Don't want to be a wimp anymore
May 12, 2010 6:42 AM   Subscribe

Help me get better at doing stuff

I have come to realize that I often let minor anxiety prevent me from doing pretty easy stuff.

I'm avoidant and a huge procrastinator. The thing is, the stuff I procrastinate on are pretty minor and well within my abilities - minor projects at work, getting my accounts sorted out at the bank, talking to someone at a party, asking a coworker to do something for me, discussing a minor issue with my spouse, going to the gym, making dinner instead of going out. I get a little anxious about each of these things, and I deal with the anxiety by not doing it. When I do get around to doing things, I tend to complete them in an above-average manner; my abilities are generally pretty good, I tend to succeed at whatever I do do.

I don't think I have an anxiety disorder per se - I'm relatively successful career-wise and relationship-wise, I don't miss deadlines unless they're fuzzy, I've never had an anxiety attack that prevented me from doing something important, and I will do things like the above when I absolutely know I have to. It's the little 'optional' things that I let miss, and I know it's having a detrimental effect on my career, relationships, finances, and health. Again, I'm doing okay, but I know I could stand to lose 50 lbs and could easily be in much better financial shape and be further ahead in my career without TOO much effort - I just don't do stuff.

I can be a perfectionist, can be very negative and pessimistic, and I know I have a touch of ADHD-type behaviour going on too - don't know if that can be an issue. My family also definitely has anxiety and depression type issues.

Has anyone been successful in beating this kind of behaviour? I would really like to get better at doing stuff!
posted by lemur to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should clarify, I don't think I'm depressed and negative all the time, I'm generally a pretty happy person. Just sometimes.
posted by lemur at 6:44 AM on May 12, 2010

This is really normal, I believe. I know I suffer from the same affliction. What helps me most is to set (generally arbitrary) goals and try to stick to them: I must return all my phonecalls today by 10AM/I will go to the gym three times this week, if I got MTW, I get the rest of the week off/I will eat dinner or at least start making dinner by 8PM.

None of these goals matter to anyone but me, but they really help and they give me a firm deadline to work towards.
posted by 2bucksplus at 7:01 AM on May 12, 2010

2bucksplus, if one is already a major procrastinator, how does one stick to those goals?
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:25 AM on May 12, 2010

I think I had a similar problem of knowing all the little stuff I had to do but then never taking action. But this method, works pretty well for me: Basically, spend 5 to 10 minutes just thinking in detail (concentrating) about the thing you want to do. See yourself doing it, moving around, talking, taking the actions, etc.

When I do this, I usually find myself jumping up and getting in motion within a few minutes. It becomes harder not to do something, like I just feel a tension that has to be released.

I exercise every day, and this technique is what I use on those days where I "just don't feel like it" because of excuse X or Y (the weather looks bad, it's getting late, etc.)
posted by Theloupgarou at 7:27 AM on May 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: 2bucksplus, if one is already a major procrastinator, how does one stick to those goals?

Short answer, will power.

Honestly though:

1. You are anxious because you are not getting things done.
2. You are not getting things done because the deadline is fuzzy or non-existent.


1. Make an arbitrary deadline (in your head right now)
2. Be anxious about meeting that goal by the deadline
2. Make a game out of accomplishing that goal by the deadline
posted by 2bucksplus at 7:38 AM on May 12, 2010

Get a small (8x10 or thereabouts) whiteboard. Place it so you can see it where you spend most of your time (next to TV, over monitor at work). Write your to-do list on it -- everything on your to-do list. When you do something, don't check it off, erase it. Seeing it all the time, especially in a place where you're normally kicking back and relaxing, forces you to think about it, and when it's empty, then you've won and you can really relax.
posted by Etrigan at 8:06 AM on May 12, 2010

Best answer: I would not get too down on yourself for what sounds like normal human behavior. As I look over at an unpaid stack of bills that I've been threatening to deal with for at least a week, I am sympathetic. Here is something I'm going to try -- journaling. It gives you some accountability. Pick one thing to start with, write it down and keep track of how you're doing. For example, if you want to limit dining out to once a week and you want to eat better, you can write down what you're eating for a while until that behavior becomes natural. Then add a new one, like improve financial stuff, break that goal down into little steps, give yourself deadlines for each, track your progress.

The other approach which worked well for me in the past was to take a day or two off expressly for the purpose of dealing with a list of stuff that has grown too large. It's very satisfying and gives you momentum on the other projects that need every day attention.

For one-off things like talking to someone at a party or discussing something unpleasant with someone, I mentally say something (really silly, with lots of exclamation points) to myself like, "Ok! I'm doing this now!!" and then I dive in.
posted by *s at 8:50 AM on May 12, 2010

Getting Things Done or The Now Habit are two books to look at.

Finding a heroic calling is another option. YMMV. Check out The Venture Bros. - Season 4, Episode 4 - "Return To Malice" for an example of what I mean.
posted by sninctown at 8:53 AM on May 12, 2010

Best answer: You can't do everything! Accept that and you will be much happier. Sounds like you have a good triaging process going - you get the important things done. I don't think there is a problem. You're a person, not a robot!
posted by meepmeow at 9:00 AM on May 12, 2010

You say you are a perfectionist and are successful at most everything you do, yet you procrastinate. Sounds like a bit of loss-aversion going on. If you must be successful, even perfect at everything it is much less risky to sit back and protect your record. The strategy expands to cover even trivial tasks...especially if you don't know how every step and detail of the task will transpire. Two things have helped me deal with this type of perfectionism. One is to make lists, like many here have suggested. Crossing even trivial things off my lists provides positive feedback and the impetus to cross something else off too. I also find it helps me to do some activities that I am able to fail at and not feel so bad. Mine is golf. I am awful at the game, but love getting outside, walking around and getting that one great shot per round that keeps me coming back. lose more hands than you win even if you are a pro! etc.
posted by txmon at 9:29 AM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's a collection of tactics for making yourself get stuff done that I found totally fascinating. A few of those have really worked for me in the past in various contexts, and there are some suggestions here on how to finetune and improve them. Good stuff.

I particularly liked these:

Execute By Default - Basically, don't decide to do [x]. Decide to count down from 10 to 1, at the end of which you will automatically do [x]. My success story here is with bungee jumping. (Tears rolling down my face. Still can't believe I managed it. Oh how I begged him to push me instead.) The author says it worked for him with getting out of bed.

Applied Picoeconomics - Basically, write an oath to yourself and stick to it. My success story here is law school. Right before I started, I wrote myself a long letter that in effect said "Suck it up this time. You know that excuse you always give yourself, that you didn't really care and didn't really try, so your failure doesn't mean you actually are stupid or worthless? Well, you don't get to use that excuse this time. You're going to try, and if you fail, it really means you failed. No excuses." To be opened only after graduation. I had never gotten good grades consistently in school before law school and that letter to myself. It was amazing. Taking away my most commonly used crutch did the trick.

I love the author's suggestions for improving on the idea - be precise, limit the time period, &c. Good stuff. I think I should try a variant of this one again.

Structured Procrastination - Basically, procrastinate from one task by working on another. I do this all the time. I bum off of work by working on one hobby. I bum off of that hobby by working on another project. I bum off of that project by getting back to work. Etc. I love it. It isn't a perfect fix, but it really helps sometimes. Probably more helpful for those of us with focus problems rather than anxiety problems, though.
posted by Eshkol at 9:30 AM on May 12, 2010 [15 favorites]

I am struggling with the same problems and with ADD as well. I feel your pain everyday.

What exacerbates this problem is that we live in a society that over-values novel experiences. How many times are we told to 'escape from the everyday' by an advertiser in one week? Its all 'extreme' this and 'fun' that. Unfortunately (or fortunately, IMO) we are fundametally daily creatures. No matter how important you are or how world-changing your job is, you still must eat, sleep, wash, groom, maintain a household, manage money, dress, interact with your family and other intimates, etc. Our long term health depends on dailiness.

So my crutch has been to set up external accountability for the dailiness things that I tend to let slack. For instance, if I want to get a paper written, I will get myself on the agenda of some forum where I must present it, this creating a deadline for myself. If I want to exercise, I get a workout buddy. I use mentors and have group of guys I meet with during the week who know my bullshit and love me enough to call me on it. My dear wife and best friend for life is a natural at this. Basically I make myself so connected that I cannot let myself slack too much.

But that's not the lasting solution. By creating external accountability I elevate the daily responsibilities of life above the mundane by adding the potential for drama. My real need to is to convert my overall attitude about dailiness. For instance, we equate the word 'menial' with something demeaning when it really comes from the word 'remain.' To dwell. To be where you live. When I'm always "Go! Go! Go!" I rarely can be bothered to remain and be where I live. I aspire to be something other than a daily person. My ego tells me that I am too important than these dishes or that pile of bills or that stack of forms. But these are the things that life is made of, not just something to rush through so that I can "have a life."

I use meditation (or prayer, potayto potahto) to help me learn to stay, to remain, and to be where I live. It helps me fight acedia. I also try to focus on what I am doing when I do everyday things, appreciating the gift of this or that mundane aspect of life.

A very helpful companion on this journey for me has been Kathleen Norris, whose Quotidian Mysteries I have read into tatters. She has also written a great book called Acedia and me. From what I have read, she is a fellow sufferer, complete with bouts of depression, procrastination, and functional paralysis. And she has persevered. Might be worth your time to read. It was for me.
posted by cross_impact at 10:58 AM on May 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

Interesting responses here. I find it helpful to break things down. Instead of having

"Clean the house"

on my list, I might have

- Sweep the floor
- Clean counter

But then, cleaning the counter, involves putting the rice cooker and dishes away. So I write that down too. It may look foolish but having tiny easily accomplishable goals is helpful.
posted by aeighty at 6:45 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Maybe you should try reading some philosophy: ``To improve oneself, it doesn’t take a self-help book, counseling, structure or distracting externalities. A dedicated, consistent approach to self-awareness and, accordingly, self-deconstruction are the answers."
posted by print at 12:26 AM on May 14, 2010

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