How do I make myself do things?
December 12, 2014 10:25 AM   Subscribe

I've always been really bad at motivating myself to do necessary tasks. However, this has finally gotten to a point when it's actually hurting both my personal / work life. What's the best way to solve this problem? Simply telling myself: "you have to get this done before you can do X" never actually works.

I've had this issue for a while, and I notice it most with emails and small, day-to-day tasks. Even when I know that A) reading and responding to this email will benefit me and B) it will literally take 2 minutes, I still find these things taking hours, if not days, for me to motivate myself.

Been to a therapist, really not a fan of his approach so I'm currently seeking another. I'm just curious about ways that others have dealt with this problem, particularly in terms of how you could reframe these issues in your head.
posted by aleatorictelevision to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
Instead of wasting brain space trying to toss the task over and over in my mind, trying to convince myself I really should do X now, I don't think about it. I remove the thought process and I just do it. I don't think, "I should really call about issue X, I know I hate phone calls, but it won't be so bad, and once it's done it'll be so much better. Maybe in five minutes. Or tomorrow, I'm so busy tonight." Instead I stop thinking, and I start the motor movements involved in that task. My brain doesn't even have time to convince me otherwise that way. By motor movements, it can be as simple as moving your hand to click on that link for the email. Move first, then think.
posted by Aranquis at 10:42 AM on December 12, 2014 [23 favorites]

Is there someone you trust to whom you can be accountable for some of these things? Someone who can ask, at regular intervals, about tasks you want to complete?

I find it very easy to convince myself that I'll get to things "later," but when someone else is involved, I tend to snap into shape. Maybe that will build a habit?
posted by xingcat at 10:42 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suffer myself from demand-resistance. I'm seriously like a ridiculous petulant child in my head. i.e. in my mind: "You have to do this." "Well, then, screw that, I don't want to. You can't make me! Neener neener butter eater!"

When I find this happening, I try reframing these tasks as choices. "I choose to respond to this email now because it will cause me less anxiety over the long run." In that way I have no demand to rail against, so to speak. Then I do the thing and feel like a smart, able adult who chooses to get shit done rather than a kid being forced into omg like worst thing in the world any human has ever been forced to do, fml.
posted by Falwless at 10:46 AM on December 12, 2014 [17 favorites]

My husband has huge issues with things he "ought to" do, and has made a lot of mental progress by turning tasks into things that he can choose to do or choose not to do, based on the outcomes. I'm talking about things that would be weighing on him with the aura of "If you were a responsible adult you would do this right now" (substitute "good son", "loving husband", "good employee", "competent businessman", "reliable friend", etc).

Now that he's framing things in terms of "if I want the electricity to stay on, and I don't want the stress of getting a 'payment overdue' notice, I should go to the power company website and select "pay bill", it's less of a mental kettle of fish, seeing an envelope with the power company name on it doesn't involve recriminations for not having done it, worry that I'm going to yell at him, belief that the power company thinks he's a bad person, worry of what his dad would say if he knew, feeling that this is just another sign of his impending failure at life, etc. What goes hand in hand with this is that it's okay to decide not to do something. If you don't take the trash to the curb this week, that's okay, you're still a good person who can handle life just fine, you're simply choosing to carry trash to the curb next week, which is in most cases a fine choice.

It's been interesting for me working to cut "should and "ought" (etc) out of my vocabulary. It turns out a lot of that stress came from why my mom told me was appropriate social behavior; so then I can consider if I want to be just like my mom, and I can decide that no, it's not important to do X, or yes, it is important to do X because of (reasons), and those reasons are not "because that's what good people do". There is a lot of stress involved in keeping up with your mental Joneses.
posted by aimedwander at 10:52 AM on December 12, 2014 [17 favorites]

This is going to sound weird and may possibly be unhelpful, but since I live alone I'm mostly the only one that can do things for myself, and I've started thinking of Past Me as kind of a second person. Like, Oh, Past Me made coffee last night so I can drink it this morning, thank you Past Me. Past Me also filled up the car earlier so I don't have to try to do it while I'm running late for work. So I think of things I would want Past Me to have done the same way some people share little household tasks with a spouse or roommate.
posted by Violet Hour at 10:55 AM on December 12, 2014 [36 favorites]

Try structured procrastination.
posted by flabdablet at 11:02 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sometimes it works if I remind myself, "Self, you don't have to feel like doing a thing in order to do the thing."
posted by clavicle at 11:04 AM on December 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

I struggle with this too, and I use a similar approach as most of the others, by focusing on the consequences. I also use timer rounds - some are 5-minutes, some 15, some an hour. The timer keeps me from catastrophizing so dramatically, as I can be prone to doing (ugh, it'll suuuuck, I don't feel like it, it's going to take soooo looooong, it's haaaaard - these things are rarely actually true).

I also tell myself "suck it up, Buttercup" on a regular basis, and remind myself that the various pleasures of adulthood are paid for in getting shit done.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:12 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Cut things down into small tasks, maybe comically small. Like, if you have to reply to an email, your first task is to click the little reply arrow, your second task is to write one sentence, etc. You can subdivide these really far down.

Give yourself permission to stop after each tiny task and do something else, deferring the rest until some undetermined time. You have to actually give yourself permission; it doesn't really help if you're still beating yourself up about not getting things done. Sometimes it might be worth deciding in advance to stop after one task, no matter what.

This is inefficient, but less inefficient than chronic procrastination, and it doesn't have to apply to everything. I find it works best when the procrastination is related to anxiety and dread, and when the things to be done really are easy. As an example, I just did one dish.
posted by vogon_poet at 11:17 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Find a friend to hold you responsible. At the start of the day, email them the list of things you have to get done; at the end of the day, you report back. For every task you didn't complete, you have to donate $X to a nonprofit you don't support (say, the opposing political party).

Drastic? Yes. But maybe it's a way to kick-start habit formation.

You might also check out sites like Zen Habits and read up on willpower.
posted by hishtafel at 11:38 AM on December 12, 2014

Timers are the answer for me. You have to, for example, change the cat litter, which is no fun. You set the timer for, say, half an hour, and that half hour is absolutely and completely yours. When the timer rings, you get up, you change the cat litter, and then you get to go back to what you were doing. (Obviously this also works with a list of Things to Get Done.)

Another use for a timer: say you have a big task that's boing to take quite a few hours to complete, or at least that's what you predict. You get ready to start the task, but before you begin, you set the timer for an hour. You work for an hour, and then you get to stop, and you cannot under any circumstances be held accountable for returning to that task that day. (Tomorrow will take care of tomorrow.) It is fair for you to say, when the timer goes off, "I'm going to finish this task while I'm at it," but that is understood to be absolutely optional.

And a third use. Say you have something onerous but finite to do like a big pile of back filing. You want to finish the whole job. So before you start, you estimate how long the job will take, and write this down. Then you start your timer, you do the job, spit spot, and when you're done, check the time elapsed. It's almost certainly going to be a lot less than you estimated. And so the next time that particular job crops up, you can remind yourself, "That other time I went through a foot-high pile of filing in 24 minutes, so how bad can it be?"

Also I find most tedious tasks go better with music you love, so get yourself a soundtrack. You can even sing along assuming nobody but a tolerant partner is around at the time.
posted by La Cieca at 12:12 PM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

I do the Past Me thing, only the reverse. As in, "What can I do now that will make Future Me a happier (or less miserable) person?" I consider what I am postponing and the trouble involved for Current Me in doing that thing I'm trying to avoid vs. how much better life will be for Future Me if I go ahead and do it. Plus everything else that's been suggested. Especially nthing reframing and making the decision to do or not do X a conscious, adult choice rather than mindlessly defaulting to my oppositional toddler tantrum-prone brain and going "Don't wanna, don't wanna, don't wanna!" Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 7:17 PM on December 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

Do you have an iPad or other tablet that you can easily carry around with you?

I am terrible at garnering the motivation to get small tasks done, whether it be washing the dishes; filling out the return form for, and re-packaging an order that didn't work for me; packing food to take with me tomorrow, etc. I also love YouTube and Netflix.

What helps me is to put on a show or YouTube video that I enjoy, prop it up next to my work area, and get to work. Even if my attention is needed for returning an email, just having that pleasant background noise takes away some of that I DON'T WANNA noise in my head and replaces it with something I like. It's a kind of distraction, I think.

Maybe it's not the healthiest coping mechanism, but it's far better than not getting things done!
posted by sweetpotato at 12:07 PM on December 13, 2014

I sometimes sneak up on myself and start doing a much despised task unexpectedly. Once I've started, I give it a decent amount of time. I don't know how I do the sneaking up - it's sort of impulsively doing stuff. I prefer the suggestions above, but sometimes when they don't work, avoiding the anticipation of something unpleasant - nah nah nah can't hear you, brain, not going to think about it ... [do lots of other things over period of time between 5 minutes and 5 years] ... Ok, let's do it.
posted by b33j at 3:33 AM on December 15, 2014

Do very small things. It builds up.
Timers worked great for me - the key was to not be afraid of using very small increments: 1mn,5mn work better for me if I'm in a "I can't do anything now" mode, because the prospect of doing something for 15mn can sometimes be daunting in itself
I find that external pressure (being accountable to friends etc) is very effective, but costly energy wise, and not really sustainable - I tend to only use it for when everything else fails...
posted by motdiem2 at 11:55 PM on December 15, 2014

I don't have this problem so much anymore because I started getting treatment for ADHD, but something that worked for me was pretending. My inner dialogue would be something like:

"Hey, I am my super productive alter ego Tarumba, and I will do all things and do them WELL. Here I am filling up my tank, like an adult. Now I am doing all my banking because I have my shit together! Now I am calling customer service because I am the grown up who gets to do all the things I wanted to do as a kid! I use cell phones and press buttons! My 10 year old self would be so thrilled that I am now driving a car, to do my own grocery shopping no less!"

It sounds silly, but it really did work for me.
posted by Tarumba at 8:18 AM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

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