What's My Motivation
August 10, 2010 7:22 AM   Subscribe

How do you stay motivated in cubicle hell? I go through bouts of being motivated, sometimes for weeks. I am on top of my emails. I am making the phone calls. I am knocking down deliverables. I am having productive team meetings. And then something happens. I can't be bothered. I don't actively manage my inbox. My commitment to following GTD falls apart. I let certain things slip through the cracks. I just don't feel like doing any work. And then two weeks later I get motivated again. This has plagued me forever. Same thing in university. It's like I have ADD but instead of losing focus in the span of seconds, I lose focus in the span of weeks. How can I keep my foot on the gas pedal and feel like I am not a corporate bum half the time. Anyone else like this? Anyone have any tricks for keeping at a steady productive state?
posted by jasondigitized to Work & Money (12 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
It could most likely be bouts of depression. It can be managed or dealt with without having to take drugs. You could talk to your physician. As long as it isn't seriously debilitating and is regular just prepare for it and ride it through. Try to track it by calendar to see if it is regular. This will be information the doctor would need if you choose to see him about it.
posted by JJ86 at 7:35 AM on August 10, 2010

You may want to try to work with your own natural motivation cycle. On the productive weeks, take on projects that require a lot of energy, answer all your e-mails, get things done.

On the non-productive weeks, find things that are productive, but in a less organized way. Are you in any way responsible for "big picture" parts of projects? Can you make up for "doing" less by "thinking" more?
posted by xingcat at 7:37 AM on August 10, 2010

Hey! I've got that problem but it cycles in days, not weeks. As xingcat mentions, one way to tackle the office doldrums is to perform the low-energy, brainless tasks when you're in a rut. When I find emails, phone calls, and big projects overwhelming, I fill out paperwork, tidy my workspace, and hunt around for things to delegate. I still don't go home feeling that I've conquered the world, but it's better than feeling guilty for completely slacking off all day.

I also feel more productive after a big change in the work environment. Maybe it's depression, maybe not, but can you mix things up at your office to reignite that passion for the work?
posted by Pomo at 8:05 AM on August 10, 2010

I have similar issues, and basically I have to ride with the cycle. I really appreciate having deadlines, because they're a big motivator for me.

What xingcat suggests about the big picture doesn't work for me at all - in the unmotivated weeks, I can often *do* things, but my thinking skills are pretty low. I can easily sit at my computer all day with one piece of useful reading material in front of me, and delude myself into the idea that I'm thinking about the project, but the day ends and I know it wasn't true, and I just feel worse the next day. If I can take an unmotivated day, and at the end of it have a clean cube (as Pomo suggests), it might not be useful, but I can still feel that I've done something, which puts me on the road towards doing something else.

I also like finding a coworker and asking them a question. I can carry on an intelligent conversation, share my expertise, solve someone else's problems, define my own problems, and get ideas about what my next steps should be, if I'm discussing things with someone else - much better than if I'm sitting in my cube "thinking" about the same things.
posted by aimedwander at 8:23 AM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't have the complete answer for you, I'm dealing with this myself. The book Get It Done When You're Depressed was mentioned here in another thread, I found it had some good insights into my experience. I think the ideas and techniques would be helpful regardless of whether you're clinically depressed (I'm not suggesting that you are).

One thing I find is anything that gives a forced structure to my low motivation times seems to help. Things like the Pomodoro Technique or just simply working on projects that are inherently a list of tiny tasks (processing my inbox, doing data cleanup kinds of things, etc.) tend to work well.

Just focusing on the next, smallest possible action I can take on a project (all I have to do is write two sentences of that article, reply to two emails, etc.) tends to help. Just pick a couple small things to accomplish and then walk away for a bit.

Also, lower your expectations. Don't get down on yourself, that's not going to help. (Easier said than done, I know.)

Along the lines of what xingcat said, I sometimes find these periods to be kind of like sleep, where a subconscious part of my brain is actually working quite hard on solving big picture problems or synthesizing the data I've taken in. In theory, that enables my more productive times.
posted by nuffsaid at 8:25 AM on August 10, 2010 [5 favorites]

I used to get this, but it was hormonal in my case. For a week or so, I couldn't get motivated enough to figure out what to do next or how to do it. Since I knew about a week ahead of time that it was going to happen, I reviewed and listed exactly what I needed to have and needed to do to accomplish the task/project and got all the materials and documents together. Then, when the cannot-focus hit, I just had to follow the steps I had already outlined for myself.
posted by bentley at 8:29 AM on August 10, 2010

(Sorry, hit Post too soon).

I still got the "I don't know what to do next" feeling, but seeing the next step on paper really helped keep me working on the task.
posted by bentley at 8:30 AM on August 10, 2010

Speaking as someone who is in the 2nd day of this low productivity stage, I can completely relate. I can also relate to bentley's statement, as I am currently staring at a piece of paper with a to-do list on it. I really don't expect to get everything on the list done, but I have almost 3 things checked off from the day already, and will at least touch on all the items. (completion is more important for me, though.) I really need this list during lack of motivation times. Just writing the list begins to get me motivated, and when I lose focus, like right now... instead of spending 3 hours on metafilter and other sites, I will float here for 20-30 minutes, and then get one thing (minimum) accomplished on my list.

For me, the guilt of not doing anything all day somehow prompts me not to do too much the next, and so on, thereby prolonging the problem until the fear of getting in trouble/looking bad/getting fired, outweighs the laziness and forced apathy and I get reenergized.

With things like e-mail, and overarching projects, I try to encapsulate the facets down to a "little here and there." I have "Email" on my to do list, but I immediately get overwhelmed when I look at my inbox. I force myself to respond to the e-mail I should've gotten to 2 days ago, do as many as I can stand, and then it starts to become manageable as the unread messages decrease faster than I thought.
posted by Debaser626 at 9:24 AM on August 10, 2010

This may miss the point entirely, but if you don't enjoy your job, you will sabotage yourself on an ongoing basis. It might be worth evaluating this possibility. Life's too short not to at least consider it.

Or, you may just have lazy days. It's possible to completely love your job and be a good employee... and sometimes be super-productive... and sometimes be a complete waste of space.
posted by Erroneous at 1:16 PM on August 10, 2010

Yeah, as others have said above, office work really is cyclical. Embrace the times when you're less motivated as opportunities to break out of your usual "productive" routines and get other things done. Sometimes when you're so productive on certain projects for so long, little things get neglected. So clean your desk. Reorganize some small aspect of your workflow. Go buy new office supplies or take a long lunch. Make a to-do list for later. Schedule a necessary meeting off-site. See if there's something around the office outside of your usual workflow that needs doing.

On occasion, when I start feeling this sort of malaise, especially right after I've just hit a big deadline, I'll give myself a "lost day" or "in-office vacation day," during which I'm still at work, but I don't put any pressure on myself to tackle big, looming projects. Instead, I take the time to do some Web surfing, clean my desk, clear out my inbox and voicemail, catch up with coworkers, maybe teach myself a new HTML or CSS trick—just basically give myself the mental space to take care of various work-related things I've been meaning to do, but without the pressure of needing to stay "on task" or show results.

Here's what I figure: If I'm really not feelin' the whole work thing that day, I could just, say, call in sick—but if instead, I take the amount of work I would've gotten done (none) if I had stayed home as my baseline, then work up from there, whatever I do get done that day feels incredibly satisfying, just because I reordered my expectations for the day. And expectations are the key here—you expect that you should be able to just keep working, without lags in productivity or motivation, but that's not necessarily realistic. There's an ebb and flow to any job, but I find that's especially evident in office jobs, where it's often just you and the computer (and maybe a limited set of other inputs). It's easy to fixate on variations in your biorhythms in that sort of vacuum. I know I definitely notice things like, for instance, my blood sugar fluctuations over the course of the day—or my energy and motivation levels over the course of the day, week, and month—much more in that sort of environment. When I'm working from home, though, I don't notice any of that nearly as much, because there are other inputs there that take me out of my own head.

So expand your headspace; break out of your routine. You'll feel better.
posted by limeonaire at 1:31 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've found any sort of exercise routine helps me (when I can stick to it!).
posted by ejoey at 2:51 PM on August 10, 2010

Put several tickler reminders of positive self worth every 4-7 days reminding you that you're not your work; but with some of your recent successes. Try to make each one unique

Think of it as a tickler system for your psyche with a GTD touch.
posted by filmgeek at 4:15 AM on August 11, 2010

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