Why can't I just WORK???
September 21, 2010 10:01 AM   Subscribe

Why can't I just WORK?

I've been struggling with this problem for about as long as I've had a job, which is many years. When I explain it, it sounds so simple, but I've been having this problem for a long time, so there must be more to it.

Basically, I am a bad employee, and I don't know how to fix it. I have a really hard time just sitting down and doing the work I need to do. I'm just as capable of doing the work as my co-workers are. But I get far less done than them. To some degree, I guess it's procrastination, but it seems like it goes beyond that. Right now it is an hour before I need to be at work. I can think of about twenty things that I should work on. There are four or five things that absolutely MUST get done today. I tell myself - I am going to go to the office, sit down and immediately start working. It is very simple. But years of history tell me that won't happen.

I'll get to the office. Get a cup of coffee. Check the news websites. Check my email. Tell myself to get to work. Keep surfing the web. Do five minutes of work. Check my email again. Go to lunch. And so on. This is SO FRUSTRATING. Consciously, it seems incredibly obvious that I need to just stop browsing the dang web and do my work. There's no reason I can't do it. But for some reason, it almost never happens. Some times over the course of my career, I've been able to fix this problem for a few days or even a week or two, but then I lapse into the same habits.

One possibly related issue I've noticed is that as soon as I run against ANY difficulty in a task, I instinctively want to stop working on it. Even something as simple as needing to look up a term or go ask someone a question is enough to make me stop working on the task. I don't think this is at the root of all of my problems, but it does exacerbate them because once I do finally force myself to work, it can be short-lived.

I really need to fix this. It's destroying my career. If I didn't have these habits, I would be much higher up in my company I am sure - I am actually very good at my job when I do it. I've tried normal strategies like keeping to do lists and I read Getting Things Done and tried to follow it for a while, but it didn't really help that much.

I know how stupid this all sounds, believe me. If someone asked me this question, I would want to slap them on the face and say "JUST DO YOUR WORK." But for some reason, I just DON'T.

Has anyone else struggled with something like this? Can anyone tell me what's wrong with me? How do I break this habit?????
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (56 answers total) 260 users marked this as a favorite
It could be a form of ADD, but only an expert can tell you that after an evaluation.

Are you generally only distracted by the internet and e-mail? The simple solution to that is have IT shut off that capability on your workstation.

If you keep finding distractions to keep you away from work, you're going to have to build your own solution. Perhaps working with someone else who can keep you on-task, or a team of people to whom you are responsible.

It would help to know what kind of work you do. You may be unsuited to the type of job you're in. Maybe a position that lets you lecture in front of a crowd, build things out of wood, drive somewhere, manage people in physical space, is something more suited to you. Not everyone is cut out to be a desk jockey.
posted by xingcat at 10:07 AM on September 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

This sounds like basic internet addiction. Figure out a way to block the internet when you are supposed to be working.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 10:07 AM on September 21, 2010

Go see a psychiatrist and ask them if this is ADD.
posted by anniecat at 10:09 AM on September 21, 2010

I know how stupid this all sounds, believe me ()

It doesn't sound stupid. It sounds like ADHD.

I'm not a doctor, and I'm not diagnosing you. However, you could copy and paste your description of your problem and slap my name on it and you'd have a perfect description of me a year and a half ago. I wanted to work, but couldn't make myself do it. I'd come home every day feeling defeated, having managed to do perhaps two things on my to do list. It was driving me crazy, making me depressed and anxious. I went to my doctor about the anxiety and depression, and she asked me if I wanted her to treat those symptoms, or treat the ADHD that was causing them.

It was perhaps the most important moment in my life thus far. While I'm not perfect (hello, I'm writing on Metafilter right now), I'm way more productive, and much happier.

Talk to a doctor, preferably one who has experience diagnosing ADHD. Read Delivered from Distraction (at least the first few chapters). Ask yourself if it sounds like you.

Good luck.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:11 AM on September 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Sounds like me. I had a preliminary diagnosis of ADD (and then lost my insurance and never did anything else with that). I've been like this my WHOLE life. The couple of office jobs I've had did not go all that well.

Now I work somewhere where there are lots of things to be done all the time, I don't have to sit still at a desk, and I do well. I don't have answers for you, just commiseration.
posted by bibliogrrl at 10:13 AM on September 21, 2010

How much do you actually need your computer and/or the internet for your work? I have similarly problems concentrating on work (...which would be why I'm on MeFi right now ^_^*) and sometimes I have better luck stepping away from the computer, turning the monitor off, or killing Netscape.
posted by maryr at 10:14 AM on September 21, 2010

Besides ADD, I think there could definitely be some anxiety behind this behavior.
posted by banishedimmortal at 10:14 AM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm the same as ocherdraco. Got on some meds, and found that my problem basically disappeared. Not that I'm perfect either, but that compulsion to distract myself after running into a roadblock is gone. I can tell myself no, do not go check your email, figure out the solution to the problem.

See a doctor. Not saying ADD is your problem, but it's a possibility.
posted by coupdefoudre at 10:15 AM on September 21, 2010

I'm adding to this discussion as a person who has been diagnosed with ADD (inattentive type). I'm on a stimulant right now after seeing marginal results with Strattera, and I'm not sure if it's really doing much.

Keeping busy is very important for me, as is being able to check in and stay engaged with my coworkers so I know when my definite deadlines are.

However, I have to say that I'm still struggling badly with these issues. Last week and yesterday were AWFUL for me, for the exact reasons you've described. I missed deadlines left and right because they don't seem "real" to me. It's selfish and it's awful and I hate it, and I hate myself for putting my colleagues in the position of waiting around for me to get off my ass.

So here's a vote of solidarity, and a request for more assistance that isn't just "get checked for ADD." Because knowing what's up is one thing, but retraining yourself from a lifetime of bad habits is another thing entirely.

(Woooo, Debbie Downer!)
posted by Madamina at 10:19 AM on September 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

This sounds a lot like what I deal with. As I'm self-employed, it can create real problems. I've suspected that I have ADHD-[inattentive type], which is like ADHD, but where you get distracted and aren't overly hyper, and, just yesterday, was prescribed Wellbutrin for it. That could be something that would help. A psychiatrist could tell you more.

That being said, as internet distractions are things that I know intimately, I'm working on a startup that will let you block the internet, selectively. That is, you'll be able to turn the internet on or off, at whatever level of specificity you want (no Facebook, but everything else? fine. Just gmail, and nothing else, so you can get to Inbox Zero? no problem). Once a "working state" has been enacted, you won't be able to change it. We haven't launched yet, but if you want to join the e-mail announcement list, you can do that here: Monotask. In the meantime, less-effective (but existing) tools you can check out include SelfControl, Freedom, Concentrate, and RescueTime.
posted by Alt F4 at 10:19 AM on September 21, 2010 [24 favorites]

ADD here too. Officially. And I have/had exactly the same problem. I'd get checked out.

The only thing that would ever get me really working was to set up accountability for myself. Only a deadline where a real person would be checking to see that it is done and real consequences would follow if it's not done. That's what I needed to get myself going.

Maybe something similar would help you too?
posted by cross_impact at 10:20 AM on September 21, 2010

Try the pomodoro technique.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:22 AM on September 21, 2010 [13 favorites]

Sounds like me before I started treatment for ADHD. Seriously, I could have written big chunks of this a year ago. I think I actually did consider asking a similar question here, but of course never got around to it.

I used to marvel at people who could tell themselves to just do something and then ... just do it. I never understood that. But somehow, ADHD meds allow me to hear that voice that tells me to do something and do it. It's kind of amazing.

Also, the feeling stupid and frustrated and a little bit ashamed of all this is part and parcel of ADHD. It really sucks, but you don't have to put yourself through it.

Anyway, please do get yourself to a shrink and ask to be screened. It might not be ADHD, but a good psychiatrist/psychologist should be able to figure out what's going on.

Also, have you read this thread? It's the thread that got me to go to the shrink, and it's an amazing resource.
posted by lunasol at 10:22 AM on September 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm on a stimulant right now after seeing marginal results with Strattera, and I'm not sure if it's really doing much.

I'd suggest you and your doctor try something else if you don't see results. I was on Adderall for a while and it just made me hyper and fighty (and possibly more impulsive!), and didn't help my inattentiveness at all. But now I'm on ritalin (actually, Concerta, a long-acting form of Ritalin) and it's awesome. Not speedy at all, just makes me able to focus. Some people have the opposite reaction: adderall makes them calm, ritalin makes them speedy. You have to find what works for you.
posted by lunasol at 10:26 AM on September 21, 2010

It took me all of high school and college and several years of working to realize that I wasn't lazy and didn't just procrastinate my way into trouble. Turned out I was just incredibly, sometimes cripplingly anxious.

There are strategies for how to work around anxiety, if that does turn out to be your problem. Most important of all is accepting that you aren't lazy just because these things are hard for you - the cycle of guilt and avoidance is a dangerous one to be sucked into.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:27 AM on September 21, 2010 [8 favorites]

Nthing ADD. I have it too, and was on stimulant meds for years (diagnosed in 1993) until they started causing heart problems for me and I had to stop taking them in 2007. Now I just... struggle along. A really good diet and regular exercise including high-intensity cardio really helps a lot, I've found. There are some behavioral things you can do as well, though I've found external motivation (sharing my problem with others and asking them to tell me to GBTW) helps me more than anything internal ever could.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:30 AM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh. Also, if it's interesting to you, I started a blog a little bit ago related to all this (how to focus, tips, quotes about internet-fueled distraction, etc.) at attnmgmtblog.com. I wasn't going to share it on MeFi (that is, on Projects) until I got to 100 posts (you know, to make sure I stick with it before linking to it), but since it relates to your question, I figured I'd post it in this thread. 1 post per day, max, to keep distractions down.
posted by Alt F4 at 10:34 AM on September 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

Here's my take, as one who has struggled with this tendency but has learned to work around it. The "should" that you are imposing on yourself (or which appear to be imposed from the outside) is prompting another part of you to push back. Hard. The result is paralysis. You need to be gentle and loving with both parts of yourself, the part that is the taskmaster, and the part that wants to be playful and spontaneous. Both are concerned with "your" welfare. So when one or the other voice is active, welcome it, allow it, and acknowledge its concerns instead of stepping up the war in which both sides lose. A resource that may help is the Power of Focusing. Also have a look at the Sedona Method as a technique for welcoming resistance (ignore the woo on the page; no need to sign up for expensive seminars -- you can learn it just fine by borrowing the book from the library). This isn't to discount the ADHD theory -- medication may also help.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:36 AM on September 21, 2010 [13 favorites]

Maybe it's ADD or ADHD or anxiety or something that a doctor could help you with. Maybe you're just bored by your work and, with easy access to more engaging things, you'd rather do them. Maybe you're not motivated by success at work--there's nothing inherently wrong with that--and therefore not motivated to work at work. Maybe school came easily to you and you never had to learn habits of applying yourself to difficult tasks which were not also fun tasks.

We all have to make a living and if you're able to hold down your job, despite being unable to force yourself to do it, maybe there is nothing "wrong" with you.

But you have identified a problem you're having and one that is causing you distress. So, in addition to trying to retrain your bad habits, in addition to trying to learn new work habits, you should call up a doctor, if you've got that option, and see if medication can help. Good luck with it; everything in life is a process.

In any event, both working out medications that work and retraining habits are going to take a long time and are going to involve setbacks. Hopefully, you have a partner or a good friend who can help you laugh off the frustrations and be happy for you with the small victories. That will make the process better.

I have the (mis)fortune of working somewhere with no blocks on the internet and where I need the internet for research and other tools. One thing I have found useful for avoiding the internet when I should be working is two lists: the work task list and the internet "but I want to look at this" list. For every two things crossed off the work list, I get to look at one thing on the internet list. Obviously, I fall down on the job--I'm only human; some days work is not engaging; some days work is not busy; sometimes my deadlines aren't pressing; some days I'm in a bad mood. For the most part, though, this works for me.

Another thing I have found useful is pop-up notifications. Gmail pops up with the first sentence of the email; so I get the benefit of seeing the mail and can assess immediately that it's not work my time right now. Same thing with twitter. Keeps me off their websites, which are a temptation to surf to other websites.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:36 AM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you even like your job/career? Maybe you're not suited for this type of structure/desk job. My DH is like that. He cannot, 100% follow authority, 9-5, sitting at a desk, being told what to do. ADD? Maybe. Depressed? Maybe. (pothead--maybe).

I think there is no harm in getting assessed. No one is saying you MUST go on meds. That's up to you. Do you just want to know why and adjust life accordingly or do you want to follow status quo and adjust to others expectations (which will mean meds).

I think perhaps it's a little of both but I'm no doctor.
posted by stormpooper at 10:39 AM on September 21, 2010

What they all said about ADHD. You describe beautifully exactly what it's like.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:41 AM on September 21, 2010

Oh christ, this is me to a tee. At my previous job I was on my feet all day, moving around, tackling different work assignments in different buildings. No two days were the same. I excelled at this job, I was promoted twice in three years, and it killed me to leave it. At my current workplace I'm stuck at a desk nearly constantly and half of my job is painstaking document management. I've been written up twice for falling behind on deadlines, and it constantly feels like there's something I'm forgetting to do.
posted by Oktober at 10:42 AM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I do the same thing, and it totally STINKS. I know that some of it is anxiety and wanting to avoid the "hard" stuff (hard, as you mention, is relative). I've tried giving myself blocks of time in which I will work (just 15 minutes! you can do 15 minutes, right?) before the next break, but I always seem to wander back to the internet.

If I give myself really Small tasks to do, that often helps - I find that once I've checked that one term or whatever, I sometimes snowball into doing more work, because that Wasn't So Hard. Sometimes giving myself a small task by lunchtime helps. Sometime committing to doing one small task before I even fire up the internet helps.

But habits are hard to change, and I wish you the best of luck in forming new ones!
posted by ldthomps at 10:44 AM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

oh, that's what ADD feels like? I've been like this my entire life - brief periods of utterly intense, unbreakable focus separated by long stretches of scatterbrained inability to make progress on any of the dozen things I'm thinking about at once. Crap. I do all these little things to try to keep myself on track...
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:02 AM on September 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sometimes mentally re-framing a problem can help. Maybe think less about your issue as it relates to your job, and more as it relates to your life in general. There is a great book out there called Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.

It posits the idea that that attention (what you focus your consciousness on) is a limited commodity. There is a set number of minutes in a day that you are "thinking," and what you burn those minutes thinking about essentially determines (literally to some extent) what kind of conscious life you are apt to have. Your body reacts to your physical environment (food, disease, exercise, etc), and your brain reacts to how and what you think. Your brain "learns" and becomes "trained" based in part upon your thinking and emotional habits. Are you thinking about the things that are helpful?

You are what you think about. Email, random internet surfing...perhaps this isn't who you want to be, regardless of how it affects your work.
posted by nickjadlowe at 11:03 AM on September 21, 2010 [9 favorites]

This sounds like past me. Except that I don't do it any more, and I have not been diagnosed with ADHD or started medication. My therapist says she thinks I'm a bit ADHD, but probably not to the point where I need meds. This is not to say that you don't have ADHD, but I just wanted to give you input from my perspective on this problem. I also want to note that for a lot of people I know, a diagnosis of ADHD is not a fix-all. For some people online, it seems to be, but for a lot of other people, meds are just a first step--you've also got to learn how to manage your time and yourself. You're going to have to put the effort in, no matter what, and there is no magic pill that will make this change for you unless you are one of the lucky few.

First, know that while having every day be like this is a problem, everyone does have days like this. Even people who are highly functional and super productive have days where they're clicky and browsy and go home wondering what the heck just happened. A day like that is not a catastrophe, and not a sign that you have a problem. The problem is just that you have lots and lots of days like that.

Second, know that you can change. For really real. I am not supergirl (yet) but these days there is not a chance I would flunk a class or screw over my coworkers just through my slackness, and that has not always been the case. For years, that was not the case. I limped through high school and college and through my first job out of college. I just could not get my shit together and keep it there in order to be as productive as I wanted to be. But these days, I do alright.

As for advice, it might feel artificial and strange at first, but what worked for me is a series of crutches.

Crutch one: Just spend x amount of time today working. X can be half an hour, or an hour, or three hours. Break it down into segments of time that seem reasonable to you. How long can you make yourself sit still? If it's just five minutes--five minutes doesn't sound bad, right?--then set a timer for five minutes and work, and then you can goof off. You can set a timer for goof-off time, too, and then do another five minutes when it goes off. I started with 20 minutes on, 15 off, with an aim of 2 or 3 hours a day.

You may think "but I can't only work for half an hour a day!" From what you say, however, you aren't even really getting that much done. So it's worth it even if you start small.

Crutch two: Make a little chart, or stick up a printed out calendar on your wall, and give yourself a little x for every segment of time you work.

Crutch three: External motivation! If you already have this in place, focus on how shitty it will be to let your coworkers down. That's a big one, for me.

I also have extenuating circumstances that I feel played a role in me getting my shit together, but I won't get into that, here. I mostly just wanted to tell you how I did it, and let you know that it's possible to change this kind of behavior incrementally until you look back and can see huge strides you've made. It's your path, though, and I hope you figure it out eventually. You don't want to live your entire life like this, I imagine.
posted by hought20 at 11:12 AM on September 21, 2010 [17 favorites]

I was prescribed meds for social anxiety, and I suddenly found that I could concentrate really easily, I was able to focus on my work, I wasn't always getting distracted by anything else that came up. So I agree with the others that you should consider investigating the possibility that there's a medical problem that's causing the issue. I hadn't realised before that I had a medical problem, I thought that I was just not trying hard enough (and my problem predates the internet by many years). It makes me sad to think of all the years I beat myself up over it when it actually wasn't within my power to change it, despite my best efforts.

I'm not saying that this is the case with you, but it's definitely worth looking into.
posted by rubbish bin night at 11:19 AM on September 21, 2010

I could have written this question (I didn't). Now I think I am going to see a psych. Thanks for posting.
posted by bDiddy at 11:28 AM on September 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

I also want to note that for a lot of people I know, a diagnosis of ADHD is not a fix-all. For some people online, it seems to be, but for a lot of other people, meds are just a first step (hought20)

I think that most would agree that the diagnosis doesn't fix the issue, and neither do meds by themselves. What a diagnosis of ADHD and medication do is tell you what the problem is, and give you a foothold to start working on it.

You can know you have ADHD and be on meds and be just as unproductive as you were without them. The main difference is that (unlike before) you now have the ability to change that if you want to.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:35 AM on September 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I went to send a message to the question asker to say "thanks for asking this, you describe me perfectly, and you saved me a question" but then realized it was anonymous so let me start out with thanks.

Here's another suggestion: You may also not be somebody who would get a ADHD/ADD diagnosis when a professional(s) get involved, so don't get frustrated if that's not what anybody says. (Every non-professional in my life who knows me well thinks that sounds like what I have but it's not.) But I do recommend talking to someone about it nonetheless. It could be low-level -- or high-level -- depression, which, when I started taking drugs for that, helped my focus immediately.

But eventually, that wore off for me. So be sure to remember your good habits if you do get a helpful professional diagnosis and start doing them. Finding the "solution' to your "problem" is only helpful if you keep doing the same things.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:46 AM on September 21, 2010

Could you disable the web from your work machine?
posted by bananafish at 11:47 AM on September 21, 2010

Let me be radical and NOT give you an unqualified diagnosis of ADHD.

How do you feel about your work? Are you sufficiently engaged? Are you bored? Do you finish your work very quickly once you actually work on it? Because it sounds to me like you're a perfectly normal person who's just bored shitless and isn't challenged, at all, by work.

You say you would be higher up in your company if you weren't like this - why? Do you get bad reviews? Do you miss deadlines? Is your output of poor quality? Have you been spoken to by your manager regarding the quality of your work?

If the answer to these questions is "I'm not sure," then you need to go find out that there's a problem. Because I think the problem is that you're not sufficiently engaged in what you're doing. If the answer is "No," well, you're still not sufficiently engaged, and you need to step up and ask for additional responsibility. If the answer is "Yes," then I stand corrected and you should stop reading this and go to your doctor post haste because you might have ADHD.

One possibly related issue I've noticed is that as soon as I run against ANY difficulty in a task, I instinctively want to stop working on it.

That might actually not be a BAD thing. We're all taught that the way through a difficult issue is to keep hammering at it, when you might be the kind of person who needs to take a break and work on something else while your brain works the problem out. That is the kind of person that I am, and I used to beat myself up ALL THE TIME for not being able to 'stick to' a problem. Then I started to notice that the solutions to the problem came when I was at lunch, in the shower, or doing something else. So now, when I come to something difficult and I don't immediately know how to get through it, I stop. I pick up something else. I take a break. I go get a walk and a drink of water.

I'm pretty sure that's not ADD, but I'm not a doctor. Maybe it is and I should be medicated.
posted by micawber at 11:48 AM on September 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Sorry, two other things that help:

1) Pomodoro technique: You get an app or set a timer and work in 25 minute bursts with timed breaks. I love this. the day flies by.

2) Leechblock. I can't access MeFi between 11-2, and then from 3-5. I can open up another browser if I'm on a horrific conference call where my only contribution is my heavy breathing and the occasional "yes that's right". But I program it for the sites where I can't just seem to take a quick look during the Pomodoro breaks.
posted by micawber at 11:50 AM on September 21, 2010 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you haven't seen a therapist (psychiatrist, psychologist) yet. Try that. Print out this description of your problems to help guide your sessions.

I'm guessing that you are a good, talented employee, once you are actually doing your work. It's not that you don't want to do the work, per se, or that you aren't good at what you do. It's something else that draws your attention to the million other things.

Your guilt is clearly weighing you down. You're still succeeding at your job, despite the fact that you feel super guilty about this problem. You state that you think you'd be even more successful if you actually committed 100% to your job, which implies success. Of course, one of the problems is likely that you have continued success despite your lack of focus. And it's driving you nuts because you want to be even better.

But, in terms of going to a therapist, it'll help to figure out what works for you. When you are actually doing your work, what is it that draws you to your work instead of the million other things? What draws you to the million other things, and can that be translated to your work, or does it indicate some psychological problem? These are the types of things a good therapist should help you out with.

The problem is that therapy is not a one-shot deal. It takes a while to figure things out. A long while. All the while, you will continue to have the same problems. So, start now, if you can.

Meds may be in your future, if you are open to that. As a cautionary note, I'd stay away from doctors that have the knee-jerk reaction of calling it ADHD. It could be an anxiety issue, it could be an actual medical issue, it could be a therapy issue, it could be ADHD. Good luck.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:07 PM on September 21, 2010

This sounds exactly like me, especially when it comes to doing school work (and I'm talking from middle school through law school, here). I probably could get a diagnosis of ADD if I wanted the meds (and have been told as much professionally). I feel your pain.

For me, the most productive I've ever been was when I worked in a law firm and had to actually keep track of time worked... as in, a client was paying for my time and if I dicked around, I had to either stop the clock or violate some professional ethics rules (and I obviously opted for the former course). I knew I had to work--legitimately work--X hours in a week, in addition to getting my projects done and done well, on time. I also knew I wanted to go home at the end of the day and have dinner, and the more I checked ESPN.com, the later I could reasonably expect to do that.

Now that I'm back at school, I'm back to procrastinating... in fact, I'm doing that right now! Crap.

So... time-tracking plus accountability did it for me. I don't know if you can implement anything like this in your situation, but there are lots of behavioral modifications or "crutches" that are probably a better first line of attack than hitting up the CVS. (The Pomodoro technique sounds like it hits at least the time-tracking component... maybe I should try that...) You can always go the Rx route if you find yourself totally unable to cope, but it seems to me (in my total layman's opinion) that the less you think of that as an option other than a last resort, the better.
posted by SuperNova at 12:38 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

It doesn't sound stupid and you can't be the only person who does this because software/network appliances to filter out all these distractions is a billion dollar business.

I'd go see a doctor.
posted by Brian Puccio at 12:49 PM on September 21, 2010

I have this. Well, I had it until I quit work eighteen months ago. With me the reason was very simple: I really, really didn't like my work. Somewhere years ago my mind just rebelled against all office/business/IT related work (my former "career") and I just did not want to do it. It felt like physical distress to open a goddamned spreadsheet, start a document or reply to an email because I hated the whole damned thing that much. I persisted with it for far too long for various reasons: at first because I needed the money and then because the job was keeping me in New York, which I loved. Then, when neither of those things applied any longer I realised I just had to stop and figure out a way of existing that didn't crush my soul. I haven't done it yet and finances are getting stretched but I don't regret cutting the leash for an instant. I'd had enough. I would now rather work in a factory or drive a truck for the rest of my active life than ever step back into an office again.

So, do you even like your job? If not, consider that that is probably the root of the problem.
posted by Decani at 12:52 PM on September 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

You don't mention if this is something specifically related to work, or if you find this a problem outside work (eg: you know you need to do the dishes and clean the bathroom but it never seems to happen / you always have a long list of friends who you need to call back etc). If it's just work, then IANAD but it may not be ADHD.

Long term - do you like your job? Do you get any satisfaction from doing it well? Do you want to be promoted? Answering these questions might tell you whether a change in job is actually what you need.

Also, do you get any positive feedback from your boss / clients when you do something well? If that makes a difference, it might be worth speaking to your boss about this - in a "I sometimes feel demotivated when I don't get any feedback - it would really help me out if I knew when I had done something well" kind of way, not a critical "you're a bad boss" kind of way.

Short term - instead of saying "I really must get that report written by the end of the day because I want to further my career", say "I'll finish section A before I go to lunch". But the pomodoro technique might also be helpful; as might the "Getting Things Done" approach to dealing with obstacles - find the single, simple, next step and do it.

You don't mention whether you have a lot of deadlines, and if so, whether you're failing to meet them. I'm guessing that if that was the case, you'd have mentioned it. While setting artificial deadlines for yourself is not likely to be helpful, your boss might be able to help - either by setting deadlines that he/she holds you to, or by requesting a weekly "highlight report". That's something I've suggested to bosses in the past, and it worked because I end up wanting to put more in the "completed" section - my productivity was always highest the day before I had to present the highlight report! It's kind of like having a To Do List that someone else checks up on (my own To Do lists are usually longer at the end of the day than at the start...)

In an ideal world, the more you get done, the more positive feedback you receive (from others or just in increased job satisfaction), and the more motivated you are to do more.

Good luck.

P.S. And don't beat yourself up about not sticking to your plans. I've never once in my entire life managed to get to the gym before work, no matter how motivated I feel the evening before or how early I set my alarm. If your daily routine at work involves coffee / emails / news websites before you settle down, then accept that and build it in. Do all of that, until you've read the entire internet and have become a bit bored. Then start work...
posted by finding.perdita at 1:56 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I struggle with this, and the soul-crushing depression that occurs when you can't motivate yourself to do something. It's like trying to bring two repelling magnets together--so close, and then suddenly veering off. I finally went for evaluation/medication, but here's what's been most helpful: constant monitoring. Get a periodic alarm if you have to, but never ignore that little silent gap that exists when you're deciding what to do next. While you're waiting for something, don't waste time, ask yourself of there's some little task you could do in the gap.

What especially works for me is not so much setting as a goal the work to be done, but catching more and more of the little decisions we make to go off and waste time. The Internet is only a click away, so it barely takes any thought to do the wrong thing. But if you can make the decisions conscious it will amaze you how many times you try to slip away to wasting time. "Let's just open this tab--no. Maybe I can check--No. I wonder what the new--No.". Over and over and over and over again, hundreds of times a day. It gets tiresome fighting myself but there's a reward, not unlike training a rarely used muscle. You learn to start being stoked that you actually resisted temptation, say, 126 times today. Go ahead and count! You should be proud of even the little successes.

The biggest problem for me is slipping back into complacency and thinking it's ok to goof off. You gotta keep asking yourself if what you are doing right now is the thing you wish you would have been doing when you look back. Not a bad standard for more of life, really.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 2:04 PM on September 21, 2010 [8 favorites]

Don't check emails/read news/get browsy for the first hour of work. Seriously, not even a peek. Just do it for an hour - try it tomorrow!

I have this problem and I don't have ADHD/ADD - I'm just hideously understimulated by my hella dry and unnaturally sedentary job. However, it pays enough to fund my secret superhero extra-curricular life so I buckle down by removing that initial temptation. I always try to leave a task that I can finish the next morning (even if it's something I've set myself) and once I've got through the hour I'll have a coffee. Often I find that hour is enough to kickstart an entire day's worth of action. And if I can get through a whole day without turning to Metafilter I'll put a little x on my calendar and be secretly smug about my awesome willpower. A whole row of x's is motivating. Kisses for a job done.

It is possible - you just have to start growing the habit. And don't beat yourself up for getting distracted from time to time, many of us have not yet evolved sufficiently to spend endless hours doing abstracted tasks without going a bit spazzy from time to time.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:59 PM on September 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think a diagnosis of ADHD is very premature. I live with someone who definitely, absolutely has ADHD and I definitely do not. Yet I am more like your description than he is.

My problem is that I'm a terrible perfectionist. I don't do things because I'm sure I'm going to suck at them, and then I procrastinate until I don't have enough time to do the thing well, so I do it half-assed, and then surprise! I suck at it. This dovetails nicely with your statement that as soon as you run into any difficulty, you stop. I don't like feeling stupid or inadequate so if I can't do it well, I'll stop doing it.

The only thing that has worked is giving myself permission to fail, giving myself permission to do something less-than-perfectly IF I try. Give myself an "A" for effort, if you will. I'll tell myself that if I merely finish task X in time Y, no matter how the finished product turns out, I can go [do something enjoyable].
posted by desjardins at 3:19 PM on September 21, 2010 [6 favorites]

Yes, this sounds familiar to me.

Skipping the whole ADD/ADHD armchair diagnosis bit, I'm going to go with this: it takes practice to learn to sustain concentration. Especially, in my experience, for people who are naturally smart and usually *get* things right away, or who are used to succeeding (like in school) with very little effort.

You can train yourself to work, but you must take very, very small steps, and be willing to cut yourself a lot of slack. Remember to always deal with where you are actually at, in reality, rather than holding yourself up to some ideal which, while it might seem reasonable to you, is actually light-years away from where you actually are. Where you currently are must be your starting point.

Measure how long you are able to concentrate on a task for a day or a fey days. When you have a good average figure, then slowly, incrementally work on increasing that amount of time -- concentrate for bursts of 5 or 15 or 20 minutes, then take pre-scheduled, mandatory breaks to goof off, surf the internet, whatever. Use a timer on your computer if you can.

Each week, bump up the concentration time by a couple of minute, or add an extra burst or two of concentration to your day.

Some books you might find helpful:

The Now Habit by Fiore

How to Work the Competition Into the Ground by Molloy
posted by Ouisch at 5:01 PM on September 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

I was on Adderall for a while and it just made me hyper and fighty (and possibly more impulsive!), and didn't help my inattentiveness at all. But now I'm on ritalin (actually, Concerta, a long-acting form of Ritalin) and it's awesome.

Whoa, I'm in the opposite boat. I tried Adderall, wasn't sure it was effective enough and switched to Concerta. So, I've now been torturing myself for weeks, crying in frustration over how badly I'm focusing at work despite being medicated for this exact thing, and JUST realized yesterday that...oh, it's because the Concerta just isn't working. This is what I was like before. Oh. I'm spending all this time beating myself up over something I already knew? Guh.

So, this is my roundabout way of telling you, anonymous, that it may be worth looking into therapy, and yeah, you sure do sound like ADD. (And that meds won't make you a different person, which was somewhat of a concern of mine.) You don't have to try meds if you don't want to though, you can still meet with a therapist to talk about techniques to help you focus. Hey, even if you are resistant to identifying with a diagnosis (I was for a long time), you can call it a "focus problem" and get yourself some help.
posted by desuetude at 7:12 PM on September 21, 2010

welcome to the human condition :(

we tend to avoid things that are hard, boring, or not-fun. we tend to prefer the instant gratification of internet-surfing now rather than the deferred reward of a better career down the line. spirit is willing, flesh is weak, etc.

you can call this apathy or a lack of self-control-- you can call it a personal failing and feel guilty-- you can medicalize it and call it ADD or ADHD (which is only a diagnosable "disease" because our capitalist society regards high productivity, an ability to concentrate on repetitive and artificial tasks, and responsiveness to financial incentives as normative and the opposite as deviant or at least undesirable). in the end, we all just fall somewhere on a spectrum of a variable capacity for unnatural discipline and self-denial-- and you and I are perhaps somewhere below the median.

humans look at their never-ending labor with gloominess and cry out, 'what did I do to deserve this?' and someone came up with that expulsion from the garden of eden story. once upon a time we humans didn't have to work, but then we did something bad and that's why we're consigned to hard labor. the big book of myths calls it a "curse" for a reason.

so, OP: I have no answers for you, I just want to tell you that you're obviously not alone-- just look at how many favorites your post has gotten. but this is an intractable problem for me too, and there's no magic solution.
posted by ms.codex at 10:34 PM on September 21, 2010 [9 favorites]

Forget these armchair diagnoses, you already know what the problem is: you have bad habits. They will be difficult to break. Just as people can't start a diet/exercise routine by saying, "Tomorrow, I will only eat salad and also will work out 3 hours a day", you're not going to magically change your bad habits all at once.

My suggestions:
- Stop rewarding yourself before you get work done. Don't start the day by surfing the web. Mucking around on news sites just reinforces that you're not in work mode and will cause you to lose time.
- If you use Outlook, disable the little "flashy/fade" notification that pops up whenever you get an email. Set particular times to check and process email instead.
- You say you have 4-5 things that "absolutely must get done today": are you sure you've broken them down into actionable steps? Are your items things like "Determine strategy for next fiscal year" or are they more manageable ("Create outline for strategic plan; schedule meeting")?

It sounds like you don't have a bigger picture of your work and thus don't know what you should be working on. (I can think of about twenty things that I should work on. There are four or five things that absolutely MUST get done today.) If you have 20 things you should work on, 4-5 that have to go out today, I'm thinking you don't have an overall plan for what you need to do for your job.

Good luck, I understand feeling overwhelmed and under-motivated.
posted by sfkiddo at 11:02 PM on September 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Yes, welcome to life.

It seems like people often ask, after you say that you have problems concentrating on work, whether you also have trouble concentrating on things that really matter to you - school, literature, learning a new language, playing an instrument, etc. If you do have trouble focusing on these things - these things you supposedly enjoy - then you must have ADD. (sorry for the generalization)

The problem with this is that the human mind is incredibly good at finding ways to screw with you. You loved going on a run with your friend that one time? Great! Maybe you should really get into running, maybe three or four times a week, and blog about it and track your progress. See how already the idea of running has become anything but fun? As soon as I tell myself that I need to practice guitar more often, as soon as I make it into WORK, then I've lost all willpower. But I can play guitar for hours if I don't think about it, or if I'm avoiding something else (like going running). Maybe this isn't your problem, but what you wrote sounds very familiar to me.

Once something is work, I get anxious about it (perfectionist here). I took Adderall for a while, not because I have ADD (I clearly don't), but because it was a sort of courage pill. Instead of immediately turning away from things that terrified me, I could look at them long enough to see that they weren't overwhelming. Even if I didn't end up finishing, if I couldn't cross them off my list, I was in a much better position for just having started and engaged them instead of mentally avoiding them all day. It was a way of overcoming my terrible inertia, and of actually doing things instead of thinking about doing things and making lists about doing things.

I don't really have any advice, but I know what it's like to feel that overwhelmed. Getting diagnosed with ADD would certainly make it easier for you (pretty much everyone feels better on amphetamines), but it won't permanently change your habits. It's still hard for me, but when I realized that my procrastination was largely anxiety and fear, I started playing a different script in my head, sort of emulating what adderall did to me. Instead of thinking that I needed coffee to make it through the day, and sort of doing the minimum amount every hour (I always notice every hour with office jobs) - I just constantly told myself I was a badass. It didn't matter if I had had coffee, or how little I had slept, or that I had a headache - because I was a badass. I wasn't less than the task, I wasn't even equal to the task - I was a million times better than whatever I was being asked to do. I would come into work with so much more energy (also sunglasses). Instead of dreading any extra task, I would totally rock that shit - because I was a badass. I didn't even care if it got done or not (usually it did, once I forgot I was doing it).

I realize this script sounds ridiculous. I have, however, been much more relaxed since I adopted the badass approach, and I actually do what I like doing instead of wanting to do what I like doing.
posted by ke rose ne at 12:21 AM on September 22, 2010 [30 favorites]

You have two problems. The first is that you don't get much work done. The second is that you feel bad about that.

I don't know why you don't get much work done. It might be you don't like your job, you have ADHD, you haven't developed good work habits, whatever.

But I'm willing to bet that the fact that you feel bad about not getting much work done massively compounds your problem, in all kinds of ways, at many levels, in the split-second decision-making timeframe when you Alt+Tab, in the long-term general-worrying timeframe when you ruin your evenings and weekends by worrying about it, and so on and so forth.

You have to be dispassionate about this, about problem #1 (not getting much work done). You have to recognize that you have this problem and that the solutions you have tried so far haven't worked.

What you should NOT do is beat yourself up about it, or say, “maybe if I try what I've been doing, but with an extra dose of magic willpower this time...” The definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting different results, etc.

I'm not saying you're doing this. You're not. You're asking for ways to solve problem #1, and you've been given suggestions, and that's all well and good. And maybe one will work out and you'll have no problem and that will be the end of the story.

What I'm afraid of though, from reading what you've written, including the “failure” tag, is that maybe you'll try one of these potential solutions, and maybe it'll work a bit, maybe for say the first three days, or the first week, but then maybe on the Wednesday of the second week it won't work so well, you'll relapse, and at that point you'll spiral back into this “oh fuck I'm such a failure” black hole.... because that will very likely happen, with any solution.

But then the crux is, how to deal with that. How to deal with failure. What I'm afraid of is that you'll let that bit of failure drag you back down into being too demoralized to get back up and try again, accepting that maybe you lost most of the second Wednesday, but not losing sight of the fact that it worked pretty well for a week and a half, and so actually it's probably a pretty good solution, and you're in a net positive position, even if you're temporarily in a slump that looks like you're back where you started. Or, if it's not working out, eventually, after giving it a shot, giving up on that path and pursuing another.

I'm afraid that you won't be able to see it like that, because your (very normal) hypertrophied sense of self-valuation will obscure a rational evaluation of how well the solution is working.

Key to being able to deal with an approach to this problem-solving like this—that is, calm trial-and-error—is having the sense that there are a variety of possible solutions out there, and one is not inherently better than another, and you'll just non-judgmentally try them each out in turn until you find one that works for you. By non-judgmentally, I mean, for example, not having hang-ups about what going on medication “says about you as a person,” or, at a different end of the cultural spectrum, not feeling embarrassed if the only thing that works for you is some weird voodoo ritual, or feng shui arrangement, or some specific diet or something. If you do have problems with any of these, for instance you don't want to be on medication for the sake of some image you have of yourself, or because you tried a particular kind of pill and it gives you side effects; or on the other hand if you don't feel comfortable say, wearing horse blinders at the office—don't feel bad about about these complications, just weight the pros and cons and decide what to do based on what you value most and how important it is to you to solve this problem.

When you're allowed to start feeling panicky and terrible is when you've exhausted every option and none of them seem to work. But until then, just don't feel bad about it, because that doesn't help anything.

Just treat this problem you have, not being able to get a lot of work done, like you'd treat a lost wallet. Kick yourself for a second, sure, but after that, feeling bad about it isn't helping, and wishing you hadn't lost it isn't helping. Just accept it, and go about your business sending in your applications for a new drivers license etc, accepting that you won't be operating at full capacity for a while. Don't go around to restaurants trying to pay with credit cards you don't have and then feeling embarrassed when your pocket is empty. Go get some new credit cards. Go find a solution to your problem. And don't kick yourself that you have it in the meantime.

I realize I may be exaggerating the extent to which you have problem #2. You actually don't reek of it the way I, for example, have reeked of it in the past. I just say this because, in my experience, the metacognitive aspects (beating oneself up about it etc) of any given problem are on average 10x worse, more damaging, more constrictive—in short, more of a problem—than the problem itself, and that holds for very practical and material problems, not just psychological ones. If this isn't a big problem of yours, hopefully this will help others for whom this might be a more serious problem.

In any case, good luck.
posted by skwt at 4:36 AM on September 22, 2010 [8 favorites]

Yeah, ocherdraco, I get that for many people it's a necessary first step. Didn't mean to imply otherwise.
posted by hought20 at 5:54 AM on September 22, 2010

No prob, hought20—I didn't think you did, but wanted to make sure it was clear for the asker.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:36 AM on September 22, 2010

I think the popularity of this post suggests that this is not just a problem for people that have ADHD. I have the same problem myself. I suspect the answer is that if I work during the day I can leave work at night and on the weekends and maybe have a chance at having a life again.
posted by xammerboy at 8:24 AM on September 22, 2010

Another thing: check out the Mood Cure, which recommends nutritional strategies that include supplementation with certain amino acids. I find a phenomenal difference in my motivation when I take l-tyrosine and I learned about from that book. Try fish oil, too. Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist.
posted by Wordwoman at 3:19 PM on September 22, 2010

(that is, learned about *it* from that book)
posted by Wordwoman at 3:22 PM on September 22, 2010

I'm the worst for this.

I don't have ADD.

We just don't like sitting in one place trying to do one type of thing for 8 hours a day.

The timer technique mentioned above is what I ended up doing, and it has gotten me through school and work for years now - really effectively. My version, I set a timer (or "egg timer" online for soundless at work) for 1 hr then break for 15 (at work) or 30 (at home). You'll get a lot done, and it is easy to stay on track for 1 hr if you know that a break is coming soon.
posted by Acer_saccharum at 4:34 PM on September 26, 2010

You're probably working in the wrong environment or in the wrong type of work structure for the way that you function. I would suggest finding alternatives means of doing what you do - not everyone has to do the same thing in exactly the same way.
posted by mleigh at 4:40 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

You sound just like me. I can completely relate to your saying "this sounds stupid and the solution seems simple, but this is how it is". If you're still struggling with this and you want to talk to someone directly, feel free to message me.

I don't have AD(H)D (I saw more than one therapist) and have developed lots of coping mechanisms over the years. I have at times been VERY effective, and then sometimes wasted months. I'll give a bit of a braindump, skipping some suggestions mentioned above.

But first and above all, I'd like to second @freya_lamb's suggestions: (a) what you do for the first hour at work sets the tone for the day and it's *crucial* not to start by reading email or reading news, and (b) at the end of each day, leave something easy to start on the next morning. Write it down so you'll know what it is.

I know you're having trouble with exactly the getting-down-to-work part, so the above may sound like useless advice. In my experience, it is not; it is the first habit to foster. YOU CAN DO THIS.

You may say, "But I stop working and start doing something else without a conscious decision. Before I even know it I'm on some procrastination thing." Yes, I'm familiar with that. It gets better with practice. Practicing a bit of insight meditation may help--part of the meditation routine is to notice when you're drifting off into verbal thought, acknowledge that, and come back to your focus. It's a similar challenge. It's also easier to stay focused if you set the stage, be very intentional about sitting down, setting a timer, setting up music (see below), turning off email, etc.

I'll Nth the pomodoro technique. When you start it, pick a time length that is short enough that it does not make you feel anxious. It should feel like it'll be easy. Lengthen it as you have some success.

It's worth going in early if you can, before most others get there, so you can work for a bit without distractions. Don't start your day with meetings if you can help it. (Group meetings, anyway. I did find one-on-one meetings with my manager or a teammate could be great motivation.)

It helps to break things down into smaller steps. When you're stuck, ask yourself, "what is one small thing I could do right now to make progress?" Then do it.

You might create a flow chart for yourself: STUCK? --(yes)--> Do you know what you need to accomplish next? --(yes)--> Do you know what the next step is? --(yes)--> Is it a small, simple step that you completely know how to accomplish? --(yes)--> Do it. (The (no) branches lead to "clarify for yourself", and then loop back.)

If you can listen to music at work (e.g. with headphones) and you know music that's good to work to, pick a specific batch of tracks as your "get to work" soundtrack. Each time you seriously sit down to work (especially at the start of the day), play the same music. I prefer somewhat dull techno with a good beat. I find that having the headphones on reinforces the "work posture".

Keep a notebook (or Notepad document) handy. When you feel the urge of a "oh, I meant to research XYZ" type distraction task, write it down. Now you won't forget it, and you don't have to do it right away. Stick with work.

If you're someone who responds to rewards, use treats or breaks as rewards for focused time or for tasks completed.

Keep pictures of people who you admire. I prefer people I personally know, who I would like to emulate. You could also keep pictures of products you admire that you'd like to have created.

I don't know if it's worth setting up an online support group for this (Google Group and/or wiki?), but I'd be game to start something if others are interested, especially to try to boil down what has worked for different people. (ADD path; anxiety amelioriation path; change-your-habits path; etc.)
posted by myotheraccount at 9:00 AM on February 15, 2011

Caught this question while surfing the money/work pages, so my 2 cents are coming in a bit late. Agree with this:

We just don't like sitting in one place trying to do one type of thing for 8 hours a day.

Through most of our evolutionary history, we've spent our days in short bursts of action followed by longer periods of messing around - physically hustling to get by, or grooming ourselves, or telling stories, or fighting. Cubicle life hurts because it counters our biological legacies. Not to undermine anyone's personal struggles, but I think ADHD is the pain of mismatch between our groovy bodies and capital's ghostly systems. Add 2/3.0 distractions (or, desperate fugues into interest) into the mix, and forget about it.

It's true that some people have a lower optimal threshold for physical arousal, or have more readily adjusted to their culture's (or class') taming of their bodies, for any number of reasons. They're probably at the easternmost point of the bell curve. Most of us, I think, aren't so configured. And to be honest, it saddens me that we're called to chemically modify our brains to keep ourselves in food and shelter.

My brother has an ADHD diagnosis. Before becoming an entrepreneur, he had 10 jobs in as many years. But his new mission's sufficiently engaged him to get him to endure admin, accounting, all the bad As that dogged him most of his adult life. He's been happy with it for four years - with a few hiccups, it's true, but he's managing them. Apart from his high motivation, he also has comparative autonomy - he decides when he gets to go for a wee, have a meeting, whatever, and greater control over the people he works with. It's amazing to hear him say, as he often does, even in difficult times, 'I love my job'.

I could probably get a diagnosis if I pursued it. Right now, though, I feel like Decani does. Been unemployed eight months, after the charity I worked for lost its funding. Never felt lighter than the day I cleared my desk. I have tried - hard - to find work in line with my experience, but these days am finding myself squirming at even the job descriptions. So I'm going to listen to that. Working out my cause, then, and minimizing needs in the meantime.

(Not meaning to be offensive to those who have gone the medication route. And I'm 'unencumbered' by a mortgage, husband, or children, so can take the risks I want.)
posted by nelljie at 11:20 PM on March 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

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