What's My Motivation?
August 8, 2011 7:29 AM   Subscribe

I used to be an adult. I have lost my motivation. It must be around here somewhere.

I am reasonably happy and satisfied when I am being an adult as defined by this cartoon. I used to excel at it. I don't any more.

I had an incident involving emotional trauma, overwork, and burnout a couple years ago, but I'm bored with trauma and burnout now. I just want to stick to my schedule and get things done and seize the day and all that crap.

Forget new year's resolutions, I make new hour's resolutions and I break them all. This morning I dreamed I kept oversleeping and frittering my time away and wasting my life, and then I woke up and found I had overslept. Then I dicked around drinking coffee until I was well and truly behind schedule.

The thing is, I'm burnt out on ways to trick myself into getting stuff done. All that crap about rewarding yourself when you accomplish something and punishing yourself when you don't... those are just more actions I have to do, and I don't do them.

I used to be so kick-ass about getting stuff done that I read Getting Things Done and tossed it aside with a sneer. To this day, I understand the principles of productivity and efficiency so well that virtually nothing I read can tell me anything I don't already know and haven't already done.

The problem is actually doing it. I have ADHD, meaning that I need 100% motivation to force myself through tasks that others can do with only 55% motivation. But I have tons of medication and ideal working and living conditions. I just don't want to display the frenzied levels of self-discipline that I used to.

It's not even that I don't know what's in it for me. I feel very uncomfortable procrastinating like this. I think I would feel more comfortable doing stuff like I used to. I just can't find it within me any more. I do not want to force myself through any activities. Even ones I love.

I'm not in trouble or anything. My job performance is great and I've been waved through all reviews with no negative feedback and my performance classed as "completely satisfactory or better". Outside of work I've done some pretty cool stuff if I say it myself: I didn't exactly realize my childhood ambitions to become an astronaut and a ballerina this year, but it was as satisfying to me as if I had.

It's on a daily and hourly basis that the feet dragging is getting me down. Oh I should practise the piano uuuuuurgh I'll do it tomorrow (I really only get the chance once a week). I really need to get up at 6:00 but I usually have too much work to do to get to bed before 1:00 and the knock-on effect ruins the whole week and next week is going to be better but it never is. I can only really exercise first thing in the morning, which is impossible if I don't get up early enough. I signed up with OKCupid to apply myself to the arduous task of finally getting a boyfriend, and I forced myself through a couple of dates with some dreary, incompatible guys, and I know I should bite the bullet and date a few hundred more dreary, incompatible guys, but I just can't seem to force myself through it all just on the off-chance.

What can I do when all else has failed and my get up and go has got up and gone?
posted by tel3path to Health & Fitness (43 answers total) 106 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, therapy is the only thing that has helped me at times like this.
posted by corey flood at 7:38 AM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

It might help to add a social aspect to things like exercise. Join a local running group, or a co-ed "for fun" soccer league. Whereas you might not wake up to run by yourself, you'll do it when you know that your pals are waiting for you.
And when the other team's goalie accidentally kicks the ball in your face and he's tending to you and your bleeding nose, ask him out. See? It also works as a part of your "getting a boyfriend" strategy.
posted by beau jackson at 7:40 AM on August 8, 2011

I'm not in trouble or anything. My job performance is great and I've been waved through all reviews with no negative feedback and my performance classed as "completely satisfactory or better".

So... what exactly is the problem? Is it maybe that you feel like you "should" be doing things you don't always feel like doing? Why not let yourself off of the hook and decide to stop beating yourself up? Trust that you will keep your head above water and you don't need to be superwoman to be worthy of existence.

I have been through this a zillion times. I got exhausted with it too. I too went through an incident involving emotional trauma, overwork and burnout. I am grateful for it, actually, because it means I just can't get back to the place that got me there in the first place anymore. I absolutely must lead a balanced life no matter what.

Here's what helps me when I go through a phase like the one you describe:

List out everything you think you "should" be doing. EVERYTHING. From "holding my job down" to "making dinner x times a week" to "pursuing my creative endeavors" - whatever it is.

Then pick TWO. I mean it, pick TWO. You'll think that's insane - because you probably have 18 things on your list or more. TWO. Like "hold down job" and "go to the gym". Then, allow yourself to do any of the things on your list of 18 things in your downtime (because, by jove, for once, you will have downtime!). The remaining 16 things are "shoulds" that you don't need to do all of the time. You are allowed to attack them when you want to. You are not a lazy person. You are a good and productive person who is putting too much pressure on yourself.
posted by pazazygeek at 7:41 AM on August 8, 2011 [25 favorites]

Maybe just...waiting it out.

I recognize myself in this a lot lately -- I am in the middle of a phase like this, and a couple times actually feared I may have depression of some sort. But every time I thought I might, I realized that a) this was something that only came up now, rather than something that'd always been there, and b) there were things that I actively planned for, looked forward to, and enjoyed, and I'd heard that if you're depressed that doesn't happen.

Then I read an online essay about the difference between being proactive and reactive. The bit that caught my eye was about what it meant if you had been proactive for a long time, but were going through a re-active phase. The essay said that kind of shift may be a sign that you just need a break -- you've been active and energetic up to this point, and the energy just ran out a little. And if you try to push through on low energy, it'll just make things worse. "You need a break," the article said. "So take it."

It's been helping a lot, actually. Kicking myself for not being more active or fretting about what was wrong with me took up some mental energy, and when I let up on that, that also let me finally see that my physical energy was also drained becuase I was gonig through something like a solid year of insomnia. So rather than treating myself as a screwup, I'm treating myself like someone who was worn out and needs to really recharge before I get back into the game again.

It sounds like you're in a similar state -- you've been pushing yourself, which is great, but you pushed yourself a little too far and maybe you just need to take a break. So take it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:49 AM on August 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

I just want to stick to my schedule and get things done and seize the day and all that crap.

I logged into MetaFilter today to ask about the same motivation issues you're dealing with (so: thank you!). Honestly, the only the only thing that's working for me now is making a to do list that includes everything, including a handful of easier tasks like "get to work on time." Being able to cross something off is mighty satisfying and is usually enough encouragement to move onto the next task (like "mail mefi mix cds, even though you're a week past the deadline"....errrr....).

I have heard around these parts about marking a calendar with a gold star every day you do a certain thing and using a line of gold stars as motivation to keep doing that thing, because you don't want to break the chain. That always sounds like an amazing plan, if I could ever get around to finding a calendar.
posted by troika at 7:53 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's OK to lie fallow every now and then. If you're doing your job, paying your bills and getting some sleep, the fact that you are not also going to the gym, practising scales and dating anyone who asks is totally OK. Part of being a motherfucking grownup is that you don't have to do things you don't want to do when you do not actually have to do them.

Are you doing things that are not required but that you want to do? The benchmark of depression for me is inability to motivate myself to do things I actually want to do, as distinct from the things I feel like I should want to do.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:55 AM on August 8, 2011 [11 favorites]

Hi self. It's been a rough summer.

Go spend some time in nature. Find a little park near your house, or stick a chair in the beach sand, or watch birds at the feeder in your yard, or play in a garden. Something.

Take a nice long bath if that's your thing.

Grab a trashy magazine like Cosmo or a tabloid. Only read the parts that catch your eye.

Write a few postcards to friends you haven't seen in a while.

Go buy a trashy pair of panties today. Wear them tomorrow.

What I'm saying is, populate your to-do list for now with stuff that is utterly and clearly for you. Let go of the things you should be doing for a minute and just focus on doing things. Fill your days with the "rewards" for a week or so and get into the groove of loving what you're doing. Get into the groove of being you.

Going to the bank and picking up groceries and cleaning all the things can wait. Nobody says on their deathbed, "I wish I had spent another evening at the office" or whatever that quote is. Find a puppy, or poke an anthill with a stick, or sit still through an entire cheesy movie without getting up except maybe to make more popcorn. Commit to you.
posted by bilabial at 7:59 AM on August 8, 2011 [12 favorites]

To the people suggesting todo lists: do you really find these a stress reliever, or do they add to your stress?
posted by devnull at 8:06 AM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

It might help to do some fine-tuning with your medication.
posted by elizardbits at 8:08 AM on August 8, 2011

*points at bilabial and nods*

Adding the caveat, though, that some indulgences aren't that great in excess. I found it was too easy to let "channel-surfing on TV" or "websurfing" be the indulgent things I did, and I didn't like just how MUCH time I was doing that. Then I realized that the things I was giving myself to do instead of channelsurfing were all productive things -- and honestly, when you're choosing between "going to the bank like an adult" and "farting around watching a marathon of Top Gear on the BBC channel", then TV is going to win because who wants to go to the bank?

So the trick was to give myself other things to do that were also fun. And when the choice is between "watching Top Gear" and "chillin' by the pond in Prospect Park with a cool book" then...it's harder to stay inside with the TV.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:09 AM on August 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

It might help to do some fine-tuning with your medication.

Yeah, my husband has ADHD and he has medication for it, but he's had to play with the type and the dose to find something that's right for him. You do build up a tolerance.

Also, it's not clear if you're not doing things you SHOULD do, or not doing things you WANT to do. mr. desjardins has no problem motivating himself to do things he WANTS to do, but taking out the garbage can be a major ordeal. With him, it works to have a reward system - if he does X, Y, and Z, then we have the rest of the afternoon to .... whatever. When you were "an adult," were you partnered at the time? If you're single, do you have a friend to whom you can be accountable? Find someone to run with in the mornings. Host a book club at your house, so you're forced to clean.
posted by desjardins at 8:22 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

The reason I don't do more socializing or find more people to do stuff with is because I have to factor 4 hours of commuting into every day. I constantly have very severe headaches from not being able to get enough sleep every time my schedule is even slightly disrupted - which it invariably is. The other week there were no trains when I was trying to get home after midnight, and no announcements, and no hotels in the entire city (because of major sporting events going on), and so I felt I had no choice but to destroy my budget and spend 20% of my month's income on a taxi home. This is the kind of incident that is constantly gumming me up. I earn very little money and have very little time so there's almost no margin for error, and yet errors just keep on happening.

Also, I have no problem with daily cleaning per se, but I live in the family home with a family that has traditionally preferred to let daily chores build up into a monumental task. After a quarter century or so, you reach a point where stuff no longer responds to cleaning and it would take a professional cleaning team to (say) scrub years of limescale off the taps and mold off the tiles. Even though by adding a system of small daily tasks I've finally managed to make progress instead of just taking one pile of dirt and moving it somewhere else, it's still pretty disheartening. Even though we have a dishwasher there are always dishes strewn all over the kitchen because I did ask for cooperation and a shared commitment to spend the 4 minutes unloading and reloading the dishwasher rather than leaving stuff lying around, but it turns out we're only allowed to do that between 9am and 6pm on a weekday and then only if there's nothing else we'd rather do, so the stove is covered in puddles of grease and porridge pans with wooden spoons lying around. Since my mother often forgets to turn off the burners, I have asked nicely that we not leave wooden things and paper towels strewn all over the top of the stove, but if I ask too often I get a bad reaction and she feels chastised by me, so I try to only ask one in every 10 times it happens.

...so I guess constantly having to work around obstacles like this is a big part of what's draining my energy. I keep thinking that if I could devise a more robust system everything would work better.
posted by tel3path at 8:36 AM on August 8, 2011

Meditation and minfulness have enabled me
posted by zia at 8:37 AM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

...whereas on the other hand, my mother did just come back from downtown where she picked up my Teach Yourself Lithuanian book from the library, saving me a journey.

I used to teach myself languages on the train, but it's hard to force myself through that now. This is a prime example of the clash between "want" and "feel like" because there is a certain amount of drudgery sometimes even in doing the stuff I love to do. My problem is that I am lately ending up doing neither what I want nor what I like.

[1] and to be fair, she's only left the stove burner on once in the past 12 months, so she's much better at it nowadays
posted by tel3path at 8:45 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is there any way you could not have four hours of commuting per day? That would help a lot. Commuting is one of the most stressful parts of the day for most of us.

To the people suggesting todo lists: do you really find these a stress reliever, or do they add to your stress?

I find them to be a stress reliever, but YMMV. I think it depends on how you look at it. I almost never complete all the tasks on my to-do lists, and when I do, it always takes far longer than the original time I had allotted. But it focuses my attention. One of my big fears, when being unproductive, is that I am going to procrastinate my way into forgetting about something. The to-do list solves this - even if you're not compulsively crossing off items, you can always go back to it. I find that comforting.
posted by breakin' the law at 8:47 AM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is there any way you could not have four hours of commuting per day? That would help a lot. Commuting is one of the most stressful parts of the day for most of us.

Srsly. If you live with your family, it sounds like you might be in an ideal place to quit and find a better job or find a better job and quit, depending on your level of patience. A low paying job that takes four additional hours of your day doesn't seem worth it, unless there's some other benefit to it you didn't mention. Heck, unless your family depends on you financially, you might put yourself to better use helping out around the house, at least temporarily.
posted by Jess the Mess at 8:59 AM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

The alternative to commuting is spending 45% of my income renting a room in a shared house, which would bring a whole nother set of stresses. It might also undermine my tenancy rights to the family home if my mother ever needed residential care.

By contrast, commuting only costs 25% of my income at this time, and (if I get a seat) includes 35 minutes of sitting-down time that I can use for language learning, which is surprisingly hard to fit in when my job doesn't require me to take a train.

I guess everybody's life is a Heath Robinson machine of trade-offs.
posted by tel3path at 9:00 AM on August 8, 2011

I work in academia, which provides financial benefits and opportunities I couldn't get elsewhere. The alternative would be struggling to find a slightly better (or possibly worse) paying job working for David Brent at Taylor Mifflin, and facing destitution in retirement because I couldn't sock away a big enough private pension. My job is actually not the problem, for a change; it's the best job I've ever had. Also my boss is not an axe-murdering psycho. That I know of. So far.
posted by tel3path at 9:13 AM on August 8, 2011

Well, hell, hon, that's the reason why you've slowed down -- you've got a hell of a lot on your plate, you've been doing a hell of a lot to cope, and your "Coping With Shit" well has run dry. (Okay, yeah, your Mom picked up your Lithuanian book for you, but seriously, if you're doing the bulk of the housework after 4 hours of commuting because the rest of the family can't be arsed, it's a wonder you've withstood it this long.)

Rather than asking yourself "what happened to my motivation" I would be asking myself "why didn't I collapse SOONER". You've been doing more than your share for a long time and that can fry out anyone's motivation.

Reiterating my advice that "you need a break, and that's all that's happening," and urging you to explore whether there are any changes you could make. You say that living closer would be more expensive -- but when was the last time you examined that? What about a place that was only halfway between you and work (so you still had a commute, but it was 2 hours instead of 4)?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:35 AM on August 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry to keep threadsitting like this, but I most certainly am not doing the bulk of the housework - by no means. I do not want to disrespect my mother by giving that impression. Just trying to reengineer for progress, with some success.
posted by tel3path at 9:40 AM on August 8, 2011

I'm sorry but a 2-hour commute each way leaves even the most organised human virtually no energy or space for anything else. If you want to fix this, you need to fix that. 45% of takehome is crazy but it's London/NYC normal. At my most broke, £500 a month was a worthy price for sanity.

I'm sorry, but what you are attempting to do is not sustainable. Worry less about the pension and more about the priorities of your mental health.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:41 AM on August 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Life clutter and undone items on a to-do list (written or mental) are like water level in a pool. Knee-high, waist-high, and chest high are basically no different from each other, and can all be safely ignored. When the water gets to nose-high, you panic and get overwhelmed by the immensity of it all. There are just too many items. You shut down. You rationalize that since you can't do it all you might as well do nothing. That's often what procrastination is.
But you only need to focus on and complete one item to make the panic go away. One less item lowers the level to chin-high and you become better able to attack another one.
So pick one item. Select a part of the house to clean and work to keep it clean. Or pick one personal improvement goal to focus on...to wake up earlier and get out the door fifteen minutes earlier than you do now. Keep it up for three weeks and it becomes a habit.
Remember, when you're drowning you don't have to drain the whole pool.
posted by rocket88 at 9:46 AM on August 8, 2011 [9 favorites]

tel3path, I get that you don't want to speak ill of your family, but you are indeed doing somewhat more about upkeep than they are. I'm not saying this is bad, or that it's anyone's fault, but -- if the rest of the family has the tendancy to put things off until they become a huge hassle and you don't, then you're just plain doing more than they are. At the very least, you're thinking about it more than they are (you said that you've had to ask everyone not to leave greasy spoons on the stove -- yeah, they're improving, but you're the one that was thinking about it in the first place).

Again, this isn't anyone's fault, and I'm not saying your family is bad people. I'm just pointing out that this is something that is draining your energy. Maybe you just have different housekeeping styles -- moving out on your own would alleviate that, even just because then you wouldn't have to remind anyone to clean the grease spots any more because there wouldn't be any because you wouldn't do that. And that would also kind of firmly make their grease spots THEIR problem instead of yours, which would also help you reclaim some of that energy.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:49 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I started reading this thinking, "oh it'll be yet another oh so sorry for themselves mefite just like me who just isn't prepared to put the actual effort into getting on with things and is feeling sorry for themselves as a consequence" then I got to the bit where you were up til 1am most nights & blaming yourself for not getting up at 6am to "do stuff". At this point I was all, "woah, this girl is setting herself some pretty high standards".

*Then* I got to the bit in the comments where you admitted that you had a four hour commute every day, got migraines from the stress every time your schedule was disrupted & you were living in (near) squalor because your family weren't interested in cleaning the house to anything like a decent standard.

Please, take a step back and look at yourself: I'm exhausted after just reading it! You're putting yourself under a huge amount of pressure, with almost no downtime. Very few people can cope with that and not eventually break down under the stress.

If you want to get your motivation back, let yourself be a human being. Don't try and do so much; get more sleep so that you can enjoy the fewer things you do choose to do more. Move into that expensive room in a shared house near work & spend all that extra time meeting interesting people who want to do interesting stuff with you. Don't spend time desperately trying to "do" as much as possible in the mistaken belief that it'll make you a better person somehow, because it won't.
posted by pharm at 10:21 AM on August 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yes, life is tradeoffs. That's the fundamental thing about adulthood. Your standard of what you're going to be able to achieve here is something that no human being I know could actually manage. Look at it when it's a list:

Say 30 minutes a day of housework, which clearly might be a lowball estimate if the rest of your household isn't helpful.
4 hours commuting.
30 minutes exercise. (Hopefully you're just doing cardio, or building some walking in elsewhere, if we want an ideal fitness plan.)
30 minutes piano.
30 minutes language learning, possibly part of commute but not always.
Presumably 8 hours a day of work, hopefully no more.
8 hours a night sleeping.
We'll say around 30 minutes of showering/getting ready in the morning.
And around 20 minutes to prepare/eat each meal.

Okay. Do you know how much time this adds up to? 23.5 hours, if you don't get a seat on the train. Does every other thing that could possibly be on this list fit into the remaining half hour--every errand, social interaction, entertainment that you'd like to fit in?

The math doesn't work. The things you want to do with your day add up to more day than you have. You have to make some choices. If you cut down the commute, you might have less money but you'll be able to exercise, be less stressed by your family, and have more time. But that's only one potential option here. Don't feel like you have to make any particular cut from your expectations, but you clearly need to cut *something*. There is, sadly, a reason that most adults don't speak foreign languages or play the piano. You are not a failure for not achieving the superhuman.
posted by gracedissolved at 10:25 AM on August 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

You are expecting the impossible of yourself. I am not sure what additional stresses you anticipate from spending 45% of your income on a place with roommates, but that sounds so much better than everything you're dealing with now. You say you earn very little money and have very little time, so why not continue to earn very little money but give yourself more time? Personal freedom is very valuable as long as you can afford food and a safe place to live, and it's something you aren't allowing yourself to experience. No wonder you feel the way you do. It's not going to get any better as long as you're in that situation.
posted by wondermouse at 10:53 AM on August 8, 2011

Well as a noise-sensitive Aspie, I'm not sure adding 5 or 6 strangers and all their friends to my living situation is going to decrease the level of conflict I experience or increase the level of control I feel. At least one of the 5 or 6 roommates is bound be very noisy and will have a habit of yelling into the phone right outside my door at midnight, because that's what people are like; and how do I know that they'll be any less likely to pour grease over stuff than my mother? I am just not sure that living with a bunch of students half my age is really going to be an improvement.

Besides which, my contract runs out in November, which means another 6 or 7 month stretch of unemployment, and another several thousand pounds poured into the next job search, unless I can line something up before then. Signing up to a lease now just doesn't seem like a great idea.
posted by tel3path at 11:14 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Let's get back to the question at hand. Your original question seemed to me to be that: you wanted to know where your "motivation" went. I took that to mean, where did the energy you had go that you used to use for other things.

And the answer is: you have an unusually complicated lifestyle, because you live at home with a family that has different cleaning standards from you, and you have a 4-hour commute to and from work every day. You have a finite amount of energy, and you used to have some energy in reserve. The amount of energy it takes to sustain your lifestyle exceeds the amount of energy you had available to you.

So that's where your motivation went -- you're tired, and justifiably so. You may be unable to make great changes to your lifestyle right now, but if that's the case, understand that your "motivation" will be absent as a result.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:32 AM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wait, on top of everything else, your contract runs out in three months and you expect to have a long stretch of unemployment afterwards?

I can tell you right now that in your shoes I would have no motivation to practice an instrument or learn new languages, even without your schedule. Whatever time and effort I had would be focused on preparing for/dreading/working out scenarios for the what-ifs of November. Not that all of that would be healthy, in my case, but I sure wouldn't be asking why I wasn't sufficiently motivated to clean the house every day.

On the plus side, that could give you some possibilities for fixing your insane schedule/commute in the near future, perhaps? Seems you might focus your efforts there. You can read GTD-type solutions all you want, but it's important to draw the distinction between when you're being inefficient for no particular reason, and when your inability to handle everything on your plate is because you're overwhelmed by a situation that isn't tenable for the long term. The majority of this thread thinks you're in the latter, in which case, your focus shouldn't be on Doing ALL The Things - it should be on triage.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:38 AM on August 8, 2011

I like the fact that you're sitting on this thread. Conversation can really get you out of your head, particularly for the obstacles you are stuck on. I'm just going to toss in some more abstract thinking.

If you wait to become motivated before starting, nothing will happen. Things get done when you do them regardless how you feel about it.

You are waiting for how you feel to change before changing your behavior. This is poison to you right now. You are prejudging the outcomes of your actions before you begin. This is poison to you right now. You are embracing the pathos of your immobilization and reinforcing its strength. This is poison to you right now. All of these things are fruitlessly taking up your time. You don't need to change your insides before your outsides. Shifting your attention away from these poisons is going to help you embrace the fact that if you are going to change you will take the action whether you want to or not.

There's one method of change that has four basic phases: Observe-Interrupt-Replace-Repeat. This is a slow but sure way to change a habit. Start off by noticing that you are doing something you no longer want to do. Now observe yourself doing it. You are becoming mindful of the point at which change is possible. Don't expect to change yet. Just spend time observing it. Soon you become familiar enough with it to actually stop yourself from doing it. Interrupt yourself long enough to become mindful of the point of alternative action. This tiny moment in time where you have paused is the opportunity to take a different action than the habitual one. Soon, stopping like that becomes automatic, and you have the opportunity to take a different action; to replace one behavior with another. With patience and practice, this too will become automatic (with intense emphasis on patience and practice). Patience with yourself repeating this again and again, going through the process of growing new neural connections that make this painful change into a new habit.

Example: eating junk food.
Observe: Wow, look at me. I just grabbed a bag of potato chips. I'm opening it. Huh-- how about that. I'm reaching in the bag; I'm stuffing them in my face. I'm chewing and swallowing. Wow look at that. I see how I picked up the bag and opened it and grabbed the chips and put them in my mouth. Something else is possible though: I could have grabbed an apple or an orange. Hmmmm. Maybe someday I'll reach frlom something other than the chips. (crunch crunch crunch)

Interrupt: Okay, I'm putting chips in my mouth again and chewing them. I've seen this before. This is the place where I've imagined biting an apple instead. Hmmm. Let's take a closer look: Stop. I'll swallow that bite. Let the bag sit there. Stop moving my hand. This is the point where instead of grabbing another handful of chips, I could be biting an apple. Hmmm. But the chips taste so good... (crunch crunch crunch)

Replace: Over the past days I've gotten pretty good at interrupting the mindless eating of chips. I've stopped and paused enough times now and seen how I could eat an apple instead. Hmmm. I'm tired of just stopping though--I'm tired of feeling like I can't do this. I want to actually change this. I'm going to pick up that apple I bought at the store this week. I'm going to put it to my mouth and take a bite. I know it won't be as satisfying as chips, and I really want chips more than a stupid apple, but, I'm just gonna take a bite. (crunch) Wow, that's different. Crunchy still, but tangy and juicy instead of salty and oily. But god, I love that salt and oil, it tastes so damn good. Stupid apple. Quick, grab a chip (crunch crunch crunch)

Repeat: Okay, I've been able to not only put down the chips but grab that apple and eat it. I've done that several times. It actually tastes good sometimes. But damn, I want some chips right now. I feel so weak. I haven't changed. I still want to eat them. Wait--stop. Grab the apple. (crunch) Okay. I didn't really feel hungry right now did I? I just wanted to escape in chewing. But I've stopped before and I can stop again. I am going to ignore how I feel right now about that. I'm going to walk away from the kitchen. Put myself in the bathroom. Grab a sponge. And lime scale remover that I remembered to buy at the grocery when I was there. I'm going to just make the motions and try to pay attention to what I'm doing now. Wow. With this sponge in my hand, I can't eat a potato chip now, can I? Hmmm. Maybe I can do this again. I know I won't always succeed, and that will feel shitty, but I'll remember that I've done it before and I can do it again. I don't have to let my feelings stop me from knowing that it's possible.
Now that's a sample of the noise that goes on in my head when I'm trying to change my eating habits--your noise is different of course. You talk about changing something else more involved than that. Hopefully this example illustrates the value of a patient and mindful method of changing behavior, one step at a time. It takes time. This is theory. Lasting change requires practice. Reading or writing words is easy. Facing the emotions and fears that accompany leaving your comfort zone is a bad feeling indeed. Whether you feel like it or not doesn't matter, only motion makes things happen. Whether you think it will change permanently or not doesn't matter. Just change the motion you are making in this moment.

The first steps are about the present--what motions am I taking right now? Sitting still thinking? Or doing something? The first steps are not about deciding whether the current course of action will fix things permanently or efficiently. The first steps are not about looking back with shame on the long road of inaction behind you. The first steps are not going to feel good. Change doesn't feel good. It sucks. Just don't give your attention to that. Just take the steps. Motion. Let it be action itself--physical motivation regardless of psychological motivation.

Yes small successes look small. But they build up a track record of successes that can result in new belief that things can change. They start to become real-world evidence that the path behind you includes accomplishment and the path forward can be successful. And obstacles will appear and loom large. Expect them to come, but don't expect them to knock you off your feet and keep you there.

This may or may not work for you. You or others around you may evaluate this method beforehand and judge it to be too slow or too indulgent. Don't listen to that. Trust that change will come and that the pain will subside someday. Be patient. Pick one thing and act.

So many words. I hope they help. More importantly, I hope you find a path forward. Best wishes.
posted by buzzv at 12:00 PM on August 8, 2011 [14 favorites]

I always used to rely on forcing myself to do things no matter how I felt, but that's how I ended up passed out from exhaustion. Not out of desperation to please - a project had to be ready for an externally imposed hard deadline or a dozen partners throughout Europe wouldn't get paid. I worked night and day for 17 days and couldn't eat because eating would have meant taking my hands away from the keyboard long enough to lift the food to my mouth. No exaggeration.

I'd also been desperate to be ready in time for my mother's birthday, and I remember we had a walk to the theater and a cab went by and I was desperate to hail it because I didn't feel like putting one foot in front of the other, but my mother told me not to be so lazy so I kept walking. I didn't feel like going to dinner afterwards, but it was my mother's birthday, not to mention a chance to eat which I hadn't had in a while. So I stayed. She asked if I minded staying for dessert, not a question anyone often has to ask me. I said yes even though I really felt like going home.

Next morning, after a good night's sleep at last, I went downstairs and then suddenly found myself gazing at the kitchen floor and thinking how nice it would be to lie down on it. My mother told me to get my cereal, and I looked at the cupboard and it seemed so far away and pouring cereal in a bowl seemed like so much exertion. Come on, make an effort, how hard is it to pour out cereal FFS? I said to myself. As though reading my thoughts, my mother said, "come on, don't be so lazy." The next thing I knew I was waking up on the kitchen floor, so I must have decided to take that nap after all. My head was searingly painful and my vision was completely blotted out by a migraine aura. Better go upstairs and sleep it off. I tottered up the stairs, took two aspirin, and went back to bed. Only later did I see the bruise the size of an ostrich egg because I had actually passed out and hit my head on the way down.

So the project got turned in on time, but I had to have two days off sick and although publicly I got a big bunch of flowers and a big thank you for saving the project's collective ass, privately I got written up for poor time management. The boss said he felt guilty that he'd been on vacation at motor racing events while I was doing all this, and thus not been around to give me more guidance on how to manage my time better.

And it was funny, all the time I'd been sitting there frantically trying to make my hand move faster so the project would be done sooner, I'd been thinking to myself, "if Boss really wants to say exactly the most appalling thing possible, and ruin diplomatic relations forever, he can spin this into my being a lousy time manager." And so he did.

So the upshot of all this is that I basically want time management, as a concept, to fuck off and die because what has time management ever done for me? And yet I'm only hurting myself. And I seem to have completely lost the ability to force myself through activities I don't feel like doing. I don't know if I even want it back.
posted by tel3path at 12:38 PM on August 8, 2011

Thank you for asking this question, tel3path.
I have a very similar problem, so this is helpful for me.
posted by luckynerd at 1:12 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

1) In the User's Manual for Humans, "Are you getting at least 7 hours of quality sleep?" is the equivalent of "Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on again?" It's the first step. If you aren't sleeping enough (I personally need at least 8 hours—it varies from person to person), you're going to feel like crap, eventually.

2) You judge how good a person you are with how well you do you job. On top of that, you have your mom and your boss criticizing you for not being good enough at time management and being "lazy" when you're working much much harder than a person should have to work, and because your self-worth is built on working hard and getting things done, these criticisms cut like a knife.

Because of the influence of your mom and others in your life, I suspect that regardless of whether you're hearing these cut-downs from outside, you still have a voice in your head telling you constantly that you're being lazy, and you feel that have to constantly push yourself not to be lazy. If this is correct, then you are me, a couple of years ago. MeMail me if you like.

I strongly recommend therapy (possibly supplemented with meditation) to discover a sense of self-worth that doesn't hinge on how many items you've crossed off your to-do list. And if you're anything like me, right now you're thinking, "Well, duh, of course my worth depends on what I do. What else could it possibly depend on?" Therapy. Really. There are other ways to find motivation and satisfaction in life.
posted by BrashTech at 1:15 PM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

My worth doesn't depend on how good a job I do, but my economic survival might. Or so I thought when I was busting my chops over that project. Turns out my economic survival actually depends on how good a job my boss says I do. Fortunately, in the course of busting my chops for that particular boss, I built up a good record of peer-reviewed work that he couldn't just negate because he felt like it. But he sure made it clear he thought I could have done a hell of a lot more.

But an objectively failed project really wouldn't have added to my employability, so I did what I had to do.

This time around, I think I've done a very average job, and lo and behold the new boss goes on record as being really pleased.
posted by tel3path at 2:36 PM on August 8, 2011

Oh, I know. It's The Wheel.
posted by tel3path at 2:40 PM on August 8, 2011

Please don't take this the wrong way, tel3path, but I think you need to step back from threadsitting for a little while. I'm saying this as someone who has been in a similar situation. It feels like you're wanting a solution to your problem right now, but you're also possibly not hearing what the other posters have said. Read their answers over again and let yourself mull them over, without the "yes, but I can't x because of y" recactions I'm seeing here. Come back to the thread tomorrow, maybe. In the meantime, perhaps you could try to think of some ways what has been said here is applicable to your situation, as in, "What if what they're saying is true?" and, "What if some of what I'm saying/thinking isn't true?" (Not in the sense that you're lying, no, of course not. Rather in the sense that your reasoning might be flawed.)
posted by MelanieL at 4:09 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

So I am also in academia. Last year I was in this weird space where I was working a crappy job below my qualification level (I was a research assistant, despite having a PhD), my parents had recently split up; my father had attempted suicide, and was not taking his bipolar medication; I suspected he was being inappropriate with my 16-year-old step-sister; my mother had cancer; I had just been rejected for a postdoc; my dissertation had been rejected from a publisher; my contract was nearly over; my husband's job was insecure; our landlord sold the apartment and we had to move; and weirdly enough, I just couldn't get motivated to work all those extra hours outside my RA job that I expected of myself (in order to build a publication record). Housework was also falling down. I wasn't interested in any of my former hobbies. I shut myself in my room a lot and cried.

So I went to see a psychologist and I told her that I was being a terrible person and not keeping up with my responsibilities but that I did not know how to do it anymore.

She said she thought I was depressed and had I thought about medication?

I told her she WASN'T LISTENING. I had all this shit going on in my life. My brain wasn't messed up. Reality was messed up. Medication wasn't going to sort out reality, so I just had to somehow keep fighting through until things got better. But I needed suggestions on how to force myself to keep going.

She gave me some stuff to read about depression and antidepressants. Turns out, even if your depression is induced by fucked up real life shit, it can still respond to medication. After a while of being beaten down by life, your brain kind of gets used to being sad and anxious, and it's really hard to get out of that rut without external help. Medication can make you more resilient while things are going badly. And then when things get better, you bounce back faster.

I took the antidepressants and two weeks later it was like a light switch turned on in my brain and let the sunshine back in. All the bad reality stuff was still there, but I didn't care as much. If someone said something hurtful to me, it didn't trigger a flood of "Oh my god my life is so shit and my parents have problems and I will be unemployed soon, and everyone hates me and I want to go home now", but it kind of washed over me. And after six months or so, life improved. And I stopped taking the medication and everything was fine.

I'm not saying you're depressed. But it wouldn't surprise me if you were. I'm not saying don't take steps to fix your life. Do it if you can. But if you can't - if your problems are unfixable but temporary and it's just a matter of waiting it out - consider getting external help to make things bearable.
posted by lollusc at 7:07 PM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm late to the party here. I know.

So let me get this straight... you passed out in the family home, your mom was around... and later on you woke up on the kitchen floor. ALONE??

I wish this was hyperbole on your part, but the mention of a big bruise tells me otherwise.

You have pushed yourself past the point of exhaustion. You give yourself few to no options, which is in your control if you re-organize your priorities. And not only college age kids have roommates.

I think you have a Big Decision to make, one you have been putting off a long long time.

I've had to take your word all this time that you are on the aspie scale (but I kinda wonder who isn't:) so I don't know enough to comment on that.

Regardless, you can NOT keep this pace up.

(I bet you know what my next 3 sentences will be, because you are whip smart like that, so I won't even bother. Just wish there was more I could do, like hold your hand through the process or something. For example, you would be more easily employable if you lived in town and didn't have that commute, because employers like you to be available. Just a fact.

Be kind to yourself. You come first. You've never acted on that, tho, as far as I know.)
posted by jbenben at 10:19 PM on August 8, 2011

I hope I don't come across as some kind of crazy stalker, OP, but I've noticed your many excellent answers on askme before. They're thoughtful, wise, smart, caring, and useful. You're so good at taking care of others (even strangers on the internet). Please turn that attention and kindess towards yourself.

Put yourself first. Please learn to say "No". Say "no" to dessert with your mom, even if it IS her birthday. Heck, say "no" to the whole dinner. If you explain the situation, she'll understand*. Promise to make it up to her after you've rested up. She loves you, she'd get it.

Stick up for yourself. Say "no" to working so hard that you literally don't have time to eat for days on end. Working through lunch a few days in a row is normal if there's a big deadline. NOT EATING for over 2 weeks is not. If your boss is riding you for not doing enough, record all the work you do and how much time it takes, and present it non-confrontationally. (Yes, that takes time too, but what, 30 mins a day? If you're working even just 12 hour days, an employer could hardly argue that you "wasted" 30 mins by doing this. Spin it as a value-tracking exercise for their business, if you like.)

Let yourself be "average" in some respects. Allow yourself to say "no" to things like piano and language learning. Until your work/money/free time situation improves, it seems like these things are more burdensome than enjoyable. It's okay not to participate in hobbies, or to put them on the backburner for a while. You don't have to be this super well-rounded well-learned well-read person all the time. You seem pretty great already, and that's just my impression from reading words you've typed on a screen.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: clear your plate of everything that isn't absolutely crucial to survival for a while. Give yourself time to zone out a bit, to decompress. When you've rested up from this deep, frantic, and frustrating exhaustion I'm sensing from your question, it might be easier to see where the various pieces of your life that you'd like to have can fit in, or what changes you can make so they can fit in.

I can only imagine how tough a time this is for you. I really truly hope that you find good ways to cope with this and get your groove back. I have faith that you will.

*Well, okay, I guess there's a chance she might not. But... so what? At some point you need to take care of yourself, even if it means it pisses someone off a bit. Taking time to sleep because the alternative is blacking out in the middle of the day... I don't think that could be considered selfish.
posted by miss_kitty_fantastico at 12:05 AM on August 9, 2011

I need to make a couple things more clear.

The boss where I passed out is not my current boss, who is cool beyond measure. That was my previous boss. That was the traumatic/burnout event I'm referring to, and that was a couple of years ago. After all this time, I'm kinda tired of being burned out and not having fun when I'm in the best position to have fun that I've been in for a while. For the entire time I've been working for cool!Boss, nobody has yelled at me, nobody has disrespected me, nobody has overworked me, and nobody has attempted to damage my reputation. It bums me out that my state of mind is what seems to be standing between me and a good time.

"So let me get this straight... you passed out in the family home, your mom was around... and later on you woke up on the kitchen floor. ALONE??"

I fainted, meaning I was unconscious for a few seconds. Neither of us understood what had happened until the ostrich egg appeared later.

"Say "no" to working so hard that you literally don't have time to eat for days on end."

I know this, but let me lay out my employment history:
- let go from a job I'd been doing for 7 years because my line manager said I'd produced nothing but one single query in 8 months, which didn't work. Showing him the list of other things I'd done was no defense, because all he had to say was "no you didn't" or "that didn't count". I bring my list of accomplishments to HR and silently invite them to compare it with the list my line manager gave them; they politely retract the statement that I'm being let go because I'm unproductive, but I'm still being let go. On my last day, after presenting me with my card and leaving-tchotchke, line manager turns around and fixes me with a murderous glare for three minutes solid. Then he reaches for the Computing magazine on his desk, ostentatiously cuts out a job advertisement and puts it in his wallet, then slides the magazine, still open on the job pages, over to my desk. It took me 8 months to find my next job...
- ...which, I discovered between accepting the offer and signing the contract, had been upgraded to a senior position without telling me, whereas I had applied and interviewed for a mid-level job. When I protested, I was told "don't have such low self-esteem!" and put on the highest-paced, highest-profile project in the company, which was also their first agile project. Using a skillset I didn't have, hadn't claimed to have, but they just assumed I had based on no evidence. I quit just in time to avoid being fired. On my way out, I got a stern talking-to about the amount of time I spent in the loo.
- ...eventually I got a short-term contract, one where the head programmer had wanted my project for himself, and told me that it could all be done in eight working days according to his estimation. They were fuming when I hadn't finished it in eight weeks and told me they had agreed that it would be completed in three months when I started, when in reality they had said nothing at all about expecting the work to be completed before I left, and indeed had tried to persuade me to take a six-month commitment. They breathed down the neck of the guy in the desk behind me, too, and one day he just handed over his keys and walked out. I think this is why my "here's a list of the 130 remaining project items, please choose which you want to drop from the scope before I go" reasoned argument actually worked for a change, and they became very conciliatory in their attitude.
- ...when my three months were up, started working for Ostrich Egg Guy. Hopefully you can now see why I was desperate to make sure the deadline was met, which was the criterion for project success or failure. At the time, not knowing how things would unfold, I had the expectation that success of a large project would go on record as proof of my competence. Now I know better, but even so, I can still look back on that and see why the success of the project was so important to me.
- Speaking of which "If you're working even just 12 hour days, an employer could hardly argue that you "wasted" 30 mins by doing this. Spin it as a value-tracking exercise for their business, if you like." Lol. Of course I always track everything I do, and sometimes it works, as in the three-month contract situation above. But no amount of evidence made it any easier when Ostrich Egg Guy was holding me prisoner for two hours demanding that I sign a negative appraisal. I refused, in the face of a relentless barrage of "I know exactly how you've been spending your time and your clever arguments are not going to change my mind." This, you may want to know, is how I know it is not illegal to give a bad reference, and it is also how I know that a "factual" or "minimal" reference is drafted from your most recent appraisal. I still have to get references from these people, which is part of what is making my current job search so fun.

While all this was going on in my working life, here is what I see as the point to all this. " Please learn to say "No". Say "no" to dessert with your mom, even if it IS her birthday. Heck, say "no" to the whole dinner." - The thing is, I didn't WANT to say NO to dinner or dessert with my mom on her birthday. I had been looking forward to celebrating her birthday for weeks. I could always have chosen to say, 'Sorry, Mom, but Ostrich Egg Guy has completely worn me out so I'll catch you on your 90th birthday,' BUT I DIDN'T WANT TO. Even though celebrating my mother's birthday was not essential to my survival. My point was, I thought there was a little more strength in me, and then a little more strength in me, and so I kept forcing myself to put one foot in front of the other until I was surprised to find that I couldn't any more. This is probably why I'm now averse to forcing myself to do things I don't feel like doing, because look where that's gotten me in the past. The cost of that is a feeling of being adrift and rudderless, and also having no time for fun even when there is time.

So, now I got invited for an interview in Germany in 14 days' time, so I guess I know how my "free" time is going to be spent in the immediate term, rendering the question moot. I definitely won't be spending any time on anything not absolutely crucial to survival.
posted by tel3path at 5:02 AM on August 9, 2011

Oh... and, uh... another thing I need to make clear...

Thank you. All of you.
posted by tel3path at 5:07 AM on August 9, 2011

tel3path, stop that. We're not saying "say no to dessert with your mom."

The things we're suggesting that you say "no" to are "doing all of the housework" or "commuting 4 hours."

Of COURSE you want to have dessert with your mom, and of COURSE you need to do well at work. We are suggesting you find OTHER things to say "no" to so you are able to DO the important things you want to do.

I'm going to second the suggestion to "stop threadsitting and think about what some of us are telling you."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:08 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wonder if, perhaps, I might have let anxiety get the better of me for a while there.

Anyway, as I type this, my mother is at the supermarket doing the twice-weekly shop. (I keep going on at her about Ocado, but she has to interview each potato separately.) When she gets back she will cook us a nice lunch because she does all the cooking and with my schedule, I wouldn't be eating at all if it weren't for her. So, please do not think that I'm doing the bulk of the housework here. It's more like I'm systematic and Felix-like and she is chaotic and Oscar-like. The situation is more like this from about 6:16 (SLYT).

Saturday is usually my day off but I have to prepare for the rotten interview. I have, however, implemented the suggestion to acquire some trashy panties. Tatler magazine is giving away some free Rigby & Peller ones so I have asked the tel3mum to pick up a copy at the supermarket.

Also, yesterday I was headbanging over some code that didn't work when my diary alert pinged up that I was supposed to meet a friend for a drink. I was desperate to fix the code but it was going-home time and it's against my policy to blow people off on the basis that "I have work to do" so I forced myself to go. Then I went back to my desk an hour later and I tested it out and I saw that it had been working all along. Like, since Thursday. All I'd actually been doing all day was breaking what was fixed, not fixing what was broken. There is a lesson there for me.

While we were out, my friend told me about a cheap deal at the university gym, which I would have been paying attention to if I hadn't been so busy hyperfocusing and wangsting. So I signed up for that.

All in all, I guess you folks were right.
posted by tel3path at 5:23 AM on August 13, 2011

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