How can a "lazy" person develop successful work habits?
June 3, 2008 8:09 AM   Subscribe

How can a self-described "lazy" person develop really effective and successful long-term work habits?

I start graduate school in the fall (MFA program,) and I want to be extremely productive and active in my work during that period in order to be quite successful later in life. There's nothing new in that story - but I've never developed any kind of "good" work habits.
Throughout my undergrad (and going back to high school, earlier) I've always skated through classes and work, just getting by and underachieving. Now, when I really want to pursue a project or idea, I'll get really fired up, and then my enthusiasm dies or I'll get distracted or I'll make up reasons why surfing for teh pr0ns or playing snes is a much better idea than doing the work I really love. I'll finish a project here and there, but nothing close to what I could do if I wasn't ...."lazy." I've tried all sorts of self-help and motivational stuff, and usually I'll follow it for a while and be really productive, and then back to the old habits. Needless to say, I'm looking for any gimmicky or new age-y solutions.
I want to develop rock-solid work habits and be extremely self-motivated; I have a lot of ambition, but it rarely manifests itself into action. It's been quite a while since I've experienced "flow" - and I want that back.
Any suggestions, thing that've worked for you, websites, blogs, etc?
posted by itchi23 to Human Relations (22 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps you have ADD or ADHD? Just a thought. Your comment about being distracted alot made me think of that. The diagnosis can only be made by a physician.. perhaps you'd consider being evaluated. If you do end up being diagnosed and treated, many of the issues you mention may diminsh. However, I've heard that treatment is still only 10% of the battle, that one must still be motivated, as you say you are.
posted by cahlers at 8:22 AM on June 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Needless to say, I'm looking for any gimmicky or new age-y solutions.

Did you mistype this sentence? You do want gimmicky or new age-y solutions?
posted by HotPatatta at 8:24 AM on June 3, 2008

Practice. Trial-and-error. The trick is just finding something to get you through that initial phase. What would do that? Maybe the awareness that discipline is going to be the difference between success and failure as an independent artist (if that's your goal)?
posted by salvia at 8:41 AM on June 3, 2008

I have many of these same issues. Focus is what you want. So you need something to focus on. Something concrete. Find something or someone or some situation that you're driving for.

It's like working out, for me. When I just do it to do it, I'm not incredibly motivated. But if I am to be in a sports tournament, if I am to participate in an athletic contest, or race somebody, or anything competitive, then when I don't want to do anything but bust out Megaman, I work out.

You need a goal. A bona fide goal. A specific job. A goal to have a piece of your artwork sell for x amount or appear in gallery Z.
posted by cashman at 8:42 AM on June 3, 2008

Sounds as if you're suffering more from distraction than just sheer laziness. Here are a few tips that help keep me on track:

1. Use Firefox profiles. I work on the net a lot and (obviously) the net is full of distractions. I set up Firefox so that, upon start up, I have two profiles to choose from- one for work that has all my work related bookmarks/tools and no fluff. My other profile is my "fun" profile with all the distracting crap on it. In order to get to my fun profile I actually have to log out of my work profile, this acts as a buffer from distractions. To find out how to set up profiles just Google "Firefox Profiles".

2. Work in an environment that limits distraction. Working from home is nice, but also distracting. The XBox stares at you and the cat thinks your laptop is the perfect place to sit. Go to a cafe or a library, anyplace where you can focus on the task at hand.

3. Speaking of tasks at hand, it's a good idea to have one. Sitting down to work or study without a purpose is just inviting distraction. Understand what you should be getting out of a study or work session- something concrete like finishing a paper or understanding a concept fully.

4. Don't overwhelm yourself. Some say multi-tasking is important, I say it's crap. If you have a big project or need to learn a great deal in a short period of time then break it down and take it step by step. I usually break it down by day and set tasks for each day so I know exactly how much I need to study/work that day in order to have everything done by the deadline. If you have no deadline then make one up.

5. Take decent care of yourself. Not directly related to study or work, but this one point will effect every single other thing you do, even if you're not aware that it is. Concentration and retention is difficult if you're working on no sleep or nursing a hang-over. Having a task breakdown can help you gauge when you can let loose and when you need to stay on tip.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 8:43 AM on June 3, 2008 [7 favorites]

How can a self-described "lazy" person develop really effective and successful long-term work habits?

Stop describing yourself as lazy.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:48 AM on June 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Get leverage on yourself. In other words, set yourself up for either "punishment" if you fail or reward if you succeed. For example, give $5000 to somebody that you trust not to give it back to you unless you do what you're supposed to.
posted by mpls2 at 9:22 AM on June 3, 2008

Concerta. Really.
(IANAD, but I was diagnosed by one---your situation sounds painfully familiar)
take a quiz on adult ADD
video: Adult ADHD, Regaining Focus
posted by hulahulagirl at 9:38 AM on June 3, 2008

How can a self-described "lazy" person develop really effective and successful long-term work habits?

Stop describing yourself as lazy.

This is more important than Ironmouth makes it sound. Your self concept is shaped by the way you describe yourself and your life. I'm not sure if the positive affirmation approach is the best way to go about changing this, but there is evidence to support that self narrative that embodies the way you describe yourself is directly related to you conduct your life.
posted by bigmusic at 9:42 AM on June 3, 2008

Oh dear, if this is happening are you sure you want to go to grad school? I hope you're not borrowing a lot of money to do this.

If you are borrowing a significant amount of money for the MFA, I think you should consider deferring for a year until you can develop some strong work habits and self discipline.

I had/have the same trouble with focus, completing projects, routines etc. (some degree of ADD maybe) and thought grad school would magically force me to get it together and these problems would go away. Did they? Hell no - grad school is absolutely the worst possible environment to be in for someone already tending to lack focus and procrastinate.
posted by citron at 10:39 AM on June 3, 2008

You sound a lot like me (a PhD candidate) and I'm pretty sure neither of us has ADD or ADHD. It's sort of like feeling a weird lack of motivation while simultaneously wanting to be motivated. ISeemToBeAVerb gives a lot of great advice upthread that would be useful. You mention a sense of flow in your question - have you ever read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow or any of his other books? It might be helpful to find ways to get into that mindset where you can get super-focused.

I've never done an MFA but I have done an MA, which is the craziest year of graduate work because it presents a much harder learning curve than undergrad and you spend a lot of time trying to catch up to that level. What I found in my MA was that I really didn't have time to slack off (and let me tell you, I LOVE slacking off). Work hard and good luck!
posted by pised at 10:42 AM on June 3, 2008

Twenty-one people have favorited this AskMe, yet only half a dozen have offered suggestions. So you're not alone in wanting to be motivated and there's big market for motivation, even here at MeFi, a select company of savvies.

I consider myself closer to the 21 than to the six, but when I need to bear down and focus, I remind myself of something the college fencing coach said at the beginning of the semester: In fifteen weeks, when the course has ended, when inevitably you look back at your your accomplishments and how you reached them, will you be proud of your effort and your commitment or will you feel shame?

This little trick doesn't always work. It's easy to rationalize and make excuses and stay distracted. Maybe someday I'll get around to looking seriously at Getting Things Done.
posted by notyou at 12:00 PM on June 3, 2008

Hell, if I made it though a PhD program and into a postdoc you can get though this. Just remember:

1. Prioritize. Every minute you spend not working on your stuff (like this minute I am currently spending answering your question on MeFi) means one less minute to finish stuff you need to finish. I may slack off, but I also know that it often results in late nights and sweat and tears before deadlines. If you can accept that, you may be able to find a balance that works for you.

2. Stress is your friend. Really. Getting shocked into action by a missed or almost-missed deadline, ranted at by your advisor, etc. can light a fire under your ass pretty quickly. It may not last long, but you sure as hell won't do whatever it was again any time soon.

3. Recognize your limitations. You are you, and you are not everyone else. Do not be intimidated by the rock star next to you, the student that always finishes everything first and has seventy-three publications by his or her first year of grad school. You need to learn what you can accomplish and use that as your goal. Don't judge yourself by someone else's yardstick, because there will always be someone smarter, faster, or better than you. Trying to measure up against that - well, that way lies despair and anguish. Do what you can, the best you can, and when you do screw up (and likely you will, here or there) have the backbone to own up to it, get pissed at yourself and do better next time. In short, you and you alone know how much work you are putting in to things. Don't be upset when your best work isn't enough, but do be upset when you do poorly due to your lack of effort.

4. When you find what it is that interests you - a specific project, an exciting new bit of knowledge, etc. - you'll roll with it. Really, it's so much easier to be motivated when you have something positive to build on. It will take time to get there. Be patient.

5. Don't be ashamed of time you spend not working. You do need time to recharge the batteries. Go for a bike ride, go out with your friends, spend time with your family. Just remember that you need to treat the work as if it were actually work: If this were a full-time job, and you were your own boss, would you re-hire you based on your current work effort?

There is a balance that works for everyone. That is different for each person and for different fields of study. You can find a scheme that works for you. It helps me to set goals and make plans and keep them all in my phone calendar with pop-up reminders. When I have a meeting, my phone chirps and iCal alarms pop up to let me know, ahead of time, so I won't forget. If I have a project planned for the day, my phone chirps at me at 8 AM to remind me that I have it scheduled. If I have things I need to read, they are in stacks on my desk, and don't get put away until they are read and filed. If I have projects I am working on, project-related files are in folders on my desk, same as the papers to read.

Keep hammering away at it. Take a coffee break every now and then but keep hammering. Good luck with the plans.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:13 PM on June 3, 2008 [7 favorites]

Let me expand on what I said earlier.

When you use a word like "lazy" you are attacking yourself. You usually use that word when you are sitting there trying to engage with the work.

So your experience is that every time you try to get down to work, you are attacked.

Not exactly something that makes you want to get down to work, is it?

Every minute you spend attacking yourself is a moment you aren't actually doing the work.

I'm going to sugggest something radical--dropping the whole concept of motivation. Motivation is waiting for an emotion that will make you want to do the work. Those are rare.

Stop waiting around for that emotion. Stop hoping that you are going to feel like doing this. Instead, just get a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle and write down the advantages of not doing the work on the left and the disadvantages of not doing the work on the right. Do it every day for months. You will do better presently.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:23 PM on June 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Don't sell yourself short. Efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth supposedly looked for the "laziest worker in the facory" because that person had figured out how to do the job with the least amount of effort. Are you actually lazy, or just spoiled? (I had written "motivated" then I reread Ironmouth's comment, and he's got a point.) Use your laziness to produce the work required with the least effort, and forget about motivation. That's what teachers use to get children to learn their times tables. Grown ups just do the work.
posted by nax at 6:22 PM on June 3, 2008

Efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth supposedly looked for the "laziest worker in the facory" because that person had figured out how to do the job with the least amount of effort.

Please, this old canard is too often used to justify laziness. "I'm not lazy, I'm just efficient!"
posted by jayder at 7:42 PM on June 3, 2008

I have had similar problems and discovered I was letting perfectionism ruin my motivation. Perfection is unreachable, and I found a lot of medium to heavy weight tasks were hard to begin because it felt like a huge undertaking to require a perfect thesis/essay/project every time. Once I learned to limit myself to doing enough and then sprucing it up if I had time later, I was jumping into tasks a lot easier. And guess what, the quality of my work is the same or even better than when I was a perfectionist--I have more time to come back later and revise with a fresh outlook.
posted by DarkoBeta at 8:33 PM on June 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

"No TV [pr0n, snes] until your homework is done!" Mom had the basics down.
GTD is good for a lot of people (the 43 folders trick is great), or you could do something simpler like a big wall- or desk-blotter calendar and put your various to on it, whatever. There will be plenty of responses with suggestions.

The key discipline in any organizing/motivating system, IMO, is learning to keep your word to yourself. If you put on the calendar that you're going to clean the bathroom on Saturday, you have to learn to keep that promise and clean the bathroom on Saturday; not "I'll do that after I....", which leads to a Saturday full of doing anything but the bathroom, you feel guilty about it, another week goes by and you still have to do it on top of all the other stuff, etc. You've cheated yourself and made your life harder. The more often you can end the day "clear" (read: I planned to do 5 things, and did them all, plus two more for a bonus!), the better you will feel every day and the easier life will seem.

Since you're not an accomplished task-lister type, you don't now know the joys of:
1) That's done! Now I don't have that hanging over my head anymore! I'm X% freer!
2) Hey, that wasn't as hard or didn't take as long as I thought. I still have lots of things to do, but they're not as threatening now!
3) I went through all the things I have to do this week, made deals for when I would do them, and I did them! I haven't cheated myself, and now the rest of my time is my own! This is cool!

Learning to make and keep commitments with yourself will teach you those things.
posted by bartleby at 1:47 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Check out The Now Habit by Neil Fiore.
posted by 4ster at 2:59 PM on June 4, 2008

I'm surprised no-one has mentioned meditation. Practicing meditation is essentially training yourself to focus - it takes surprisingly little time practicing meditation every day before you can apply this focused attention to other things. Good luck!
posted by csg77 at 4:30 PM on June 4, 2008

get a boss.
having a boss that pretends the world is going to end, if the work is not finished, used to work for me. now i have a partner that is doing exactly the same thing.
posted by hafif at 1:49 AM on June 5, 2008

having a partner as a coach, especially one that only has a vague idea of how artistic production works, can be a nightmare.

Work Habits of Productive Scholarly Writers has some great insights that probably apply to the visual arts.
posted by mecran01 at 9:10 PM on June 6, 2008

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