Need that fire in me …
February 16, 2010 10:05 AM   Subscribe

How do I motivate myself? Seems almost impossible now after so many failed attempts.

I have realized that most of my problems in life have to do with my low motivation. People tell me I am of above-average intelligence. In the rare case where I have actually motivated myself to perform well I have excelled. As I explain later, this problem seems almost impossible to solve, and so I ask this with a lot of hesitation.

Part of the problem may be my extremely diverse interests: singer, artist, poet, educator, scholar, software developer, and so on. But in none of those fields will I call myself an expert or even above-average. Usually I pick up an interest, do very well for the first few months, and gradually my motivation drops off.

I know my problem. I have tried to solve it by hacking it in many ways, but even those require motivation in order to sustain them. It seems like a no-win situation, and sometimes I feel like I should give up and settle with my middling all-around performances. Maybe the kind of personality I am hoping for is only inherent and cannot be cultivated.

I do not want to give up though. Is there something foundational that will connect me to some motivational energy that can sustain me in my endeavors?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
In the rare case where I have actually motivated myself to perform well I have excelled. As I explain later, this problem seems almost impossible to solve, and so I ask this with a lot of hesitation.

This is your blind spot.

You have told yourself "Most things come very naturally to me. I can get very far with little effort. If I just applied myself, I could do anything! It is only my laziness that holds me back from greatness!"

This is only partly true.

It's actually your fear of discovering your weaknesses, the things that you actually can't do, the things you will fail at even after applying yourself, that actually stops you from trying.

You are probably very naturally talented, and with effort and focus you likely could meet goals and exceed even your own expectations. However, the problem is not just lacking focus. The problem is that you need to accept that some of the things you might try will fail, that you are not preternaturally gifted in every way (although you might be so gifted in many ways), and that the reality of that fact doesn't make the things you will attempt to do any less awesome.

In fact, I would suggest picking something with the goal of failing at it. Pick one thing and do not stop until you fail. Seriously.
posted by pazazygeek at 10:19 AM on February 16, 2010 [23 favorites]

Don't pick an interest, and then work it until you are bored. That's just setting yourself up for a failure loop.

Pick a project, and then work until it's finished. Then pick another project (probably from another of your disciplines of interest) and work that until it is finished.

Note: I said until it is finished, dig?

posted by rokusan at 10:21 AM on February 16, 2010 [16 favorites]

I don't have specific advice, but I would like to challenge you to look at this situation in a different light. We are a society that values experts, but this mentality does not work for everyone. You and I, we like dabbling in a lot of different things. I am willing to try pretty much any hobby/activity, but I usually have little interest in perfecting it. I am engaged and motivated by a particular activity in the beginning, and as soon as I feel I am competent in it, I don't really feel the need to work on it further.

Being willing to try new things and gaining a certain amount of competence in a variety of skills is very valuable. You can relate to lots of different people, you have some really unique combinations of skills, you are versatile and flexible, etc. How many poet/software developers do you know? Probably not that many. Embrace it!
posted by kookaburra at 10:38 AM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Read "Refuse to Choose" by Barbara Sher. It's all about this issue, and gave me a whole different perspective on the way I approach my interests.

One way of dealing with the issue of your interests dropping off is to pick small projects that you can easily complete before you lose interest. A small accomplishment can help alleviate the feeling of never finishing anything and allow you to move on to something new guilt-free.

I'd recommend hanging on to your books, supplies and the like for awhile though, in case you find yourself cycling around to old interests again. I can't tell you how I am kicking myself for getting rid of a bunch of non-fiction books whose topic I was so over I thought I'd never read them again, and I'm now re-buying because something or other sparked a renewed interest.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:41 AM on February 16, 2010

I think what you're looking for is called "discipline," and a heck of a lot of smart folks lack it.

I'm guessing that most things came pretty easily to you when you were growing up; getting A's despite never cracking a book, entrance essays banged out in an hour before sending the application, singing and playing instruments fairly well without lessons, etc, etc. I may be wrong, but if you're like me you coasted throughout your young life because your natural talents and intelligence carried you over the low bars of youth. All your friends that had to crack those books and take lessons learned something that you never had to; how to work at something despite being bored by the effort.

If that describes you at all, then you're a lot like me; it's easy for me to have completely unfocused interest and energy. I'm still trying to figure out how to fix this, but I have found one thing that helps: I force myself to focus on one thing and write down my progress in a compo book. My mind wants to move on to other things, but I am learning to force myself to keep improving in a single area despite feeling that it's not worth it or I am no longer interested in it. Gradually the interest picks up again as your reptile brain starts associating the effort you're putting in with the dopamine release that comes from realizing improvement.

I think this is a skill that most people learn early on in life and us brats just miss. I used to look around and become jealous of people around me that just had "a passion" for what they were doing and thought that I could excel if I could just find something that I was passionate about. Later on, I realized that what I saw as "passion" was really just "work ethic;" something that so-called intelligent people tend to lack.
posted by Willie0248 at 10:46 AM on February 16, 2010 [11 favorites]

Well, what are your goals for any of these things? I see that you're a singer and a poet. Do you want to join a band? Make an album? Do an open-mic night? Or do you just sort of like doing these things sometimes, and that's it?

It's much easier to feel motivated to do something when you have a goal, ideally one that involves a hard deadline and maybe even other people depending on you to complete it. Otherwise, why wouldn't you do exactly what you're doing?
posted by wondermouse at 10:51 AM on February 16, 2010

Stop trying to motivate yourself. Motivation, as you've said, isn't something that keeps you going, so build these projects into habit. You're not motivated to take a shower, or to eat lunch, or to tie your shoes, you just do those things. Start on one project/activity and do it every day, no matter what your "motivation" level is.

Interest in something can wax and wane, but the more days you build up of doing the same thing, the more likely you'll be to continue doing that thing.
posted by xingcat at 11:00 AM on February 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

To paraphrase xingcat, I give my standard AskMefi answer.

Action Precedes Motivation

Choose something. Do it. Just do it, observe that you are upset or frustrated or unfulfilled, and keep on doing it. Note your distaste, and frustration, but keep on doing it. Note you dont want to finish or watch the tv or be distracted, but keep on doing it. Note that it doesnt reach yor scaly heights of perfection, but keep on doing it. Dont wait till you're in the mood. The mood will come after hours or days or months or years. But it will come. Till then, just do it.
posted by lalochezia at 11:36 AM on February 16, 2010 [22 favorites]

Just pick something fun and do it. Pick a single project. Don't allow yourself to jump around from project to project and get distracted.

You may find that it's easier in the context of a class (community college night course for example) or a club -- that the structure helps you with follow-through. Blogging your progress (ie. public shaming if you fail) might help as well.
posted by glider at 11:40 AM on February 16, 2010

I find it easier to be motivated by being accountable to others rather than only to myself. Things I need to do for others tend to get done (i.e. my job, my chores at home), whereas things I need to do only for myself (going to the dentist) tend not to get done.

You might have a similar pattern that underlies your successes and failures. Find the pattern and exploit it.
posted by mai at 1:08 PM on February 16, 2010

Anonymous and Willie0248, you just described my life exactly. I have such a lack of motivation in pretty much any side project I pick up that is not directly related to my work.

There are all sorts of tricks out there, and I've tried pretty much every one of them. For those of you saying, "Just pick this one thing, and just do it every day!"... it's not as simple as that for us. The motivation problem is the one that prevents us from just doing it. It's sort of like telling an alcoholic, "Just don't drink, and continue doing that every day! It's that easy!"

Until there is a 12-step program for lack of motivation, the one trick I've found that works for me is to make a promise to someone to make them something using a skill you pick up or show off something you've learned. You'll be motivated not to let that person down, and you might get "over the hump".
posted by joshrholloway at 1:17 PM on February 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have exactly the same problem. I get really excited by new projects and then within a few weeks/months, the fun level drops and I start to hate doing them. These things that filled me with joy perhaps days before, now have no appeal whatsoever.

I had some success by a] testing the water and b] keeping track of things that seemed to interest me.

a] I made a list of things that I thought might interest me. It was pretty huge. I crossed out all of the things that I logically knew would never happen - I'm never going to go hot air ballooning over Africa because I don't like heights and I'm never going to become a master chef because I can see how much hard work that will take. The important aspect to this was using logic and rationality to get a grip on myself. It's so easy to get caught up in the flow that comes from finding the new "thing", but rationality will help you realise that X is just going to be an entertaining waste of time. It wasn't easy to cut out hot air ballooning, but if I logically know it's never going to happen, it's pointless to waste time and mental resources thinking about it.

b] Over the course of a few months, I kept a diary of what I was doing. I didn't write down how much fun I had, because that's difficult to quantify and I knew that if I wasn't having fun, I simply wouldn't do X. Certain things came up repeatedly. One of the big ones for me was cooking. I love the chemistry aspect of it, the creative aspect of it and the fact that at the end, I have something to eat. Just writing that sentence fills me with glee. Even so, some nights I just order takeaway. It's easier, or simpler, or I just don't have the ingredients.

I think part of the problem is the thought that if you stop doing something, then you will stop doing that something forever. That's not necessarily the case. You'll do this for a percentage of the time, of course, like I did with a few things, but sometimes, like with my cookery, you'll come back round to something at a later date. It's not all-or-nothing. Just because I call The Rainbow House occasionally, that doesn't mean I can't cook ever again.

Lack of motivation isn't your problem. It's sustaining that motivation. But after you run a race, you need to rest. Someone who just ran a marathon isn't lacking motivation when the stop at the end and catch their breath. They just don't want to run a marathon right there and then. That's not a problem. It's not a character flaw. It just means that they're tired.

If you're looking for one thing to do that you can do every day that will bring you joy, then you're going on a wild goose chase. If I had to cook every day, I'd slowly go mad. It's precisely because I take a break from it and then come back and look at it again that it fills me with joy. Then, it's a gift repeatedly. But having the same gift over and over would get old really fast.

It might be that you haven't found "your cooking" yet. You will eventually, if you keep looking. Which puts you right back to where you are now. Looking. And that's OK. You'll find your joy eventually, but you'll have to turn over a lot of ground to find that gold.
posted by Solomon at 1:57 PM on February 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

There are all sorts of tricks out there, and I've tried pretty much every one of them. For those of you saying, "Just pick this one thing, and just do it every day!"... it's not as simple as that for us. The motivation problem is the one that prevents us from just doing it.

Right, and I have the same problem. Severely. And I actually do have goals, one of them being to make an album of music that I compose and perform. I've had this goal for years. Years. And still no album. I have a bunch of unfinished tracks, some of which I think are decent but still unfinished, some of which I hate, etc.

Finally, in maybe the last couple weeks, I feel like I've reached a point where I actually can do this and will do this. What I've finally realized is that you might never feel truly motivated to do these things you don't technically need to do, and there's no magic "Motivation!" switch you can pull to motivate yourself. Doing it is the only way to do it.

What did help me recently is to assign myself specific times daily during which I could and (perhaps more importantly) could not work on music. For example, since I live in an apartment, I shouldn't work on music past a certain time of night because it makes too much noise. So now, instead of feeling guilty if it's 9:30PM and I haven't worked on music yet that night, I feel more impulse to work on it for a bit as soon as I get home from work, and then simply turn it off when my "turn it off" time comes. Then I'm freed up mentally to enjoy doing other leisurely things for the rest of the night, like watch TV, instead of feeling like a guilty, worthless crap. If I go out after work and don't get home until after my designated music time, oh well - I just won't work on it that night. It is very freeing to think this way, and I've gotten more satisfactory music work done in the last week than I have in months.

The problem is that people like you and me pretty much take for granted that we can work on this stuff whenever we feel like it. But what if you never feel like it? If you are horrified by the idea of never doing this stuff that you think helps define you as a person but you don't technically need to do, you have to MAKE yourself do it. You have to ACTIVELY manage your time. Put off whatever else it is that you are wasting your time doing until later, and just make yourself do it. I'm sorry, but that's the only way to do it.
posted by wondermouse at 2:26 PM on February 16, 2010

Read DumbLittleMan and Lifehacker.
posted by theora55 at 2:41 PM on February 16, 2010

Maybe you've sentenced yourself to be mediocre? What would the challenge that would incent you to go beyond that? You appear to have some competitve instincts but challenging yourself doesn't work, in that you won't force yourself beyond a certain level of expertise, even of the result is sort of blah. I've found that asking someone else who does have the props whether they think I can succeed at X will light my furnace if they say they don't suggest I even try since I don't have the right background - then I'll challenge myself to prove them wrong. If the idea of doing small projects sounds boring to you, a blaze of self-righteous anger might be the key to success.
posted by path at 3:03 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

To go in a slightly different direction, for years people would hassle me that I picked up hobby after hobby after hobby, learned a little bit, and then moved right on to the next hobby and never went back again. I was frustrated with myself, too -- "Why can't I sustain interest in anything for more than six months?"

Eventually, though, I realized that LEARNING NEW THINGS IS MY HOBBY. I don't WANT to be an expert in them; I want to take two pottery classes, make lopsided vases, make slightly less lopsided vases, and go, "sweet, now I know something about how pottery works, what should I learn next?"

Obviously if dillettantism is interfering with your working life, that's a problem. But it can still be freeing to recognize that the fun is in the learning the new skill, not in mastering it. Once I realized this, I felt free to pursue new skills without guilt, and master only the things I actually wanted to master, which are few and far between.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:13 PM on February 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

Your problem pretty much describes my life exactly. I've even considered asking the same exact question here on AskMefi.

I tried to follow the advice of those who say "just do it" and can't. That advice is oversimplified and not worth the breath of those who give it. Like telling someone to just suck it up and stop being depressed.

The only thing I've found that works is to find a collaborator. Work on a project with someone. Preferably someone who is actually motivated. I find I'm not afraid to drop something if the only person I'm letting down is myself. But if I have someone else depending on me to complete a project that they are also putting work into, it gives me the extra motivation I need to follow through, even during the hard times.

A side benefit of this is that you have someone to bounce ideas off of and inspire each other.
posted by Nyarlathotep at 3:41 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

This question has come up a million times on Mefi. Just search, and you'll see. And Mefi is hardly the cutting edge here. There are whole websites devoted to this. Books written. Psychologists, life-caoches, professional motivators galore. Don't you think if there was a simple solution, it would be announced, and then any new people would be directed to it?

The truth is, no one specific set of guidelines works for everybody. People are different. What works for one person may not work for another, no matter how enthusiastically it's promoted.

And so too, people should not criticize what works, even if it only works for a tiny, tiny number of people, and in fact may be dangerous to others. Because the solution - if it is to be found at all - is going to be pretty narrowly addressed to a specific subgroup, perhaps a mere handful of people.

This is where I enter my report. I merely report on what may work - for some people. If it doesn't jibe with your outlook, please ignore it.

I find that motivation is very much dependent on the task. If it's a creative task, one kind of motivation is necessary. If it's doing a chore, or say, persisting in an unrewarding job, because it has to be done, well, that's a different kind of motivation.

Your post seems to deal with creative tasks, so that's what I'll address. First, I don't believe that there is such a thing as a discrete state called "motivation" which functions like an engine that compels you to perform the task - [now think about it] - whether you like it or not. Nope. If you don't like doing it, "motivation" is not going to bring you over the hump. Here is what I found: enthusiasm, energy and joy are absolutely necessary to perform here. I found that when my energy is high and I'm filled with optimism and joy, I'm much more creative, and I engage in the task. For me, what works, is a state achieved by an ingestion of caffeine (through coffee) - I need the energy and the mood lift, and then I work without internal exhortations - the work pulls me in. For others, it may be controlled doses of ADHD stimulants - again, this is controversial, and I can well imagine someone becoming dependent on this, especially given that such personalities may well be particularly vulnerable to abusing such substances. I emphasize - for some, it may be lethally dangerous. Trying to deal with this with the help of drugs, legal or illegal has a long history - for a reason. For most people it doesn't work - or only provides an illusion of working - as countless alcoholic "artists" can testify to. But for a small number of people, it seems to work. Caveat utilitor.

There are other ways with which to supplement your arsenal of inspiration. One is to pick an artist who inspires you in particular ways, and when you hit a low point of energy, joy and enthusiasm, think about them and their work. It works for me tremendously.

Also, working with someone - or even better - talking to someone who is in a given field that interests you for your project. I get tremendously inspired by such conversation - it doesn't have the downside of "what if this partnership doesn't work out". "Just talking" inspires me, ideas occur to me that I can then live for weeks off of.

Expectations - handle them. Instead of trying to produce a deathless masterpiece, say to yourself "I'll just fool around, totally for fun, no obligation". "I don't expect this to go anywhere, but I'll keep doing it and changing it to make it INTERESTING for me".

It's not about you - in other words, don't think about yourself here in terms of what it says about you as a human being. Banish thoughts like "I'm not talented"; "I'm very talented"; "I'm a lazy worthless waste of human cells"; "I'm god's gift to humanity". Etc. STOP THINKING ABOUT YOURSELF AT ALL. Don't judge yourself - either positively, or negatively. Banish evaluations of your person and your worth, and your place in the universe. It'll be hard at first, because you've trained yourself to persist in such thought patterns for years and years. You must break those mental habits. It'll be hard and you'll keep falling back into old habits... just keep persisting. STOP THINKING ABOUT YOURSELF:

There' the work - and there's you. But it's not about you - it's about the work.

Once you separate your evaluation of yourself in light of your work, you will be able to focus on the work itself. If something needs correction in the work, you'll correct it instead of defending it because it reflects on your self-worth. You'll let the work take you in its innate correct natural development path, because it's not being distorted by thoughts of self-worth which are irrelevant to the work itself. You will also be able to judge the work and its needs a lot more objectively, when you don't put on the distorting lens of your self-worth hangups.

And unlike the advice given above, one other tool, is to do several projects at once. As soon as one stalls, move to the one that excites you, that fills you with joy, enthusiasm and energy. Let the other one rest and re-fill its capacity to amaze you. Because it's impossible to maintain huge enthusiasm and joy at all times. I find it exhausting - I can't work on something like that at a very, very high level for too long. It's as if the synapses need a rest from so much dopamine. I need a break. I find the best is to switch to something different. Perhaps for you it might work like this: creative writing - exhausted - move to music. Take a different direction. Even in writing, work on 2-3 projects at once and keep jumping as enthusiasm waxes and wanes.

That's what works for me. It may not work for you. But nothing works for everybody wrt. to this issue, IMHO. Good luck!
posted by VikingSword at 4:53 PM on February 16, 2010 [6 favorites]

This will probably be my last post in this thread because I think I'll have said all I have to say in this matter, but I wanted to address this:

I tried to follow the advice of those who say "just do it" and can't. That advice is oversimplified and not worth the breath of those who give it. Like telling someone to just suck it up and stop being depressed.

This isn't addressed at you in particular but to anyone who is compelled to think along those lines. To compare this sort of lack of motivation to a medical condition like depression is a mistake, and that could very well be part of the reason you find yourself in the state you're in. This is not depression and it's not alcoholism. It is a lack of self-discipline coupled with a defeatist attitude.

It's very easy to keep finding excuses to be this way. You can think of people's suggestions here as "tricks" and tell yourself your brain is too smart to fall for them. No, it's not easy to change. You can do this, but you need to be willing to try and willing to work at it, even when you don't feel like it.

People have made some very good suggestions in this thread already. If you're not into any of those for whatever reason, here is my last suggestion for how to begin to work through this, no matter what it is you wish you were doing instead of what you end up doing naturally. Think of the kid who won't do his homework until his parents tell him he can't play video games until he gets it done. You are, essentially, that kid. So here's what you do:

1. Think of some things you wish you spent more time on. This can be one thing or a bunch of things. If it helps, make a list. Add to it as necessary.

2. Think of what things you end up doing instead that you could easily take some time away from. Again, if it helps, make a list.

3. Assign yourself a specific amount of time to spend on #1 each day, even if just an hour. Tell yourself you can't do #2 until you've spent the allotted amount of time doing something from list #1, and then follow your own rules.

4. Give yourself a break from this every few days. Maybe one or two days a week, kick back and do whatever the hell you want.

And keep things interesting for yourself. It's perfectly fine to add or remove things from list #1 if you find yourself interested in other things or no longer interested in some things.
posted by wondermouse at 5:45 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is there something foundational that will connect me to some motivational energy that can sustain me in my endeavors?

Probably there are lots of foundational, motivational "tools" out there that can combine to help you in your unique circumstances. You will need to forge and refine them to fit you, and the more personal you make this, the more you chase it down, the better your tool set will become.

Reading your question a few times, there are some big questions you may not have explored yet. For example, do your random, keen interests conveniently pop up and flourish while you are avoiding something else, and then fade dramatically when that thing is no longer looming? What labels are you attaching to yourself? How are you benefiting from these generalizations about your character?

If you haven't already tried it, you may benefit from a talking, long-form, interactive variant of Ask Mefi: Therapy. Some of the most prolific creators out there have used it to help them create tools similar to what you may be starting to notice you need. You will be given motivation to come back week after week and build something good, and that starts to feel good fast when you're annoyed by the sort of darting-around angst you describe.
posted by circular at 1:44 AM on February 17, 2010

There's a psychological theory that floated around the internet a couple of years ago that said that you should praise children for the hard work they do & not for being smart. Children that are praised for being smart (like me), don't connect

hard work <> reward

and that's the real key here. You want to connect hard work to reward.

I bet you can - for example - finish a video game. Why? Because work leads directly & obviously to reward - you work & complete a level. Reward. Checkpoint. Save & Continue.

What reward does singing or computer programming get you?

Well at first, quite a bit. You make a lot of progress early on in a lot of the things you do, but then you enter this sort of incubation phase where you don't make any obvious progress. All the progress is being made under the surface.

If you really want to make progress, find a teacher, or take a course. It will build structure & goals, and be sure to measure your progress, and track it according to some sort of metric. If it's music, have a textbook with exercises & go through the exercises - the page numbers you accomplish will be a guide for you. Similarly with art & programming - have measurable goals & make yourself responsible to an outside authority for those goals.

The trick is to find the zone where things are challenging but doable, and rewarding. People call this Flow, and it's difficult to achieve on your own without external goals. There are a number of online tools to help you with this.

I read once of a writer's practice that involved scheduling some regular time to go to a cafe to write - with a fellow writer. Having someone else depend on you keeps your discipline up. This also works because a change of scenery really seems to help with discipline. I have very little discipline at home, but if I'm somewhere else that's dedicated to working, I work there.

I always listen to my walkman/ipod when I go cycling or go to the gym, usually with a good book on tape. The act of putting on the ipod now motivates me & gets me out the door. Similarly with house chores.


- Find a teacher
- Take a course
- Get a friend that's got the same goals & keep each other on course with a schedule
- Find external goals & stick to them
- Get some routine into your life
- Join a club (choir, art, programming, whatever)
- Find another physical place to do your practice
- Develop a warmup routine that's easy to do, but always leads up to the thing you really want
posted by MesoFilter at 1:28 PM on February 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

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