Help with a 12 month attention span?
February 25, 2013 1:56 PM   Subscribe

I seem to get 'bored' with everything in my life - friends, relationship, job, country - every 1-2 years. I then make major life changes and it is starting to seriously affect me. Has anyone else experienced this situation? Does it get better? If not, do you have some good coping strategies?

Since finishing university I've noticed that I can't stick to anything for more than a year or two. Jobs that I've been really enthusiastic about, hobbies that I've enjoyed and mastered, new places, new people (both friends and SO's).

This is affecting me adversely in several ways:

- I don't feel like I've achieved much. I'm currently looking for a job and my CV reflects my life; a bit of a mess with no narrative.
- I don't bother committing myself to things wholeheartedly, so e.g. I won't learn a new language in a new place, or take up a time-consuming hobby. 'Whatever, I probably won't be here next year anyway!'.
- I'm starting to feel dishonest making commitments to others. This is the biggy and applies in my professional and personal life. Becoming aware of the trend, I'm increasingly cautious about making big commitments like 'of course I'll deliver this multiyear project!' or 'let's be flatmates!'.
I'm concerned that I'll never shake this... and therefore never be in a position to have kids, as I'll be all enthusiasm for a couple of years and then lose interest. (I've already missed one opportunity and regret it keenly several years later. I still think it was the right decision.)
- Towards the end of a cycle, I lose all motivation. I start to know that I'll be moving on and I find it hard to maintain any pretence that I'm not. Work and relationships suffer and I let people down. This is happening to me now, particularly at work.
- I miss the places and people I leave behind, but I find it awkward to stay in touch. My 'old friends' are really the ones who persevere with me for reasons that I find pretty unfathomable. I've got a lot of funny anecdotes involving people that I'm no longer in touch with and wish I'd got to know better.

I'm asking this here because it's hard to discuss all this with the people in my life:

1) it's a privileged problem to have and I'm embarrassed explaining it face-to-face. It's the kind of thing that 17 y.o. me would probably have been proud of and it comes across like I'm trying to cast myself as a mysterious globetrotting loner. And of course this lifestyle is only possible because my appearance, education, accent, etc makes it easier to find jobs in new places.
And 2) it's basically putting them on notice that I will at some point be disappearing and will probably not stay in touch. This makes people understandably uncomfortable. Oh, and it seems like I'm inviting them to persuade me to stay.

Is this something others are experiencing or have experienced? Should I expect this to change? I'm already starting to dread my next 'fresh start' this summer, having to pull up the roots I've put down where I am - that's a new feeling, and hopefully positive. But I'm still perversely excited about it.

If it isn't going to change, what are good coping strategies? Should I just run with it and be more open about probable consequences? ('I'm super-excited about [X], but I should warn you that I will almost certainly find it boring in a few months, even though I find the idea unimaginable at the moment!') Or should I try to stick it out and make smaller changes at a time? (New job, but in the same place, or new hobby? ...I have tried this to some extent and it hasn't really worked).

I was never diagnosed with ADHD as a child or medicated, but it seems probable that I had it to some degree (description of behaviour from family members plus family member who is a paediatrician telling me, unprompted, that they're sure I had it). I work with young people with ADHD and ADD now and find it very easy to put myself in their shoes. Assuming I did have it, the hyperactivity part disappeared during adolescence but I still find it difficult to concentrate on tasks for more than a short time. Possibly connected?
posted by Isn't in each artist (7) to Human Relations (18 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Challenge yourself to stick with something for 18 months. Sign a lease, commit to a job, get a significant other.

Often because you're so up in the air, you're not making friends and becoming comfortable in your environment, which leads to dissatisfaction which leads to making changes.

You'll find that it takes 18 months to really settle in and fell at home in a place.

If, after that time period, you don't want to stay, then don't. But you gave it an effort.

I would discuss with a thearapist to see if there's an issue, mentally, physically, but you may just have become used to being a gypsy, and it may take some training to settle down.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:00 PM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

My father dealt with this sort of thing by getting a job that completely changed every 3 or so years: college professor. Yes, some elements were the same on the surface (he did research, taught, worked on department committees, wrote papers, etc.) but the substance of those things differed as his research interests changed and as he discovered new interests that applied to his field. He remained in wildlife biology for the duration of his career, but started by doing research overseas on birds and ended up working in artificial intelligence (modeling animal behavior, which is how it applied to his field). He also had many hobbies: photography, woodworking, jewelry making, etc.

My own path is similar, except that I end up going back to school and getting a new degree every time I make a change.
posted by telophase at 2:13 PM on February 25, 2013

I'll address the ADHD thing: I don't think this is necessarily caused by ADHD, but I experienced the same thing for most of my life, until I started treatment for ADHD.

When I started ADHD medication, I was 32 and had moved 9 times in the 10 years since graduating from college, and had had 7 different jobs with 6 employers, in addition to 2 years in grad school. At the time I was thinking about moving cities (I'd been in my current city for 1 year) and changing careers. Incidentally, it didn't solve the problem of the 1-2 year itch, but it allowed me to stick it out through those restless periods. I came out on the other side really, really glad that I hadn't just uprooted my whole life.

I'm still a bit like this. I've been with the same employer for the past 3.5 years, but I've actually had 3 different jobs with that employer in that time. But the difference is that 2 of those jobs were promotions. I'm not just hopping willy-nilly from experience to experience anymore - I'm actually building experience and skills. And yeah, to echo telophase, it helps that the last two jobs are ones where the work is always new and different, and most of my projects are short-term.

It might sound like I'm recommending that you get treated for ADHD, but I'm not, necessarily. I think the key thing is to figure out a way to deal with the restlessness that you experience at those 1-2 year intervals, and find a way to process it. Therapy is good for this.

And of course, in some ways this is a useful trait. You have had and will have lots of adventures and a very interesting life. It's possible that one thing that's keeping you from changing this about yourself is that you like this idea of yourself as a restless vagabond (I know I did, and I still miss that self-image a bit). But I do think that one important step in one's development is to learn how to stick out the boring times, or the things that make you restless, because a lot of good stuff comes when you make it through to the other side of that.
posted by lunasol at 2:22 PM on February 25, 2013

Are you still close/in touch with your family? If so, you've already proven that your "one year attention span" isn't absolute. So what is it about those people that has kept you talking to them?

Do you have any interests that you keep up, year after year? Do you watch any sports? Follow any teams? Like any particular style of movie or book? If so, your attention has kept with those interests, as well.

I think you're hitting the one-year disinterested mark because that's about where things start getting difficult. Rather than being the new kid on the block to get to know, just learning the ropes at a new job, being a newbie in a new place, you have to go through the difficult process of not just scanning across experiences, but drilling deeply into them. It takes work to be more than a dabbler.

The good news is, there's nothing more to it than doing it. If you commit to staying at a job for, say, three years, you're going to find those coping strategies to stick with it, because you'll be bored and frustrated otherwise. And it's totally worth it!
posted by xingcat at 2:23 PM on February 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Wanderlust and many different occupations throughout life is not a bad thing in itself. The thing that strikes me as more troubling is the relationship aspect, especially friends. What is your relationship like with your family? And what does it mean that you grow bored with people? Do conversations stagnate?

It seems like it may be a good idea to work on deepening the ties you have, to see how fulfilling it can be. Have you ever been in therapy?
posted by namesarehard at 2:24 PM on February 25, 2013

I too, struggle with a wide variety of interests, and "resetting" my career every few years. I found this book very helpful, maybe you will too: Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher. I found that I'm not a dilettante, I'm just curious and an insatiable learner. I lose interest in things, not because of anything that's wrong with me, but because I've satisfied the curiosity of whatever my original question was. The book also helped me recognize that, when I really sit down to think about it, I have actually accomplished a lot. And I can always go back to anything I've set aside in years previous.

But, I understand that interests and careers are not the same as relationships. But, maybe you'll find this book helpful for at least some of the questions you are facing.
posted by moonroof at 2:39 PM on February 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

I don't have an answer - however I'm exactly, exactly like this too. I'm addicted to the beginning of the learning curve - in relationships, in hobbies, at work...

Don't know if it might help you to hear similar life stories, but, maybe it'll make you feel better to know you're not alone.

I can spend 2 years dedicating money and time to something that seems to me like the most important thing ever, then just drop it. The best example is my recent bout with triathlons. I trained 10-12hours a week for the past 2 years, bought pretty good gear, competed as much as I could, was a member of online communities, had friends I trained with, etc...

Then I stopped abruptly. I'm now into rock climbing. I'm still pretty bad, and don't know many people, but I just love the high that comes with meeting new people, learning the ins and outs of a new challenge.

I'm also going through the same with my job - it's great, the people are interesting, the pay is good, I'm well respected. But I'm looking for ways out actively.

I have a few enduring friends who are, exactly as you said, the ones who keep bugging me even when I'm not great at following up.

I don't see it as a problem, more as a personality trait. The fact that you are aware of it makes it adressable, especially in relationships. If there's someone you care about, be very aware of your flaw and let them know. They'll be more forgiving, especially if you try very hard to give them the most you can.

I'm also feeling a little sad that I'm not excellent at one single thing. But that's often more than compensated by the fact that whoever you meet, you most likely can talk to them about something you once spent some time on, and can engage on that.

Anyway - sorry for the rant/threadjack. I'm definitely interesting in what others think!
posted by Riton at 2:41 PM on February 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Super-quick reduction: I have some of this in my life. I was adopted, and raised in a home that left me feeling perpetually criticized. I had pretty much no friends in school until high school.

Fast forward to now: I'm in my late 40s, and I've had a long serious of short relationships (6mos-4years) and short jobs (the same). The opinion of all three therapists I've had (and AFAICT it's true) is that, lacking a sense of security in my home and neighborhood, I developed an "I'll dump you/quit/screw up this good thing, so at least I'll know how it will end." Since my "subconscious" doesn't believe that security can be counted on, it manufactures outcomes that at least give it "control" over the future - even if it's disaster-bound, at least it has a known and reachable target.

I say "AFAICT it's true", because it never feels that way to me - but then, I'm inside the person who's talking me into these fateful decisions. If the diagnosis is correct, then I'm a good enough liar to fool myself into believing there's an objective, independent reason for every time it happens. But my life is not a long string of coincidences that happen to look a lot alike; I have inputs that somehow create these repetitious situations.

That's what I'm working against. Don't know if any of it is meaningful to your situation, but HTH.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:01 PM on February 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm kind of the same way, perhaps not to the same extreme but I still find myself having the urge to "shake things up" (new job, new location, etc) every 2-3 years. For various reasons I've become a bit more settled down geographically as of late, but I don't think I'll ever completely shake the urge to change every several years - nor do I want to.

One thing that caught my eye were the issues you mentioned regarding friends/SOs - if you don't make the effort, it's all too easy to lose contact with them after you've relocated and "moved on" to the next stage of your life. I'm not sure what to suggest on that, except that my experience has been that 1) Facebook, skype, etc is a godsend, and 2) most true friends are happy to hear from you again, even if you're half a world away and it's been years since you last spoke.
posted by photo guy at 3:41 PM on February 25, 2013

It sounds like you're enabling this behaviour a little by phrasing it as something inevitable and avoiding anything that might interfere with this cycle... which isn't really the way to go about ending it, if that's what you want to do. Basically, it sounds like you're pre-emptively disengaging from anything you might find cumbersome later on. Perhaps it might be worth looking into what these situations have in common for you that you might find uncomfortable or frustrating to deal with.

I was raised military and have often used that as the reasoning for why I want to move or shake things up so often, but I really think it's more related to being bored and unhappy. I hated living at my old place and wanted to change things so badly from fairly early on (I didn't really get along with my roommate, I didn't like the building/management, the location was OK but not awful, etc), but now I'm living with two of my closest friends and I'm incredibly saddened that I might be leaving in August for grad studies. (I am diagnosed ADHD and am medicated but I see this as much more tied to my depressive cycles than anything.)
posted by buteo at 5:15 PM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Are you running from something? Something from your childhood?

I ask this not to be glib, but because I have been the same way since I left my home state at 17. Now, a decade later, I am (for the first time) experiencing what it feels like to want to stay. 2012 was a year of self-examination for me - spurred on by a fair amount of trauma - and after getting into some serious therapy I realized that this whole time I've been running and reinventing myself because of a catastrophic event/series of events that happened to me during my very young years.

Now, that said, I wouldn't trade the experiences I've had for anything because they've made me the person I am today, and I like that person. But since you say you're dreading pulling up roots again, I'd sit for awhile with that feeling inside yourself, and really start to examine it.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 6:23 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

How old are you? I think that has some bearing. I'm 37 now and until about three years ago I was very much as you describe, lots of short-term stints of relationships/jobs/locations - I was usually the one to abscond and it was a glorious roller coaster of highs and lows and exploration and breadth. Something changed in the last couple of years though and longevity began to feel like a new kind of adventure - mainly because I think 'starting over' became old. I got really, really good at reinvention, and it stopped being a challenge. It wasn't conscious but I think I just started daring myself to stick it out, to see what happened if I didn't bail at the first hurdle. To say 'what if I'm still here tomorrow? What then?'. And I didn't plan where to begin this new modus operandi, I just started digging in the place I'd landed at that point.

Honestly, it's been a revelation. Turns out that sticking at a job you're pretty good at reaps huge rewards in terms of trust, responsibility and autonomy. Relationships that go beyond initial connections reveal greater depths and new mysteries. Just hanging in there on a random interest can present you with a whole slew of opportunities you never would have known existed otherwise. It's like unlocking secret levels - new dimensions to stretch and grow. I'm still not sure why the shift happened but I think I just tired of being a perpetual novice. So maybe in time this will happen to you too, in the meantime enjoy the ride.

Having said that, there's definitely something in sevensnowflake's comment, it might be worth checking whether you're currently running 'from' rather than 'towards'. You may be a rolling stone forever and - as long as it's your choice - it's totally fine, but if you're not sure try talking it out with a good friend or counsellor.

Also, I'm not sure if your comment about missing one opportunity to have kids means what I think it might - in any case it's all good. You weren't ready then, otherwise you'd have chosen differently. It doesn't mean you'll never have the opportunity again. It sounds unbelievably lame but honestly, stuff comes to you when you're ready. Trust yourself, if the the time comes to commit - for whatever cause - you'll know and act accordingly.
posted by freya_lamb at 7:28 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some things I've done to make the upending my life easier (I'm almost 32 and have had 13 addresses since college).
- Have a "home base" city that I return to after stints elsewhere. Helps with building close friendships, minimizes amount of annoying logistical stuff (e.g., where do I buy socks).
- Make changes with a narrative in mind. I've held a bunch of different jobs that all tied back to the same general interest. Look for things that build on or extend what you're doing now. Also look at your experience and manufacture a narrative around it.
- Figure out how to get the change you want in a healthy way. I really liked temping and made decent money at it. I've kept the basic tools for a bunch of hobbies so they're easy to start up again when I get the notion, but I don't haul around a huge stash of parts/materials.
- Save like crazy / live below your means. Money and the ability to live on little of it will be useful to you in a wide variety of possible futures.

Also, since you've only done wanderlust, consider that you may be overestimating how good it is to stick with something. It's common for most friends to drop away after you move, even if you've lived somewhere quite a while; you will always know more interesting people than you became close to. A lot of people who have stuck with their job/marriage for a zillion years are miserable.

My experiences with committing to the next thing/person I liked and trying to force myself to settle down went really badly. Especially if the years of upheaval mostly cover your 20s, the jobs probably weren't that great, and the people you were dating probably weren't that ready for lifetime commitment. Consider that changing a lot may have been the rational thing to do.
posted by momus_window at 8:11 PM on February 25, 2013

I'm 25, feel this way, and don't think it's so unusual (at least, if you're my age). Up until recently I've literally never done anything for more than a year or so. College took four years, sure, but it was broken up into short semesters, and each semester was pretty much a whole new experience from the last. I didn't do sports or join many clubs as a kid so I didn't grow up having the extracurricular continuity from those things either.

Since graduating, I've switched jobs approximately once a year. Many of my friends do the same, given the opportunity.

I do feel that it reflects an underlying unease or dissatisfaction. Over the course of a year I'll gradually build up various annoyances and complaints about my current situation, and when an auspicious looking time rolls by - job anniversary, or a lease ends, Jan 1st, etc. - I'll have this urge to blow everything up and start over. This time I'll love my job, be a better person, live in the perfect apartment, etc.

There's a concept in Buddhism, "samsara" - roughly, "cycle of suffering", which describes this state pretty well. It's when you find yourself trying to synthesize happiness via external factors (the usual suspects - money, women, fame, etc.), instead of finding ways to be content with the present. The happiness never lasts, and you constantly have to find new things to chase. A Buddhist would kindly suggest you try to let go of this drive towards chasing outward success, and focus on finding peace with where you are right now. Of course, this flies in the face of all the advice for being a successful adult I've ever been given. That advice is all along the vein of setting high goals, pushing yourself hard, and deriving satisfaction from achieving them. But seeing how many people experience depression despite outward success makes me question that advice.

Consider meditating, not just when you feel restless, but even when you feel like you're in a good place. The self-awareness you build can help you recognize when you're genuinely dissatisfied with your life, or you're just having a bad week.
posted by wonnage at 1:07 AM on February 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't think living this way is a bad thing at all (aside from the friendships aspect.) In my view, life is meant to be experienced in all its richness. Personally, I think the point of life is to have a many experiences as possible.

I'm a job-hopper. I've moved around a lot. I've lived in three different countries and I don't regret a thing. Pay attention to who is sowing the seeds of guilt in your mind -- is it people who have steady, stable careers in jobs who are afraid to try anything new? Pay no attention to people whose life you wouldn't want anyway! Society and the corporate world wants us to think that job-hopping is flakey. People who are predictable and stable are better for companies -- but being stable and predictable isn't always the best option for you personally.

I've worked in the communications field for 8 years. I've job-hopped quite a bit since then but each time I've moved on to a better job. One good thing about job-hopping is that you are more likely to move up the salary ladder quickly than by staying at the company. If you stay at the same company for many years you are lucky if you get a raise that is on par with inflation -- if you negotiate well with each new job, you are more likely to increase your salary.

I've come to terms that I am more suited to contract and project work. It's ok -- I challenge you to re-examine if your job-hopping is really a bad thing!

As for hobbies, I've learned so much by trying out new things for a year or so. I was on a knitting kick a few years ago, haven't done so much of it lately but in the meantime I've learned casting and mouldmaking, metalsmithing, embroidery, sewing and was recently thinking about another knitting project.

Life is short - experience as much of it as you can!
posted by Pademelon at 4:47 AM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

What about scheduling breaks two or three times a year? Getting out of your daily routine for a short time may help adjust your yearly reset button.

The scheduled break doesn't have to be a trip. It can be a time to go have lunches with people whose brains would be good to pick or a time to revisit your expertise with an old hobby.
posted by dragonplayer at 7:58 AM on February 26, 2013

I experienced a similar persistent feeling of impermanence - is that an oxymoronic statement or what? - from age 18 through about 31.

I started out in college far from home, then dropped out, then moved to the west coast for a couple years, then moved to a different coastal city for 6 months, then went back and finished college for a few years, and then a couple more moves and internships and odd jobs until I found my first real "professional" job around age 27. And then I thought, is this it? Just work work work until I die?

I still had that wandering urge, but I also knew that I was getting older, and at some point I wanted a home - as in owning real estate - and a mate and maybe children too. Getting older, you start to realize that you have to make some choices if you want certain things (esp if you are a woman, the possibility of kids).

So I made a deal with myself, I would stay at that professional job for 3 years, and both enjoy the city I was in, but yet save up for retirement. If life hadn't started moving in a more settled direction (house/mate/kid) by that time, I would take the saved money and take a year of "retirement" in advance.

At the end of year three, taking stock I found: two failed relationships, both which I thought had potential, but I was single; the job was ok, paid well, but I was starting to feel burned out; and I was living with 6 roommates in an illegal loft - fun, but well, maybe not a good idea for the long-term.

Turned 30, bought a camper van, pulled the savings, and set off for a year to travel the U.S.A.

It. Was. Amazing. I had no one to answer to, I charted my own schedule and route, I visited old friends all over the country, I found new firends everywhere. I went to fantastic events like Mardi Gras and Burning Man and the Art Car Parade in Houston. National Parks were wonderful: Hiked to the tip of Angel's Landing in Zion National Park, tiptoed over sharp lava rock at Craters of the Moon, gaped at elk and buffalo in Yellowstone, meditated under rock formations at Arches in Utah. Never in my life- before or since- have I felt so free, so in control of my destiny, so fulfilled.

Allowing the wanderlust free rein ended up putting the wanderlust to bed.

Coincidentally, on the trip, I met my mate-to-be. He invited me to come stay with him when I was done travelling. I did, and never left. While we've moved a few times since we met, we have been in the same general area for 11 years. We had a child together. We married. We bought a house. I've been in the same job for 7 years now. I'm happy here. I don't know if I could have done these things without "seeing it all" first. Just my nature, I think, as it may be your nature. Embrace your nature, enjoy your life, follow your heart.

A wise friend told me once, "You have the rest of your life to find security. You have only a short time in which to be young."
posted by Ardea alba at 8:47 AM on February 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'm not sure if this advice will be helpful or not...

One of the things that I do to keep that high of having new interests even while committing to longer things is to figure out how to create variations WITHIN the larger structure. For example, I worked for 20 years at one company, but I moved to 3 different departments and held 10-12 different job titles. And in the position that I held the longest, every day I was presented with different kinds of problems to solve so I loved it for many more years than the other positions. And now I have an awesome pension waiting for me when I retire.

I've lived in the same house for 20 years, but we've remodeled twice and we've redone the outside landscaping a lot. Because of the city where I live, I can change my leisure time interests and do hiking, biking, watersports, museums, different cuisines, etc. I can putter in the garden and go to a gala ball in the same day. As my kids grew, I faded out on one group of friends and started with another one. I did it again after they moved out, still keeping the best of the individuals, but letting go of all the group things that I got bored of.

Life has everything to make you happy; you just have to figure out the best way to make it work for you. If you love changing everything every year, then embrace it and go for it. But if you don't love it, then figure out a way to make the big things stick and then work on making smaller changes within your bigger structure to satisfy that itch for new experiences.
posted by CathyG at 2:09 PM on February 26, 2013

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