How can I motivate myself to work?
January 31, 2012 5:52 PM   Subscribe

How can I motivate myself to work? What did you do to help kick yourself in the posterior and get going? Special snowflake details inside.

I've been suffering from extreme bouts of apathy, lack of motivation, and poor work ethic, particularly when it comes to my job. I'm slowly making progress on the home-care front, but I'm feeling increasingly resistant to doing any work at my job, and I think this is going to surface as a major issue in no time if I don't change my behavior NOW. Right now I feel like I'm treading water -- the head of my office seems to be catching on that I haven't been terribly productive, and made a comment during my mid-year review that I should focus more on the "doing" rather than the "researching" of new projects. I do tend to like to come up with ideas and solutions rather than execute them. (For instance, I work in a communications capacity, and rather than doing any actual writing, I'm poking around the internet for ideas on what to write about and where to promote ourselves.) I realize this is not what anyone wants in an employee. I would say I've had a historical issue with following through and staying focused. But I'm also doing things at work that are just plain old goofing off: playing with my phone, googling my various medical issues, etc. We're talking weeks of this behavior. And I do feel bad/guilty about this, but am having trouble stopping. When people ask me for help for immediate tasks I'm ok, it's just the projects that are MINE - writing-heavy tasks - that I have trouble with. I'm not blatantly ignoring people who are coming to me with simple questions. As I was hired as a writer, and that's where my background and (alleged?) strength is, I can't ask to NOT do these tasks.

Other potentially relevant info: *I would say this has been an issue in previous situations, just not to this level of severity. Also, I used to work in academic settings - this is a "real" job so maybe the environment is a factor. * I took this job ~6 months ago knowing it was a difficult office to work in because the head of the office is known to be petty, micromanaging and bordering on narcissistic disorder. But I needed a job and figured I'd take it and try it. Unfortunately that person is what people had described, and while she hasn't been abusive to me like she has been with other new employees (to the point that one coworker pointed out "you must be doing something right - she really likes you!"), I feel like a stubborn child rebelling against it. * I'm questioning this job and career in general, which doesn't help. I've been told I'm a good writer, but I've always been a slow and pained one. I'm questioning why I ever marketed myself as one, questioning if I even like writing, and so forth. * I try telling myself, "Hey, getting fired isn't going to look good no matter what career you're in." but I'm not listening to myself. * I have a problem with attention and focus (no ADHD diagnosis though), as well as depression and fatigue, and take and have tried a variety of meds (antidepressants/antipsychotics as well as stimulants) to treat both. I have been under a doctor's care for these issues and am trying to figure out whether to try new providers. I see my psych. dr. this week. * I talked to a confidential employee counselor about this. Not sure where that will go. He gave me some resources for mental health providers, and I will report back after seeing a doc. He stressed that self-care is most important but I've started to panic as my work is piling up, and I keep on thinking "oh, tomorrow will be better! Fresh start and I'll bang this all out then!" but for weeks now this keeps on moving on.

Anyone ever reach this depth of apathy? What kicked you in the rear and got you going again? what tools or tricks do you recommend? how did you force yourself to accomplish anything?

Thanks in advance. throwaway email: rearkick -a.t.- rocketmail dot com
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
instead of forcing yourself to do some bullshit you couldn't care less about, why don't you go for it and go find something you really want? i mean, after a point you'll probably be "forced" by financial necessity to do something just for the money - why wait for that to happen? what would you say if someone asked you "hey, i'm looking for ways to force myself to be stupid and uncreative - got any ideas?"
posted by facetious at 6:01 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've found that this is a positive feedback thing. I avoid work, which makes me feel guilty, which makes me avoid even thinking about work, which makes me even MORE guilty, etc.

The only solution I've ever found is just jumping in and doing something. Anything. And then I'm like...that wasn't so hard. But it wasn't quite right, I should have done THIS. Oh yeah, that's good. And I'll also need THIS and THIS and pretty soon I've done a week's worth of work in an hour.
posted by DU at 6:04 PM on January 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think the closest I've come to what you describe was a few months after I got hired to my second job after college (that was quite a number of years ago). They had all the new employees on a different floor, and nobody quite knew what we were supposed to be doing, and we sat among people in a different department. I can remember spacing out my day by eating diet hard candies (one per hour), getting up to get water at the fountain, etc. It was agony. Then eventually they freed up space downstairs and began giving out assignments and things picked up. The busier I got the more I learned and the more I knew the work I got, etc.

As for being productive, I agree with Covey's principle of "begin with the end in mind". Where you are at this moment compared to where you need to be is somewhat unimportant, unless it is a routine, non-creative task. The question is, when you are finished what will you have produced? Then ask what is stopping you from producing those things, and so on. You can easily come up with dozens of sub-tasks to any decent sized project (information gathering, approvals, coordination, preliminary communications, follow-up, scheduling, etc.) If you cannot find the motivation to even attack small sub-tasks then maybe you have a bigger problem. Otherwise, how do you eat an elephant (one bite at a time).

Also, don't forget you're not the only one who may be adrift. I remember getting a lot of credit on one project where all I did was spend a couple hours coming up with a simpler way to do something (it was the middle of the night, there was noise in the building keeping me from sleeping, so I went with it instead of fighting it). When I presented the streamlined procedure the next day you would think I had invented the light bulb or something (I think everyone was just thankful we could all start producing faster and impressing our bosses).
posted by forthright at 6:08 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've worked jobs I hated. Thinking about the money helps. Applying to better jobs on the side helps too, and that's how I got a job I like.

You just need to develop the willpower and focus to do your job. If you need ADHD meds to do that, then use them.

It gets easier once you start. Just force yourself to start.
posted by twblalock at 6:10 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

A few suggestions:

1) Continue to be introspective about what your issues are and what steps you can take to solve them.

2) Change things up, a lot. Seek new inputs, new perspectives. If you are stuck where you are, and where you are isn't where you should be or want to be, then clearly something has to change, perhaps many things have to change, but what those things are aren't obvious, and if you haven't found them yet, you probably won't find them unless you do things different. So, seriously, just start changing things up.

You waste time on the web? Waste time on different web sites, or better yet, take a walk or something. You google things? Use bing, or duckduckgo, or blekko instead. Go to meet ups, or seek out other people in your field for a different perspective, or, go to meet ups in a completely unrelated field.

3) Don't give up on #2

4) Lower your expectations. Sounds like you may spend the majority of your time at work on stuff you shouldn't be doing. Rather than trying to solve your problem all at once, set a more modest goal. Maybe you only do 10 minutes of "real work" every hour, fine, make you goal doing 12 minutes of work every hour. Then, once you achieve that for a full day, shoot for 14 minutes of work every week, then 16, then 20. Then celebrate, because even though you are still wasting two-thirds of every hour, you've still doubled your productivity!!

Similarly, rather than trying to eliminate time wasting behavior, try and choose something different. For example, the Internet makes it easy to waste lots of time because it is infinite AND each new thing you discover is a little reward for fucking around. Instead, try watching something that is more bounded, like reading a magazine.
posted by Good Brain at 6:19 PM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm feeling the same way at the moment. After being proud of all the progress I've made in the past half a year and how much I've finally accomplished after being a chronic procrastinator and general lazy bum. All I have to say is that we'll never truly defeat it, I don't think. The best we can do is to throw ourselves back in the fray, and I think the way to do it is to take small steps first and work back into the grind (you probably just got off a relaxing vacation after a really stressful time didn't you?)

So I would first begin a small bit of work and accomplishment by planning out your projects and such by putting all the deadlines into your calendar.

Then I would begin by making a list of those projects and breaking them down into smaller pieces that you have to accomplish to complete the whole. Add those mini-deadlines to your calendar as well. (I use google calendar, because it makes it easy to drag things around, and send reminders and such)

After you have a game plan, work in some time-management. Every day keep a record of new projects you may need to do, or other things that you feel you need to accomplish, and every morning, add those items to your calendar after breaking them up. This should keep you continuously up to date on what you need to do and is a good habit to get into doing everyday, because you will also look at what you have planned for the day or for the next week.

Speaking of which, every morning, create a hand-written to-do list on a loose piece of paper of what you plan to work on that day when you are updating/checking your calendar.

Then take a look at your daily routine. You probably have things that you do everyday, such as eating lunch, making phone calls. Set these things up into discrete time blocks, and then create large blocks of time for hacking away at the day's to-do list. Plan smaller chunks, but good sized chunks for SPECIFIC non-work related activities. If you give yourself a non-specific chunk of time, likely, your mind will get carried away doing different things and forget the time. You can add these non-work related activities to a different list on your To-Do list page under recreation or some other heading.

Also remember to take breaks every once in a while while you are working. If I'm just breaking into the habit again (after losing it, because you will do so many times) I start off small, taking 10 minute breaks every half hour. Eventually I get to 10 minute breaks every hour.

If you miss a mini-deadline, don't fret, and just drag it back a bit to when you think you can reasonably complete it. And this whole thing only works if you're honest with yourself. I tend to get carried away and think I can just jump from laziness to completing a huge project in a day and then I feel discouraged when it doesn't happen. Give yourself as much time as you need.

Eventually it just becomes routine to me, and the procrastination doesn't bother me as much, until I hit a REALLY stressful project or a vacation and I lose it all and have to begin again after losing my work habits. Good luck.
posted by Peregrin5 at 6:22 PM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

Assuming you want/need to keep the job, you might try this: Choose a chunk of time that seems short to you, maybe 30 minutes. Say to yourself, "You have to write something for Boring Project for just 30 minutes. After that, you get to research Interesting Project for another 30 minutes."

Keep this up through the day: a bit of the stuff you don't like, and as a reward, the work you do like. If the 30 minutes feels like an eternity, shorten it.

Make it easier by intentionally writing badly for the 30 minutes. Write absolute crap for the Boring Project. You'll find that your natural writer's abhorrence of crap takes over once you've got some momentum going and you won't have to rewrite much.

The trick for me is to get started. Once I get going on it, the boring project seems less awful.

You might also light a fire under yourself by identifying what aspects of the current job give you the experience you need for a better job. Decide your current situation is temporary and use it to build your portfolio. Do the best you can on your current projects, ask for projects that you want experience in, and generally plan for your exit.
posted by ceiba at 6:34 PM on January 31, 2012 [9 favorites]

Work for two hours, take 10 minute break, repeat. Don't go on the internet or your phone on your 10 minute break. Get a coffee. Walk around. Get a piece of candy.

If you're suffering from garden variety apathy: Respect your "suffering" and do the right thing for yourself and your employer by doing your job and getting the help you need. You are acting like a rebellious teenager. Maybe slacker teenager is a better term. Some answers may encourage you to quit because you are in "soul-sucking/crushing work". I say you are the one that is creating a soul deficit for behaving like this. You'll feel better about yourself when you live with integrity.

If you're suffering from depression: Continue medical care. Place utmost importance on your physical and emotional health: 8 hours sleep, exercise, time with friends, and good nutrition.

Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 6:37 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

Have you tried The Now Habit? I found a copy at the library and thought it was actually a really good read with some concrete strategies to try out.

Although, I agree with the other posters about finding a job that you care about. I made that switch a couple of years ago, and while I still have days of 'ugh, have to go to work/do work now', once I'm there or doing it, it is a million times better than when I forced myself to a corporate cubicle farm!
posted by atlantica at 6:45 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Make a rule of doing x amount of real work for $y you spend that day or the day before. You will feel that your effort corresponds to something tangible.
posted by rainy at 6:57 PM on January 31, 2012

When I'm feeling apathetic, it's usually because I'm overwhelmed or reluctant to do something in particular and so am putting it off till it becomes scary and urgent. And then I end up putting everything else off too. Is there something in your workload that you are feeling particularly reluctant to do?

What I do when I'm feeling this way is break down the work load into a list of things and then do the easiest stuff first, then cross them off. It feels surprisingly good to see them crossed off, even if they're something as small as "Email Y". And then I feel empowered to do whichever task I was feeling super-reluctant to do.

I also break my work up with coffee breaks and similar. I don't believe it's possible to work for 8 hours straight and we have to work with our natural rhythms which tend to peak and trough at certain times. (I peak between 10 and 1, and between 3 and 5.)

If it's the environment that's making you feel this way, which it may well be, a new job would help, one with a less mean boss; but also a holiday can be very good for apathy too!
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:24 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is already lots of good advice here. I think every answer is valid and can help you. I also faced the kind of challenge you have described when I was peaked and was a big problem when I started writing my dissertation. (All the fun work was done. The questions were answered. I wanted to throw myself into the next stage of experiments.)

The answer for me (and for others in this thread) was chunking. Break that pile of waiting work up into small manageable chunks. Then break individual chunks into smaller chunks if you need to. Then pick a chunk and execute. I prioritized my chunks by two criteria. (1) Pick the low lying fruit first. Polish off the shorter, easier pieces first. It creates a body of accomplishment that reinforces your resolve to push through to the more substantive tasks. (2) Of course, deadlines have to be considered too...meeting one will help you meet the next one.

Reward yourself for work done. It can be as little self-congratulation or as big as you want. The point is to feel good about your accomplishments, large or small. After finishing my dissertation I took a weeks sailing vacation before my defense. Small tasks like finishing an illustration might be rewarded with a package of cheese crackers from the vending machine down the hall.

People cannot maintain optimal concentration for more than about 45 minutes. (OK, of course, there are exceptions.) the point is to take a small break, get a snack a drink, go to the bathroom, walk around and stretch. Just get out from behind the keyboard. Then come back with a clear mind and dive back in.

Finally, I would just stop using my work computer for my personal tasks and web browsing. (for more reasons than productivity) You are using up your "keyboard concentration energy" on tasks that have nothing to do with your work.

Good luck...don't quit or despair. Remember that if you want a different outcome from what you have been getting, you must do something different than you have been doing.
posted by txmon at 6:34 AM on February 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

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