert Feeling has settled over you, claiming you, willing you to stay still, stay where you are.  During times like these, it’s almost like you’ve been mesmerized by nothing, under the trance of a black hole, slowly becoming one with whatever you’re sitting or lying on.  At least, that’s the way I could describe my experience.

I believe that this inertia (which is not exclusively a tendency to stay at rest, of course) might come from the task-switching challenges/difficulty/delay in people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum.*  I think that the task-switching issue is the actual engine behind the part of the official diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum “Disorder” that reads:

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-6-44-11-am-2

The image above, paraphrased to favor the emphasized text and its context:

“B – Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities…

“2 – Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions…)”

(Emphasis mine)

What “they” see as “difficulties with transitions” (without yet considering to ask us for our perspective), might actually be more of an inertia.  This word gets thrown around a lot, usually with a derogatory spin.  So, let’s define exactly what I mean by that one, too.

Oxford Dictionary defines inertia as:

1 – (usually disapproving) lack of energy; lack of desire or ability to move or change

“I can’t seem to throw off this feeling of inertia.”

“the forces of institutional inertia in the school system”

2 – (physics) – a property (= characteristic) of matter (= a substance) by which it stays still or, if moving, continues moving in a straight line unless it is acted on by a force outside itself

The second definition of the word “inertia” came from Newton’s Laws of Motion, of which there are three.  The First Law reads:

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

When I use the word “inertia” to describe phenomena in myself and/or others in the Asperger’s/autism spectrum population, my intended meaning is actually closer to that second, Newton-derived definition; matter-of-fact and neutral, without any critical inference or connotation.  I’m bypassing the first definition of “inertia” completely, instead tapping into the “an object at rest tends to stay at rest…” aspect of the word.

But it’s not just all about being “at rest” (which is the misperception of some of us by of some of the neurotypical people in our lives, tempting them to call us “lazy”).  Remember that there’s a second half of Newton’s First Law:

“An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”  (Emphasis mine.)

It appears that somewhere long the line, the word “inertia” was likely kidnapped and co-opted by some hoity-toity self-satisfied elitists to describe anyone who wasn’t a caffeinated rah-rah go-getter.  At least, that’s how it seems to me.

The way I see it, it’s a fairly condescending word when used as a put-down toward those who take a seemingly different approach and/or energy level to life.  But it’s quite the apt word for describing (in neutral, emotion-free terms) the challenges that many of us (including myself) experience when asked to stop doing Activity A and start doing Activity B.

I believe that this neutral-flavored inertia (the tendency to keep doing what we’re currently doing) expressed by many of us on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum is actually rooted in a comparatively deeper and more intense cognitive engagement with our thoughts, trains of thought, and activities.  To us, the rest of the world comparatively seems to have an attention deficit.

If the brain is a muscle, and thinking or doing something requiring thought exercises that muscle, then (speaking for myself) my level of focus is like tetany (a state of perpetual, uncontrollable activation), and the rest of the world, by comparison, is like atrophy.

Because the “average” person (in general) can’t latch onto an activity or a train of thought quite like many of us can, they don’t understand our level of focus, nor do they understand just how difficult it can be for us to pull out of one activity or though-train and “switch gears”.  To them, task-switching is open-and-shut: stop doing this thing, and start doing that thing.  For us, it’s not that simple.

Which (finally) brings us to Monday morning.  Most of us have been in “Weekend Mode” for the past two days, which usually involves relaxing activities: recharging our batteries, petting the cats, decompressing our brains, processing events from the previous week (and hopefully filing them away), and mentally preparing for the upcoming week. (To be truthful, I have also had a tough time setting boundaries when it came to leaving work at work and settling into relaxation mode for the weekend.)

It doesn’t matter that Monday comes every week, that every seventh day is a Monday, and thus, we’ve done this before and we do it often; it’s not like it gets easier and easier each time.  That doesn’t change the fact that, every time, we’ve just come off of a weekend, complete with the Weekend Mode–the body- and mind-set that come with weekends (your specific version may vary).  It doesn’t change the fact that, every Monday morning, we have to perform a massive task-switch operation, mass-migrating our energies from one frequency to an entirely different one.

To come full circle and connect the Inertia and Motivation dots together, I think that our Aspie/autistic inertial tendencies can raise our Motivation Hurdle that much higher.

“Everyone’s like that,” comes the indignant chorus.  (Some people can’t get it through their thick heads that there are other people out there with true challenges that they’re not just using as excuses.  Luckily those people aren’t entirely common, but I digress…)  Those people stop at the Starbucks drive-thru, get their Triple Mocha Latte (Venti-size) and merge back into traffic on their way to the office.  For them, problem solved.  For us, it’s not a matter of adrenal glandular slumber; no amount of caffeine “solves” our task-switch-averse Freight Train Brain.  The adrenaline rush from caffeine only amplifies the stress effect of a task-switching effort.  “Those People” will never be able to know or understand that.

The lack of motivation can happen at any time, when changing activities of any type (and for our purposes, sitting and hanging out “counts” as an activity, too).

The lack of motivation can also come from depression.  Although I haven’t touched on this aspect yet, depression can, on its surface, “look” like apathy.  In that case, it’s simply tough to care, to get “into” or excited about much of anything.  That will probably get its own future post.  For now, I’m assuming that you’re able to get…well, maybe not excited, per se, but at least not apathetic.

(Edit to add a reference to Executive Function, inspired by a lovely commenter below… Thank you! 🙂 )

A lack of motivation can also come from a glitch in our Executive Function, that far-encompassing set of various high-level brain functions that, for the purpose of this post, governs our ability to plan, sequence, and initiate activity (or activities).  If we’re having difficulty doing any of these things, it’s hard to get moving.

So…what do we do about such a (non-apathetic-based), inertia- or executive-function-rooted lack of motivation?  Is there hope?

Oh yeah, there’s hope.  I deal with a lack of motivation fairly often.  Not every day, but at least once or twice a week–and if not, then I’ll certainly make up for it the following week.  Here are some strategies I’ve come up with (there are probably a lot more out there; feel free to chime in!) 🙂

  • Make a to-do list (I have a few; one for immediate/short-term/time-sensitive obligations, and others for ongoing projects, etc).  I recommend doing this when you’ve got some extra time to think and plan. Crossing things off of a list feels really satisfying and empowering. 
  • I make these lists using the Notes app on my mobile phone, which allows me to sequence tasks properly.  I often think of list items out of order and I like having the ability to simply touch a different spot on the screen and start interjecting a task in between two others, without having to make a mess on paper (and risk not seeing something and forgetting to do it!)
  • Be realistic when making your list; i.e., try not to load it down with sky-high aspirations.  Sometimes it helps to divvy up activities into categories (types of activity, close-together deadlines–however you like).  The smaller chunks can help the list seem more manageable.
  • Prioritize items on the to-do list, ranking the most urgent on top and so on, and work down the list in order.  Alternatively, you can rank the smallest/quickest/easiest tasks on top so that you feel better about getting them done quicker and being able to shift your focus toward longer/more-complex tasks.
  • Break down the activities on the to-do list into chunks – as small as you want, as small as they can be broken down.
  • Take breaks periodically throughout the day; I do this when having to perform a major task-switch.
  • Before going on break, set up and put in place everything you’ll need to accomplish the next task on your list.  Lower the barriers to getting going by making the environment inviting and seamless for when you get back from break.  For example, if I’m writing a letter or creating an educational handout, I’ll open my word processing app, clear the space around my keyboard, and extract my water bottle and snacks from my briefcase, laying them out neatly at my desk, just before I the office for my 15-minute break.  That way, I come back in to a more inviting environment, and it’s that much easier for me to slide right in.  I don’t have a lot of excuses not to.
  • If you’re tempted to stray, give yourself permission to stray–just set a time limit.  “OK, my brain obviously wants to wander.  I’ll take a pad of paper and a pen, and go outside to the sitting benches under the tree.  I’ll set my watch/mobile alarm for 20 minutes.”  And so on.
  • If you’re tempted to engage in a much-more-fun activity that would take longer than a short break, promise yourself you’ll be able to do it after your work; the sooner you get done with work, the sooner you can “play”.
  • While working, use your momentum (the conventionally-“positive” side to inertia) to your advantage. When one task is done, try to keep going without losing steam.
  • Try not to beat yourself up over tasks on your list that you didn’t get to.  Just copy-paste (or rewrite) them under another day.  Personally, I often rank my to-do list items in order of importance; there are certain items that are of high priority, and others of lesser priority.  I might say, “Today, I plan to complete tasks A and B.  If I get them done and I have time left over, I’ll start on C and D.  Ideally, I’d like to get A, B, and C done, but if I don’t get done with C or start on D, then that’s OK.  At the very least, I need to get A and B done for sure.”
  • Try to separate your work area and hours from those of your leisure time.  This may help with the temptation aspect.  Remember the song by The Byrds – “a time for this, a time for that”.
  • If music helps you concentrate and you can play it in your work area, do so.
  • Eliminate distractions that derail you by turning off notifications and ringers on your mobile, closing your office door if you can, and requesting that other people not bother you.  Set aside time to check them later, which makes a good trade-off (and puts your mind at rest) for refusing to check them at work.
  • Be sure to set aside enough leisure time when you’re not at work; this is particularly true if you find yourself straying (or wanting to stray) frequently.  That might be a sign that you’re not getting the Me Time you need.  (This can be a challenge in itself, but keep trying.)
  • Above all, practice consistent self-compassion and forgiveness.  If you don’t get something done and it’s not super-crucial, don’t sweat it.  If you’re having a tough time switching modes or tasks, try not to beat yourself up.  Go easy on yourself; be gentle; you’ll get a lot more done and end up with less stress if you’re not also recovering from a self-beration.  None of us is perfect. ❤

Obviously I’m a big fan of to-do lists, because they work for me.  If that’s not your thing, that’s OK!  The important part for all of us is to find strategies that work for us.  Even if you’re not a list-fan (or a fan of other items on the list above), hopefully the strategies mentioned above might give you a jumping-off point that might give you an inspiration involving something else.  Either way, my only goal, as usual, is to help, however I can. 🙂

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20 Comments

  1. I’m kind of surprised that you attribute the problem solely to lack of motivation. It’s possible to be highly motivated and still not be able to get going. It’s a problem of poor executive functioning, which is very common in autistics.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s very, very true! Excellent point. My original idea for the post was solely motivation and how to get motivated, but when I started thinking it through and researching, I got stuck on an “inertia kick” and then ran out of time before having to leave for the office this morning. Your point is really well taken, though, and you’re completely right. As I’m able, I’ll go back and edit the post to add references to executive function. Or I’ll write a new post about motivation and executive function. Or something 😉❤️

      Liked by 1 person

      1. i actually think this sort of thing is on a “spectrum.”

        its probably another unified field theory. the thing that makes you fall apart when youre overloaded? this is the same mechanism that causes lethargy and stress. its the body and minds way of saying “hey there, im already doing what i can.”

        the western lifestyle (a cliche! mea culpa– if the shoe fits– oh no! another one…) says to this sort of thing “hey! we own you until you clock out. dont take a moment to breathe or its stealing…”

        the result is that everyone is overworked and overstressed. here, have a distraction, have a placebo, because the cure doesnt really fit our puritanical work ethic.

        here we are in world full of almost intelligent machines in “danger” of replacing us at work, and we still compete with them for the right to be worked to death. f*** humanity, seriously (well no, that would be pointless and redundant– we are already doing it to ourselves.) you know how many people could have jobs if we didnt structure the workforce like its 1949?

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Due to time constraints, I edited this post to add a touching on of executive function. That concept is so important! I’ll try to add a little more later, such as a definition (with link, or perhaps a link to a previous post on executive function) to balance things out a bit more. Awesome insight! Thank you again 😊💞

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Lol yep, me too 😊 I’ll publish the post, but then go back and edit it like 15 times to add all the stuff I’ve forgotten (and correct typos, wrong words, missing words, and all the rest) lol 😉💞

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I find switching INTO weekend-mode, or staying in it and relaxing just as hard. 50% of my “Monday problem” is exhaustion. Or was, until I started to plan my weekends as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes! Same here 😊 For years, I had to tell myself that it was ok to relax. There was a lot of guilt (“shouldn’t I be doing something constructive?” went the self-talk”), and only through a bit of therapy and a lot of self-convincing, rewriting old tapes and whatnot, only then was I able to switch into weekend mode more easily. Sometimes the lines between work and rest still blur, though 😊

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Oh yeah! You’re totally not alone on that one! I giggled warmly when I read your comment 😊 My partner and I come home from the office (we work together) and inevitably, I’ll say, “so what are your plans for the weekend?” And he’ll just answer me seriously, like it’s an everyday question. I’m not sure that either of us have stopped to ask ourselves “plan? For the weekend? Who *does* that?” Lol 😊 Apparently we do, and we always have. Automatically, without fail, and without thinking about it. You’re definitely in plenty of company ❤️

      Liked by 3 people

      1. no thats not the best part. the best part is when someone asks you if you have any plans for _____, (anything in particular) and you have a little mini (micro) panic attack for two seconds, because you dont know! and they see the look on your face and explain they were just making conversation– it wasnt an interrogation.

        its my favorite stupid nt trick. (its really not a trick, they just dont know that a few of us are practically wired to think of the question that way, even IF we know we do it already.)

        Liked by 3 people

  3. This is painful. In fact, I believe this (poor executive function) is the primary reason that is hindering me from pursuing my dream. I can relate and this is something I’ve been planning to write about, only I haven’t because of a lack of motivation and poor executive functioning skills (and to some extent, painful to write). What I truly lament is that I know my weakness in executive functioning so I make a conscious effort to come up with to-do lists but something urgent at work will always crop up and disrupt my original plan, and then I have to re-structure my entire to-do list (and yes, coming up with a to-do list is a huge task in itself!) This, I find most disheartening and frustrating.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Awww I’m so sorry to be an agent of pain, my friend 😔💐 I do hear you though! I do have days like that. Usually it’s a matter of catching flying things in my head and capturing them onto paper, but sometimes it gets so overwhelming that I’m all “where do I start??” 😘❤️💜

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh no, you are not an agent of pain, of course not! Please feel free to write whatever you feel 😊
        If I told someone else about this, chances are I will get a reply somewhere along the line of, “that’s work, everyone has to deal with it.” I’m glad you wrote it because it validates how I feel and I know I won’t be judged for being lazy here. It is a true struggle!
        Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😘

        Liked by 3 people

    2. Hiya friend! Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts 😊😊. Whew! Relieved lol 😉❤️ I can definitely relate to what you said! People make assumptions, and, well, we all know what they say about the spelling and what it means and all that 😉😂. But in all seriousness, yeah, those comments they make can be pretty frustrating. I’m sorry that anyone judges you at all 💐 Thank you for reassuring me that I’m successful in providing a safe space and Judgment-Free Zone, because that’s exactly my goal 😊😊💞💜

      Liked by 1 person

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