Move my elephant
November 3, 2011 9:48 AM   Subscribe

How can I build the courage I need to face great professional and personal challenges... like writing reports and doing my expenses on time and putting up those shelves in the bathroom?

Variations of this question have been asked many times before (search procrastination, for example). Maybe there is no good answer; maybe posting the question and admitting it semi-publicly is itself a way of getting to an answer.

Here is my special snowflake version: there are things I need to do. The tasks themselves are not very hard. Write up a report that explains what you discovered on a business trip. Prepare a proposal for a new business idea for your division to consider. Set up the meetings for the next trip. That kind of stuff. When I sit down to do those things, the feeling that comes up is fear. Like look away from that screen and quickly go to something less scary like Metafilter or Amazon or an exhaustive search for the best way to trim an oak tree. Its like stage fright, but when I'm alone. (Public speaking itself is no problem for me. Spending the time to prepare a decent presentation on the other hand...)

It feels to me like the quality, the characteristic, the trait of personality that I'm looking for is the courage to push through that little wall of fear and start actually doing things I'm supposed to do. Courage, bravery, persistence, stick-to-it-iveness, gumption, self-confidence. I've tried a lot of the standards - therapy, meds, vitamins, lightboxes. They all help a little. The diagnoses - dysthymia, depression, adhd, thyroid issues (levels seem fine) - all seem kind of right, but not very definitive. Exercise seems like it would help but I've never been able to do it regularly. Same with meditation. Thinking, writing, talking about this problem - the way I'm doing now - doesn't seem to help much. Maybe even makes it worse. (Do I contradict myself? Well, I contain multitudes.)

Somewhere I read that metaphor of the elephant being the subconscious and the elephant driver, the mahout, is the conscious. The elephant is much stronger and more powerful than the mahout; the mahout only has his little whip and a bag of tricks to make the elephant move in the right direction. But its not the stick, its not the words that move the elephant. Its something deeper. Some self-confidence that the mahout projects to the elephant. That the elephant feels from the mahout. I feel like I am the mahout whose elephant has lain down on the road and is refusing to move. All the other elephants and their mahouts are moving along, getting further and further ahead. My mahout is pleading with the elephant, then desperately whipping the elephant, then apologizing and pleading again, but the elephant won't or can't get up, and when it does, it won't go down the road, it goes to the nearest tree to graze. The mahout is in despair, ready to give up any effort at a journey and just let the elephant go down to the river and wallow around, even though he knows that the elephant could easily kill him if he rolls over in the mud.

So - where does that thing that moves the elephant come from? I feel like its the same quality of bravery or courage or persistence that makes it possible to push through the tissue thin resistance to writing the report or making the call or doing the expense report. Or maybe its how do you get it back, because I definitely feel like I had it when I was younger. (Mid 40s now.) Or is my metaphor all wrong? Or is this question just not worth posting since its been asked so many times before?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I think the metaphor is all wrong. Tasks are usually more like mountains than like elephants in that they are best moved by breaking them down into smaller and smaller pieces until each piece starts to appear easily movable.
posted by themel at 9:57 AM on November 3, 2011

I love the elephant/mahout metaphor. You're obviously very creative.

There's actually a point to that compliment -- beating yourself up for procrastinating is actually not helpful, because you just focus on ameliorating the guilt, rather than actually getting things done.

Focus on getting things done, remove emotion from the equation. Remember that you're good at what you do, ultimately.
posted by yarly at 10:00 AM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

For me, the trick is to say that I only have to do the first bit. I say, OK, you only have to vacuum the bedroom. After that you can quit if you want. Every time, I choose to get the rest of the house when I'm done. Same goes for the morning workout. I just ask myself to do the first rep, then go from there. It really shrinks the barrier.

So, for your example of writing up a business report: Just tell yourself you only have to write the first paragraph. You can quit after that. Maybe you'll keep going. Even if you do quit, at least you wrote that paragraph and later you simply have to add to that paragraph.

It also helps to do these things earlier in the day, rather than later. This isn't always possible, but it's easier to get going than starting them at the end of the day.
posted by ignignokt at 10:00 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have just recently discovered a technique that can break up a task for me (I don't know if it will help, but... here you go.):

This only works when you have to send someone some kind of document. I get very daunted by DOCUMENTS. They feel very official and high-stakes. I have to think up what I'm going to write and then write it and then edit it. There's so many places to stall and feel like an idiot. Often I just stare at a nearly blank page for hours.

So what I have noticed is that if I just go to gmail and start composing an email to the person, somehow the sense in my brain that emails are much more casual and easy to write takes over, and I easily breeze through an entire first draft of the document. Which I can then take back to the blank Word page and edit. It's mysterious and kind of dumb, but it works.

Also - I think I have mentioned this here before - I have found that if I just admit to random people around me that I am having a procrastination problem, it somehow removes the "it is my secret shame!!!!!" aspect, which often frees me up to just do the project already.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:07 AM on November 3, 2011 [8 favorites]

I have a drink. It makes semi-dull things interesting and requires me to give it my full concentration or I'll screw it up. I guess it impairs my brain just enough much that it can't wander off in fear and distraction. Of course there be dragons down that path but it works for me.
posted by captaincrouton at 10:08 AM on November 3, 2011

This sounded like me just before I saw a psychiatrist for anxiety disorder. I got a small dose of SSRIs daily, and all of a sudden my chores and duties got a lot easier to start.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:13 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you tried to Pomodoro? Do sets of 4 timed 25 minute blocks. Take short breaks in between. Have a long break after the 4th.
posted by biscuits at 10:29 AM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I am absolutely in your boat, right down to the "do something less scary, like go to another site." (Why do you think I spend so much time here?) This is not procrastination; this is where procrastination comes from. So take heart! There are tons of people out there who deal with this issue, and you probably don't even see most of them.

When it comes to tasks: I like to make lists, because then you can prioritize (for good or evil!). First off, it shows you that your to-do list is finite, however long. Second, it helps you figure out which needs to be done now and which can wait. Third, you can also sort by real or perceived difficulty. I try to do the most difficult thing first, both because I'm usually more fresh for the task and because then everything else gets easier.

Finally (and here's the slightly evil part): when you don't want to do one thing, here's a great list of other things you can do to avoid it! That's why I get so much more done when I'm busy at work; in avoiding one thing, I can get something else out of the way, or at least closer to it.

Find a trusted friend, especially a trusted internet pal or textable person (mine is KathrynT!), with whom you can be completely, stupidly honest. This can help you be honest with yourself so you can get your issues out in the open, as stupid and petty and you might think they are (secret shame stops everybody!).

For example: yesterday I sent her an IM that said, "I don't know what I should have for lunch. SOMEONE NEEDS TO COME FEED ME." I have also outlined that the reason I don't bring my own breakfast to work, thus spending too much money and messing with nutrition, is because I am too lazy to go into the kitchen (three feet from my coat). SECRET SHAME NO MORE.

There is also a certain point where you must simply say to yourself, "I haven't done this task because I am scared of XYZ. However, I must do this task not DESPITE being scared but BECAUSE I am scared." Sure, it's easier said than done, but once you start doing this every so often with little things, you can work your way to others. Do not discount fakin' it till you make it.

The realization that every single person has problems and personal hangups has been hugely freeing for me. My dad tells a story about giving a keynote speech at a conference; a woman came up to him and said, "Wow! Your speech was so great, and so informative. I looked up there and thought, 'Now, there is a guy who really has it together!'" My dad just laughed; he'd spent the last week awake every night thinking that people would find out how little he'd prepared and/or how bad he was.

Even the most organized person at the top of their game has problems. This knowledge helps me be more compassionate toward others, which leads to them hopefully being more compassionate towards me. But it also helps me be easier on myself.

I am available to chat and/or listen sympathetically to venting; feel free to mail me if you'd like.
posted by Madamina at 10:29 AM on November 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

This is a problem for me as well. One thing that sometimes works is to build your courage; I make an easy, non-threatening phone call, then a more difficult one, and work my way up, sort of using each success to propel me onward.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 10:30 AM on November 3, 2011

I minimize the task by listening to music or headphones. That way my whole brain isn't going 'omg, omg', but only part of it. It keeps part of my brain distracted enough to not give in to the fear. NPR, chanting or super melodramatic movie scores do it for me. Something that is different enough to catch my attention.
posted by Vaike at 11:06 AM on November 3, 2011

For me, what worked was realizing that the root problem was fear of two kinds: fear of failure, and fear of success. I was afraid to fail because I knew people were counting on me, and because I felt like my reputation (to others and to myself) was on the line. But even more than that, I was afraid to do a good job despite the odds and succeed, because that would raise other people's expectations even higher, and I didn't want to disappoint them even more when I couldn't live up to those expectations. It's a devilish Catch-22 that can make you feel pressured at best and absolutely paralyzed at worst.

Once I got a clear grasp of those twin fears, I just had to convince myself of one thing before starting on any seemingly-daunting task: the belief that I had already failed. This sounds counterintuitive, but what it does is eliminate the risk of both trying-and-failing and trying-and-succeeding. Believing I had already failed (and therefore had already let myself and everyone else down, because I couldn't "just do it" like they expected me to) greatly reduced the mental pressure I felt, which in turn enabled me to stop worrying and start working. Then while I was working, if I couldn't focus on my project, or the work didn't come out the way I wanted, or I could tell it wasn't great but I didn't know how to improve it -- it didn't matter, because I'd already failed, so no one could expect more than that from me. And if I actually accomplished something, well, it was nice but it also didn't matter because I had still failed first, so no one (including myself) could expect more than that from me in the future.

In other words, try eliminating any expectations your mahout may have of the elephant. Failing (or at least, believing you've already done so, such that it doesn't matter what you actually do) is an option, and sometimes a very helpful one.
posted by danceswithlight at 11:42 AM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

For something that needs doing at home, like the shelves, plan it out in advance like a special fun date. Look at your calendar and decide when to do it. Plan to make it fun: get a nice takeout dinner and decide you'll listen to a particular podcast or music while you're doing it. In the hours leading up to the project, imagine yourself doing it and finishing it (and what you do after: watch a favorite show? Go get ice cream?). This method works way better than motivating yourself from scratch after work.
posted by xo at 11:56 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

For the home stuff, it gets done if I ask for help (I'm usually procrastinating because it seems like a difficult task and I'm afraid I'll fail at it). I can set a time with somebody to help me, put on some peppy music, get it done, then go out to lunch or something. No fear, and it turns into a fun time rather than a burden.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 12:09 PM on November 3, 2011

The combination of Pomodoro Technique and Habit Judo is absolute magic for this kind of thing. Stop freaking out and starting doing your pomodoros and getting your points.
posted by medusa at 12:13 PM on November 3, 2011

Oh, wow, I could have written every single word of this, so I salute you for being so self-aware.

I'm going to address a specific part of this, which is the documents part. I think that actually being on the internet excaberates this problem. Sometimes I spend a lot of time on Ask Mefi or on the internet in general basically trying to google a way out of my problem instead of doing what actually needs to be done.

I find that what has worked for me is that if I have things that I need to do on a computer, I go somewhere without internet. When I'm faced with a blank screen, and I can't run away or google my way out of it, then it really forces me to just start doing it.

2 hours later, I've done what needs to be done. It wasn't as scary as I thought it would be, and it's usually a lot easier than I imagined.

When you *are* on the internet, Google Tasks is a godsend. I always write at the end, "Finish this list!" and it's the first thing I can cross off so that I know for a fact that I've accomplished something, which was finishing that list!

Exercise is really important for dealing with anxiety. I tackle this by walking to that cafe or diner that doesn't have internet. I let all my thoughts run into each other. I take a lot of deep breaths. By the time I get there, my anxiety has calmed down significantly, and there's usually a little reward at the end like an Earl Grey milk tea! Or hash browns. Mmm...

I walk about an hour a just takes one step to start and then you're off.
posted by so much modern time at 4:27 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding (or whatever) that this kind of persistent, low-level but debilitating anxiety can be treated very effectively with drugs. Previous drugs you may have tried for dysthymia, depression, adhd, thyroid issues, etc don't generally address this. Effexor is an exception because it's an anti-depressant with an anti-anxiety sidecar built in, but I have actually found taking an anti-anxiety drug on its own goes a huge distance to making me productive.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:16 AM on November 4, 2011

I always think you should listen to that voice of resistance/fear and ask why it's really there.

I don't think its about attributes per se (courage, strength, persistence) but rather your own personal individual motivation.

Why do you have to do these things? What will happen if you don't? Will the repercussions of not doing them outway the actual doing of them? What are you getting out of doing them? Does doing them in any way get you one step closer to what you want/being happy? If it doesn't, why are you doing them?

This is not to say you should never do anything that doesn't make you happy.

But instead of summoning the courage to do things that we really don't want to do, I think we more often need to summon the courage to ask ourselves why we're doing them in the first place.
posted by mleigh at 4:48 PM on November 4, 2011

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