Thoughts become things...sometimes.
January 27, 2015 4:21 PM   Subscribe

I've been depressed and lazy and consistently exhausted for the better part of a decade now. A good, productive day is rare, even on meds. Imagine my surprise then, when a few days ago I managed to clean my perenially disorganized and chaotic room with the speed and efficiency of a Tasmanian devil. None of the things that would normally keep me sitting on my ass- my problem with throwing things away, my ADD, my perception of the task at hand as being overwhelming- seemed to be able to stop me, even when things got repetitive/boring. think I understand why this happened, but how can I apply this to everything else in my life that's become so neglected? Snowstorm under the cut.

Going back and analyzing it, I realize I was able to do it because I not only visualized a spotless room as a goal repeatedly over a few days,, but began to feel a certain excitement radiate throughout my entire body. I *felt" what it was going to be like to have a clean room, and that gave me an an OCD-like tunnel vision and couldn't stop until everything was spotless. I was quite literally obsessed. Even when I went to lie down, expecting to give into exhaustion like I usually do, I found I had to get up and keep going.
I used to be much more "pro-woo" a few years back and did a lot of reading into the power of positive visualization, but didn't follow through because I didn't really "get" it in a way that made it seem applicable to any of the big hurdles in my life.
Something clicked yesterday though, and I realized that much of my chronic laziness comes from a lifelong inability to visualize a goal in real, actionable terms. I say lazy because I know the difference by now between laziness and depression- please don't take it the wrong way.

I wanted to be an artist but could never "see" a finished project. I wanted to write for a living but could never put together a coherent outline. When I did though, I wrote like a madman.

I know now that visualizing success might be a key in turning my life around, but I don't know how to do that. I don't know what getting high-paying job feels like. I don't know what getting into grad school or dating someone feels like, looks like, sounds like, etc. Or, if I do, it's on a superficial level that I can't keep at the forefront of my consciousness long enough to motivate me.

Have you ever felt this way? Or close to it? What did you feel? What do you do to make this work for you on a consistent basis? Is there any research, scholarly or otherwise, to back up the impact of goal setting on performance, and how to do it properly?

PS: I know this sounds a lot like the concept behind the much maligned "Secret". Disclaimer: I watched it yesterday, skeptically at first, but then realizing it helped me connect the dots about the only thing that's ever worked for me.
posted by marsbar77 to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This is a technique that has helped me immensely in my personal and professional life. I have suffered with OCD my whole life, and only when I used visualization and emotion-manipulation techniques have I been able to control it.

Not "knowing" what a promotion, or being in a healthy relationship, or being a dog feels like shouldn't be seen as a hindrance. Rather, you know what emotions that feel good feel like, and you can fill in the blanks with the thing you want to accomplish. After all, you're not visualizing plans to make the atom bomb, you're visualizing things that you want to accomplish. So, if you're in a depressive state and can't leave the house, you can picture the perfect place to go, how warm and inviting (or cool and exciting or quiet and introspective) that place would be, but the only way to get there is to get up, get dressed, and walk outside. Therefore, visualize yourself getting up, putting on clothes, all with the intention of this happy destination. It's all about breaking it into manageable chunks and realizing that the emotions you have can be manipulated by blowing them up, shrinking them down, and examining them for what they are.
posted by xingcat at 4:27 PM on January 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: So, the point behind everything is to make the end goal irresistibly exciting? If so, how do you maintain that over time and how do you make solid associations between something like the joy of having a clean desk, and the joy of a not-as-yet experienced relationship/job/car/vacation, etc?
posted by marsbar77 at 4:34 PM on January 27, 2015

I've found the key is to recognize those moments of strong motivation and use them to set up systems to help you when you're feeling down. I call this "being kind to future me".

Also, starting is always the hardest part, which is why the pomodoro technique works so well. Even when I'm feeling low and unmotivated, I know I can put on a timer and do just 20 minutes, or even just 5 minutes if I'm feeling super awful, of something to move a project in the right direction. Usually that kick-starts my motivation, because I forget how much I can get done in that time and just want to keep going so that I can enjoy the "done" state of things sooner rather than later.
posted by burntflowers at 5:04 PM on January 27, 2015 [6 favorites]

Not pertinent to your observations per set, but I have found that the easier way to keep a clean house is to THROW EVERYTHING AWAY. Anything you don't absolutely need, send it to the dumpster or Goodwill. Worked for me.
posted by deathpanels at 6:37 PM on January 27, 2015

Best answer: Treat this as a great experiment, or a game. You've discovered an amazing new tool, and you get to test all the ways it might possibly work. When something doesn't work consider what variables you might need to tweak.

Like you I've always struggled with "laziness" and ADD. I've come to realize that often my resistance to what needs to be done is not being completely certain what to do - where to start, what order to move in, what kind of tools to use, how I know when a particular step is really done, etc etc. Sometimes it helps to carefully outline every step. But sometimes I just identify the first step, take it, and then think about the next step.

Pomodoro is great, UnFuckYourHabitat has some good ideas and checklists. Having a buddy system is really good - a supportive friend you can call or email, or a forum related to whatever you are working on - where you can announce your intention and then follow up. This REALLY helps me. Once I tell people "I am going to run for at least 20 minutes when I get home tonight" I really feel a pull to actually do it.

However - For me, nothing has always worked forever. There is always a part where I fall off the wagon, break the chain, get distracted, etc. This just happens. The most powerful thing you can do is to anticipate this and not cast your goal aside but consider what happened and what you need to do now - try again with tweaks? Wait to recover from the flu? Trust yourself to play with this new tool and figure it out.
posted by bunderful at 6:54 PM on January 27, 2015

Best answer: Visualization isn't woo at all - it's very important in, for example, sports psychology, tons of research there. Mental rehearsal, including rehearsal involving visual images, has been shown to support learning and memory in music performance. I think those kinds of activities are a sort of constrained class, though, because the processes (drills) and desired outcomes (a goal in a net; performance of a particular piece of music) are clear and fairly tangible. I know for myself, visualization is easier for physical, grounded activities with stepwise processes (like learning and playing a piece of music, or executing a movement).

In terms of devising goals for particular creative projects that are looser and don't have an obvious goal from the outset, a lot's been said (in both pop psychology and actual research) about just immersing yourself in stuff - feeding your brain with symbols, images, and experiences - and trusting your gears to impose a pattern onto that input over time, guided by your particular interests. I've found, when I've really immersed myself in a given kind of material, that I almost can't help ideas from forming when I'm just walking around. (Not saying they're necessarily good ideas, just, they're there. Making them into something is something else.)

In order to motivate yourself to commit to that kind of feeding/filtering process for long enough to actually make something out of it - to make it important - I think you can help yourself by putting yourself in a milieu where that activity feels meaningful, achievable, and accessible, by surrounding yourself with people who value that activity and engage with it on a daily basis. Taking a class, joining a group, or otherwise involving yourself in related activities going on in your community are ways of reinforcing the value of that activity to yourself. It's so much easier to really get into creative things when you're with others who care about them than when you're just on your own in your living room, where more often than not you zone into whatever's your habit, cycling through rationalizations ("does art even matter"), generating the energy to get started, etc. You e.g. go to a writer's group at a cozy cafe, though, where everyone's got their pens out and they're talking about the ins and outs of particular techniques, and all of a sudden it's very clear that writing matters, of course it does! And you see that all these people with their pens are just ordinary, there's no dividing line between you and them. The fact that you're there means that you are the kind of person who writes. Committing to that kind of thing also sets up an expectation of accountability. There's nothing at all wrong with looking for support.

I think it's harder to say what visualizing "success" means more generally, outside of a particular goal or project. I think it's a little different, because external rewards, for example, aren't always guaranteed by your own work, they're kind of out of your control. If it means something along the lines of imagining what social rewards or embodying a more confident posture might feel like, I think that can definitely be helpful with motivation, though. I can't say I have a lot of experience with this kind of visualization.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:38 PM on January 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

In my experience, nothing gets sustained over time. You just get faster at getting up again. Every time you start again, eventually the habit will probably start to slip, but you don't waste time kicking yourself, you just make a readjustment if one is needed. And then you start again. And again. Repeatedly experiencing the difference is what reinforces it.

I don't generally picture big goals like relationship/job/car to use your examples, because my self-defeating tendencies are pretty good at deciding something faraway is not so enticing. I break them down into the small pieces. I picture one date going well. And then I picture the next date going well (with either the same person or a different person, depending on how that previous date went). I picture one resume and cover letter finished and sent in. And then another. Or I picture my savings account being $x larger in one month after bills are paid. And then the next month.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:02 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I get easily overwhelmed by household stuff, and it gets me down. To cope, on the same theme as the "small pieces" advice offered by Bentobox Humperdinck: offers an online version of a kanban board. Why should you care? A kanban board helps you break down potentially overwhelming tasks into small, manageable chunks.

You can make lists called "To-Do," "In-Progress," "Blocked" and "Done". Then you add cards in the "To-Do" list and move them to the other lists as appropriate.

With Trello and manageable task breakdowns, I have managed to reorganize several areas in my house that have been bothering me for YEARS. The single most rewarding effort, the reorganization of my bathroom "closet" (if you can call it that), took a total of 3 hours (including an hour visit to the Container Store). It will pay off for as long as I can keep it neat, and now I have an incentive to keep it neat because it looks, and works, so much better.

You can use a real honest to god whiteboard for the same thing.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 12:07 PM on January 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

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