How do I stay motivated and dedicated?
May 19, 2010 2:15 PM   Subscribe

How do I break a cyclical lack of motivation and determination and actually move forward in my life?

I'm in my early twenties and I've been going to school on and off since I was 19. I have completed maybe about a semester and a half's worth of credits in that time. Here's what happens:

Step 1: Feel so awful about myself and my previous failures that it spurs motivation
Step 2: Enroll in classes
Step 3: Start out very strong, attending every class and doing A work
Step 4: Either a) skip an assignment or b) skip a class
Step 5: Skipping one class/assignment snowballs - partly because of not wanting to face the professor or class after missing something, partly out of laziness
Step 6: Stop attending classes completely and fail all but maybe one course
Step 7: Repeat.

I already know that this is partially due to a massive fear of failure - I am a fairly intelligent person and most things come to me easily. I am consistently at the top of my courses when I give up on them, often prompting concern and bafflement from my professors. I know there's a possibility that if I continue with things, I might not do well. Still, this is obviously better than continuing to fail 90% of everything I start for lack of completion.

I also have a history of anxiety and depression (which was very bad when this all started), and though I have come a long way and do not seem to be depressed in the sense that I used to be, the lack of motivation feels very familiar. I can't afford therapy at the moment.

I go through similar patterns with jobs, keeping my home clean, working out, eating healthfully, etc. Everything I attempt goes this way. This has to change and I know it's completely up to me to make major lifestyle changes. That's where you come in.

How do I start? What can I do? Should I ban myself from my computer? Make myself wake up at a certain time each day? Have a daily to-do list? Eat breakfast every day? ...And yet I've tried these things, and failed after a fantastic start, so the question really is...

How do I make something stick? How do I stay motivated? What have you done for yourself that has helped you stay dedicated to something when you were tempted to give up for what seems like no other reason than laziness?
posted by anonymous to Education (8 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Nothing motivates me like paying for it. It's easier to slack off when you are on someone else's dime or a student loan. Are you paying your own way through school?
posted by ShootTheMoon at 2:20 PM on May 19, 2010

Look at people around you who aren't perfect, see how happy they are, and follow suit. Also, worrying about disappointing my professors always kept me on track.
posted by anniecat at 2:29 PM on May 19, 2010

The biggest, most fantastic thing I've done towards making myself get things done has two parts:

1. Set a timer and work for 25 minute intervals.

2. Record those intervals on a calendar. Work stuff gets a red X, school stuff gets a black X. I always have a sheet of paper that is some sort of calendar (hand made or printed) on the wall next to my desk.

I don't necessarily use it every day, but I did for many, many months, and these days whenever I'm struggling a little I stick to my timer and recording thing strictly until stuff gets done.

It sounds very minor, but it's super powerful for me and has given me two semesters of good, solid schoolwork, something I have never truly had before except in one or two fascinating classes I had as an undergrad.

Secondary to that, you really have to get over that embarrassment when you mess up, and get back into the groove. Everyone misses a class or screws up an assignment or doesn't study enough for something now and then--that is not a sign that you are an abject failure and should give up. I forget this all the time, so I feel your pain, but I was freaking out about a test for which I didn't study enough this past semester and I said to my astrophysicist girlfriend, "Did you ever flunk a test?" And she said, "Yeah, but only when I didn't study enough." And she's got a PhD. Takeaway message: Even people with PhDs do stuff like that sometimes. The key is not to make it a pattern.

But really, timers and keeping track is the thing that worked for me.
posted by hought20 at 2:34 PM on May 19, 2010 [7 favorites]

Well, since Step 5 is where this falls off the rails for you, I'd deal with that.

Every single person in the history of higher education skips a class or hands in an assignment late. Your questions about getting up at the same time or working out or eating better are all geared towards "how can I set up a pattern that means I'll never be late or miss an assignment?" and that is the totally wrong focus because you can't.

Humans are error prone. You have to come to terms with that. Since you say you have a history of anxiety and depression but the depression is better, I'm going to guess that this is about anxiety and not knowing how (or being afraid) to deal with your professors after you mess up.

Frankly, I would not do what anniecat suggests and worry about disappointing your professors. A late assignment or a missed class really will not make or break their estimation of you. Failing to recover from that, however, will make or break your degree and since a) your education is about you and not them, and b) getting a degree and not people pleasing is the goal here, I'd re-examine that priority.

Would it help you to have a plan in place for when you inevitably hit Step 5? What would that plan look like?
posted by DarlingBri at 2:34 PM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

You know, I think I am the same way as you, almost exactly. And I am in a very demotivated point so take what I am about to say with that grain of salt but:

From my experience I have learned that the world doesn't care if you succeed or fail. Especially in the corporate world (which is where I, despite my best efforts of not ever applying for a job at a corporation, now find myself due to merger).

There is no real forward in your life except the forward that you make yourself believe exists. Sure there are numbers on a page (money) but they go from zero to infinity. There is a calendar, sure, but it takes no effort on your part for that to move forward. But, it is only in school you get that very discrete, obviously and directly stated illusion that people care about what you do and are going to give it a grade from 0%-F (bad person) to 100% A+ (Good person). But that's a lie too.

So finish the classes, or don't, but either way you are only a failure if you see yourself as such (this can be a depressing or a liberating thought... take it as you will)
posted by DetonatedManiac at 5:42 PM on May 19, 2010

What helped me most with this problem was meeting some people I respect highly (as in world-class musicians, famous writers, Nobel Prize-winning professors) and realizing that they screw up all the time. They're late, they forget things, they need to spend the weekend under the covers.

For me, it's more about strategies on how to recover than anything else. You need to learn how to tell people you screwed up in a direct but not obsequious way.

Something like:

Dear Professor X,

I apologize for missing your class yesterday. I really enjoy learning from you and am very excited about the material. Would it be possible for me to come to your office hours on xxx to follow up on my questions from the reading?

posted by alternateuniverse at 2:54 AM on May 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Looking at this post and realizing that I could have written it is absolutely gratifying. Not because I'm rejoicing in your situation, at all, but because it diminishes the overwhelming sense that this is a solitary problem, on my end.
You have a lot of resources. Please don't forget that.

What's been the best solutions for me so far? Let's see;
- I decided, on a whim, to start trying things that I wasn't naturally gifted at, that didn't come "easily" to me. I'd been told for so long that I was a gifted, intelligent kid that I was positively terrified of what would happen to me if I wasn't one. I stopped trying and I started accepting life, as it was, instead of truly interacting with my surroundings and the opportunities I'd been given. So, I've been trying new exercise classes and new hobbies, letting myself re-learn the experience of being poor at something and gaining the skills to overcome it, in any form.
- Dealing with my own anxiety and depression has also been gratifying; most of my psychological issues relating to education stem from my childhood experiences with private schooling and my parents. If you're in the right state of mind to really delve into your past trauma, in whatever form, with or without a therapist, I'd truly recommend it.
- Looking at the world and determining what I'm passionate about. Things that I enjoy, even if I don't feel strongly enough to commit to them in that "rest of my life" sense is honestly more gratifying than slaving away at a minimum job I hate without any future motivation. Pay attention to what you do and what makes you feel emotionally fulfilled. Capitalize on those feelings.

Once you've explored those suggestions, look at the way you approach school, in general. Do you really want to be there? Is it for yourself and furthering your own future, or are you there for reasons that you aren't passionate about?
Sometimes, people can feel unmotivated due to a certain class or two that they feel is uninspiring or boring, but if this is an entire stigma towards school in general, then your problem is probably school as an institution.

Learn to fail. Learn to apply yourself to something with your full effort, with everything you can put towards it, before really acknowledging that you're some kind of "failure". Hopefully, you can see that your efforts themselves are making you a stronger person, not the success or fear of it.
posted by deadreagan at 12:39 AM on May 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I will second everything deadreagan has replied; I could have written this post up as well.

A good therapist (campus-provided or not) may help you with issues you may not know you have, and can help with whatever you DO have.

As for motivation? You could take some time for yourself and compile a list of:

1) personal qualites
2) qualities you admire in other people
2) things you enjoy doing
3) personal values

Then prioritize and write up goals that come from this that are within range of accomplishment. Get a day calendar and keep a daily tally of what you are doing towards accomplishing your goals/needs.

If you are REALLY interested in doing something- like college- do it wholeheartedly, and finish it. It's easy to be distracted by circumstances or how you feel about any given situation.

I'm learning through my failings that a semester or college degree is worth more than the grade or a piece of paper- it's about the energy, resources, and mental toughness it takes to make every day count.
posted by Giggilituffin at 12:57 PM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

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