The (little) Voice
October 6, 2012 2:00 PM   Subscribe

I am interested in finding out what you say to yourself to snap yourself out of inertia and get or stay productive.

I come across strategies for staying productive quite often. Many of these involve things like organization and/or planning. While I think these are definitely helpful, I think that we all have that moment where the little voice inside our heads dictates whether we let inertia set in or we get (or stay) productive. I often have trouble starting but also keeping things moving once they've started.

So I want to find out what works to keep you moving. What do you say to yourself in that moment? What do you think about?

Share whatever works for you but please be specific, and brief.

What excites you just by thinking it or saying it?
What motivates you to, say, stop playing a game and start working on something?
What creates urgency for you?

And also, what do you say to yourself to keep your momentum going once you've started? So instead of saying "I deserve a break" too soon, you actually push on?
posted by thorny to Work & Money (29 answers total) 101 users marked this as a favorite
What creates urgency for you?

It's the thought of other people invading my space. Relatives, guests, whatever. A deadline. Someone reading my words, seeing my bathroom, egads, there are other people out there!

I can meander my way through a plot for days on end, leave the cleaning forever, but the thought of guests or editors looking at my things makes me cringe. I might just even sweep before they come.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 2:28 PM on October 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I remind myself that "action begets motivation."
posted by stowaway at 2:29 PM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think about death.

I'm an atheist, and not one of your tough-guy Dawkins types either -- the thought of impending oblivion terrifies me. I find it highly motivational to consider that in a hundred years I'll be dead, and I'll be really annoyed on my deathbed if I find myself considering that a significant proportion of my time was spent, say, looking at kittens on the internet.

I used to have a memento mori pinned up above my desk. You may wish to imagine that scythe-wielding skeleton saying something like "Welp, time's up. Hope you're not regretting the 194 hours you spent on Angry Birds!".

(Of course this may not work if you believe in a blissful eternal afterlife.)
posted by pont at 2:32 PM on October 6, 2012 [20 favorites]

I think about death every night. And then I wake up.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 2:40 PM on October 6, 2012

"Done is better than fun."
posted by mynameisluka at 2:45 PM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Much to my surprise.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 2:49 PM on October 6, 2012

pont, that made me laugh so loud the cat looked at me funny.

I use one of those pomodoro timers so that I can trick myself into doing "just 15 minutes" of work, and then "just 15 minutes more" and so on until I have either got into a groove or actually accomplished a thing. That said, tasks that contribute more concretely to My Glorious Future (a.k.a. well-compensated work) are more motivating than tasks that contribute to some abstract good (academic credentialing).
posted by katya.lysander at 2:53 PM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm having a similar issue, though from possibly a darker place. I'm trying to make myself more quickly aware that am in inertia and getting myself to ask myself (if that makes sense) at that point "What things have you achieved so far today?", with the incentive that at midnight or so I list those things I have done since waking up that morning.
posted by Wordshore at 3:10 PM on October 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I count to three. On three, I have to do what I don't want to.

Here's the thing about counting to three: its power is in the fact that every time I count to three, I do the thing I don't want to (starting a task, getting out of bed, stopping a game, whatever). I recognize the importance of having this power, so even though I don't want to do that thing right now, I really want to preserve the power of counting to three. So, as soon as I've counted to three, I have to do the thing. I can't ruin my productivity trick for the rest of my life just because I'm tired now!
posted by telegraph at 3:11 PM on October 6, 2012 [37 favorites]

Take a breath and hold it. You don't get to breath again until you've started the thing.

Ask yourself, "What's the most important thing I could be doing right now?" This works best if you stop doing whatever you were doing for a moment beforehand: take your hands off the keyboard, look away from the screen, or what have you.

Make yourself do nothing. As in, nothing nothing. No books, no iPhone, no Internet. Let yourself get bored. Boredom is the best motivation I've discovered.
posted by sixswitch at 3:42 PM on October 6, 2012 [8 favorites]

My dad was a basketball coach, among other things, and I always manage to get motivated when I tell myself to "Get on the ball". He used to say that when people were slacking off in general, they needed to "get on the ball". In my mind, I picture the task I need to do as a basketball. I need to "get on it" or I'll lose the game.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 3:48 PM on October 6, 2012

I start with the small things and use them as a success cascade. Just picking one of those universal goals, let's say I want to write a novel. Oh god, that's so much work. But it's not so much work to open Word. And it's not so much work to write an outline for the first chapter. And it's not so much work to jot a few thoughts for the next one...and by then, I'm on a roll.

Or I just watch this. Mainly to go to the gym, but it works for everything else, too.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:54 PM on October 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think about how much work I have, and how much I don't want to do it tomorrow.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:05 PM on October 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've created a Pavlovian response to a specific piece of music. It's some Goa Trance, and I put it on every time I want to get something done, but I'm busy procrastinating about it. As soon as it starts, I get to work.

It works because I've never let myself procrastinate about putting the music on. I procrastinate about tidying, or whatever, but never about putting the music on. And when it's on, the Pavlovian response kicks in and I get things done. I created the response initially by playing the music when I did have a sudden burst of energy and now it sort of works in the reverse fashion.
posted by Solomon at 4:15 PM on October 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

It doesn't matter what positive, motivating thing you say. You just have to say it at least as relentlessly as the negative, thwarting things you're conditioned to telling yourself all the time (whether you're consciously aware of it or not).

As we grow older, accumulating more and more baggage (i.e. "life experience"), we grow more and more negative, subconsciously, and we reinforce that negativity by creating an overarching narrative out of it. E.g. a stubbed toe is never just a stubbed toe, it's just the latest in a long line of systematic affronts on our peace and happiness by a cruel universe. That's what humans do, and, in the process, we lose our bouncy joie de vivre, becoming lethargic and depressed.

The only workarounds are to 1. create new narratives to tell ourselves (such programming is surprisingly viable; see any of those old corny self-help books ala "How To Make Friends & Influence People" or "The Power Of Positive Thinking", which, corny though they are, are far from nonsense), or 2. surrender so deeply and utterly (via meditation or via extremes of despair) that we lose all sense of being a separate being about whom narratives can apply.
posted by Quisp Lover at 4:16 PM on October 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

"Just do 30 minutes or this small task, then you can go play video games for 30 minutes."

Then I end up spending 3 hours on said task. I do reward myself with a video game session eventually.
posted by Hawk V at 4:37 PM on October 6, 2012

I find that just creating momentum by starting out small is key.
posted by Hawk V at 4:38 PM on October 6, 2012

Not sure if you mean motivation while at work, but if so here is what I do on those hard-to-get-started days: for every hour I work, I picture someone putting my hourly wage in a pile on my desk.
posted by veerat at 5:34 PM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is something I struggle with... sometimes I try to think of it like, doing a good thing for the future me. Almost like present me and future me are different people. So even though present me would really really like to keep sitting on the couch, future me would be so happy to have an organized sock drawer, or whatever. Almost like you're doing something nice for someone else.

(I may have even gotten this from MeFi, I can't remember)
posted by Asparagus at 5:37 PM on October 6, 2012 [10 favorites]

I'm skipping the other comments to add mine: the motivator is usually fear. You have to be worried about the consequences- getting fired, failing your classes, having your friends start to dislike you, etc. If you actually don't care about the end result/consequences, then there is no sense of urgency.
posted by bquarters at 6:10 PM on October 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Suffer the pain of discipline, or suffer the pain of regret."
posted by lollusc at 6:47 PM on October 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

I do go into the flight of the bumblebee cleaning when I know someone is coming over, but that's a throw-back from my childhood when my mom made us clean for company.

But to snap myself out of inertia, I have a weird trick, which may not work for you. I think of one of a few lines from movies... Either Yul Brynner from The King and I saying something along the lines of, "Of course now, Now is always the best time." (They were writing a letter in the middle of the night). Anyway, it gets me moving on something I've been putting off because now is usually the best time.

Or Rosalind Russell from Auntie Mame: "Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death." I don't want to starve to death, and life isn't gonna come to me, so I have to go out to it. That usually pushes me to start something.

I know, kinda specific, but I'm wired funny and it works for me. YMMV
posted by patheral at 9:50 PM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Unfuck your habitat.

The timer = get off your ass.

Motivation doesn't enter into it. If I wait until I'm motivated, hardly anything would ever happen. Timer goes off? Get off my ass. NOW.

I haven't had to marathon clean or catch up on laundry since July (which might not sound like much, but most of my NO REALLY, THIS TIME FOR SURE fixes usually last about a week or so, and this has officially entered 'we live this way now' territory.)

Next step: applying it to the job search, and some kind of exercise.

Here's hoping you find a system that works as well for you. Good luck.
posted by Space Kitty at 11:44 PM on October 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

"Is this leading me to my main goal?"

"Is this on my to-do list?"

"Successful people are motivated by a desire for pleasing results. Unsuccessful people are motivated by a desire for pleasing experiences".
posted by qsysopr at 2:14 PM on October 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

"Do it anyway."
posted by ocherdraco at 4:01 PM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Some great ideas, thanks everyone.

I guess I have a lot of training to do and this should get me started.
posted by thorny at 9:39 PM on October 7, 2012

Standard answer I copy & apste:

Action Precedes Motivation

Choose something. Do it. Just do it, observe that you are upset or frustrated or unfulfilled, and keep on doing it. Note your distaste, and frustration, but keep on doing it. Note you don't want to finish or watch the tv or be distracted, but keep on doing it. Note that it doesnt reach your scaly heights of perfection, but keep on doing it. Don't wait till you're in the mood. The mood will come after hours or days or months or years. But it will come. Till then, just do it.
posted by lalochezia at 6:32 AM on October 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Plan. Seriously--what allows me to overcome that voice is better planning. The little voice isn't all about your buzzing ego, I find it's also a response to the fact that the tasks before you currently lack emotional or practical meaning. If you're on the job and you have a rapid deadline approaching, do you have that little voice? Probably not. Because the stress guides you.

So, meditation will help. I love meditation, try to do 20 minutes a day. Meditation keeps you vigilant about those vestigial anxieties which are poisonous to anything worth doing. But also, plan.

I used to be you, constantly falling into inertia. Filled with ideas and all of them stationary and mocking me. Now my friends are like, 'how did you write that standup routine, go on two first dates, finish your paper, and fix your bicycle?' I planned it, is how. As someone above said, I make it urgent.

Here are my planning principles.

Every morning, with a cup of coffee, I do this.

1) Schedule all the things that are necessary. Not, like, my living room is slightly dusty, or, maybe I should read that book. No, first I just do things like, buy toilet paper, go to work, pay the phone bill, do your daily exercise. You need to be merciless about this, both in terms of including what you need to do, and ignoring everything you don't. Your living room's dusty? Cool, but dusting your living room is not how you're going to write your novel. So unless your friends are coming over for dinner, you should be writing.

To make this process easier, I have a list of weekly things I must do, which I check off every week. See mom, do laundry, check your bank statement.

2) Then, I schedule all the things I most want to do, from a box of cards that I review every week, each card containing a short or a long-term goal. Write some jokes. Read the book I've always wanted to. See a friend. Learn that hot new dance from that YouTube video. Whatever. Just as long as I know it's important to me.

3) HOWEVER--and this is ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL--I leave an hour free, and assume that anything I schedule will take 10 minutes longer. Stuff's always going to take a little more time than you think it will. And, if you happen to that day get things done with merciless speed, it's good to have some flex time, so you can, for example, write a long reply to Ask MeFi, or call a pal, or take a nice little walk down to the bakery where you really like the squares. Or get started on a really important other thing.

4) I carry this piece of paper around all day, in a specific pocket in my wallet--I leave a lot of white space on the front and back, so I can make notes on the plan, revisions if necessary, and write in things I'll need to do tomorrow.

At first, if you start doing this, your daily plans will get screwed with, because planning is a skill, and you're new at it. Some things will take longer, and sometimes you won't be able to do shit you thought you could at a certain time. That's cool. Everyone is productive in different circumstances--I've figured out that I'm best at creative work in the morning, and that in order to really read well, I need to turn off my phone and wear ear plugs. This is why you keep notes on your plan--because that's how you get better at planning. Planning is how you keep your future self productive, so learning to plan is the skill of making educated guesses about how your future self can overcome that voice.

Also, when I do anything with my own time that's going to take more than half an hour, I think about it in basic infrastructural terms, in writing if I have paper, in note form. This should take you maximum ten minutes, if you're focused.

1) What are the final goals here? Make them as coherent and realistic as possible.
2) Do I really need or want to do this--or is this just my insecurity, saying, 'you need new clothes'?
3) Is this something that I need to just bang out, or will it respond in a linear way to an increased amount of effort?
4) What's the first step? Is that really the first step? Could you come up with five different first steps, at which point the real one will be obvious?
5) Is there any way I can make myself accountable for this? Can I set a deadline?

When I've answered these questions, it's no longer something abstract that I can sit and look at and worry about. It's something as unambiguous as drinking a glass of water. At this point, your little voice has lost a lot of its material. You might think, 'God, planning every time I have to do something?' I do too, sometimes, and then I remember all of those afternoons of meandering, unproductive work, doing the academic equivalent of trying to make soup with a toaster.

I know a lot of MeFites like Getting Things Done, which is a book that criticizes daily to-do lists. I like that book, but daily to-do lists, if done right, can be helpful and not menacing. A lot of the principles I use are extolled in this old book called How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, by Alan Lakein. It's a bit out of date, lots of advice for the young secretary, but it's also how Bill Clinton learned how to run his life, so that's something.
posted by insteadofapricots at 8:53 AM on October 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

I just came across this "Invocation" today by Zefrank that made me think of this thread. I suspect watching the video (or reading the text - also available as a poster) might help me get started on projects in the future.

A couple of my favourite bits:
I’m scared.
I’m scared that my abilities are gone
I’m scared that I’m going to fuck this up
And I’m scared of you
I don’t want to start, but I will.


And when I get that feeling in my stomach — you know the feeling when all of the sudden you get a ball of energy and it shoots down into your legs and up into your arms and tells you to get up and stand up and go to the refrigerator and get a cheese sandwich — that’s my cheese monster talking. And my cheese monster will never be satisfied by cheddar, only the cheese of accomplishment.


Perfection might look good in his shiny shoes but he’s a little bit of an asshole and no one invites him to their pool parties.


Let me not think of my work only as a stepping stone to something else, and if it is, let me become fascinated by the shape of the stone.
Actually, probably the phrase cheese of accomplishment will do the trick all by itself.
posted by lollusc at 2:27 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

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