I'm addicted to twelve-step programs!
April 2, 2012 10:36 PM   Subscribe

I can't seem to stick to a goal or self-improvement regime for more than a few days before switching to a newer, shinier, better one. Help.

There are a lot of things about myself I want to change. I want to procrastinate less, exercise more, do better work, keep in better touch with people, lose track of fewer things, be happier. But (or perhaps "therefore") my life and house and computer are littered with the sad remains of self-help projects I've tried and lost interest in. Time trackers, organizational systems, books full of useful cognitive-behavioral therapy exercises.

I'll find something new, get excited about it and convinced that This Will Be The One That Finally Fixes All The Problems, use it for a few days or maybe a week or two. Then I'll get discouraged that I'm not seeing faster results and/or become convinced that I'm working on the wrong problem: how could I spend all that time on organizational systems when clearly I should be concentrating on avoiding procrastination? Wait, how can I spend all that time on avoiding procrastination when clearly all my problems are due to an insufficiently nutritional diet? Diet, schmiet--what could be more important than establishing a regular meditation routine? What, meditating? When I could be improving my personal and professional relationships?

And so on.

The net result is that I run through systems faster and faster, and I get very easily discouraged about the possibility of change (after all, these things "never work", even if it's because I never give them a chance to do so.) I know I should probably just pick something and stick to it, but I'm not entirely sure how. Even if I could convince myself that one particular system was worth the effort, I'd still end up worrying that I was focusing on the wrong problem.

How do I get off this treadmill without giving up on making my life a better and happier place for me to inhabit?
posted by cortisol to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Merlin Mann talks about how we're all convinced that we can be creative or solve all our problems if we just bought the right pen or found the right self-help book...but of course there's no replacement for just doing it. There's no magic feather, Dumbo.

Look, you're going to fail at most things you do. But failure isn't itself a failure. Take what you've learned and then wrap that into the next thing.

But I think you need to step back and evaluate your life. What are the things that you feel can be moved the most with the least amount of work? Get the small stuff done first, that will make you feel more confident and will help clear your plate to tackle the bigger stuff.

And it's not zero sum. You can do a little bit at a time on a few things instead of being monogamous with one problem.

Baby steps.
posted by inturnaround at 10:48 PM on April 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

"The perfect is the enemy of the good." As an engineer I learned very early that the pursuit of perfection, pursuit of the idea, was a fool's quest. Engineering shouldn't be about perfection; it should be about "good enough". And that's true about life, too. Many people ruin themselves by seeking unattainable goals, thinking that if they don't somehow reach the peak, then they're being cheated. It isn't true.

You need to lower your expectations. Don't expect a perfect solution. Don't expect a fast one. Look for something that's pretty good, and stick with it. Keep telling yourself that it's OK to not be perfect; it's OK not to be the very best.

You can seek a "better and happier place" without seeking paradise. Slow steps, one at a time.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:48 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Rats. "pursuit of the ideal"
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:49 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hmm. Well, for one of those points, exercise, permit me to recommend something like Starting Strength or Stronglifts (Google 'em). It's incremental barbell training, which means that every workout (you do three a week) you add a little bit of weight to the bar, and then lift it (or pull it or press it). Starting with just a barbell (45lbs, or about 20kg) you do three exercises for a number of sets and reps, and that's it. Next time around, you do the same three exercises (well, one is the same, but two always change, but there are only five in all) but with a tiny bit more weight on the bar. 5lbs, or whatever you've got.

It's been a boon for me, and the only course of self-improvement I have been excited about for a long time, perhaps ever. Every single time I step up to the rack I add a tiny bit of weight to the bar. That means I'm lifting/pressing/pulling heavier than I pressed last time - only two days ago! That's means I'm stronger than I was last time - only two days ago! And that means my muscles are bigger than they were two days ago, and I'm burning more bodyfat than I was two days ago, and my bones are denser than they were two days ago, and my ligaments and tendons are tougher than they were two days ago. And I can see it every time because I'm adding weight to that bar, every single time (this is all wildly simplified but it's still basically the Truth). It's amazing. I wholly, wholeheartedly recommend it. To go from puffing and panting deadlifting 80lbs/40kg from the ground, to puffing and panting lifting your own bodyweight from the ground...man, it just makes me feel great! Get into it!
posted by tumid dahlia at 10:50 PM on April 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

I second a lot of the comments above. The reason why none of these systems work is because the problem is deeper and more fundamental than these self-help tools. I suspect you sound very dissatisfied with yourself not because you are not doing things, but because you have this set-in-stone and difficult-or-impossible-to-achieve goals and ideals that you INSIST on no matter how many times you fail and how much unhappy you become.

It is not you painfully work through something to achieve happiness. When you are feeling well and happy, it is only then you can work, achieve, do the right things and become better.

And be flexible. A self-help tool works differently for different people. Pick up something, try it with a reasonable amount of effort (without stress), and simply see how it works for you.
If something doesn't work, there is always a reason for it - think about WHY it doesn't work. You might find you set impractical goals.

Relax, and only do what you can (not try to do what you can't, at least now), baby steps.
posted by eisenl at 12:21 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Smile. Breathe. And go slowly." - Thich Nhat Hanh

Pick ONE goal.
Think of the ONE thing you can do each day to eventually accomplish that goal.
Pick ONE way to track it. Pen and paper work fine.


When you have accomplished that ONE goal, you may pick another. Not before. Repeat as above.
Simplify your life, lower your stress, have FUN.
posted by THAT William Mize at 2:03 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I find that if I set myself a goal of sticking to a new Thing for a short length of time, maybe a month, really helps. I try to go into it with the expectation that things will only change a little bit, and look hard for any changes that exist. I find that problems arise when A] I'm expecting to be perfect at the Thing straight away and B] when I'm expecting to do the new method forever (because it's going to SAVE ME FROM [whatever]).

A short period of time gives me results quickly - the results might be that this system is working really well, in which case I can stick with it. Or they might be that it isn't, in which case I can modify the system.

I also pay attention to what I call the Icarus Peak. Very often, I find myself getting super excited about a new thing, trying it, and then getting bored with it really quickly. That's the Icarus Peak. The blue paper on the firework is lit, and I launch into the air with my candlefat wings, fly a little too close to the sun and have the wings melt. As I know going into the new thing that I'm going to do this, I can prepare for the lack of motivation that is going to swiftly follow the rise, and then keep going. I realise that the sudden lack of energy isn't a signal that I should stop trying to fly. It's a signal that I am now going to have to swim, which is actually more healthy than trying to fly because I'm not relying on tallow and feathers to keep going. I used to think that the sudden rush of motivation was how it was supposed to be, and that if I didn't have that rush, that meant that what I was doing wasn't worth it. There's a proverb; "the candle that burns the brightest burns the quickest". What you're looking for is a nice slow burn that will be able to continue for a long time. It's a lot easier to see a brightly burning candle, so it's natural to be drawn to it. But it's not the only candle out there. Just readjust your eyes and you'll see the rest of them too.

I also pay more attention to new things that I get excited about and ask myself a month later if I still want to do them. A lot of the time, I don't. I don't really want to play guitar, or learn to salsa, or any of a number of other things that I saw in a Youtube video once. The Icarus Peak is great for getting you started on a project, but because of it's short duration, it's terrible for helping you decide what you want to actually do.

I've yet to meet someone who was perfect at something new straight away. There's beginner's luck, sure, but what happens when that goes away? I'm pretty lazy, so I only attempt things that I know I really want. I don't want to be wasting time, effort and sometimes money on something because I flew up into the air without thinking. When something is important to me (and I know it is because it comes up repeatedly, over a long period of time), I'll ask myself why, and what the benefits are. Then I'll make a decision to either go with it, or not.

I also look for a lot of feedback from myself when working on something. I'll ask myself questions like: Is this method working? What's good about it? What's bad? Has a similar method worked for other people too? Can I find out how they did it? (This generally involves perusing the archives here at Ask.) If I'm enjoying the method, that's great. If I'm not enjoying the method, maybe I'm enjoying the results. And if I'm not enjoying either, then perhaps I'm doing it wrong. What can I do differently next time to make it better?

I also like to list what it is that I'm getting from my hard work, what the rewards are. When I stop to ask myself why I'm bothering with doing whatever it is that I'm currently doing, I like to look at this list and see the twelve reasons that I'm doing it. I find it helps too when I think that I'm not getting anywhere, because I can think that tomorrow, I'll be grateful that I did [whatever] today. Knowing WHY is a big motivator for me.

Depending on what your goal is, you might find that you can do a little bit of it every day. For example, 2 of my New Years resolutions were to meditate and eat more healthily. I broke them down into the tiniest bits I could, so Meditate is now "follow a specific meditation plan that involves 20 minute of my time a day" and Eat More Healthily is "eat 80g of fruit/veg a day". That's 20 minutes of time, and an apple. It's not taking up my entire day or anything remotely close to it, and I track my progress on JoesGoals. And if I miss a day, well, nothing is perfect. Everything is flawed. How can I do it better next time? How can I make myself WANT to do the thing?
posted by Solomon at 3:28 AM on April 3, 2012 [9 favorites]

I am 50 years old, I have never been able to change more than one habit at a time, and I find that bedding in a new or replacement habit generally takes about six months before I get to the point of not having to use willpower to make it happen.

It has taken getting to this age to review my life and realize that this has been my pattern all along, and is therefore likely to remain so.

So I think THAT William Mize's advice is absolutely on the money. Follow that.
posted by flabdablet at 6:02 AM on April 3, 2012

Chocolate Pickle: I like the idea of thinking of it as an engineering problem. Since I know intellectually that design and optimization problems involve tradeoffs, perhaps I can start applying that paradigm to my life.

Solomon, I very much relate to that Icarus Peak idea. And reminding myself WHY I'm doing things is probably something I should be doing more often.
posted by cortisol at 5:13 PM on April 3, 2012

I just read a book about establishing habits, it may be of interest to you.
The power of habit
posted by ibakecake at 5:54 PM on April 3, 2012

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