Digging yourself out of a mental hole.
August 2, 2010 5:20 PM   Subscribe

I'm in a hole, and I keep digging. I'm behind on numerous things, and I just bury my head until problems become unbearable. Help me pull some dirt into this hole (without me in it) and lay down some concrete so this doesn't happen again.

There are many specific examples of what's happening right now, but the main issue is that I'm way behind on a bunch of things. I'm ignoring them, avoiding them, letting them boil over until they're ready to explode. I either manage to get a lid on them at the last possible minute, or they explode and I have to beg and plead people to let me solve this problem. I want to be less of a fuck up.

Some specific examples:
  • I was supposed to register for classes by this evening (in graduated school), but I delayed all summer (registration for classes opened in March!). Now, many of the classes I need are full.
  • I needed to submit a new degree plan 3 months ago, but I've been avoiding it because it's so late and I'd need to face several professors.
  • I'm working on my graduate thesis, but have been late turning in drafts to my professor. I keep delaying, because I figure that the longer I delay, the more I should have to turn in.
  • I had some paperwork to turn in to the university to confirm my residency status in the state, but I didn't, so I'll have to pay much more tuition than usual and then get a refund later on.
How do I stop these cycles of behavior? Right now, I'm just ignoring the problems until I get a dreaded e-mail telling me I've completely fucked it. It makes every day miserable, because I can't have a single day of escape without coming back to these looming things. For some reason, I'm completely frozen.

I do have anxiety and depression issues, and I'm dealing with those through medication. I'm having trouble with these specific issues, though, and these are the things that keep sending me back to my old cycles and spirals.

Help me with this - if you've suffered from this and pushed through, how did you do it? What kind of mental scaffolding did you erect to get out of the hole?
posted by SNWidget to Human Relations (39 answers total) 104 users marked this as a favorite
I've started creating a to do list every day.

But it sounds like your problems may be more significant than merely forgetting to do things that need to be done.

Have you considered therapy of any sort?

The Getting Things Done book is pretty useful.
posted by dfriedman at 5:28 PM on August 2, 2010

dfriedman: Not to threadsit, but here's a few things that address your points and serve as an addendum to my question.

I do have a problem doing things - like simple lists. But that I'm getting better at. I've used versions of GTD at various times, and it has been helpful.

This is about simply ignoring certain unpleasant things until they actually blow up.
posted by SNWidget at 5:31 PM on August 2, 2010

1. Stop beating yourself up. Therapy could really help.

2. Make a list, put sensible deadlines on it (and on your calendar), and do one thing at a time.

3. Cross off tasks as you accomplish them.

4. Congratulate yourself for getting each thing done.

And, overall, look forward, not backward. Regret over things you could have gotten done sooner is a time waster.
posted by bearwife at 5:33 PM on August 2, 2010

I'm sure you've already thought about this, but as a serial procrastinator myself I find that the simplest methods often work best. An issue that may be holding you up is your inability to break these huge, monumental, important things into discrete tasks that you can check off one-by-one. I can't speak much to the other things specifically, but I do have a lot of experience writing academic papers so I'll delve into that one a bit.

As again I'm sure you know, a thesis on which you work closely with an advisor is going to go through a number of permutations based upon their feedback. Trust me, your professors know this, and know that early drafts (if you're putting the right kind of work in) will in no way resemble what ultimately comes out of the process. Even if you just go in with a number of thoughts written down in a loose outline form, or- if that's too much- quotes from your source text that have been sticking in your mind, or a thesis paragraph, you have to bring it in.

Seriously. Bring in something, anything. Buy your advisor some coffee and make the meeting casual. He/she is a professional academic, and they can easily spin minutiae into hours of conversation, if necessary. They're going to bring up things you haven't thought of on your own, and if you like or admire them even a tiny bit they're going to inspire you to move in a different direction.

I've just recently become a list-writer to try to combat my procrastinatory urges as well, and I find it helps, but again the key is to break it down into little bits. Don't write "register for classes" on your whiteboard or post-it note; write "review two classes" on Monday and "review two classes" on Tuesday or whatever discrete tasks necessary to ultimately complete it. I'm not super-familiar with "getting things done," but I think that's part of the basic concept, and it might help you to peruse an article or two.

Best of luck!
posted by libertypie at 5:34 PM on August 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

I had this problem (complete with overdue thesis hanging over every moment) and worked with a professional. This was their advice: Compartmentalize. Each day try to do a very small thing. Email your professor and let them know that you realize you've been delayed with your drafts and that you are trying to get caught back up. Spend 30 minutes working on one of the things you need done. Don't try to get it all done in one day, though. Just try to do one or two things a day until you start getting caught up (if this is possible). Set reachable goals.
If you are in dire straits if you don't turn in these things ASAP, ask someone to help you. Ask a friend if you can get coffee with them and have them sit with you and and talk while you fill out your forms, or sound ideas off them for your chapters. Even ask your parents if you're close to them and they might be helpful.
Therapy can be helpful, too.
posted by elpea at 5:36 PM on August 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Have you investigated the posibility that you may have ADHD? Difficulties with getting moving on projects are *very* common.
posted by purlgurly at 6:01 PM on August 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I had to check to make sure you weren't my alter ego posting under another username. I have eerily similar issues, and you sound exactly like me. I can't say I've really beaten those problems, but I've gotten much better.

Breaking the depression was a huge part of it. That happened with some professional help, a little help from my friends, and some drugs. I find that when that cycle of hiding/delaying is happening, the depression/anxiety is what is generating most of the horrible consequences for already being late that flash around in my mind that make me continue to avoid doing things. If you can dampen those out, it's possible to break through and just DO IT.

Another thing that's very helpful is to have a good friend who understands what you're going through - in detail; i.e. understands what's going on in your head when you just don't send in that form even though you could have, or whatever. When you realize that you're delaying something out of anxiety, walk up to that friend and say, "I'm avoiding doing X. Help." Then that friend will say "What's the first step? Let's do that." He won't do it with you, but he can set you up doing the first step, which often makes all the difference. Somehow having someone there to ground me in reality (i.e. it's better to turn in a partial draft now, then no draft at all) and to help me put things in perspective (your career isn't over just because you give your advisor something late) really helps.

Breaking tasks down into VERY simple steps can help as well. I often find that I can't even start something complicated, because I can't stay focused on what I'm doing - my mind flashes around to how much stuff I still have to do, and how it's too much, and it'll never be finished. Make a list of every little step involved in whatever you're avoiding. Cover up everything but the first step, then do that. Move on to the next step. Etc.

It sounds silly, but mantras can be useful as well. Things like "Just Do It." or "99% of being an adult is just showing up." or "one step at a time", or whatever works for you. If I know I should do something, but I'm feeling too anxious to do it, repeating one of those in my head can help sort of clear away the other thoughts buzzing around that are telling me that I can't do it, and it's too big, and I'm too late, and I should just keep watching Dr. Who episodes instead.

I also tried for a long time to keep calendars and todo lists online - I tried several different services (Google Calendar, thebigpic.com, etc). Then I realized that I did 100% better with a physical calendar/apptmt book. Try to find a medium for scheduling that works for you.

Good luck.

PS: Let me know if you figure out how to make it easier to face professors. It still irrationally terrifies the living daylights out of me.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:07 PM on August 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Right now, I'm just ignoring the problems until I get a dreaded e-mail telling me I've completely fucked it.

Part of you kind of wants that email to come, doesn't it? Think how wonderful it would be if someone else made a decision instead of you once in awhile! Think how awesome it would be if you were given carte blanche to lay on the couch and eat TV dinners for all of eternity! Holy shit! I kind of want to do that now!

You are me, albeit an extreme case. I am a huge avoider and procrastinator, but I've managed to make my own weirdo dynamic work for me. And I do mean, I've been in your situations although usually (not always) with a day to spare, rather than an hour. Here's what you can do about the immediate situation:

Point the first: Go to your academic adviser, explain that a lot of the classes you need are now full, and see what he/she can do about getting you in. You do not have to explain why you didn't register, you just have to inform Adviser that you now need their help. They have seen this before. You may have to go and grovel to some professors about how you need to be signed into their course, but again, you need not explain. If they ask, though, make sure you have something prepared ("I really want to take your class" will work more often than not.)

Point the second: Come up with a rough outline, tell the three professors that you hit some roadblocks, and proceed. Again, you don't need to bare your soul to them!

Point the third: As a graduate student, I never once turned a thesis draft in on time. Not once. I am not necessarily proud of this, but at the same time, I got it done and graduated (with a kick-ass GPA, I might add). This may or may not be a big deal, but should be addressed at some point.

Point the fourth: I have no idea, and am not going to even try,

Set aside the next day or two and do all of these things. I'm serious - energy begets energy, and once you click back into "getting things done" mode, chances are you'll be surprised how easy it all is. I say this from much, much experience of not doing what appear to be the simplest, no-brainer things until it has reached emergency status. You can memail me if you'd like to talk more, but I will leave you with this: it can be done! Because no matter how cool that email would be in the short term, it would SUCK in the long run.
posted by deep thought sunstar at 6:11 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Todo lists are your friend, but first you have to get out of the hole, so here's your first todo list:

1. Write down a list of things you need to have been neglecting. No more than three words per item, just enough so you know what task you're talking about.

2. Draw a line through each one that either cannot be completed (it's too late) or recovered (there's nobody you can apologize to or ask for an extension from.)

3. Draw a line through each one that is something "nice to have"; that is, you made no promises and have no contract or other obligation, but it's something you wanted to do but haven't. You can deal with those some other time, or not at all, but even figuring that out is a task best left for later.

4. Place a checkmark next to each item that you must do -- if you don't, there will be monetary penalties, or you'll be in violation of your lease, or a warrant will go out for your arrest, and so on. That sort of high-stakes thing.

5. Place a checkmark next to each item that you must do -- if you don't, you will lose money, or miss an opportunity, or disappoint someone you care about. That sort of important thing.

6. Place a checkmark next to each item that you can complete in less than a day.

Now, start with the three-checkmark items, and do one a day. When they're done, move to the two-checkmark items until they're done. Then move to the one-checkmark items. Oh, and every morning, when you wake up, select the item you're going to get done that day.

Beyond that, if you want to lay concrete (as it were), you're going to have to get into this habit, and stick with it. This works for easily-distracted me -- for instance, after a week of blowing off various things, I walked into work and wrote this on my whiteboard:

- Gym
- Money
- Dentist
- Docs
- [the acronym for a work project]
- [two friend's names]

I picked the one most likely to impact my health -- a follow-up call to the dentist -- and did that. Took a few minutes. Then I conveniently received an email from one of the two friends, and made plans with them, so that's done. I had an hour before lunch, so I knocked off the "Docs" work task (documenting something I'd built.) I picked a place to eat that required walking past the gym I keep meaning to sign up with, so now that's done. Since then, I've been working exclusively on the work project whose acronym I have not shared with you.

Did I hit all the items? Nope; still have to do "money", which is pay this month's bills (which I blew off yesterday, which is why it's on my list for today.) So I'll do that when I get home. I know I'll do this, because once I make the list, I always get it done -- it's my habit. Without the list, those same tasks would have gone undone for a few more days at least (and the gym one would have gone another few months, probably, and the plans with friends would have gotten missed completely.)

Good luck! It's all about self-discipline, really; embrace your weakness and work around it.
posted by davejay at 6:17 PM on August 2, 2010 [7 favorites]

ack. replace "Write down a list of things you need to have been neglecting" with "Write down a list of the things you have been neglecting, and need to do."
posted by davejay at 6:19 PM on August 2, 2010

dammit. "Draw a line through each one that either cannot be completed (it's too late) or recovered " should be "Draw a line through each one that can neither be completed nor recovered." Adding to my todo list: preview first.
posted by davejay at 6:19 PM on August 2, 2010

I have been where you are, and in fact visit that destination fairly often. You have my sympathy because IT IS FUCKING AWFUL. You just feel like every day is a failure because you can't even start the things you really need to do, and it doesn't seem to make any difference if it's a simple thing with no hurdles like registering, or a huge thing with many hurdles like writing a thesis. (You seem to know what you have to do, so I don't think this is about making To Do lists.)

The thing that makes the biggest difference to me is confronting each failure and acknowledging it where it needs to be acknowldged. elpea's advice is solid. If you email the professor and say you realise your draft is significantly delayed and you're trying to get caught up, I PROMISE YOU that sending that email will kill the motherfucking guilt spiral. And really, it isn't the work that's the unmanageable problem; it's the guilt from having not done the work. It's important to remember that this isn't about laziness, but paralysis.

If having people help you would actually be helpful, ask for that help. I can't even deal with my email because the guilt is so terrible I'm afraid people are really pissed off in there; I make my husband read it. The thing I always try to keep hold of is that it's never as bad as I'm terrified it will be. Seriously, my world has never fallen apart the way I've feared it had. Maybe I'm just lucky, but the consequences for my feckless anxiety have rarely been non-recoverable. So he reads it, it isn't as bad as I feared it would be, and I can email everyone back and say "I'm sorry, I suck, I am putting together a plan and will be back to you about your foo specifically tomorrow."

The single biggest factor in my not letting this happen has been getting help. (And not that kind.) I hired an assistant to come in two hours a week and help me stay organised with the many tasks I need to keep on top of. Not only is she functionally helpful, but I feel answerable to her for making progress on the items on the lists she keeps for me. Genuinely, it's the third best thing I ever did and it really works for me. The only time I've fallen into System Failure mode since she arrived is the two weeks she went on vacation.

So, you know, start with some emails so you can breathe and everything else will fall into place, even if it's a slightly revised place.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:28 PM on August 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

To-do lists are good, but first have to get yourself unfrozen. If you're like me, one think that stalls you in a panic is thinking about all the screw-ups. So, first item on the list:

"1. Forgive myself for screwing up. Try to do better. Realize that I might not. Start every daily to-do list with this item."
posted by Houstonian at 6:32 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm quite a procrastinator. One thing that has helped me is to realize how miserable procrastinating makes me because I've got this THING (or six things) hanging over my head.

I reach a point where I'm so sick of the lurking horribleness of procrastination that I need to make it stop. And to make it stop, I need to do the thing I've been avoiding. For a brief time, it may be MORE horrible than procrastination, but then it will be over and I'll feel better. So I grit my teeth and do it just to put myself out of my misery.

And most of the time, the really horrible thing isn't all THAT bad.
posted by cleverevans at 6:34 PM on August 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I got diagnosed with and treated for ADHD.

Then I started using google calendar well and with good reminders. You can't just do it on the deadline, you have to put "register for grad school" on the day and time when you want to do it. If you just do the deadline it won't help because you'll forget to look at it.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:31 PM on August 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sort-of like cleverevans, I got a tip from somewhere -- probably here -- that when you've got something looming over you like that, focusing on how you HAVE to do it and it SUCKS and it's just LOOMING and blah blah blah eventually makes it so that it's worse to sit there and NOT do it than to do it. It takes more energy to dread it than to do it, so you do it.

I have found this works startlingly well. It's counterintuitive to FOCUS on the dread and on purpose feel more dread, but if I dread it enough I get tired of dreading it and just do it. I mention it because I know well that feeling of, "Everything is going to explode and I can't cope because there's too much but the more I let go the worse it will get ahhhhhhhhhhhh!"

I don't use this with everything; with normal things I go for to-do lists and all that stuff and try to do one thing every time I stand up or finish five things by lunch or whatever. But for the stuff that really HAS to get done that I'm having the dreading problem, focusing on dreading it really gets me moving.

A silly tactic: Put on a suit. (Or as Barney says, "Suit up!") Businesswear always makes me feel like I should be accomplishing things.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:41 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

For me, lists are the enemy. I make a list and then I'm even more overwhelmed by everything I have to do, everything I haven't done, everyone who's disappointed in me...

If you've tried lists and they haven't worked for you, maybe give the Anti-List strategy a try. My personal method is this:

I do two things a day. Any two things. Whatever two things I think I can handle that day. And by "two things" I do not mean two entire tasks, but rather two pieces of any of the tasks that need doing. For example, I need to clean my apartment and sort out my finances and sell my car and write a dozen emails and join a gym and research grad schools and sign up for volunteer training at a new organization... My two things today: I vacuumed the carpet in my bedroom and mailed the check for my dentist's bill.

Somewhere in the back of my mind are hazy maps of all the steps that need to be taken to accomplish each of my goals, but if I think too much about those I get overwhelmed and tired and anxious and I do nothing. So I don't think about it. I just do two things.

But I do push myself. On days when I have more energy and am feeling mentally healthier I do two harder things: I write a long email to an estranged family member and figure out how to roll over my 401K. But still, just two things. And then I read a book, listen to music, etc.

Lists are great and I use them at work constantly. But I don't have a habit of procrastination and guilt cycles at work the way I do in my personal life and my studies, and, for me, lists are counterproductive if I'm in a guilt cycle. But doing two things makes me feel like I made progress, and if I can avoid looking at the entirety of a problem I can keep making progress. I guess it's kind of like, "don't look down, just keep going."
posted by philotes at 7:43 PM on August 2, 2010 [7 favorites]

I do one task each day that seems overwhelming. It is the first thing I work on when I wake up in the morning and I don't do anything else until that task gets done. If I have a busy day starting at 9am and my task will take about three hours, that means I get up at 5am to work on it. Having a huge list of stuff to do can be overwhelming so pick one thing each day to work on/complete and you will become much more focused.
posted by MsKim at 7:47 PM on August 2, 2010

I too am a graduate student, and I could have written this.

And I say fuck to-do lists. I know what I need to do. Making a list is just an easy way to procrastinate on getting that shit done, and gives me something to do that isn't actually doing anything.

I, quite honestly, have found that the ONLY way I get anything done is to go directly from bed to my desk and start working. First thing in the morning. No excuses. Get up, pee, brush my teeth, and start on SOMETHING. No breakfast, no email, no Facebook, no MetaFilter until I've done at least an hour of work. And once that first hour is done, it's a lot easier to go back to it after a short break.

This is the only think that has worked for me. As always, YMMV.
posted by amelioration at 8:09 PM on August 2, 2010 [5 favorites]

Sorry I came back to say that on second glance, your posting history indicates a long-term problem with this issue at least indicates a diagnosis of ADHD and/or prescription drugs for this condition.

Everything I said in my post still holds, plus I think amelioration's advice is really good for dealing with the practical kick-start of getting shit done. But if this is a long-term, ongoing issue for you, you should take my trite comment about getting help and throw it out the window. CBT can really help with this, so that instead of developing tools to dig yourself out, you can short-circuit digging yourself in in the first place.

I know that "get therapy" is like, the world's most boring answer ever, but in your specific case I think it would really be worth it for you. It can be a very short-term thing, and very practical.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:24 PM on August 2, 2010

I agree that you should investigate ADHD. Read Delivered from Distraction by Edward Hallowell, particularly the chapter with a self-assessment quiz.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:35 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I too have been in similar situations! I think my entire school career, from middle school through high school and into college, has been that horrible experience of getting behind on everything and then panicking and feeling worthless.
I'm halfway to getting an undergraduate degree and I'm doing better: I do almost all of my work more or less on time, and I haven't bombed any classes in more than a year!
What helped (and continues to help) is human contact. I worked with a counselor, which helped an incredible amount with my anxiety levels and negative thought processes. I tend to be perfectionistic, so we decided "it doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be done" is my mantra. When I get stuck or start feeling hopeless about a project or paper, I talk about it with a close friend or my mother. I've also talked to my professors; on one very very late paper, I told my professor that I was having trouble getting it done so she gave me a new assignment: write a crappy draft. I handed the paper in late and of course had points taken off, but I did hand it in.
I avoid unpleasant things like the plague and I usually do it unconsciously, so I have to be careful to examine my life and my emotional state regularly to make sure I'm not pushing important things away or procrastinating on them because they aren't pleasant. I know it's hard for me to start projects, especially when they're already late, so I try to get as much done as early as possible. If I put something aside because I'll "do it later," it's not going to get done. Your situation doesn't allow this, as you're already behind, but do whatever you can to make it easy for you to get your work done! Therapy, a study/work group, bribes, meditation and mindfulness, whatever helps. If you don't know what works for you, try everything! Good luck.
posted by Baethan at 9:19 PM on August 2, 2010

Another book recommendation: The Now Habit by Neil Fiore

You can make all kinds of to-do lists and resolve to wake up and go right to work, but those things won't address the root causes of your procrastination. Fiore outlines reasons people procrastinate, asks you to figure out your patterns of procrastination, and then replace those patterns by creating new habits and ways to talk to yourself.

He tells you to focus on starting, consistently starting, rather than finishing. And to learn how to reframe things so that you want to get them done rather than feeling like you are forced to. And to remember that you are not a horrible person if you slip up.

I keep this book close and go back to it whenever I am getting stressed and start letting things go. I haven't reached my husband's level of ruthless efficiency, but I'm doing better than I was.
posted by scarnato at 9:26 PM on August 2, 2010 [5 favorites]

I find it useful to ask "What's next"?

For example, I was just looking at my To Do list. One of the things I have been avoiding is booking an appointment with a specialist. But when I really thought about it, what I actually had to do next was find the referal letter. Which took a couple of minutes. And then the next thing I had to do was google his name and address for the phone number, which took another couple of minutes. And only then could I actually call and make an appointment. I find this happens fairly often. I'm not doing something because there's a tiny little hurdle to get over that I haven't fully realised.

Another thing I find useful when I look at my To Do list is to schedule tasks into my diary. For example, I need to find my Tax info so that I can fill in a form. But my tax info is at home and I'm barely going to be home for the next three days, at least not at a time when I'll feel like going through my filing cabinets. So I've put it in my diary for tonight. If it was urgent, I might also set up a reminder on my phone.

I have by no means got this all worked out, but these two hacks can help me get started.
posted by kjs4 at 10:03 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I read in a psych paper years ago that the best cure for a loved one's procrastination is to take care of as many mundane tasks for them as possible for a short period to give them a feeling of being cared for and supported. It specifically mentioned leaving meals at the doorstep, basic housekeeping, etc. This struck me as insightful because it goes to the core of what can happen as the procrastinator feels overwhelmed and unable to assign value and priority to tasks as they accumulate. Dusting is never so important as when you have a paper due...that sort of thing.

Maybe people have had the experience of being taken care of as they focus on more "personally-meaningful" tasks and others have not. If you are in the latter group perhaps you can work with this internally. It may not be practical to ask someone to serve in this capacity but you can do it for yourself on another level. Once this need is satisfied the perspective changes and ordinary chores take on a different tone. They become the foundation upon which ever more personal structures are built, supporting rather than draining.
posted by Mertonian at 11:47 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can totally identify. I've had a hard time lately staying on task. A solution that I hit upon with my friend/housemate is that every time he stops by my office he asks me what I'm doing and writes in on the whiteboard behind me. There's no judgment involved and he keeps it funny. For instance:

OKCupid reply
Google stalking
WORKING (On the matrix) [I've got my Linux console configured green on black]

Not sure if this is either practical or helpful for you but for me it seems to work. I like seeing a random sampling of how I'm spending my time. I agree with others above, avoid methods that make you feel like you're shaming yourself. To me, this feels different.

Good luck!
posted by funkiwan at 12:21 AM on August 3, 2010

I do the _exact_ same things. Exactly. And the worse it is, the worse it gets. In other words, if my library books are a week late, I stress out about it so much that it leaves my mind completely for six months (popping up at random intervals only to be pushed down). The mental process seems to go something like this: I screwed up, therefore I am completely screwed, therefore any attempt to fix things wouldn't really do anything. I can't win, so I might as well not try. Then cue intense shame, and any thoughts of the problem are pushed down and avoided mentally because they *hurt*. Your mind learns to avoid them, even though it eats holes in your gut. Or at least in mine.

The only thing that has worked for me, is training myself to make a list, every evening, without fail. I break tasks down into stupidly tiny little steps. 1) Buy pens tomorrow on my lunch break Tuesday. (2) Pick up a course catalog Wednesday on my lunch break. 3) Thursday morning over breakfast, mark classes that look interesting. 4) Thursday night, spend 20 minutes seeing what will fit into my schedule. Pick a few alternates. 5) Get instructor signatures on Friday. 6) Register online. (As an example, since I'm in school too).

Also, I allot a small, smaller than I would ordinarily try for, amount of time to each task. If it doesn't get completed, then I allot another time slot for another day. IF an hour seems to overwhelming that I will never do it, I allot five minutes, or twenty. Whatever I think I will do.

And tell yourself, every day, as cheesy as it seems, "I accomplish what I can today and I can be proud of any action at all." Cut yourself some slack and keep telling yourself you have nothing to be ashamed of.

For me, medication didn't do a solitary thing to help with any of the procrastination/shame behaviours, and I'm not a hundred percent. I'm simply too stressed. But the only thing that completely, totally slides anymore is library books, sometimes. That's a 99% improvement, and it didn't happen all at once. I plugged away at it, experimenting to find what worked. I liked omnifocus as GTD software, but in the end found it took too much time, and I work best on the back of an envelope, or the backs of my stack o' misprint pages.
posted by tejolote at 12:29 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I read in a psych paper years ago that the best cure for a loved one's procrastination is to take care of as many mundane tasks for them as possible for a short period to give them a feeling of being cared for and supported. It specifically mentioned leaving meals at the doorstep, basic housekeeping, etc. This struck me as insightful because it goes to the core of what can happen as the procrastinator feels overwhelmed and unable to assign value and priority to tasks as they accumulate. Dusting is never so important as when you have a paper due...that sort of thing.

I think the exact opposite of Mertonian, not that you should listen to me, but hear me/us out!

I think that the more stuff you do, the more you will do. This has been my experience ever since I was a kid and un-motivated, to say the least: The more you do, the more you will do. Don't get me wrong - it would have been super-cool to have someone doing my dishes while I was thesis-ing...but there wasn't. Should there ever come a point where you're like "I CAN'T DO IT," in caps, you should start small, i.e.dust your place. Set a goal that is so tiny it's like fool-proof, and then go from there. It will get you in the mood to do something, which will lead to your *actually* doing something. So wash those dishes! Do all that shit that no one does for you! I owe a thesis to dishes, and you might, too. Think while you're washing them.
posted by deep thought sunstar at 12:34 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm also in the anti-list camp. Nothing terrifies me more than a whole index card of things I have failed to do so far. I regularly take such lists and hide them under the piles of bills I haven't paid so I don't have to think about it.
Have you considered keeping a stack of cards with only one item per card? One thing is a lot easier to tackle then twelve, and you can always think about that other stuff later.
Do you have someone who can help you out from time to time? My wife can't deal with lists, and so she e-mails me items, and I keep her list. Not sure why, but her list doesn't scare me as much as my own.
Most importantly, don't feel so bad about it. As you can hopefully tell, this is a common problem.
posted by Gilbert at 6:26 AM on August 3, 2010

Another grad student here. You're getting a lot of good advice in this thread, so I thought I'd just chime in with something that might make facing your professors less intimidating. I don't know about you, but I've noticed that the faculty in my department are basically just grad students with better funding. That is, they procrastinate a lot, and they never do anything on time. I had one professor who took two months to get final papers back in a course with 5 students. Another is a facebook friend of mine and she's constantly posting things.

The takeaway here is that they've all been there, or at least a lot of them have. This kind of problem is endemic to the profession. I think you'll be surprised at how understanding they'll be.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:44 AM on August 3, 2010

I'm also a long time procrastinator. I've definitely found myself in that same hole many a time. While it still happens sometimes, I've found ways of helping myself avoid getting stuck down there. The biggest thing that worked for me was having a 'model'. This is going to sound rediculous, but I like Bear Grills. Something about his "this is going to suck/be really tedious but I'm just going to do it" attitude really strikes a chord with me. When I start to feel stuck, I just imagine myself as him, jumping into an icy stream, or building a raft out of balsa trees.

Really, I've found that the best defense against this kind of procrastination/dread cycle is a good offense.

Step 1: Make a list. I like em because I have trouble remembering everyting all the time. But i keep my lists very general with the items very broad. I don't want to get bogged down in details.

Step 2: Attack! Don't think about it too much, don't spend a lot of time planning, just take a deep breath and jump. Have confidence that you'll be able to figure it out as you go. After all, you've made it this far, haven't you? Don't have that confidence? FAKE IT. In my experience, most everyone is uncertain most of the time, but if you act confident you can fool even yourself. And yes, pulling on a suit or your best set of clothes does help.

Take, for example, the classes that you want to register for but have already filled up. Just start emailing professors, call them, make appointments to talk to them. Don't think about it too much, just explain why you want/need to be in that course and ask how you could make that happen.
posted by ghostiger at 8:54 AM on August 3, 2010

Gaaaah anxiety and depression = avoidance issues. I'm right there with you, buddy.

I've been making an intensive personal study of how to work this out for, oh, the last several years. I find it helps to 1) read some theory, and 2) to implement some ridiculously easy concrete steps. The "ridiculously easy" part is key.

Anyway, here are some books/articles to help with the Theory part:

Why We Do What We Do - Deci
The Now Habit - Fiore

Pychyl's Don't Delay blog.

For practical strategies:

Get It Done When You're Depressed - Fast & Preston

So anyway, on to the ridiculously easy part. I'm not a big believer in forcing yourself to do things you don't want to do (because I think it backfires on you in the long run, even if it works in the short term.) However, I am a big believer in "forcing" yourself to do things you enjoy or would otherwise do out of habit.

What this boils down to is: you can only force yourself to do really, really minor things, and really enjoyable things that you might otherwise do and feel guilty about. For whatever reason, doing this actually seems to rev up your motivation to do the things you normally put off.

The idea is to remove pressure from getting "work" done. Pressure breeds resistance.

Pressure to do enjoyable things, however, may help moderate the amount of time you spend on those things (for example, if you were to schedule 2 hours of internet time for yourself per day, and FORCE yourself to sit down and complete all 2 hours, you'll get the enjoyable part in, but might find yourself watching the clock and wondering when you can get up. All the while, you're probably using the internet for less time than you would while in avoidance mode.)

I find that when I schedule in a period of "nothing" time (time in which I am not allowed to do anything except read, nap, write in my journal or stare out the window -- this is different from recreation/internet/TV time) and force myself to stick to it, afterward I tend to be bursting with energy to get stuff done.

It seems totally paradoxical, but it seems to work.

When it comes to forcing yourself to do really minor parts of your work, you have to take Incredibly Small steps and extend it over a period of time. You will not want to do this, because you will think it takes too long, you want to solve this problem NOW, get things done NOW, etc. And you might be able to do that, but again, this will not change the long term cycle of your avoidance. And it might actually make it worse.

So, here's what I've been doing.

Select the ONE part of your "work" that is the easiest and most enjoyable, and needs to be done cyclically (preferably daily.) It could be something like opening mail, checking your account status, checking your school email, or just setting up your desk to prepare it for work. You are NOT ALLOWED to do any more than this one task, but you must do it every single day for a week.

The next week, add one more tiny task that is neutral or enjoyable. Bit by bit, you will build a routine that prevents stuff from getting unmanageable.

It sounds like you're having trouble with admin assistant/paperwork sort of stuff. Maybe you could set a goal of dealing with Paperwork Stuff for 5 minutes a day. Even if you never exceed this amount of time, you will be getting more done than you are now.

Here's a touch of Theory for you, that might apply to your longer-term stuff (like writing your thesis):

Rewards and punishments undermine your intrinsic motivation to do things. Unfortunately, rewards and punishments are endemic to our culture, and especially academia, so it might not be practical to opt out of all of them. However, you can try to mentally separate externally-imposed consequences (like grades) from the tasks you are doing. It is hard, but I believe it can be done.

I have major anxiety when it comes to grades. I now have to purposely separate grades, and the striving for that reward, from the work I do in school. I have to disallow myself from considering grades while I'm working, and immerse myself in the subject for its own sake as much as possible. I have to make the subject relevant to me, personally, and try to disregard grades and professor approval as much as possible. I can only speak from undergrad experience, but I've done this by reading FUN books on the subject outside of the course material, or incorporating interests of mine into course projects, writings, etc. You'd be surprised how relevant and useful stuff that seems totally tangential can be.

Sorry for rambling so much, but good luck.
posted by Ouisch at 9:20 AM on August 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

I am also like this (+Favorite!) and someone in a recent thread talked about a folder system. You need 12 folders- 1 for each month, then 31 more folders- 1 for each day. Write down each thing you need to do on an index card and put it in the appropriate folder of the day. For one off things, like calling a friend, pitch it when you've done it. For something that has to be done daily, keep the card and move it to the next day's folder to remind you to do it again tomorrow. I started doing this at work and I love it! There's a sense of accomplishment when today's folder is empty. YMMV.
posted by ShadePlant at 9:33 AM on August 3, 2010

Hi again SNWidget! I wanted to add to my single-line post from earlier about ADHD, related to anxiety/depression issues and procrastination/avoidance. I had severe severe depression that also kept me from getting things done, which resulted in horrible guilt, which fed the depression beast. It turns out that I was experiencing the depression mainly because of the undiagnosed/untreated ADHD - since my dx, I've been depression-free for over a year (for the first time in 13 years).
posted by purlgurly at 9:42 AM on August 3, 2010

Just an update.

Thanks for all of the great advice. Those of you who poked through my asking history saw a strong chain in this kind of behavior/reaction, and it's true. I've been on and off ADHD meds, and I think it might be time to get back on a new set (hadn't found anything that worked, got frustrated/busy, gave up).

I was doing pretty well yesterday, but last afternoon, I got a friendly e-mail from my adviser asking if ?I had anything I wanted her to look at so that she could help me along. That sent me into another panic spiral for a few hours.

I know I need to just take this in little chunks - the problem is that when large deadlines loom, little chunks seem exactly the opposite of what I need. Right now, against this wall, it looks like I need grand gestures, all nighters, and all of my old, up-against-the-wall habits.

Guess that's the sound of old habits dying hard.

Thanks again, everyone.
posted by SNWidget at 7:54 AM on August 4, 2010

Call your adviser. Explain to her your situation. Ask her to help you make a plan to dig out. If she is at all sympathetic, this will make your life much easier.

Right now you're living in fear of failure. Admitting to someone else that you have already failed (in some respects) will help alleviate that fear (you can't be afraid of something that has already happened). Talking to your adviser about this will make you feel about ten million times better.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:33 PM on August 4, 2010

SNWidget: "Right now, against this wall, it looks like I need grand gestures, all nighters, and all of my old, up-against-the-wall habits."

You know, you will still need those tomorrow because you are still going to need to get shit done. But today you need to stop the guilt spiral by dealing with your adviser even if it's just to let her know you will get back to her on Monday.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:17 PM on August 4, 2010

I e-mailed her and let her know that I'll get a section that I've been working on to her by Monday. I haven't heard back yet, but I'm sure she'll be amicable to this.

Public fear of failure basically runs my life, I've figured. I can fail privately, but as long as I can keep it limited to me, and no one else knows, it's ok. Until it explodes (see above examples).

Long road to recovery.
posted by SNWidget at 6:12 AM on August 5, 2010

You may find the book "Women With Attention Deficit Disorder: Embrace Your Diferences and Transform Your Life" by S. Solden helpful - I did. She concentrates a lot on the emotional/psychological/personality implications of growing up as a girl/woman with ADHD, and reading it really helped me understand my need to compulsively "cover up" (your comment about failing "privately" really resonated with me).
posted by purlgurly at 11:51 AM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

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