Increasing Motivation through Behavioral Activation

by Anna Bentley

Behavioral activation is a common approach to treating depression that involves improving mood by engaging in pleasurable or rewarding activities. These behaviors disrupt the cycle of inactivity that fuels and prolongs depression. Behavioral activation strategies can vary for everyone, but may include things like writing in a journal, going out for coffee, hiking, or watching a movie with a friend.

You don’t need to be experiencing depression to benefit from behavioral activation. The same strategies that improve our mood also help prevent burnout and increase productivity at work or school when we’re feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or unmotivated. Here are the steps to practice this approach:

  1. Identify activities that bring you pleasure. There are several activity lists online that can be used for inspiration, or you can make your own list from scratch. If using a pre-made list, start by highlighting the activities you really enjoy and that reliably bring you pleasure. Cross off the things that aren’t for you.
  2. Rate the activities you identified by how easy they are to complete and how rewarding they are. This worksheet can help you complete this. For me, I found that sitting down for a fresh cup of coffee is very easy for me to complete but has short-lived rewards, while going on a long hike is highly rewarding yet more difficult to complete.
  3. Schedule activities that will give you positive experiences in your day. Here’s another tool you can use to schedule these activities, or you can use our weekly calendar. Start with simple activities that are easiest to integrate into your day, and build from there. You might start by just adding one rewarding activity in the morning, building that routine, and then adding more activities over time.

A core principle behind why behavioral activation works is that action often precedes emotion. Sometimes at work or at school, we want to wait until we’re motivated before we start a project. However, the action of engaging in a rewarding activity can give us the energy we need to fuel our work. Maybe you’ve had an experience where you found yourself more vibrant and energized once you got going on a project, even though you were initially reluctant to start.

Next time you notice a lack of motivation or the temptation to procrastinate, I invite you to consider how you can bring pleasure into the experience. Here are a few rewarding activities that I sometimes schedule into my day while I’m working on campus:

  • Start the day with a fresh cup of coffee, and take a minute to really savor it before starting my work.
  • Write down my intention for the day as soon as I get into the office.
  • Listen to a special Spotify playlist whenever I’m completing a repetitive task.
  • Have walking meetings with my colleagues when possible.
  • Go on a short walk around campus during my lunch break. Sometimes I like to visit a building I’ve never been inside before, or I like to take pictures of beautiful things I discover on campus, like trees, flowers, and artwork.
  • Send an email to campus partners I haven’t spoken with for a while, just to say hello.
  • Doodle in my notebook between back-to-back meetings for a quick mental reset.

Intentionally integrating these pleasurable and rewarding activities into my day gives me the boost of energy I need when I’m feeling unmotivated. What activities bring you energy, help clear your mind, or inspire inspiration? What would it look like to schedule those activities into your work? Share your ideas with us in the comments!

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