I like work but not when I have to.
September 15, 2012 9:59 AM   Subscribe

If I feel like I "have" to do something, or that I'll get something out of doing something, I immediately lose interest. How can I learn to enjoy tasks for their own sake, even when I know that's not why I'm doing them?

As long as there are no negative or positive repercussions at stake, I can perform-- or attempt to perform-- simple, complex, mundane or interesting tasks without much anxiety.

But if I feel like I'm going to get something out of the situation, or be punished if I don't fulfill the task, it becomes an ordeal.

Instead of being motivated by rewards or punishments, I become consumed by them. Instead of thinking about the task, I just think about how I don't need the future reward, or won't get the reward, how there's probably a less time consuming way to get what I want, or how the punishment won't be that bad if I face it.

I try to forget about those things while I'm working, but it's impossible to put these thoughts out of my mind because I'm always working within project constraints. I think, "I don't want to do it this way. Do I have everything on the checklist? If I were working on my own, I could do whatever I wanted. It's not like I need any reward, this is moronic," etc.

But of course, I just procrastinate and wind up doing it any way. This is a stupid and ineffective way to work, but the more I feel I stand to gain or lose by doing something, the sicker I feel when I do it. Do you have any suggestions on how to enjoy these tasks for their own sake, even when I know that's not why I'm performing them?
posted by jumelle to Human Relations (9 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds like a really interesting inversion of good old fashioned procrastination.

Something that's worked for me with tasks that I hate from the outside but usually enjoy whilst I'm actually doing them is imagining myself in the middle of the task before I start and making a list of all the things I'll enjoy about it whilst I'm doing it. For me, acting out the enjoyment first really helps me to focus on the enjoyment, though YMMV.
posted by gmb at 11:32 AM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your question has a built in catch since any suggestion I could give you would be followed for results rather than for its own sake. Instead, let me suggest why your problem exists and let you decide what to do about it. You are rebellious. You want to do things your own way, either out of anger for being told what to do in the past, or because you distrust/have contempt for what others would have you do. This may not be the exact story, or the whole story but is probably close enough to start with. You need to explore this space, in part by doing things you don't want to do, sticking with it despite lack of enjoyment, and becoming aware of all the things you feel in the process.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:03 PM on September 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have this about socializing. I love having plans but I if I feel there's any external pressure to go through with them, a little part of me dies. Nonetheless, many of the most rewarding things to do in life carry pressure and obligation.

I have no advice for you as I'm the same way-- but if it helps, everyone feels the same way to some extent.

There is a name for this in social psych. I believe it's the overjustification effect. It's well studied that rewarding someone for an activity makes them less intrinsically motovated to do it.
posted by kettleoffish at 12:12 PM on September 15, 2012

One reason that you HAVE to get better at this is that otherwise long-term relationships are going to be incredibly difficult for you. Stuff like this can get really toxic when you are living with someone.

The only thing that has helped me is age. It is finally starting to sink in that if I don't do these things NOW, no one will ever magically do them for me. Also part of it was just that as I got older, I became more sensitive about appearing childish and selfish.

I try to look at it like this: does doing X chore benefit me in the least? Will my house be cleaner, will people be impressed with me (or at least not let down by me)? If so, it's worth doing. And if it's worth doing, it's probably worth doing NOW, while I'm actually thinking of it, because I'll be too busy later and it might be a week before I get around to it.

Anyhow, off to go do the dishes...
posted by hermitosis at 12:30 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I approach this problem by thinking of myself as a self-motivated person. I do everything for my own reasons. If I am procrastinating, resisting or disagreeing, I admit I am choosing to do that. Everything is its own reward. I am enjoying my resistance or I wouldn't be choosing it, would I? Then, I define myself. I am a person who does good work. I cooperate. I give value for my wages. I do what I agreed to do when I have signed on to do it. I am dependable. I can quit anytime I like or I can even give more than I agreed to give. I also choose my attitude. I choose the way I treat people. I try to do better work today than I did yesterday because that is the kind of person I am. I do things for my own reasons. I am only pleasing myself. Nobody makes me do anything.

I have no idea what you call this--maybe it is just insane--but I try not to lie to myself about what I am doing and it does help me to get myself moving sometimes. I am actually hopelessly lazy and defiant--a perennial precocious, rebellious child--and I'm nearly eighty years old. The only way I got this far is by admitting to myself how apt I am to sabotage my own best interests and to choose not to do it quite so much. Knowing I am free to choose is very important to me.

It is a concept that was just empowering enough that I managed to get through some lengthy challenges, largely because of knowing I was choosing what I did.
posted by Anitanola at 12:38 PM on September 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

Wow, I have this too. I think gmb's suggestion is really good.

One tiny lifehack that I've had modest success with is to simply frame "I have to do X" as a "will I" question when I think about it. This doesn't at all address the underlying problem as stated but I've found it to be a way to skip over some of the rebellious, paralyzed procrastinating. So instead of sitting there going, "I have to crank these widgets, I have to crank these stupid widgets, I'm not gonna--I have to crank these widgets," I train myself to ask, "Will I crank these widgets?" And then I just start doing it.

But to better address the underlying problem: you need to find a way to achieve flow. There's a whole cottage industry of lifehacker BS around Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work at this point, but the book itself has great examples of even assembly-line work being made enjoyable by focusing on personal factors that may be unrelated to the goals of the task itself: for example, focusing on timing yourself and beating your personal best does not make the widget-cranking any different, but it does give you your own personal motivation (whatever you actually care about) that you can focus on instead of "gotta crank these widgets or my boss won't give me a raise." This, I think, is similar to gmb's solution as a way to more quickly jump into the "enjoying-the-task-for-its-own-sake" rather than focusing on exterior motivation. [A random first search result for strategies on achieving flow in work.]
posted by EL-O-ESS at 12:43 PM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding Anitanola.

My own variation is that sometimes -- when the projects are steady and frequent enough -- I try to look at the situation from afar, as "getting paid by the universe to exist" and "paying the universe back by doing the jobs that present themselves." (I know that may sound silly, but it alters the connection between work and reward in a way that's helpful for me.)
posted by GrammarMoses at 1:19 PM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I also have trouble working when I am overwhelmed by consequences, whether they are good or bad. The only thing that helps me is practicing meditation and reading up on mindfulness, a little bit every day. Rewiring the brain in this way helps calm the part that wants to analyze every aspect of the task in front of you, which only sucks up the energy you might've used to actually do that task and replaces it with crippling anxiety, which increases the more time you spend rebelling against the task.

The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh particularly helped me out. Parts of it are about the physical practice of sitting meditation, which may or may not be of interest to you, but he also writes about how to mentally get to the point where you wash a bowl for the sake and enjoyment of washing a bowl. If I remember correctly, he suggests washing for minutes beyond the point which it is clean and focusing entirely on the task as you do it. The point is to get yourself to think "now is the time to wash the bowl" and nothing else. You are doing a task because this is the moment in which it is time to do the task. This eliminates the thought of any consequence, good or bad. But it does take some work to get your brain thinking this way (or not thinking so much, as it were).
posted by houndsoflove at 2:08 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would try to frame it differently in my head. You're talking as if the work you do only affects you. Therefore the only consequences of whether or not that task gets done on schedule are the consequences that affect you: you get a pat on the head or a kick in the butt. It is possible that this is the case. If you are still in school, for example, the consequences tied to a given project are often something only you will bear, and if you don't care all that much about grades (either as a good in their own right or as a means to another end, like grad school) then it can all seem a little arbitrary.

I think the answer though is to broaden your focus a little bit and think about your work (or to find work) where there are actually real-life consequences that have nothing to do with arbitrary punishments or rewards. For example, if you are working as support staff for an expedition company, then the reason you pack up new supplies and load them all in a truck and drive for four hours is not because you want your boss to think you're industrious, but because there's an expedition out there waiting for you to give them those supplies, so that they can, among other things, have enough to eat for the next 10 days.

I can sympathize with you, because I also get really stubborn if I think someone is trying to tell me what to do for no good reason, but the way I've learned how to be a decent worker is to focus on how finishing the job is going to affect other people, instead of just how it's going to affect me. Because if you're working somewhere decent that is not obsessed with busy-work just for busy-ness' sake, then there will be reasons why your bosses are asking you to do a lot of things, and most of the time it won't just be because they want to torture you.
posted by colfax at 9:19 AM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

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