A lack of energy and motivation has many causes and consequences. Sometimes it even becomes a vicious cycle. Low energy and motivation may cause you to feel lazy and out-of-sorts, which certainly provides no motivation to make a change.
Having no energy is debilitating. Lack of energy and motivation leads some people to turn to unhealthy health habits such as alcohol or drug use. About 6.6% of U.S. adults (16 million people) are using prescription stimulants, and about 5 million of them are misusing these powerful medications. In most cases (78%), their motivation was to be more alert or concentrate better.1
Physical and psychological causes of low energy are challenging to diagnose because the symptoms are so non-specific, there aren’t many great biomarkers to point to a diagnosis, and the list of possible diagnoses feels endless. Knowing more about the common causes of prolonged fatigue can help you work with your doctor to get a more accurate diagnosis.
Everyone goes through periods of low energy. If you are in one now, give yourself a break. You may just need some rest. However, prolonged mental and physical fatigue can signify physical or psychological health issues and lead to relationship problems. The sooner you better understand why you lack energy and motivation, the quicker you can turn your life around.
Stress, psychological or emotional conditions, and physical illness can all cause low energy and motivation. To better understand your lack of energy, look for associated patterns and symptoms. Does it occur only after exercise, late in the day, during the workweek, or after dealing with certain people or tasks? Do you notice physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, inability to exercise at a previously attainable level, poor sleep quality, fevers, gastrointestinal symptoms, changes in appetite, or infectious symptoms?
As you take inventory of your symptoms and patterns of fatigue, consider some of these common causes of low energy.
Burnout at work is a result of chronic stress that is not well managed. Physical and psychological symptoms are both common, leading to decreased job satisfaction and productivity. 2 Occasional burn-out is not uncommon, but if it leads to chronically low energy and motivation, it’s time to take a hard look at your current job and whether it’s time to make some changes. The line between burnout and depression is very thin.3
Do the demands of your workplace consistently exceed the physical and mental energy you have to give? Is it because of excessive demands from your employer or boredom and lack of engagement on your end? Many of us feel like we are on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Workplace changes instituted in the pandemic, including working from home and blurring the boundaries between work and home, have only worsened the problem. If you have no downtime to recharge and get away from work stress, it’s no wonder you are feeling burned out.
Other causes of burnout include an inability to meet unrealistic work expectations; having little autonomy or decision-making authority; a lack of guidance or support; unfair or unequal treatment; and a feeling of isolation. Conflict, especially when poorly managed, can negatively affect your health and well-being.4
Burnout can cause exhaustion, fatigue, depression, and pessimism about your current work situation and the future. Burnout causes stress and anxiety that can affect your physical and mental health and the quality of your relationships. Diagnosing burnout is not easy. Consider whether the stress, depression, and anxiety you may be experiencing stem from your workplace environment.
Relationship troubles are definitely a cause of chronic stress. Unsupportive, poorly matched, and demanding romantic, personal, professional, or familial relationships can be mentally and physically draining.
New romantic relationships are typically exciting and a bit overwhelming as partners explore each other to learn whether they are a good match. When the relationship is going well, it can be a source of motivation and energy, but when it is not, it can be draining and cause relationship burnout. Relationships and intimacy affect mental health and motivation. Likewise, motivation and mental health affect the quality of your relationships.
When partners enter into a romantic relationship, they have expectations for each other. When these expectations are not met, the relationship suffers. Depression, fatigue, and anxiety are common causes of erectile dysfunction and other sexual health problems. Supporting a partner with erectile dysfunction or decreased libido can be challenging.
Mental health conditions such as chronic depression, mood disorders, stress, or anxiety can cause low energy, and low energy can worsen these conditions. Lack of quality sleep also worsens symptoms of mental health conditions and further contributes to low energy. Mental stress and exhaustion can manifest as physical exhaustion and fatigue. The inverse is also true. Hormonal changes and medical conditions, especially those that cause pain or stress, can also cause mental fatigue or brain fog.
Mental illness can manifest with a wide array of symptoms. These symptoms can affect each person differently. If you have any concerns about your mental health, it is important to talk with your doctor. Your fatigue and lack of motivation are unlikely to improve until your mental health condition is treated.
The inability to focus, brain fog, and stress affect millions of otherwise healthy adults. Learn more about cognitive health and how brain health and mental health intersect.
Many people use the terms “illness” and “disease” synonymously, but they are slightly different. Diseases cause symptoms and signs that are due to underlying changes in physiology. They can be caused by an infection, a lack of a nutrient, a genetic trait, or a change in the amount or function of an enzyme or hormone. They are what a doctor diagnoses.
An illness is feeling poorly, whether it is physically, mentally, or even socially. Illnesses describe what the patient feels. Either can cause fatigue and a lack of motivation.5 Since an illness describes any symptom that a person feels or a condition that they are concerned they may have, the list of possible illnesses causing fatigue depends on the person experiencing the symptoms.
A sample of diseases that may cause fatigue:
Poor consumption habits describe a wide variety of lifestyle choices that can cause illness or disease.
All forms of physical exercise can improve your health and energy levels, including:
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has published physical activity guidelines for all age groups. Adults should try to get 150 minutes to 300 minutes of aerobic exercise per week and two strength-building sessions per week.
Strategies to increase energy and restore motivation depend on the cause, but try some of these:
If you have low energy and motivation, take an inventory of your lifestyle practices. Write down any symptoms you may be experiencing and what you have tried to improve your symptoms. If you are concerned that a disease may be causing your low energy, talk to your doctor. Once you improve your energy levels and motivation, it is essential to keep working on prioritizing your health and healthy lifestyle habits so you can feel and perform at your best.
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.
1. Compton WM, Han B, Blanco C, Johnson K, Jones CM. Prevalence and Correlates of Prescription Stimulant Use, Misuse, Use Disorders, and Motivations for Misuse Among Adults in the United States. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2018/08/01 2018;175(8):741-755. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.17091048
2. Bridgeman PJ, Bridgeman MB, Barone J. Burnout syndrome among healthcare professionals. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy. 2018;75(3):147-152. doi:10.2146/ajhp170460
3. Bianchi R, Schonfeld IS, Laurent E. Burnout-depression overlap: a review. Clin Psychol Rev. Mar 2015;36:28-41. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2015.01.004
4. DreudeC.K. W, DierendonckvanH.G. H, Dijkstra MTM. Conflict at work and individual well-being. Emotion. 2004;
5. Helman CG. Disease versus illness in general practice. J R Coll Gen Pract. Sep 1981;31(230):548-52.