Life without a motor?
October 17, 2013 7:03 AM   Subscribe

I've never had much motivation to do anything, or much ability to persevere, and this makes life a chore. I feel like I was born without a motor - like other people have some source of energy inside that drives them towards their goals, while I tend to just drift passively and hope the things I want come to me (they don't). Talk therapy hasn't helped much, and I'm not sure what to try next.

I've never had strong life goals that I've felt driven to achieve; most of my life choices have amounted to taking the path of least resistance. I seem incapable of commitment, hard work, or perseverance because I'm just not excited enough by anything to put in sustained effort. This means all work feels like a chore, and I really don't want this to be the case for the rest of my life.

I only really ever had two ambitions in life, one professional and one personal: to be a novelist and to find love. So far (mid thirties) I've failed at both: the former, because I didn't put in the work and because I could never think of very much to say; the latter, because I'm basically a hermit (I'm ill at ease in social situations, have trouble making connections with people, and have very few friends). So basically, the only two things I ever really wanted seem to be out of my reach, so it's hard to feel motivated to do anything at all. I have hobbies (I read a lot, and I've taught myself several languages and musical instruments) but they are all solitary and don't hold my interest for very long. I've tried going to classes of various kinds and volunteering, but it all left me cold and I stopped pretty quickly. As for academic work (I'm in grad school), I do what's expected of me, if there's a deadline coming up, but I can't put my heart into it.

I'm not depressed; I've suffered from dysthymia in the past, but these days my mood is mostly fine, though I'm bored much of the time (as I've always been since childhood). I was in therapy for a year and a half but stopped recently as I didn't feel it was going anywhere. I'm not sure what to do. The solitariness and the sense of lacking a motor are things I've known all my life, and it's hard to believe they could change. (How would anything change unless I changed it, and how can I change anything when I have no drive, willpower or perseverance?) Structured therapies like CBT only work if you commit to doing the exercises, and knowing me that's unlikely to happen. I don't know if medication would help since, as I said, I don't think this is primarily a mood problem. A pill won't make me more interested in or comfortable around other people, or help me find purpose in life, will it?

So I'm at a loss as to what to try next, and any thoughts would be welcomed. Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
ADHD something you've thought about?
posted by oceanjesse at 7:05 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, firstly, you may well be wrong about this: a pill won't make me more interested in or comfortable around other people. If you are depressed, and you are prescribed medication that works for you, that is exactly what it will do.

But secondly, remember the importance of constantly re-evaluating your goals and motivations in life. In the words of Bruce Lee, be water - for some people this means wearing down the obstacles in their path, for you it may mean changing your course. I have a friend whose goal has always been to be a musician. She's found another career that makes her super happy and fulfilled (her words) but because she never did the thing she wanted to do when she was a kid, she calls herself a failure. It's such a shame!

Your two goals - love and novels - are big and scary. Have you considered altering them, perhaps from love to having a small set of close friends? From novels to writing reviews of the books you love (you're a reader), or translating them (your languages)?

Also, you say your hobbies aren't social ones but that's also not necessarily true - you can join reading groups, language-sharing groups, an orchestra, big band, or other musical group, try all of them that are going before you give up on them!
posted by greenish at 7:18 AM on October 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

As for academic work (I'm in grad school), I do what's expected of me, if there's a deadline coming up, but I can't put my heart into it.

What are you in grad school for? Maybe it's the wrong thing. Even if it's the right thing, graduate school can be depressing and demotivating.
posted by BibiRose at 7:22 AM on October 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Do you exercise? A regular exercise routine might help.
posted by alms at 7:25 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

You've painted a grim picture here, but that just shows that you're good with words.

Write about boredom. Not necessarily a novel. Write about what it's like to be bored, to have no willpower, to flit from hobby to hobby without much interest, to be a hermit. Try to describe these things in as much emotional and poetic metaphor as you can. Write what it is like to be someone like you.

Do not think you are writing a book, or that you have to have a plot. Write simply to capture yourself as accurately as you can. Let it be as long or as short as needed. See what happens.
posted by shivohum at 7:31 AM on October 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

"I seem incapable of commitment, hard work, or perseverance because I'm just not excited enough by anything to put in sustained effort."

"I'm ill at ease in social situations, have trouble making connections with people, and have very few friends"

"I have hobbies (I read a lot, and I've taught myself several languages and musical instruments) but they are all solitary and don't hold my interest for very long. I've tried going to classes of various kinds and volunteering, but it all left me cold and I stopped pretty quickly."
IANAT, but just from what you said, I would suggest that maybe your motor metaphor isn't exactly spot on. The stuff you describe seems at least possibly consistent with having a perfectly normal "motor" -- though perhaps not at Richard Branson levels, which is okay -- but also a lot of friction to overcome, namely the social discomfort.

I personally find it quite difficult to work towards a goal on my own out of pure internal motivation. But if I'm in some kind of team, it's very different.

For what it's worth, writing a novel isn't something one would typically think of as an breezy or motivating thing that only failures can't do. Even successful writers seem to describe it as nightmarish -- David Foster Wallace wrote somewhere that working on a novel is like giving birth to a horribly deformed baby that you care for intensely yet which also gives you fear and loathing. So, yeah...

Texts on how to get past creative block almost always seem to focus on doing something manageable every day instead of being stuck on a vague perfectionistic pipe dream. Morning pages is a great example from Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way.

I think that you would find something valuable in this dialogue. It's a recorded workshop session where a guy named David Gorman talks to a rabbi who desires to learn Hebrew. He feels inadequate, like a failed rabbi, because he doesn't know Hebrew, and this emotional thing itself prevents him from actually starting to learn. Gorman points this out and very clearly insists that it is irrational. He also says that in these workshops, it's a pattern that comes up again and again: a desire to achieve something is hampered by emotional insecurity regarding the very thing one wants to achieve.
posted by mbrock at 7:41 AM on October 17, 2013 [17 favorites]

I'm going to speculate here... Maybe you were born without a motor. Or, maybe, you want one thing - to write - really, really badly. So badly that it makes everything else seem kind of pointless and even irritating and like a chore because it's keeping you away from the thing you most want to be doing. At the same time, because you want to write so badly, it's terrifying, and because it's terrifying, you freeze up. You have high standards for what you produce (since it's the only thing you want) and that makes it hard to stay with your work for very long or to lose yourself in it in the way you'd need to in order to achieve something worthwhile. From the outside, it seems like you don't care about anything, but actually, you care too much even to try.

If this is the case, then all I can suggest is facing it (and I really like mbrock's advice along those lines). For me, what finally broke the impasse was getting - like really, really understanding - that if I didn't achieve this thing that mattered to me, I really would die without ever having done it, and no one would ever care but me. The flip side of not really caring about what happens is that you can actually risk things, like your academic career. If everything is a chore, and it's all going to make you feel equally unmotivated and bored, then you can afford to take a chance. Do you have a fellowship year coming up? Or a summer where you're supposed to be writing your dissertation, but no one will be checking up on you? Fuck it. Take that time and write your novel instead, or at least try. Sit down in front of your computer every day and do the stupid writing exercises and try your damnedest. At the very least, if you fail, you will know for sure that you tried for the thing you'd wanted most, and there's a kind of nobility in that. And if there are consequences for your academic career, so what? It never mattered that much to you anyway. Don't die wondering if you wasted your life too scared to attempt the only thing you ever wanted. I can't think of anything sadder than that.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:03 AM on October 17, 2013 [29 favorites]

So there's a lot of good stuff about mental health in here, but have you been to a doctor and gotten your hormones and such checked? Because if it were me resolving myself to going through years of soul-crushing ennui that could've been solved with "Oh your thyroid levels are low, take this pill once a day" or something, well...anyway, there's a lot of minor physical things that this could also be, so I'd at least get some blood tests run.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:34 AM on October 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

to be a novelist

This is a discouragingly difficult goal for two reasons: first, because it's huge (writing a novel is hard; getting one published is harder still); second, because you frame it as being rather than doing. Goals that require being something are hard to measure or break down. What would you need to do in order to be a novelist: write a novel? Write more than one? Publish one? Sell more than X copies? If this is an ambition you want to pursue, figure out some specific things you'd like to achieve, and make sure you've got smaller goalposts along the way to your larger goal. Before you finish a manuscript, you have to write a chapter; before you finish a chapter, you have to write for fifteen minutes, and so on. All big accomplishments are made of smaller tasks.

I find it easier to achieve goals that are not only broken down into doable chunks, but have a combination of ease and difficulty, and provide some sort of short-term satisfaction or reward. Running, for example: I can run slowly with little difficulty, but I can ramp up the speed or distance so it's more work for me, plus going for a run always makes me feel better immediately afterward. You need enough challenge to make working towards a goal worth your time, but not so much that you're too intimidated to do it regularly. And I can't overstate the importance of finding that bit of short-term satisfaction, because it's what will drive you to do it again and again. In some cases you have to go digging for that sense of satisfaction and consciously cling to it for a while, because writing or working out or cleaning the kitchen doesn't feel good in the same way that drinking a beer or watching a great movie does, but with a little awareness you can find it.

Internal motivation is like a muscle: you have it, but it'll be weak if you haven't developed it. You need to exercise your motivation regularly, starting in small increments. Often, the first step is just showing up, again and again.

I often feel like I don't have that motor, either, and a lot of times my "I lack motivation" complaints are related to lofty, prestigious things (I wanted to be a novelist too). But when I apply myself to silly small things, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle or keeping the kitchen counter clean, I do feel motivated, and I feel good about myself for having done them. And those things really do spill over.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:44 AM on October 17, 2013 [23 favorites]

It's OK not to be 'driven'. It's OK not to achieve great things. American culture tells you otherwise, but you don't have to buy into that narrative. You're a good enough human being just the way you are. We all drift along. That's the way the world works. All those world movers, great novelists, Don Juans...they're all just drifting along, struggling, never good enough, and at some point they die and are, invariably, forgotten sooner or later. That sounds sad but it isn't. Make peace with yourself.
Look into Radical Acceptance.
posted by The Toad at 8:52 AM on October 17, 2013 [8 favorites]

Quit telling yourself that you suck. You're in grad school! You have some cool hobbies! Your life is far from being a total failure. Your best effort is perfectly fine. Also: it's fine to want to enjoy your life, even if it slows you reaching your goals a bit. You sound a bit down in the dumps, and you probably need to deal with that before you take on a huge goal.

I've also had the sense throughout my life that I'm just lacking in ambition and lazy. What works for me is breaking things down into chunks and trying to make sure the process is enjoyable - I wanted to work with plants, I volunteered for gardening groups, tried some jobs I could get that involved plants, took some classes, and based on that experience went to grad school. You like to read - can you extend that into deconstructing texts to see what techniques you like and might want to use in your writing? Can you join a forum for writers, which is easier to dip your toes into than an in-person group?
posted by momus_window at 8:53 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
pretentious illiterate's speculations are spot on. That whole first paragraph is basically a distilled quote of thoughts that I've had for years. As for facing it and breaking the impasse, I'm just not sure how to get there. Risking my academic career isn't really an option for me because I'm a foreign student in the US on a visa, and if I drop out or get kicked out or even finish and don't find a job, I'll have to leave the country, and that's not something I'm willing to contemplate.

have you been to a doctor and gotten your hormones and such checked? Yes, including thyroid and testosterone levels; it's all within the normal range, though my iron levels are a bit lower than average (not actually anemic though).

The points that several commenters have made about my goals being too big, scary and ill-defined are totally valid -- I especially resonate with Metroid Baby's point about how framing goals as about "being" rather than "doing" is counterproductive. Lots to think about.

Please keep the responses coming, this is really helpful for me.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:54 AM on October 17, 2013

As a kid every single report card said that I did not fulfill my potential. Seriously, 4 marking periods a year I got that note. It became a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy which made my life less than it could be.

I guess there are some people with a motor. For me, there's no motor there's just habit. You dream of being a writer, then write everyday for 15 minutes. It doesn't need to be publication worthy. It doesn't need to be a novel. Just get moving in that direction and do it every day - without fail. If you miss a day, then no punishment and no doubling to make up for it. The next day it's 15 minutes.

One of my favorite books about this is Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. Not about being a novelist, but about writing. You don't need to write your whole dissertation today, but you need to write something.

Stop blaming the motor. Stop shaming yourself. Start small and make habits.
posted by 26.2 at 10:37 AM on October 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

So, okay. This is about risk. You're comfortable where you are if not exactly happy and you don't want to risk losing anything, but unfortunately, at some point you have to take a chance. I'm betting the writer thing is part of that: Because what if you take the risk and you're not very good or you're not good enough, then you've shattered that core conception of yourself, and that'd be the blow you couldn't bear. Likewise, I see the not being social thing as part of that: What if you put yourself out there and people don't like you or what if you get involved in that activity and the people are mean and/or you're not very good at it or you don't like it?

The biggest reason you're not finding things to write about is you're not going out and experiencing things and being around people, because there is, to paraphrase, a lot more weird shit worth writing about under heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your fiction. But you've got to take the chance.

So here's a suggestion that's pretty common in the writing world. Do whatever you want to do under a pen name. In fact, write things you explicitly DON'T care if they do well. Write tongue in cheek(?) erotica like that weird dinosaur porn that was going around. Write bodice-rippers. Write really hacky genre stuff. And if it doesn't sell or doesn't come out well, eh, who cares, it's not you, it's John Penname. If it DOES come out well, great, lots of writers write under a known pen name. But you're building the habit of writing, which is really what you need to do.

You need to get habit of telling stories, so when you go out to do things, you're gathering material. Why is that couple fighting? Why is that guy laughing? Why does that girl look nervous? Practice the storytelling habit.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:54 AM on October 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm writing this on the fly, so I don't know how helpful this would be, but from a career development perspective it seems that there are some underlying assumptions you have in place that you might want to reconsider or reframe.

The first is this idea about 'a motor'. One of the ways I translate this is a sense for some people that there is both this internal drive, excitement, enthusiasm that draws us towards some career path or just path in life, combined with this external, enticing activity that keeps us attracted and interested and engaged. Life caffeine, or sugar, it gives us energy. And for many people, it's totally true. But for many people, it's totally not. And yet they lives that they would describe as fulfilling or meaningful.

As I work at a university, I am aware of how many people associate academic careers as a 'calling', and the work of an academic as 'purpose'. Like some other fields (military service, the life of an artist, clerical life, the health professions, social change, etc) teaching/the life of an academic is often associated with these larger ideas of a 'calling'. One of the reasons why is the long training/difficult experiences you often have to endure/experience to pursue and achieve in these career paths. For people who don't 'feel' it, it can feel alienating, particularly as you're often surrounded by people who do feel this way, or at least are really, really trying to convince themselves that they do.

I think it helps to reframe your meaning of a meaningful life, to specific experiences you like to have. If I could strike the word 'passion' from any conversation of career paths, I would. And I say that as a person who is a field (University career services) that usually ranks as one of the career paths where people feel a ridiculously high level of satisfaction and enjoyment. I am not passionate about my work. I realize I enjoy the day to day activities of my work. It is often engaging and sometimes frustrating. It gives me the opportunity to do and/or pay for things I like to do, and I also happen to be good at doing. But not a person in my office - all career counselors - would use the word 'passion' or 'purpose' when describing our jobs.

I hate to keep trotting out that Anne of Green Gables quote - but it's important: That it isn't where you do in the world, it's what you bring to it. I realize that my life is less a coherent, driven whole, and more a series of a 100 small experiences a day. Less of an American style film: "One man, one Destiny! Passion! Greatness! Snowboarding!" storyline, and more of a French style: "This happened today, and so did this, and this and this, and wasn't it interesting, droll, trite, unexpected, terrible, lovely etc." storyline. And that is enough. More than enough.

All that said - if we were friends I nudge you to make sure that the person that you saw was a psychiatrist who is interested in psychotherapy and body/mind connection, rather than a general medical practitioner and/or a psychologist, because often addressing what's going on with your overall sense of well being needs to be looked at holistically - yeah, your thyroid is okay, but how are your vitamin D levels, and is there sleep apnea going on + what conscious or unconscious beliefs do you have that are affecting your perceptions, where did you get them, etc. is difficult to be sussed out by say an family medicine doctors who doesn't have training in psychotherapy, or a psychologist who doesn't have the medical training to assess what could be happening. You might just have less a 'this one thing is wrong' and more of a 'these 7 or 8 things - physically and psychologically- are all combining to wallop your well being - depriving your of your motor - and each one needs to be tweaked.

You aren't alone in feeling lost in the world. It would not be the worst thing in the world either if you continued your degree as you spend your life seeking to understand yourself - what you think, what you believe, how to tweak this and change that to engage in experiences that are meaningful to you, even as you learn to accept yourself for who you are now, in this moment. A person who feels like you are without a moment, and really, really frustrated about that. So I guess a question would be what is one thing you can do each day to explore that? Today, the answer was 'ask folks on metafilter', and that is great.
posted by anitanita at 11:20 AM on October 17, 2013 [14 favorites]

I've had this same problem for years. I was lucky to find a good therapist who managed to help me figure out the why's of it, and while you aren't me maybe this will be helpful for you in some way.

For me it's been all about managing anxiety. Social situation makes me anxious? If I don't go I don't have anxiety. Project makes me anxious? Well then, who needs project. Obliterating the "caring" about anything let me escape from that which could result in anxiety.

It's been hard to work on overcoming this, because overcoming it involves caring about it, but I am making progress. I've been working on creating habits, using a variety of techniques. Breaking down long term goals into manageable chunks. It's working, slowly and in terms of a year or two, not weeks, but it is working. As I make new habits and work through anxiety I am finding it easier to let myself care about goals and create desires, which then results in having more of a "motor" in my life.

You can memail me if you like to talk more on this. It's been a focus for me for a while, but it's not something you can drop into casual conversation. Hard to find support groups for general ennui.
posted by Dynex at 11:37 AM on October 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Seconding the comment that grad school can turn even a dynamo into the most demoralized, unmotivated person in the world.

Besides that, you don't sound particularly unmotivated to me, more like maybe you just haven't found what can sustain your motor. You may never find it (I think most people probably don't), but most mortals have to adjust their goals to find happiness, and there are some great suggestions for doing so above.

Before deciding that you lack a motor, though, get out of grad school and see if things change.
posted by walla at 12:14 PM on October 17, 2013

Seconding anitanita. You seem to believe people achieve goals due to intrinsic, internal "motor" that drives them to achieve clear goals because they feel intense passion and motivation -- a motor you "lacked" because you did not feel these things, therefore you are "justified" in not pursuing your goals ("incapable of hard work, perseverance", etc).

The truth is life is made up of the incremental, the quotidian, ebb and flow so gradual we may barely perceive it. Every single goal is achieved by continuously putting one foot in front of another. Those with clear long-term goals are far and few. Those who achieve those goals, even fewer, because goals change as time goes on, circumstances shift, and we change.

Sure, it seems virtually impossible to be a Novelist and find True Love. However, it is not difficult to decide that today, you'd like to do one random thing in order to write one paragraph about it, and tomorrow, you will randomly smile at one attractive person, even if nothing comes of it. Achieving goals is just this. Continuously.

There is no magic motor to life. The only requirement is that we never stop putting one foot in front of the other.
posted by enlivener at 1:16 PM on October 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

What percentage of the population do you believe really achieves specific and tangible life goals (particularly in the case of, "pie-in-the-sky" [actor, writer, model, ballerina, etc.] ambitions)? As to, "love" - you're aware of the divorce statistics, yes? The reality is, most of us don't know where we're going until we get there - with a lot of deviation and stumbling along the way. We tell ourselves and each other, "You can have everything your heart desires because you're special; we all are - yay!", but the vast majority of us just paddle along in a vast nameless and faceless sea of equally uninspiring and mundane individuals. That's life.
posted by Nibiru at 1:48 PM on October 17, 2013

have you considered joining a writer's group that meets regularly? or even a good book club? i realize you're in school and might not have a lot of free time but a writer's group would allow you to meet like-minded people with similar goals. or, take an artist's way class. doing something in a group setting around your desires would help you both work on your goals and meet others dealing with the same struggles. good luck!
posted by wildflower at 3:03 PM on October 17, 2013

Scott Adams weighs in. (Hint- goals are secondary to process.)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:02 PM on October 17, 2013

I feel like I was born without a motor - like other people have some source of energy inside that drives them towards their goals, while I tend to just drift passively and hope the things I want come to me (they don't).


You have to hoist the right sail and let the energy come from elsewhere. Other people.

Find a partner who will motivate you because your goals are now his or her goals. Join a group or three full of people (writer, most likely, but also other groups of energetic people) who do have motors and who will encourage you and work with you to help you do what you want to do.

You will need to find people to help you find other people. A friend to help you find a mate, for example. Which in the end means you need to at least be open about your goals to the people you do know, those very few friends you have now. Tell them you need their help and then accept their help when they offer it. That's how you hoist a sail and move forward.
posted by pracowity at 3:10 AM on October 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Risking my academic career isn't really an option for me because I'm a foreign student in the US on a visa, and if I drop out or get kicked out or even finish and don't find a job, I'll have to leave the country, and that's not something I'm willing to contemplate.

Okay, this changes things. From my own experience, staying in a rigorous, obscure academic field for years despite really wanting to be an artist-- you can learn and grow in any environment and there are definitely pluses to being in grad school. But I think it is better to recognize any negatives so you can deal with them. For me-- not saying this is you, although I think it is fairly pervasive-- grad school puts you in the mind frame that what you are doing is the summit of human endeavor and that there is success and failure and very little in between. As people keep pointing out in this thread, there is a whole lot more to life than those extremes.

But pushing through a grad program is a useful exercise if you don't let it deform you too much. Doing something very rigorous right at the outset of your career makes you sharper and it gives you a certain kind of life experience to write about. You know that thing about the unexamined life? Well, the unlived life is not worth examining, either. Identify what it is about your graduate program that will make you deeper, and embrace that.
posted by BibiRose at 3:37 AM on October 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hah, I have been thinking of writing a post like this myself. I don't have a high level of motivation either and it bugs the shit out of me, to the point where people (including my shrink) are now just telling me, "Can't you just accept that this life is pretty good and you don't have motivation and and enjoy your hobbies?" I hate this answer, mind you, but if I'm not super driven to write a book and specifically get it published--I write things, but somehow never have the interest/motivation to do the latter and lose all interest in my story after the first draft--it's entirely possible that they're right. I think most people don't have ambition other than to be with their families after work, but since that's not a substitute option for either of us, we feel at a loss. Everyone either focuses on their family and/or their career, and if we don't have either of those, why are we here? To read books and that's it? That's what I keep wondering.

With regard to the two things you want: Love is not something you can just....get. It's not a goal you can work to achieve and take care of it yourself. Well, you can try, but whether or not you can get it totally depends on someone else and if they are interested and if you get lucky enough to meet him at all. Which makes it something that makes you feel bad, because you can't just get it or take care of it yourself. It's a shitty goal that makes you feel useless because you can't do anything about it. It can't really BE a goal. So....I find that you just have to deal with not having it. Maybe it would solve everything if you could find a partner and then you're motivated by them, but you can't count on that happening. You can only deal with you.

As for the writing: I don't really know what your issue with it is, exactly. You kind of write like you want to "be" a novelist, not "write books." Which is more of a change of identity for yourself than it is taking on another job. And my guess is that you need to figure out whether or not you actually want to physically write books or somebody else with a bit of fame attached. I have to say it given the timing of your post--National Novel Writing Month is coming up and I do get more done that month than I do the rest of the year, and they talk a lot about just getting things on paper rather than worrying about how boring and shitty it is. I think it's a pretty good method. Even if you have nothing to say, feeling obligated to churn out 50k on something may bring you to places where you suddenly can think of shit.

You have high standards for what you produce (since it's the only thing you want) and that makes it hard to stay with your work for very long or to lose yourself in it in the way you'd need to in order to achieve something worthwhile. From the outside, it seems like you don't care about anything, but actually, you care too much even to try.

This may be true as well. pracowity may also be right in "you need people to buck you up and give you goals and take care of you," but in my experience, that's always easier said than actually found. If I desperately need other people to help me, I generally canNOT get them--other people have lives and families and frankly, don't have the time to be my babysitter and to get me going and to submit stories for publication for me or whatever. I am in an writing group and it's fun, but they're not gonna submit things for me either. I do feel like I need to solve this problem All By Myself because waiting on help only means I still get nowhere.

Maybe we just need to do things, even if we don't have a motor/motivation/ambition. That's why I do NaNo every year even if I don't have much to say--it's an external deadline someone else set and by now I've been doing it for enough years that I have the token motivation of not wanting to break my streak. And writing group deadlines are another external deadline that makes me do stuff as well. Might that help?
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:10 AM on October 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Graduate school is an awful place for people who aren't driven in this way. I ended up a lot happier when I gave up on it and went into a career where I have clear goals every day and work with other people who motivate me. I still have some issues, like I found that because I had trouble studying on my own to improve my skills, I was not really cut out to be a programmer and I moved into project management. I think it's kind of hilarious that I play a role where I am driving projects forward when in my own personal life I struggle to finish things, but it's a totally different situation. If I procrastinated about some crucial part of my own projects I'd just be disappointed in myself, if I did that at work, it could potentially ruin people's entire business and more than a few people would have some harsh words for me. This career shift required me to give up the idea of feeling fulfilled by my career in a grander fashion, which was hard, but I keep up my writing as a hobby.

When I was in graduate school (I dropped out, which I realize is less of an option for you), I often fantasized about some sort of productivity support group where people would hold each other accountable since so many advisors are so mediocre about it. Maybe such a thing does exist and you can talk to your academic advisor or department career counselor about it? Or you could make it yourself. In programming I found I had a lot of success with something called "pair programming," where I sat next to another programmer and worked on similar stuff while we were able to see each other's screen and bounce ideas off each other and also prevent each other from drifting off. Now I do some writing on the side and sometimes do that.
posted by melissam at 6:26 AM on October 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

I feel like you could have described me in this. I understand how you feel. Fear might be your real enemy, at least it's sounding like it. What are you afraid of? Possibly failure? I am. This is what prevents me from doing what I want to do. Also the enormity of a task... that's equally frightening. To put in a lot of work and then for it to come out crap, not up to my standards. This is paralyzing perfectionism.

In that vein, I just read this quote which gave me some inspiration. It's by author J.K. Rowling. "It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default."

Perhaps rather than seek perfection from the start, allow yourself to take the first steps and knowing that it won't be up to your standards. It's going to be hard work but work that will be worth it and you will only improve. Remember that what you might think is a failure is not that but rather just the building blocks toward success.

In terms of fearing such a large task- try to break up your writing work into manageable bits- give yourself shorter writing projects (these may be useful later for your larger opus). break up your novel into chapters, and break it down further if you can.

If starting is your problem, someone mentioned the Artist's Way- that's a great way to get yourself in front of the computer and start to write and even get over fear.

Perhaps if you get a taste of success, this will make you understand how it can be fulfilling to accomplish even a little of what you want to do and that will fuel your confidence and your motor to hunger for more success. In any case, you'll be that much closer to writing that novel you dream about.
posted by bizwool at 6:55 AM on October 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

If pretentious illiterate's comments ring true, then the procrastination book could help by explore how you can 'break the impasse.'
posted by umbĂș at 12:38 PM on October 18, 2013

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