How do I motivate myself to do honest hard work at my job after a lifetime of cutting corners and slacking off?
February 12, 2009 1:12 PM   Subscribe

How do I motivate myself to do honest hard work at my job after a lifetime of cutting corners and slacking off?

This question mainly relates to the work that I do at my job. My whole life I've been the type to cut corners, do the minimum amount of work necessary for a certain project, and making excuses for turning in homework or papers late. I, for some reason, assumed that this tendency wouldend when I started working a regular, paying job.

It, of course, hasn't. I still spend the majority of my time dicking around on the internet, writing, or doing anything else to waste my time and not do work. It's bizarre to me, because this happens even when I have work that I should enjoy doing. Just as soon as something is a mandated task, it becomes burdensome, near impossible to complete it. I'll do anything,ANYTHING, to escape working on what I'm meant to be working on.

Somehow I've gotten away with this most of the time at the past two jobs I've been at. I'm a master at looking productive without actually producing results. Hell, I'm writing this at my job right now as a way not to have to do my job.

I'm sick and tired of this - sick and tired of not feeling productive, and not having anything to come home at the end of the day and feel accomplished about. But I feel so stuck in this rut of procrastination and unproductiveness that I have no idea how to clamber out.

Ideas, MeFi community? I've looked at lots of posts of motivation, but the carrot and stick approach just isn't enough incentivizing. I've tried the GTD approach too, with limited success for small life tasks, but no success for big work projects in general. Please, help!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of job do you do? If it's possible, get off the computer to do the work, go work somewhere else where you can't be tempted by the interwebs. Have you tried that?
posted by lizbunny at 1:21 PM on February 12, 2009

Somehow I've gotten away with this most of the time at the past two jobs I've been at. I'm a master at looking productive without actually producing results.

Set measurable goals and tell people about them (important people, like your coworkers and boss). Give yourself deadlines, and make sure that if you miss them people will find out. Basically make it impossible for yourself to both slack off and get away with it.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:23 PM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Play to your strengths: you're really good at avoiding things, so create some more burdensome task that you can avoid by doing your work.

Can you break down your big projects into little tasks, so that GTD or similar becomes something that works for you?

Do you like working with other people? If you do, and if your job is amenable to it, see how collaborative you can make your work. It's easier to stay on task when you aren't the only one contributing and you have someone else to remind you what needs to be done.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:25 PM on February 12, 2009

I've had staff members like you. And I've occasionally been you. The thing that I find works to pull people out of doldrums is to impress upon them how important their jobs really are. Yes, you may reconcile accounts, juggle spreadsheets and post journal entries. But without that work, the company won't know where it stands. How is that true about your job? What wouldn't happen if you didn't do your work? Hell, even a receptionist makes an impact on a company. What sort of impact do you want to make?

I've also led by example. I work hard, very hard, and I expect my staff to work hard as well. Not slaving, but... just switch your damned brain on, please, and show up for work mentally as well as physically, as often as you can. If you do what I ask, you can play for a bit afterwards to relax and restore for the next task. Play all the time, and I'll make it clear to you that I know you're playing all the time, and that you and your coworkers had better have clear task queues. If not, then I will call you in, ask you what's wrong, tell you that I'm aware you're slacking, and remind you that I know you're better than this kind of thing. After all, I wouldn't have hired you. You continue on, you make everyone's life difficult by not working, I get rid of you. It's that simple.

All of this is to say that though 3/4 of the problem might be your own motivation, at least 1/4 of it might be your manager or the department environment. Have a think about it, and see what you can do about it. The problem bothering you is the first step towards you changing.

Oh, and if not... you might just not like your job, though you might like your paycheck. Paychecks aren't too hard to come by; a job you like is priceless (and a key to success)
posted by Grrlscout at 1:29 PM on February 12, 2009 [7 favorites]

I have the same problem.

It's not that you don't want to do interesting work, it's that you don't want to do =anything=. You are doing unrewarding things, because it's even easier than doing nothing. New challenges aren't fun, they're pits of screaming insecurity you're thrown into. I've been there, and it sucks... you're more disappointed in yourself than your boss ever will be.

In my case, it's chronic depression. (I have some ADHD, too, but that doesn't figure into this.) I lost some really nice jobs over the years before I was able to figure this out...

Depression isn't always moping and crying. I've got a rather upbeat personality, actually, and rarely feel "sad", like in mourning. It expresses itself in self-destructive ways - check fark for the fifth time in five minutes, drink to get drunk on the weekends without going out, not going anywhere except work and home for weeks at a stretch, and doing nothing at either place that I enjoy, but not that much. That sort of deal.

Get some therapy - go see a councilor or psychologist. They may recommend some medicine, they may not. In my case, Wellbutrin really did the trick. No lie, I woke up, and was the office bad-ass I always knew I could be.

...And I'm off it for now for reasons too stupid to relate (New health plan kicks in soon).

Here's how I cope: I keep track of what everyone else is doing. I find a metric, and I make sure I'm at the top of the department in that metric before I go home for the day. Bash it out, stay until midnight, just do it. Then coast once you're over the top. (Even if you never make it, the prospect of coast time, downtime with some sweet goofing off - nothing better to motivate the unmotivation than promised slack-off time.)

This is only a band-aid. Therapy and medicine is the real cure.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:55 PM on February 12, 2009 [29 favorites]

Get a new job! Get a job without an office. Go out and detail cars, tame wild something that gives you no opportunity to dick off. Build a a race cars!

Either that or keep doing what you've been doing and live with it.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 1:59 PM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do something that you care about.
posted by mpls2 at 2:25 PM on February 12, 2009

I've consulted many self-help books on procrastination and motivation. I like David Allen's GTD ideas, but could never get them implemented.

This book by Marilyn Paul really helped me. I forced myself to buckle down and do the writing exercises. Through reading the book and doing the exercises, I got insights on why I had motivation and organization problems. Then I was able to apply practical steps to change. Life isn't perfect, but it's improved.

Paul's book looks like it's all about organization, but it also addresses motivation. You can download the first chapter for free.

Good luck to you. You sound like you are ready to change your life.
posted by valannc at 2:25 PM on February 12, 2009

What you describe sounds to me like my symptoms of ADHD. You have no lack of attention, but it's an inordinate challenge to direct your attention to your priorities. Every day you resolve to try harder tomorrow?

Maybe ADHD is an issue for you, maybe not. But if you're tired of feeling that way, I'd recommend getting checked out. See a specialist. Then you'll come away having either ruled out that possibility, or with a new perspective on these issues. Getting diagnosed with ADHD doesn't mean you have to start medication or make excuses to everyone you meet. It just means you fit a pattern and can tailor your efforts accordingly.
posted by colgate at 2:57 PM on February 12, 2009

I've struggled with the same issue for years, and I understand how you feel.

I'm not just writing to sympathize, though- I'm writing because Slap*Happy's answer struck me like a ton of bricks, and I never would've thought of it. I have a job I love, but there are long stretches where I'm a complete waste of space.

I've always cursed myself for my laziness at work, and been dragged out by my frustration that I do good work when I feel like I should be doing great work. I don't actively seek distractions, but I can find any reason (even if it's staring out the window for an hour) to disengage and procrastinate. I've tried really hard to overcome my "poor work ethic," but nothing's seemed to work.

But reading Slap*Happy's comments about depression, therapy and medication made me reconsider. I'm the only person in my family who doesn't have diagnosed mental health issues, and I've always been too proud to admit that I might be struggling, too.

Maybe in your case it is the job, and you should change that. But if that's not the case, you might not need to be alone in facing the challenge. I have my wallet out, and I'm picking up the phone to call my health plan's mental health referral line. If you have access to health insurance, maybe you should try to do the same?

And, you know, thanks, Slap*Happy.
posted by elmer benson at 3:20 PM on February 12, 2009 [4 favorites]

If you're not worried about losing your job, then your motivation would most naturally come from pursuing promotions, salary increases, etc. It's really not that hard to work up an interest in money and status, because they make so many different things possible.

There was a similar question a week or two ago and I gave the same basic answer - you're just too comfortable. Except for the nagging feeling that you're wasting your life, of course. Having low expectations might seem like the key to a relaxed life, but it actually just results in boredom.
posted by tomcooke at 3:28 PM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'd second the ADHD. I will say that doing stuff you find boring on a long-term basis does not help this slacker thing. Especially if you don't have a job where you are checked in with frequently, don't have deadlines, the boss is kinda AWOL, and you don't feel like it is especially crucial if you put in some hard work.

But since in your case NOTHING interests you, ever, even stuff that would if it weren't required...well, I think you need a job where you're getting a lot of stick rather than carrot. You may just be inclined to not care about working/be a slacker, and threats of losing your job and becoming homeless may be the only thing to motivate you. Not hard to have that go on in this economy, I guess.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:51 PM on February 12, 2009

Not being a type A personality is not a mental illness. Screwing around on the internet does not automatically give you depression. I suspect that if you found yourself thrown into a job where you had to work hard, your slacker ways would fall by the wayside.

Sit down and set concrete goals each week with your supervisor. You may still put the work off until Thursday or Friday, but when you're forced to get it done or get fired, I bet you'll find your motivation.
posted by chrisamiller at 4:11 PM on February 12, 2009

"I've had staff members like you. And I've occasionally been you. The thing that I find works to pull people out of doldrums is to impress upon them how important their jobs really are. Yes, you may reconcile accounts, juggle spreadsheets and post journal entries. But without that work, the company won't know where it stands. How is that true about your job? What wouldn't happen if you didn't do your work? Hell, even a receptionist makes an impact on a company. What sort of impact do you want to make?"
posted by Grrlscout at 7:29 AM on February 13

Quoted for Truth. I'm finding at the moment that I've been slacking off a bit and I put it down squarely on the fact that I'm getting the distinct impression from my boss that he not only sees me as unimportant but that he just simply dosen't like me. Compare this to my previous boss (in the same job) who thought I was fantastic and I remember doing a lot more hard work (and enjoying it).
posted by Effigy2000 at 7:06 PM on February 12, 2009

I have the same problem. Or did.

Ideally, I try to find jobs that really get me engaged; stuff that I'd do even if I was paid half as much. I was a teaching assistant for awhile in college, and worked 80ish hours a week one summer, because it was awesome. Those jobs are hard to come by, assuming you want to make money.

Find a job where you're proud of what you're doing, and where you feel your contributions are important. If someone asks you what you did at work last year, you should be able to pick at least one thing you did that you're really proud of. If you can do something where the company is something to be proud of, all the better, but if you can just find something where the occasional day to day task is interesting or challenging enough, good enough.

Meanwhile, it helps me - a lot - to write down every task I have on my plate on a list when I go in, then write down the smallest step in that direction right under it. Pick one small step, do it, write down the next step under the crossed off finished step. Pick something else to do. It's manual, and it's dumb, but it works well for me. At the end of the day, I make notes on what's stuck in my head, I leave it on the desk, and *do* *not* take work home with me.

Good luck.
posted by talldean at 7:54 PM on February 12, 2009

Sometimes, it helps me if I make a list of all the tasks I want to complete in a day. I make the list the night before and then at the end of the day I love checking things I finish. I always have more points than I can cross but just looking at things I did finish makes me feel better. Rewarding yourself for doing well also helps.
posted by xm at 8:58 PM on February 12, 2009

I get into this situation too, much more than I'd like. :( It's frustrating and professionally embarrassing - I know I'm capable of getting so much done, but it's like I kick my own legs out from under me by dicking around on the net and handling my email.

For me, I'm starting to recognize it as a mix of habits and emotional issues. On the habits front, I've noticed that (a) if I start sidestepping on the internet and reading blogs, it's just gone from there and I'll start flipping through *all* of my favorites like internet candy, and (b) I get into stupid routines like "I'll just check the blogs before I start work in the morning" (cue the internet candy behavior). It's not that I'm lazy or bad - they're just dumb responses I've built up over time, and now I'm working to be mindful and tear them down gradually. JUST this one morning, I'll check my email after I do an hour of work first. JUST today, I'll save reading blogs as a treat for the afternoon.

On the emotional issues, I screw around as a procrastination method when I feel insecure about projects. I don't know where to start on this thing, or I worry it's going to be junk compared to my coworkers' stuff ... so I'll read this tech news blog and at least that will accomplish *something*. Reading The Now Habit has helped a lot to address this. It focuses more on the why of procrastinating and defanging some of the fears that keep you on that path.
posted by cadge at 9:22 PM on February 12, 2009

Lots of good answers, but no one questions your premise; you sound as if you *feel* you are a slacker, but are you really? What (somewhat) objective evidence do you have? (A poor performance appraisal might suffice.)

I've known a lot of productive, yet perfectionistic people that would post your question.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 10:05 PM on February 12, 2009

I have a comment, but first I would really like to emphasize Napoleonic Terrier's point. Your objectivity may be an issue (it always is for me). Besides, sometimes dicking around is a fundamental part of getting shit done (cf. "Banana Time" by Roy, 1967). You aren't a machine (though some people are).

But anyway, what works for me (when I'm not having banana time, that is) is just redefining my tasks to make them interesting to me. "What?!? You want me to spend a month copy/pasting shit out of Excel and into Word? There's got to be a better way." Suddenly, I'm not doing reports - I'm learning a really awesome new hybrid of a programming language and markup language that, coincidentally, is going to save my employer several thousand dollars' worth of my time over the next couple of years. I basically disobeyed orders, and it will look great on my annual review. It's pretty dependent on the type of work you do, but it's probably worth a shot.
posted by McBearclaw at 6:33 AM on February 13, 2009

Not addressing any potential ADD/ADHD issues, I would offer the following:
- ensure a certain transparency to you what you do. Accountability to others may trigger accountability to yourself.
- act like you own some or all of the company. Step outside yourself and ask what value are you adding to your job and your company? How are your actions affecting your co-workers?

You may certainly think no one notices but in most cases it comes up one way or another. I know there are many glamorous, clever and oh so hilarious stories about knowing you are doing the absolute minimum and getting away with it. However I find it's actually like someone being the only one high or drunk in the room and thinking you blend in perfectly.

We've all been there and at least you are able to acknowledge it and try to figure a way out. Lots of people can't or don't want to. Good luck.
posted by TomSophieIvy at 12:22 PM on February 13, 2009

I think it's a question a lot of people asks themselves. It's impossible to be 100% productive at activities that require full concentration for 40 hours or more a week. You're always going to get distracted. You can never remain in the zone forever.

3 things.

1. The idea of "getting into the zone" requires not multi-tasking, actually liking what you do, being creative peace, quit, and no distractions.

2. The idea of being in the zone, is a zen concept. Read books on mindfulness and zen.

3. Use a task management system such as omnifocus.

Also, you might not be challenging yourself enough. Try getting a more challenging job. Then you will be confronted with concentration, or abject failure.
posted by scottschulthess at 9:47 AM on February 14, 2009

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