How can I make myself do stuff?
October 22, 2008 3:53 PM   Subscribe

I can't make myself do anything. I've never been able to. I want to accomplish so much, I have goals, but for some reason, I just can't make myself do all the things I know I'm capable of. How can I turn this around? Is there a name for it? What should I do?

I managed to get through high school, get into a good college and I'm graduating this semester with an average GPA. But I feel like that's not good enough. I'm pretty sure the reason I've been able to make it this far is because I'm actually smarter than most people, and I've been sliding by on that alone. I always write papers the day before they're due no matter how intense they are, and I always get the middling grades I deserve.

I'm capable of functioning just fine - I keep myself and my apartment clean, I can hold down a job, I've only ever flunked one class. But even so, I only ever do the bare minimum of what's expected of me and I know I'm capable of so much more. Even getting around to writing this short question took me a week. My parents have given me basically everything I've ever wanted and it's going to stop soon. Heck, I want it to stop.

I've tried plenty of things - compartmentalizing my life, coming up with rigorous schedules, taking notes, but I always throw them out within a day or so and go back to goofing off until I absolutely have to do something. I'm appalled at how much time I waste, but I just can't stop doing it.

I stopped drinking (I used to drink way too much, alone) a few months ago and I feel like that's a step in the right direction, but now I just do nothing while sober. I generally have a happy disposition and don't think I'm depressed, nor do I think I have ADD (but maybe). If I had to chalk it up to anything, I'd guess that no one ever pushed me as hard as I needed to be pushed when I was a child (though my parents did a wonderful job all around).

I genuinely think I'm an intelligent and capable person, but I'm so profoundly unmotivated that it hardly matters. I need serious change in my life and I'm not sure how to effect it. Therapy? Drugs? I want to get shit done, but I don't even know who to talk to because everyone just thinks I'm lazy.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 268 users marked this as a favorite
I'll bet you're avoiding something that you really want to do, but are afraid you'll fail at. What is it?
posted by mpls2 at 3:58 PM on October 22, 2008 [12 favorites]

I fight with myself to accomplish what I know I'm capable of, so I can relate. mpls2 might be right: fear of failure could be part of it.

Years ago, I wanted to get my photography to publishers and galleries, but I wasn't sure I was up to all the rejection. So I played a little mental trick on myself. Instead of making it my goal to get published or shown, I made it my goal to collect as many rejection notices as possible. When the notices started coming, I had a special file for them. I started looking forward to them! It showed that I was at least doing something.

Maybe a similar method could work for something in your life.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 4:10 PM on October 22, 2008 [31 favorites]

A happy disposition has nothing to do with depression. As somebody who struggled with depression for a long time, your story sounds very familiar and I strongly recommend talking to a counselor, psychiatrist, or similar. This really does sound like a mental health issue.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:13 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Therapy is a great idea. It could be perfectionism, avoidance, a poor career choice that's draining your energy, mild depression, or all kinds of things. (It could even be something physical like a thyroid problem, so you might want to talk to your regular doctor first.) But either way: either call your regular doctor or a therapist tomorrow. A professional can help you sort out the root cause much better than we can. Pick up the phone and give it a shot. Good luck!
posted by wintersweet at 4:16 PM on October 22, 2008

Look, I'm a certified expert at this due to a very strange upbringing. I've been working and studying at this for decades because I had to learn this stuff on my own having no proper examples at home. Here's where I stand as of today.

Productivity is a skill that has to be learned and practiced. You don't just decide and then it happens. If you haven't learned that skill by this stage in your life it can still be done. It will take work and effort and you will fail frequently but over time the number of failures will decrease as you form new habits. You will benefit from having somebody who will nag remind you about your goals and daily tasks. Be kind to that person.

Time management doesn't have to be onerous. I've been down the GTD and Franklin Planner paths, to name a few and found them more bothersome than helpful. Lately I've been using the Chet Holmes approach (see chapter 1 of The Ultimate Sales Machine) as it is very simple and very realistic.

Start simple. Few things keep me from doing more than being overwhelmed. Be sure to break down your goals into tiny tasks (this is one of the good things I learned from GTD). Then pick the easiest to get you started. From there it will be easier to move to the next thing. If you find that you feel overwhelmed it is probably because you haven't chunked the goal or action down far enough.

Make sure your goals are your goals. Not your Dad's goals or your SO's goals. Nothing will ensure your failure faster than doing something you feel you should because of social pressures. When you find the thing that really drives you, as in you'd do it for free, then you will suddenly realize your goals are coming to you much easier.

Let go of your emotional blocks. Really, it can be that simple. These feeling are yours to do with as you wish. It's your mind, take control and let go of the emotions that are holding you back. Recognize when you feel blocked and allow yourself to let go of that, whatever it is. Keep letting it go whenever it arises until it stops bothering you. I can tell you it does work.

Get new friends. One of the real pitfalls of personal change is keeping the same old crowd around you. They see you a certain way and they expect you to stay like that. They will ridicule and demean your efforts to prevent you from rising above your current situation. No, not 100% of the people 100% of the time but you know who needs to go. Find people who are living the life you want and start to associate with them instead. My wife's grades went from C average to Honors just by doing this one thing.

Good for you for having the realization that you want things to be different in your life. MeMail me if you'd like to have some extended discussions.
posted by trinity8-director at 4:40 PM on October 22, 2008 [84 favorites]

Being smart enough to slide by can be a bad thing. Things like school aren't very engaging, and become a nuisance rather than a challenge. So rather than learning to exert effort to accomplish goals, and getting used to exerting that effort, you learn to get through life with the path of least resistance.

Therapy, treatment for depression, and such are good suggestions, but it's possible you could just passively absorb therapy sessions or passively ingest medication. You're already used to sliding, so chances are you will continue to slide. You have to engage for therapy to work. So, whenever something even fleetingly motivates you, take your willpower by the reins and DO THAT THING BEFORE YOU CAN TALK YOURSELF OUT OF IT. You may have to hassle yourself mentally, but that's fine. The more you do this, the easier it will get. Not that this alone will solve your problems, but you are the only person who can get ahold of yourself.
posted by Coatlicue at 4:49 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I want to get shit done, but I don't even know who to talk to because everyone just thinks I'm lazy.

That's me to a tee! So I'm probably not going to be able to help here, all I can say is that from my observations I'm well aware that my fear is of failure. A fear of shooting for the moon but not even breaking out of our atmosphere without some sort of complication. Fear of failure, or perhaps a fear of success (let's face it, success is stressful, but getting by is just easier). People probably think you are lazy (like myself), because, to be honest, we probably are.

Do you take any other drugs than alcohol? If not, I'd go see my doctor about depression. Me, I'm going to get around to quitting cannabis one of these days.
posted by twistedonion at 5:01 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

But wait, there's more!

Fulfill your sleep requirements. Turn off the TV and go to bed. Wake up without an alarm. If you need to wake up earlier then go to bed earlier. When I get stupid and stop doing this then everything else falls apart within a few days. I just can't get my stuff done when I'm sleep deprived.

Move your body. Exercise lifts your spirits and gives you neat-o built-in feel-good drugs. Even a walk around the block to begin. Start at whatever fitness level you are at and build from there.

As you can see there isn't "one thing" to do. These areas are all tied together.
posted by trinity8-director at 5:07 PM on October 22, 2008 [13 favorites]

I'll bet you're avoiding something that you really want to do, but are afraid you'll fail at. What is it?

Just want to highlight this answer. I went down to a four day week because I felt something was missing from my life and wanted to pursue it. I make up my income through a bit of freelance work, but not as much as I could be making. I know I want to work for myself, but I'm terrified of failing, so I just do enough to get by, rather than working to my potential. I'm always on metafilter instead of working on a design for my portfolio, etc.

Again, I'm not really answering anything for you but I'm glad you asked the question because it's something I've been going through the past month or so.
posted by twistedonion at 5:09 PM on October 22, 2008

A sense of shame will change your life.

The nub of your problem is actually pretty common amongst those who were brighter than average as kids and weren't pushed hard enough. You get used to coasting along with minimal effort and being a big fish in a small pond.

What you need is a bigger pond. Find a way to associate with people who are clearly doing better than you. People's by whose standards you aren't "functioning just fine". If your issues are academic you need to be hanging out with fascinating, intelligent people who make you feel dumb by comparison. If your issues are financial seek out people working three jobs at once who will have no sympathy for your lazy ways. If you want to travel, but keep putting it off, start hanging out in backpacker cafes where the conversations will make you feel like a timid, provincial loser. If the issue is housework you need to be find somebody who believes cleanliness is next to godliness and invite them over to your place.

Our idea of 'normal' is defined by the people we associate with. You need to surround yourself by people who will make you ashamed of your apathy instead of enabling it. Big Fish Small Pond Syndrome is hard to eradicate, but not impossible. Shame is one of the best tools in a recovering fish-person's arsenal.

Of course, all this is taking your post at face value. If Pope Guilty is right and you are depressed, then this is terrible, terrible advice and will make you more miserable than you already are.
posted by the latin mouse at 5:12 PM on October 22, 2008 [39 favorites]

IANATherapist, but I suspect anxiety and perfectionism, two things that I suffer from and that make me feel the way you're feeling right now. My answer? Deep breathing, running, and therapy. All of the above make me more motivated and less inclined to procrastinate, although I do plenty of that.
posted by cachondeo45 at 5:38 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow. Just wow. I'm still not entirely sure that I didn't write this in my sleep, given that you have posted such a startling reflection of my own life.

Personally, I've always had a great difficulty doing useful things. It's a funny sort of double-think wherein I'll convince myself I'm doing something productive (cleaning the room, programming pet projects, etc.) rather than the work required of me by school, university, et al. About six months ago I broke down completely and finally admitted (to myself) that I've been clinically depressed for about six years and sought help.

I won't lie to you; it's been a very slow recovery and I'm only making baby-steps, but the help and support provided by my family, friends, psychiatrist and psychologist has been invaluable and essential to this recovery. I'm still not the obscenely productive individual I dream of, but I'm on my way!

You may not be depressed, this is something that only you and a medical professional can determine. Just be aware that a happy demeanour doesn't mean you're not depressed, I was actively denying my depression for far too long and I'm well aware of the havoc it wreaked upon my life.
posted by PuGZ at 5:53 PM on October 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

Um, as several people have stated above, I am also not entirely certain that I didn't write this and just forget about it. Until you said you no longer drink alcohol, I was almost convinced.

After years and years and years of floating by, interspersed with stints of productivity due to (what I have now learned was an overdose of) Adderall, I have finally started to see some improvement in myself.

I am currently 27, so you are a few years younger than me, but I would say I was very much at the same point as you are right before I graduated from college. After college I moved home and got a job, quit my job and moved to another city and got a new job, quit that and moved to Africa, came home and got a job, and realized I was so totally lost that I didn't even know how to begin finding my way back.

Finally, my mother forced me to go see a psychologist, who then recommended that I see a psychiatrist in conjunction. My psychiatrist listened to my story for about twenty minutes and looked at me and said I was a CLASSIC case of ADD/Anxiety/slight depression. I told him I was not interested in taking medicine for ADD, as I had tried that before and hated how they made me feel. He asked me how much I had been prescribed before and nearly fell to the ground when I told him. Evidently I was WAY overprescribed for my level of ADD and my weight.

He started me on Zoloft for anxiety/depression and a low dose of Adderall. About a month later I quit the job that I hated, signed up to be a substitute teacher, was offered a long term sub job, and then a permanent teaching job. Last year was my first year at the school where I teach, and I am almost halfway through my second year.

I still struggle a bit, but I see my doctor regularly and we adjust my medication as needed. I finally have a sense of stability in my life. I've never felt better.

Long story short -- talk to a professional. You are not the only one out there, as evidenced by all the posts so far.
posted by junipero at 6:21 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have a similar problem. I am better but still struggle. I was diagnosed with ADHD a few years ago. I didn't really think I had it - because I had always done well in school with no problem.

I would see a psychiatrist. But make sure you realize that many psychologists/psychiatrists are not good matches. I saw 3 or 4 before I found one that fit. Many made me feel more depressed and were rather unhelpful.

It's a process. Just don't give up and make sure you give a few different doctors a try.
Also - check or before choosing a doctor. After a long string of horrible doctors I refuse to go unless that have good ratings. It saves you a lot of wasted time!
posted by ChloeMills at 6:26 PM on October 22, 2008

Hello, five-years-ago-me with the anonymous time machine. Two things:

The world is not going to challenge you. You have to take care of it yourself. I started learning Japanese in January. It wasn't that I especially wanted to learn Japanese. Mainly I decided I was just going to do something moderately difficult, actually complete it, to show myself that I could manage a long-term goal, and Japanese came up coincidentally. I've been learning Japanese for ten months now, which has been pretty good proof to myself that I can make a sustained effort at something, and has led me to conclude that my lack of follow-through has more to do with an absence of motivation than actual inherent laziness. If you have any self-doubt along these lines, I recommend this. You don't have to learn Japanese; you could start welding, or write a novel, or knit a sweater for every member of your family, or run a marathon. It doesn't matter. What matters is picking a thing and keeping at it. It's actually probably best if it's something that's not anything like a life goal, since any fears of success/failure you might have won't get too involved then.

Personally, I'm not afraid of failure (other than in a weird anxious social way). I am afraid, powerfully afraid, of being stuck doing something I don't want to do for the Rest Of My Life. (For instance: I was accepted to two of the three grad schools I managed to make myself apply to and never responded to the acceptance letters because I thought doing so would trap me into spending my working life researching Roman Britain, which is interesting enough, but 40 years of it?) My solution was to avoid limiting my future by making no decisions and coasting in jobs that were essentially handed to me. I have wasted five or six years this way so far, and let me tell you, not a single thing I thought about and decided not to work at doing would have been less pleasant than the crap I've been doing (except possibly the electron microscope--that was fun), nor would any of it have been anything like permanent if I'd tired of it. I have to keep reminding myself that my choices are not life sentences (and even if one is, continuing to be Buridan's ass is almost always worse than any choice I might make). I have read a lot of advice about careers and motivation here and sites and books recommended here, and this comment is the most helpful thing I've read anywhere about figuring out what you want (maybe the most helpful thing I've read about anything). Barbara Sher's cutesy, god-I'm-too-smart-to-be-reading-this Refuse to Choose was the second, in spite of how silly I felt reading it.

Oh, and this comment about drive.
posted by fidelity at 6:56 PM on October 22, 2008 [23 favorites]

Lots of great advice above and I just want to chime in with one thing.

You don't mention it, but I wonder if you are a big pot user.
I don't know if it's because I've always lived in an artistic community, but I've known a lot of people with a similar disposition--many, many of them have been pot-heads. Okay, I'm not a scientist, but something about daily pot smoking seems to rob them of their zest and ambition... I'm certainly not anti-drug (anything and everything in moderation). It's just a thought.

P.S. Now that I think of it, the only ones like this who never really got it together are still raging pot-heads into their 40's and 50's.
posted by Toto_tot at 6:59 PM on October 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

So you've been told your whole life that you're capable of great things, and that's how you know you're capable of these great things. Yet, you've never done any of these great things, and it must be (on some level) terrifying to consider that you might not be as capable as you think.

Fear of failure is a bitch, because you may very well be capable of great things, but if you aren't able to try, then by definition you have already failed, and are not capable of great things. So your fear of failure means you've already failed.

So now that you're a failure, turn it around. Pick one thing, one scary thing, to try. Commit to it and do it. If you can't stick with long-term (or even mid-term) plans, make it a big scary thing that can be done in a short time (like public speaking) or that has a strict schedule (like an improv class.) If you're thinking more in terms of tasks rather than events, pick a task that requires an audience to pass judgment (writing, music) and aim for that.

Then get ready for the big disappointment: you will probably suck at it. Then look around, and discover there are lots of talentless hacks out there who get really good at things just by sticking to them, and working hard -- do you really want to admit that they're better than you? Fuck that noise. GET BUSY.

does this help? I dunno. but this is the kind of stuff I tell myself all the time, and it works for me; I used to procrastinate and bail on things halfway through and so on and so forth, but not so much these days.
posted by davejay at 7:44 PM on October 22, 2008 [11 favorites]

What you need to do is engage with that part of yourself that does not want to do things responsibly and is not motivated. What does IT want to do? Maybe you should consider trying that for a while, or at least listening very carefully. I think you might want to view this as a process of negotiation with that part of that yourself, and a large chunk of the negotiation process is going to be listening to and understanding its desires, not neglecting and belittling them. Ultimately, as you see, it, not "you," runs the show. So you had best try to figure out why it does not want to be conventionally successful - what it lacks, or why it's afraid, or why it (you!) doesn't completely see the benefits of your goals - and address those concerns.

I think it could be as simple as asking yourself "All right, why don't I want to write papers on time? Do I not like writing papers? Are they intimidating? If so, are there ways I could make it less intimidating? Are they boring? If so, are there ways I could make them more interesting? Do I not want to succeed in the future (and it's ok to hear a "no")? If the answer is no, why not? Do I think success is overrated for some reason?" Etc.

Then after that, perhaps the list the pros and cons of particular goals you want to follow. For instance, studying has cons: it can be tedious and take time away from social life. But it also has pros: it can increase your base of knowledge, hone your mind, and increase your marketability. So ask yourself honestly: IS it worth it? Don't just assume the answer to be yes. Really try to weigh both sides, and acknowledge the bad points.

Once you've actually figured out what the problems are, are trying to resolve them, and feel like you are more congruent about your desires, it will be much easier, when faced with the temptation to do the bare minimum, to say "Do I want to succeed or not?" and bring up the debate you've already had with yourself earlier.

Also important might be figuring out what really motivates you. For instance, some people are more motivated by the thought of success, while other people are lazy about success, but might jump at the thought of not fulfilling a duty or moral obligation. Remember, think about not what you would ideally LIKE to motivate you (as in "I wish my desire to help suffering people would motivate me") but what actually would set a fire to your behind.

Just some thoughts.
posted by shivohum at 9:39 PM on October 22, 2008 [8 favorites]

I generally have a happy disposition and don't think I'm depressed, nor do I think I have ADD (but maybe).

Your post reminds me of, well, me. I was diagnosed with ADD when I was 12 (they didn't call it that then I was "hyperactive") but my parents took me off the meds because they didn't like the side effects. Later in life I finally spoke to my doctor about what was going on and was diagnosed with clinical depression. I never thought I was depressed and I chalked up my inability to do the things I knew I could do to untreated ADD/ADHD but apparently there was some textbook depression going on. The SSRIs help with the depression and massive caffeine intake helps me focus (not recommended BTW) but were I you I would talk to a doctor. I wish I had done so sooner.
posted by MikeMc at 10:06 PM on October 22, 2008

I think it could be as simple as asking yourself "All right, why don't I want to write papers on time? Do I not like writing papers? Are they intimidating? If so, are there ways I could make it less intimidating? Are they boring? If so, are there ways I could make them more interesting? Do I not want to succeed in the future (and it's ok to hear a "no")? If the answer is no, why not? Do I think success is overrated for some reason?" Etc.

I'm another person who could have written this post herself, and for me the answer is... I don't write papers on time because I don't have to. I put them off and put them off and suddenly it's 1am the day it's due and I haven't started them, and then I stay up all night writing them and then... I get consistent As and Bs on those papers and maintain a 3.5 GPA.

This leaves me with no reason to write papers on time, except the fact that it would make me a happier person in the end. And for some reason, I can't make myself prioritize that. So I wind up reading web sites during the time I should be writing, writing while I should be sleeping, and sleeping while I should be in class. And making the dean's list. And continuing on the same path I've been on since middle school, when I first realized I could get away with this.

Maybe I should seek help too...
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:17 PM on October 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

This leaves me with no reason to write papers on time, except the fact that it would make me a happier person in the end. And for some reason, I can't make myself prioritize that. So I wind up reading web sites during the time I should be writing, writing while I should be sleeping, and sleeping while I should be in class. And making the dean's list. And continuing on the same path I've been on since middle school, when I first realized I could get away with this.

GET OUT OF MY MIND! No matter how much I tell myself to start them earlier, at the very most I will have only written a few basic notes and the title of the paper.

Maybe we should have a group MeFi therapy session...
posted by jhighmore at 1:39 AM on October 23, 2008

10 minutes. Just do ten minutes. You can do ten minutes. You know what assignments are due? Do ten minutes on one of them. Set up your word document, maybe layout the structure. Only use ten minutes. That's all you need. Tomorrow? Do another ten minutes.

After a while, up the ante. It's practice, I think. When I started working full time, I was so tired after a 9-5 day. ZOMG, how do people do this? But, practice, yeah.

Plus what the smart people up there said too, therapy, depression, etc. In the meantime, you could manage ten minutes, if you set a timer. Just do ten. No more.
posted by b33j at 2:15 AM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

This leaves me with no reason to write papers on time, except the fact that it would make me a happier person in the end.

But would it though? Maybe you just assume it would, or perhaps you say this because it seems like it would make you happier. Maybe you should try an experiment: just try doing your paper ONCE on time and see if it really does make you happier. Just once. Obviously not doing your paper on time gives you some serious benefits that you know... Maybe the benefits of doing your paper on time only materalize if you felt challenged by a larger goal of success, and right now it doesn't sound like you feel very inspired (you just want to coast by).
posted by shivohum at 6:30 AM on October 23, 2008

Oh, man--me too, me too!

I used to get As and Bs without turning in my homework, because I'm great at memorizing and regurgitating information, which is just about all that American schools require on tests. I'm now in grad school and am finding it similarly easy (example: the MBA class I'm taking bores me to tears because I've read almost every trade book out there about consumer buying behavior. I have a presentation/project worth 60% of my grade due on Monday, and I have not done any of it. I'll do it Sunday night. And I have no doubt that I will still make an A, because that's what I do).

I'm doing this in my career, too. I have a job in an industry that I love, seriously, dream-job-type stuff. I'm doing everything I need to do, which still leaves me plenty of time to goof off on AskMeFi and other sites. I could have been promoted by now. I'd like to be high up in this organization someday. Why aren't I acting like it? I don't have an answer. I'm too busy spreading my interests around, dabbling in this and that even though I have a job I want to do for the rest of my life.

It could be a fear of failure. It could be plain laziness, I'm used to just "being me" and being pronounced a wonder child. My god, what would happen if I actually worked to my full potential? I might be elected CEO! I think part of it is I don't really want more responsibility--I like leaving work at work and having time to go home and snuggle with PurpleCurlyGuy without worrying about work. I think of ambition as being a dirty habit in a way--I don't want to be That Woman.

I have no answers for you, but geez, I hear you.
posted by purplecurlygirl at 6:41 AM on October 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

Wow, I felt like I wrote this. Except for the drinking part and the parents giving me everything (I was pretty spoiled, I wouldn't say rotten; but I was also made to understand the value of money and why I couldn't get something, etc. etc.)

I wouldn't say you are depressed, or ADD, you are just truly and incredibly apathetic. I don't have an answer for you. I wish I did. I just wanted to say I completely identify with you, in nearly every single way. I would have preferred to message you, but you posted anonymous, so you at least care somewhat what people think of you. That's a good thing.

But I too have big things that I'd like to accomplish, and pretty much no motivation to accomplish them. I think in part, I'm afraid of failure and/or success. I dunno, but either way... Wow.
posted by mrzer0 at 11:58 AM on October 23, 2008

You need to find someone who cares about you but has the distance to be indifferent to your moods and won't cut you slack. A good friend, not an immediate family member. Someone who's dependable and can be insistent. We'll call her Kate.

Give Kate a list of things you need or want to get done and ask her to call you every couple of days to check in with your progress. Her job will be to ask WHY when you haven't done anything, intone "DO IT" when you start whining, and demand someting (previously agreed upon) from you at certain inaction milestones. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but it's remarkable what a motivator it is to be accountable to someone else.
posted by kittyprecious at 12:48 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've also thought the bitch of this ('cause, yeah me to) is that laziness is the one thing that can't be worked at.

You can throw a ball better or write a better story through practice, but you can't practice doing things.

Or so I thought until I read some of these comments.
posted by OrangeDrink at 3:54 PM on October 23, 2008

I used to be this way too. Now I am hyper-productive. I contribute the change to the following life events:

1. I had a friend tell me one night that "You have to play the game to win it." Up to this point I had been pretty much mad at the world for being stupid, unfair, and fundamentally broken. My anger manifested itself by choosing not to participate in any of those stupid games in life, money or education. Of course then I was mad that my life was sucking. Her point was that yes, it's stupid. Yes, most people are stupid, but yet, they succeed and so can you by just sucking it up and playing the game they want you to play. Talent is less useful than effort in the success equation.

2. After this event I threw myself into a very hard semester of school and work that required that I work my ass off just to stay afloat. I resolved to bust ass and see what happened. I knocked it out of the park and found out that, holy crap, that was kind of fun. It was hard, but in a good way.

3. Once I realized that hey, I can really kick some ass, I started to feel guilty when I wasn't using that potential. My friends and family also started asking probing questions when I appeared to be letting things slide. Other people just started saying things about me that I didn't want to believe were true about myself. I didn't want to be known as lazy or unreliable. There is some truth that guilt and shame can be useful because about 8 years ago those events combined kicked me in the ass hard and I have been pretty darn productive since then.
posted by jopreacher at 4:32 PM on October 23, 2008 [6 favorites]

When you begin to get free, you will get depressed.
It works like this: When you were three years old, if your parents weren't too bad, you knew how to play spontaneously. Then you had to go to school, where everything you did was required. The worst thing is that even the fun activities, like singing songs and playing games, were commanded under threat of punishment. So even play got tied up in your mind with a control structure, and severed from the life inside you. If you were "rebellious", you preserved the life inside you by connecting it to forbidden activities, which are usually forbidden for good reasons, and when your rebellion ended in suffering and failure, you figured the life inside you was not to be trusted. If you were "obedient", you simply crushed the life inside you almost to death.

Freedom means you're not punished for saying no. The most fundamental freedom is the freedom to do nothing. But when you get this freedom, after many years of activities that were forced, nothing is all you want to do. You might start projects that seem like the kind of thing you're supposed to love doing, music or writing or art, and not finish because nobody is forcing you to finish and it's not really what you want to do. It could take months, if you're lucky, or more likely years, before you can build up the life inside you to an intensity where it can drive projects that you actually enjoy and finish, and then it will take more time before you build up enough skill that other people recognize your actions as valuable.
posted by mjewkes at 11:01 AM on October 25, 2008 [20 favorites]

Don't give up.

I am the least self-motivated person I know. I am lazy to the point of ridiculousness. There's a pencil on the floor under my desk that's been there for 6 months, for no other reason than I look at it, think about it, and then say..."eh. I'll pick it up later". Setting my alarm before I go to bed is just a formality. i have never just got up when the alarm goes off. If I don't have to be anywhere, i'll lay in bed all day sometimes. I'll cancel social engagements, just so I can stay home and dick around.

And guess what?

I've had a good life. I'vebeen successful in my career. I've traveled the world. I have a good relationship with my family. I have some of the best friends a guy could have. I'm good at things. I've dated smart, funny attractive women. It's not perfect by a longshot, but I'm pretty happy with my life so far.

Mostly for two reasons. I'm good at reaching long term goals.And I'm pretty good at figuring what aspects of my life are part of "who I am" and what things are just habits I've picked up along the way. And to be really honest, most of it falls into the habit category.

Think about it. There are plenty of things in life you've managed to do consistently. You went to school every day for most of your childhood. If a movie comes out that looks interesting, you go see it. If there's a band you like, and they come out with a new album,you find a way to hear it. You get your hair cut. You change your underwear. The things you do when you are goofing off are still things.

you see where I'm going here?

You're not unmotivated. You're just not motivated to do certain things. Free yourself from the idea that the things you do are 'who you are" and realize that they're just habits that you picked up without realizing it.

The hard part is picking up new habits, and breaking old ones. This is where long term planning comes in. I know I'm not the type of person who can say "tomorrow i'm going to clean up the house" and guarantee that it get's done. But I can be the type of person who says I want to visit Japan, and somehow get there. That's good enough for me.

I know that sounds like an oversimplification, but mostly what it comes down to is that i reached a point once where you seem to be. And instead of trying to change myself, i just got more honest with myself about who I was. I may not be good at making myself do stuff tomorrow, but I don't let myself make excuses or lie to myself about what I did or didn't do yesterday. And if I spent all day yesterday playing GTAIV, then I'm not going to do that today. It's not perfect, but it helps.

Also,and this might just be a personality quirk, but I happen to have a bit of personal pride when it comes to keeping my word to others. For some odd reason, i never keep my word to myself, but I always keep my word to others. As stupid as it sounds, when I decided I wanted to move across country, it wasn't until I started telling people I was going to move= and started to feel embarassed when people would bring it up, that I got off my ass and did what it took to move. Kind of stupid, but I don't beat myself up over it. I love living where I live,and all the folks back home think I was ballsy and brave just packing up and moving. I don't think any of them even realize that it took me 4 years to make it happen. And in retrospect, I wasn't ready 4 years earlier anyway.

so in summary (just in case i have to come back and eatmy words)

1) get attuned to your habits. You're always doing "something".
2) Don't obsess over short term goals if it's easier to focus on long term goals
3) Be honest with yourself. Don't make excuses, but also don't beat yourself up.

one more said you're just finishing college, so I'm assuming you're in your early 20's. Well, as you get older, time changes. Trust me on this one. Things that seem big now will seem small later.

Remember when you were a kid and summer break seemed to last forever? Then when school started it seemed like Summer was really far away? Now think about a school year. It kind of shoots by, doesn't it?

The next ten years of your life are going to go by faster than you realize. It's real easy to look forward at that 10 years as a lot of time to do all the things you want, and then look back at that ten years and realize that you didn't do shit. The best advice I can give is to promise yourself that no matter where you end up, you won't be exactly where you are today. if you can keep that promise, you'll be doing ok. Just keep moving forward.
posted by billyfleetwood at 7:49 PM on October 25, 2008 [23 favorites]

I also forgot to add, that I was also that guy who was always the smartest in the class but just did enough to get ability to wait until the last minute and crank out the work eventually turned out to me being the guy at my job who could always turn a project around in 1/4 the time of everyone else. And when i'm in a situation where I'm forced to not wait until the last minute, my work is usually better than everyone else's.

But also I got lucky in that the stuff that I used to "waste time" on when I was supposed to be doing important things, (drawing, reading magazines, and dicking around with computers) turned into a pretty decent career in Graphic Design. Athough I'm pretty sure that if the Internet hadn't come along exactly when it did, I'd have ended up living in a van down by the river, so Your Mileage May Vary.
posted by billyfleetwood at 8:23 PM on October 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

Therapy or counseling might be a good idea. It might be that you just aren't passionate enough about whatever it is you are trying to do.

You sound like you've never been forced to be busy enough to the point where you can no longer do things you enjoy. During the semester I'm incredibly busy, so I always have things that I would genuinely like to do but can't, because I just don't have time. Then summer comes around and I become lazy and bored, and I start to hate the summer. Everyone wants what they can't have, including myself. You said your parents are going to stop helping you soon. Maybe this will be a pivotal point for you. You won't always be able to do what you want to do or have the things you want to have, so when you do get them or are able to do them, you will appreciate them a lot more.
posted by nel at 5:26 PM on October 29, 2008


Ok, this is the blind leading the blind here, but y'know how sometimes there's tools you can cope with using, and othertimes not? If you're holding down your current responsibilities ok, then maybe working on figuring out more things to get 'held down' would help.

For a wee while there, I was writing down daily goals. Not like, stuff that I actually had to do today, but I just had to write 10 random things I wanted to do that day - vacuum my room, go to SE Asia, make a firestaff, see more of my small relatives.
And I wouldn't look at the lists for the days before when I made my list - so it was just stuff I wanted to do today, or STILL wanted to do.

Some things would pop on the list like mushrooms and then be gone forever. Some were very short term goals I actually accomplished. Sometimes new goals would stick. Some long terms goals I had, I realised I didn't really *want* on a daily basis, others I realised I really, really did want every day.

The second BIG improvement to the goals list, was stating everything in the present tense, or like I've already done it, and being specific about the emotion or behaviours involved.
Like, instead of 'I want to play/learn guitar' - ok, what would I be like if I was someone who was doing that?
So - 'I practice my guitar every day', 'I feel really good about sending a care package to friends, to let them know I care', 'I'm using a safe & effective method of birth control in addition to, or instead of condoms'.

If you're stable enough at the moment that you could do that on a daily basis or something (I was doing it as a draft in my email, and then as an item in a 'goals' calendar on Google), it could be helpful.

The specific note is - these are not things you tell yourself you MUST do when you write them down, they're just things you'd honestly like to do, and writing them down, helps you figure out where you really want to be moving towards in life.

Ok. I've realised I probably suck less enough at the moment, that I could start doing this again. Thanks for the motivator. ;)
posted by Elysum at 3:35 PM on November 6, 2008 [4 favorites]

There is a lot of good advice in these posts but your mind is a tricky thing and you have to be real careful not to accept any particular opinion as legion. Ultimately, you have to reach down into yourself to find your answer, that is if it is important enough to you. Also, be carefull with patent answers and cvool sounding ideas or simple concepts. For example, "fear of failure" and "fear of success". There is a lot more behind these constructs than meets the eye.
“Fear of success” is like an oxymoron. I don't even understand the concept. If there is something about a person's interpretation of success, the person would naturally change there definition of what success is unless they really want to fail, which I will demonstrate by my story, is a real possibility. People who say they fear success are really elevating their fear of failure to a higher level (beyond the most immediate goal) so that their doing nothing is more defensible. The person is saying that “even if I do succeed (at whatever it is) that I won't be able to keep on winning as the stakes get higher. In other words, they are trying to rationalize their fear to a level that is more difficult to overcome so justify the “do nothing” approach to the goals that are nearer at hand. Thus, in a MS program, someone might say; “why go on; I will need a PHD to get where I want to go and I know I can't do that”.
My situation is even more involved and abstract but to the point. My father had me so convinced that I wouldn't succeed that, at 73, after a PHD in Engineering and some accomplishments that are non trivial, I am still waiting for my father to rescue me. So ask yourself, “why do you want to achieve that success state” or rather “what do you really want to happen”? My father was never there for me. My mother wanted me to be like my father but she couldn't tell me how to do it and he wouldn't take the time to lead me. It was instilled in me that I couldn't have my mother's love without being like my father. As a child, I resented this; I wanted unconditional love from her. She died when I was 16 and I have been chasing after the love of a ghost-mother all my life.
I was startled, in therapy, to discover at 63, that I really never wanted to succeed (or rather, that I had a strong desire to fail which was playing against my desire to succeed); I wanted to fail so my father would show some compassion and interest in me to save me and show me the way to go. I had, who I thought to be, a very good therapist but he could not see that my inner most drives were going to lead to a disastrous end. Having ADD and Epilepsy did not help but I probably would have ended up in a much similar place if I did not have those medical problems.
So, where did I end up. My wife whom I dearly loved (and whom loved me) left after the children left the nest; then we lost the house. She just could not deal with my need for a mother and my work and life philosophy – “life is like a tin can, just kick it around and see where it takes you”. I kept on in therapy and my wife and I kept trying to get back together for seven years and I kept messing up; my work and my freedom, to do what I wanted, was always more important. When I turned 67 I was retired. I started a new job but failed to satisfy the owner of the consulting firm. I began to see my professional life as a failure also.
After being separated by 1000 miles, I had an affair with a woman who, unbeknown to me at the time, happened to be a crack user. She introduced me to other users and dealers. I started delivering drugs and eventually became a dealer and a user. It was a distraction from facing my failure at keeping a wonderful family together. It was a good way to make friends that I did not need to compare myself with re their accomplishments. I spent time in prison and lost everything. I have been clean for 3-years but still carry with me a criminal record and the knowledge that I contributed to the demise of other users. I am now penniless except for a monthly Social Security check.
All these hard lessons, not withstanding, I still find it difficult to make myself adhere to any schedule for completing this book I am writing. I fight myself tooth-and-nail every day and, at every juncture, refuse to do what I need to succeed even though I regard writing this book as my last chance to vindicate myself in the eyes of those I love.
You are dealing with some of the most fundamental issues our society will throw at you so you really need to get to know yourself. People who accept a simple definition of themselves or accept a career at an early age don't have to face these questions. It sounds like you have gotten far enough into this self motivation issue that it will be hard to turn it off and go back and redefine yourself as a fireman or Indian chief. So, I STRONGLY suggest that you keep a journal. Start out with your post and the responses that attract you and continue.
Your lack-of-motivation issue is so central to your future development that you need to give it your utmost attention. Look at it this way: The more you resist doing this, the clearer it should become that you do not care for yourself or there is something preventing caring for yourself that you need to dig out. As for me, I found that I programmed myself, as a child, to take the road to failure. I became the child that everyone felt sorry for because of a negative father and a tyrannical step mother. But I programmed myself for this years before my mother died and the tyrannical step mother came into being. It had a lot to do with some books that I read when I was 6 or 7 years old. One poem is about a sailor marooned on an island and he can't decide what to do first; so he does nothing but wait to be saved. This justified my inability to organize and make decisions for myself.
The other book is a sad story of a young child boy, from the Flemish area of Europe and his dog. They live spiritually pure lives but end up dying of exposure and hunger, I was very afraid of being deserted as a child. Because the boy and his dog were mourned and so innocent, I think I began to believe that it was OK to be an orphan and live a life of poverty. If I am mourned after my death this shows that someone has feelings for me.
Of course, these negative motivations were a current that flowed beneath my veneer of bravado and brilliance that I maintained. I was not able to dig them out until after my career ended and I resurrected the road to failure and aloneness. So, think about it. When did you start programming yourself for failure and for what reasons?
posted by sixtiesman at 8:20 PM on November 7, 2008 [6 favorites]

Hi, I have read the whole page of comments and wonder if I too have the same issues. I am 53 now and have gotten by my whole life on my common sense and ability to learn and absorb things very quickly with little effort. I never put much effort into anything and always did well. As funny as this sounds I never read an entire book untill the age of 40. Seems that I just couldnt stay interrested and had to force myself to stay with it. I can do everything well but have mastered nothing. It is hard to stay on task when your mind wonders into something more interresting, which happens often. My doctor has mentioned getting tested for ADD, but I thought it was a passing joke. Now after reading whats been posted I wonder. My whole life has thus far has been average and uneventful and now I am paying the price. At the age of 50 I threw everything away ( including a 23 year marriage ) Three years later I am no happier and no better. I still wont motivate and now have no energy to want to. Oh and by the way I have been diagnosed with depression and have been on 4 differrent medications. NONE have worked so far. I know the real me is in there some where and desperately want to get that person back. As hard as ive tried I just cant seem to. What am I doing wrong?
posted by miken1 at 10:51 AM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

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