Advice on how to not compulsively wasting time and change my life.
December 9, 2012 4:57 PM   Subscribe

I may be overcomplicating this, but I feel like I need a little help. Deeply deeply lazy, unambitious, unfit and often just feel super-klutzy. All of this is getting to me. horrifically self-indulgent long post to follow, but would greatly appreciate the bluntest of advice.

It has recently dawned on me that I've had a steadily more worrying pattern of wasting time, especially on the internet since about 2007. maybe even earlier. I'm 21 now, and was 16 then. I used to spend a lot of time on a small forum when I got home from school, looked at links, did little else. I hardly ever did homework or studied much. I did read a fair bit, but that went off the radar too, except for occasional bursts. Then when I was preparing to apply to university, started getting hooked on another forum. University applications and college (i'm from the UK, so senior years of high school) didn't turn out as well as they could have. Took a gap year, meant to find a job and read loads - which I kind of succeeded with, for a while, in that I applied for a few things and read a few of the books I wanted to, but still spent maybe 6 hours a day just on the internet.

Then I got talking to the girl who would be my first and so far only girlfriend, it eventually became an LDR, but our general schedules fit so that it would basically involve me being on Skype to her from about 6pm to 3am every day for at pretty much a good few months. Neither of us had the most demanding social life at the time. I think she's also similar to me in what I'm trying to say here, but in less drastic a way.

this pattern kept repeating itself, even at university. When I didn't have concrete plans to meet friends or go out, I'd waste it on the internet. Often just reading articles and wikipedia trails, but in such a buzz of skim-reading that I could never instantly recall much of it. I have probably finished a grand total of 5 of the books prescribed on the reading list for my degree. I am coasting along fine, through a mixture of last-minute deadline-crises and being vaguely intelligent.

I'm now at the point where I don't think it's a stretch to say that, if we just shoehorn 'socialising' into a 'weekends' slot, then most of my weekday evenings from about 5ish to sleeptime for the last 3 years have been spent doing nothing much on the internet.

This also means that I basically cannot remember the last time I gave anything a sustained effort. This goes way back. GCSEs and A-levels were generally coasted through, the former more than the latter, and I did okay enough to go to a fairly well-to-do university in the UK. Now though, there are essays that I would tinker over in my head but never concretely plan, and when it came to crunch time I think I had a basic anxiety-inducing thing of 'don't want to try this in case it fails' mentality, which in its worst stages meant I handed in first-class essays but often two days after the deadline, which basically means I handed in a mediocre essay once the grades are adjusted.

I know that on its most basic level, this is as simple as me just repeatedly breaking myself out of a habit of laziness and complacency i've been forming for nearly ten years as far as I can tell. I was one of those kids who at a very young age was always just told I was smart, but let it get to my head and basically have nothing resembling a work ethic now. at all.

And I think this zombie-like state of instant gratification i get from the internet also means that I haven't really developed any healthy sustained interests or hobbies that make me feel like I know what I want to do with my life for the next few years after I leave university. I'm currently on an exchange year in Berlin, and this year was meant to be hwen I made a change and tried to get a clearer start on that, but nothing's really changed. I go out to meet friends more, so I guess I waste less time on the internet, but as an example, I woke up nearly 13 hours ago. In that time I've had breakfast, had a big late-lunch early dinner thing, watched some episodes of tv. Anything else is just.. general filler. it's often stuff like reading essayish things from LARB while looking up new music, but it is also just as equally aimlessly clicking through facebook, not knowing what i'm doing. just to be clear though, I have pretty much never successfully gone through with 'Let's not waste any more time and just do the [general work] due in for tomorrow!' while at home.

I kind of looked down on doing sports as the preserve of 'jock kids' when i grew up, and it basically means that i am quite unfit right now (I could manage maybe an 8 minute jog before having to stop, I'd guess) and also have hideous co-ordination with most things. it sounds trivial, but after a while it gets tiring being 'that guy' who's laughably bad at stuff that like pool, minigolf, bowling, ice-skating, anything remotely like that. just like, man. I've made attempts at starting a running routine or forcing myself to get better at swimming (had a previous thread on that, hasn't worked out well for me so far - it is quite embarrassing to go into a pool and not be able to co-ordinate the required arm, leg and breathing stuff) as a sort of symbolic thing of 'YEAH, be more organised and tidy and productive' but it's never lasted.

as a contrary example, recently I had to go on a family holiday to India. at one point, we were in a rural village where I knew nobody to hang out with, had no internet, and nobody who'd want to call me or anything. Just a bedbound grandmother, my parents doing errands, and a lot of farm animals. I'd packed a good few books that I'd been planning to read. In that quiet ten days, I read 3 books and about 500 pages of another novel I'd bought about 2 years before but kept telling myself I'd read and never did. Pretty much one of the only periods of time where I felt like I spent my spare time how I wanted to.

I think I'm basically incapable of delaying gratification. I remember hearing about that study conducted with marshmallow-rewards and little kids, and finding out that those who were successful in delaying gratification and waiting for the extra marshmallow generally 'did better' at life than their 'EAT IT NOW' counterparts.

I know this entire thing is incredibly self-indulgent, but I guess i'm looking to hear from someone from MeFi who's been at a point of just being hopelessly lazy and unproductive and turned it around. it's just that, for someone as obnoxiously lazy and unmotivated as i am, none of the things that it affects has reached a great crisis point - I just keep adapting and coasting through, which makes me feel like everything would just be so much more rewarding and deserving of self-respect if I actually developed a good responsible work ethic.

So, really sorry for all that. But any advice or general thoughts would be great.
posted by lethologues to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I went through a period of high-level laziness in my 20's. Eventually I got tired of just playing video games and going to my part-time dead-end job. I never used to think I was the type of person who wanted more, but yeah, I wanted more.

One day, you will also tire of doing nothing. It might be because you will have to start supporting yourself or die, or because it just gets old.

There is still time to get your sh!t together. You are very young still. Try thinking about what you can do in a day or a week, instead of feeling intimidated by long-term goals. Start crawling forward.
posted by Deodand at 5:12 PM on December 9, 2012

I was like you for a long time. I also felt unsatisfied with my life because I felt like I could have done so much better in everything that I did but it just wasn't easy for me to simply do better. The problem was that I was doing quite well coasting along things. I had yet to fail anything and even though I half-assed everything, I still managed to get As.

It wasn't until I failed a midterm that I thought I would pass and received a stern lecturing from a professor that I realized I was unhappy with my life. I didn't have any accomplishments to speak of and I didn't like how lazy I was. I think it helps to go into counseling and to talk to someone about it. It helps to have someone support you in it. I also think it helps to realize that you have a problem and that you want to fix it. I wish I have more to tell you but I only recently started dealing with this.

I do want to tell you that I am turning my life around. It's slow but I'm comforted by the thought that it's not impossible.
posted by cyml at 5:13 PM on December 9, 2012

I guess the first question is: are you actually unhappy? Forcing yourself to restructure your life requires a lot of motivation, and if you're not unhappy, and don't have anything that you're pining to be doing instead, it might be difficult to push yourself to make that change. And again, if you don't feel like you're missing something, is there a reason to make that change? Spending time aimlessly on the Internet isn't any worse than aimlessly watching TV, aimlessly sitting around, aimlessly gardening, etc.

So I think maybe what you need to ask yourself is, what would you rather be doing instead? Socializing? Picking up a particular skill? Spending more time on schoolwork? Just not being online?

Some general suggestions: Go for a lot of long walks and get to know your city. It's not necessarily more productive, but it's free, healthy and will get you away from your laptop. Try to find some events on weeknights, and force yourself to go, even when you'd rather be sitting at home. And on those days when you genuinely don't feel like doing anything else, enjoy yourself without feeling guilty about it.

But I'll be watching other answers to this question with a lot of interest, because I haven't necessarily quite figured it out yet either.
posted by eponym at 5:18 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

One thing that stands out to me is the physical klutziness. How serious is this? I ask because it can be a symptom of ADHD. The other stuff sounds like it could be just basic motivation issues, but in conjunction with the clumsiness, you may want to look into being screened for ADHD.

Absent that, it really just may be a motivation issue. If all this is stuff you feel like you *should* do instead of stuff you *want* to do, then it's going to be hard to get and stay motivated. So where you can, find non-Internet things you do actually want to do. I hadn't been reading as much as I wanted to, so for a while, I gave myself "permission" to read whatever fun trash I wanted, which got me back in the habit. For school it may be harder, but is there a way you can reward yourself for success there?
posted by lunasol at 5:27 PM on December 9, 2012

i'm looking to hear from someone from MeFi who's been at a point of just being hopelessly lazy and unproductive and turned it around.

While I definitely haven't kicked the internet habit entirely, this is pretty much me. Up until maybe a year ago, I was in a very similar situation to you - never worked especially hard at school or uni, spent every evening surfing the internet or playing games for years on end, and generally living an unhealthy lifestyle.

One of the biggest lifestyle changes I made was in my diet, and that's something that I'd recommend looking at first. For a very very very long time, I ate sugary junk food on a daily basis, and rarely bothered to cook for myself; I was never overweight, even without exercising, but I still didn't realise how awful it made me feel till I cut it out. One morning, I woke up and decided I was going to stop eating junk food, and then I spent the next week or so going cold turkey and obsessing over internet articles about sugar addiction and telling myself over and over that I was capable of doing this. And then I kept it up, somehow - I've backslid occasionally since, but I don't feel nearly the same dependency on sugar that I once had. As another commenter mentioned, going for walks is also a fantastic way to get healthy and detach yourself from the routine that you've fallen into.

One thing that you don't mention in your post (as far as I can tell) is any kind of outside work. Have you had a job at all? If you haven't, that's understandable - but it's also something that I'd strongly, strongly recommend. While I've always been horrible at motivating myself, the external motivation of having responsibilities and immediate deadlines, even when working at an office job, is something that really helped me - it really brought home to me that productivity is not just something I'm capable of, but also something that can be enjoyable. It's taken a while (and several different jobs) to develop to the point that I'm productive even in my leisure time, but it's definitely achievable.

I've also benefited a lot from the type of work I do - I'm a grad student and occasional ESL teacher, both of which I love, even when they're super stressful. I don't know what you're planning to go into, but what are you studying? Do you genuinely enjoy it? Do you want to know more about the subject matter, even if you feel unmotivated to actually pick up a book and learn? Additionally, do you feel fully confident in your ability to learn? A lot of what you say sounds like it could be related to impostor syndrome or hidden perfectionism - is it possible that you're unwilling to attempt anything proactive out of fear of failure? This is stuff that you could definitely talk to a therapist about, especially if you have free counselling available at uni (I know a lot of unis have it), so think about that.

Finally, I got kind of into figuring out how to become more productive and healthy, which can be an addiction in & of itself. I started reading up on exercise/healthy eating advice and on 'life hacking' tips, and then incorporating them a bit at a time. I got addicted to wunderlist (a to-do list tool) and went on crazy productivity spurts. I started getting out of the house every day (mostly to coffeeshops or the library) just to work on my laptop - even if I didn't get much done, I still got myself into the 'work' mindset in a way that I knew I wouldn't at home. I set constant (but doable!) goals, and kept a spreadsheet to keep track of them. In the next few weeks, I'm going to be starting mission101 - I've started a couple times before and failed, but I have my fingers crossed (and honestly, even if I fail again, I won't judge myself for it).

Good luck, and Memail me if you'd like to talk more!
posted by littlegreen at 5:36 PM on December 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here's some 'tough love' advice which may be simplistic, and will definitely be hard to follow. But I'm really serious here: force yourself to DISCONNECT FROM THE INTERNET.

I'm way older than you (nearly 40) and I've been reading consistently and deeply my whole life (BA in Politics and History + law school). I was always very good at sustaining concentration while reading long, in-depth books and articles. I can't tell you what a number the internet has did on my powers of concentration.

Basically, I got into the exact habits you are describing: browsing some good and interesting stuff interspersed with a ton of mindless surfing, resulting in hours of my life melting into...nothing. It reached the point where I could feel how much more my mind jumped around when I tried to read anything more in-depth for more than a few minutes. It actually frightened me.

The only thing that worked for me was filling my schedule with other activities, and forcing myself to follow through. I joined the most expensive health club I could afford, and scheduled in four group exercise classes a week after work. I HAVE to go to them; that is my rule for myself. (I'm utterly useless at sports, by the way, so I feel your pain here: turns out that I love bootcamp-style classes and the buzz they give me). Looking after your physical body improves your mental wellbeing out of sight. I also set up some standing dates with a friend, and joined a language exchange club. I have other rules, like: no internet surfing is allowed until I've returned all phone calls and emails, no logging on after 9 pm, no laptop/smartphone usage in the bedroom.

However you do it, just train yourself to limit your internet usage. It's not easy at first. For example, I was so unfit when I started gym-going, it was torture. Now, nearly a year down the track, I'm the fittest I've ever been, and I feel antsy if I miss a session because I love it. But don't expect to feel different about everything overnight. Just stick at it.

Having said all this - of course, there's awesome content to be found online. I'm not dissing the internet, it's an incredible resource. Unfortunately, web-surfing trains your brain to leap from one thing to another, skimming along the surface in a rather unsatisfactory way. Ninety percent of the online stuff that most of us peruse, really is 'filler'. Life's too short for filler.

Best of luck!
posted by Salamander at 6:07 PM on December 9, 2012 [11 favorites]

I would suggest, firstly taking up a martial art that includes a bit of physical conditioning.
Even boxing would work quite well, I imagine.

Secondly, I would suggest working through a book with a therapist who specializes in working on procrastination. e.g. "The Now Habit"

A system of meditation such as Vipassana meditation practice "Mindfulness in Plain English" or zen meditation would work as well.

but in such a buzz of skim-reading that I could never instantly recall much of it

Keep a journal or some system of notes - ask yourself "what did I just read?" and then jot down notes.


The key issues here seem to be mindfulness and procrastination.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:53 PM on December 9, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks a lot everyone! This is all really useful advice, and I'll get around to using it soon. I feel I could maybe elaborate on two things

It is definitely the case, I think, that I am scared of doing anything proactive in fear of failure, and from what I've read, it's a semi-common trait that develops among kids who were praised as not needing to try at school because they were intelligent. And I sense this affects other parts of my life too - for the longest time I've had the oddest anxiety every time I have to buy clothes. When I wear my dad's old clothes that happen to fit well, that's fine, but somehow the idea of having to spend my own money on clothes, and the risk that it might look somehow 'awful', really makes me anxious, even though I know that with most things, if you just wear well-fitting clothes you're bound to look halfway decent.

I should also say that I waste a lot of time just staring into space and doing things a lot slower than they could be done. Cooking a standard 25 minute dish will take me an hour. Although it's gotten better since then, my ex once got tearful because she hated it when she'd say at 8, 'let's make dinner!' and for some reason, I'd be so sluggish that everything would only be served by about 10.

Most mornings now I don't get out of bed when I want to either - I sleep past my alarm, wake up, stare into the ceiling for half an hour and then get out. It doesn't seem to matter even if I have classes to go to. In the 3 months I've been here, I've constantly been trying to get myself to go the local swimming pool at 7 in the morning, so that at around 8 I will have done something useful and fun but still have plenty of time on my hands. The few times I've done that have been really great, but I haven't been able to motivate myself to do it regularly when I've been here. ah, I dunno. Thanks for everyone's advice though!
posted by lethologues at 3:23 AM on December 10, 2012

I would recommend you meet yourself halfway. If 7 is too early to get to the pool, why not try 8? Or even 9? (As an example). Accept that you're a slow cook - and see if you can focus on enjoying the process of cooking instead of putting pressure on yourself to perform.

Because, that's what I'm hearing: you have high expectations for yourself and seem to be building a case to demonstrate you're too unmotivated to meet them. You "should" yourself into doing things instead of doing things because you would "like to". Meanwhile, this in itself could explain why surfing the internet is a zone of comfort for you. It sounds like, when it comes to most other activities, you're not really doing them to enjoy them, but doing them to feel accomplished.

So, to me, I would start small and start with a change of focus: find ways to be good to yourself.
posted by Milau at 5:12 AM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

A blacklist app for the internet to help you 'disconnect': SelfControl.
posted by lalochezia at 7:07 AM on December 10, 2012

I'm 29 and had your problem. The health advice is good but your easiest way out of this is to be caught up in something you find so enjoyable/meaningful that it pulls you away from the Internet. Your best chance at finding this is to cancel your Internet and give away your computer if possible. If you need to do schoolwork you can make an arrangement to use a friend's computer at their place -- they'll want it back before too long which makes this work.
posted by michaelh at 9:22 AM on December 10, 2012

Hello! My name is dragonplayer and I'm a recovering perfectionist. A lot of my procrastination fell into the category of "oh, I can't do a good job in ten minutes, so I'll do it tomorrow. Or next week. When I get around to it" etc.

What helped me was several techniques from FlyLady. One lesson was 'you can do anything for 15 minutes'. So I picked up the habit of using a timer. I set it, did something like a chore for 15 minutes, then stopped stressing about it. Also, write a to do list and check it first thing in the morning and at night for the next day.

Eventually, I went to Remember the Milk for a to do list that can send me reminders via Twitter or text message or mail. Also, I got a timer app for my iPod that lets me personalize what each timer says. One says "Move Along" for times when I hang out a Metafilter too long. I set it for 20 minutes.

I tried Internet blockers like Leechblock for a few months. Add a personalized message if you go this route so it reminds you to do something specific like a chore or exercise.

Finally, I gave myself permission to screw up. I make sushi that looks like mashed nori and my homemade pizzas are lopsided, but they both yield the result of getting things done.
posted by dragonplayer at 11:36 AM on December 10, 2012

It is definitely the case, I think, that I am scared of doing anything proactive in fear of failure,
Yeah, this is and a bunch of other stuff you listed are on pages 1&2 of "The Now Habit".

You should read it. If you don't end up doing so, when you get back from Germany, see a therapist at your school who specializes in procrastination.

Or just work through the book, already. :)

What helped me was several techniques from FlyLady. One lesson was 'you can do anything for 15 minutes'. So I picked up the habit of using a timer. I set it, did something like a chore for 15 minutes, then stopped stressing about it.

This is also described as the pomodoro technique - learning to love your inner tomato (timer).

I've constantly been trying to get myself to go the local swimming pool at 7 in the morning, so that at around 8 I will have done something useful and fun but still have plenty of time on my hands. The few times I've done that have been really great, but I haven't been able to motivate myself to do it regularly when I've been here.

Buy a sledgehammer and use it on non-pool days!

I've just started that routine of a burst of rigorous exercise, and I'm pleasantly shocked at how it helps me tick off to-do items. Cheap, and fun, unlike push-ups.

Also, write a to do list and check it first thing in the morning and at night for the next day.

The Getting Things Done book, movement, and apps describe this.

Your best chance at finding this is to cancel your Internet and give away your computer if possible.

This particular commitment strategy may be unreasonable. Try working naked in an empty room and having your maid come back with your clothes in 3 hours. Source: some russian playwright. Or having a non-internet connected workstation for drawing (or writing), and a separate standing desk with a browser, like some of Pixar's artists do.

Heading to a cafe for a pre-lunch coffee with a book or writing pad and Not Bringing a Browser-capable Device may be more realistic.

If you have to look something up, use a timer:
alias ff5='firefox & sleep 300 && killall firefox'
(I've got this in my .bash_aliases file.)
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:28 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

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