Help Me Motivate!
June 3, 2017 5:57 PM   Subscribe

How do I find the willpower to do more than the absolute bare minimum to get by?

For years I have been plagued by what I equate to having gas in the tank, a good car, all the tools I need to succeed handed to me, as they are not to so many others - and yet I cannot find the "key" in this analogy to start the car and drive, already! Instead I waste all the gifts given to me out of low self-esteem and a feeling, which permeates my being, that nothing I do matters, either to help myself or anyone else.

I have analyzed the reasons for this attitude ad nauseum both with therapists and by myself and have come to the conclusion that since I am intimately acquainted with the reasons for it (my upbringing encouraged my belief in external locus of control, and I developed victim mentality, etc) I now need to take action to change my bad habits, which are a direct cause of my feelings of being a failure. The problem is every time I try to change my habits I run smack into the wall of apathy, "why bother" and internal negative self-talk that drones on and on and on until I make myself put a stop to it. The energy/escapist tactics I use to quell these bad feelings, like exercising (excessively, as the owner of my local gym would be sure to tell you, eyebrows raised - it's just lots of cardio, but...) saps any energy I might have to actually do something to improve my life. (I took to exercise several years ago to try and make myself feel better and instead became a gym rat who never feels better except for that one place - the gym.)

The result of this attitude is that I am an underachiever in the extreme. I have a degree but no career in my field. I have worked steadily since graduation in this and that, nothing special or interesting, and certainly nothing pertinent to what I believe are my real talents and abilities. Recently I posted I have an opportunity to write, and have been doing so; but again my efforts are saturated with this insidious "why bother?" feeling. I know now that anything I write will lead to nothing if I cannot fix this feeling that my efforts are meaningless.

I took SSRI X for four years, during which time I experienced less depressive feelings, but which did nothing for my lack of motivation. I feel very guilty about my lack of motivation, but even guilt changes nothing (the "massive pain" Tony Robbins talks about associating with bad habits. On the fence about the efficacy of that tactic.) I have been called a "lazy, spoiled-ass brat," "wallowing in misery," "all you want is sympathy," by certain people who played important roles in my life, who were very patient with helping me about my bad feelings about myself, until they just couldn't take it anymore and told me to either do something about it, or can it. Just to put it out there, no, I really don't just want sympathy, I just haven't known what to do to MOTIVATE myself to do more than the bare minimum to get by. How to make myself believe in myself, instead of tromping down the old brain paths of self-condemnation yet again. Still don't. I have since slowly and laboriously learned to alter my own thinking to be less negative and more constructive towards achieving my goals instead of just whining to people about it. I have also been told, by other key people, that I have everything I need to make myself successful, indeed they were surprised to find me in the kinds of jobs I was doing to get by, what with my education and life experiences. Yet every time I experience another setback or failure, the old thoughts start up that I have just screwed up all my good chances in life and what's the damn point already.

I have often heard it described as "passion"... a passion, drive, motivation, that pushes people past all obstacles. What can I do to help myself get past the negative garbage in my head that holds me back, and become a motivated, powerful person who actually makes use of my talents? Motivated people out there, what motivates YOU?
posted by Crystal Fox to Human Relations (13 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I think you need low expectations for your productivity. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Force yourself to work on X for five tiny minutes (you can try 2 if 5 feels heavy). When the timer goes off, you can evaluate if you'd like to keep working. Otherwise you can set the timer again in a half hour or hour for your work.

Sometimes starting is all you need. And the habit of starting. Most folks are not truely motivated but know they have to start most of the time.
posted by Kalmya at 6:04 PM on June 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

Have you talked to a psychiatrist about other medications? An SSRI helped my depression but not the anxiety that was keeping me from being able to do anything. An SNRI fixed that, enough that I was able to eventually taper off it.

In broader terms, though, I don't find it helpful to wait until I feel motivated to do things. I just do them, whether I want to or not (not all the time, but a lot of the time). Doing things is what starts the momentum going for me.
posted by lazuli at 6:17 PM on June 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

Enlist help. We need communities. Your story matches my own and I ask for help. It may or may not be ideal but once I'm over the hump - whatever that may be - I can keep moving forward on my own. Friends visit while I mop my floors. They meet me at a coffee shop where I get started on my taxes. They call before job interviews.

This is very hard for me to do - ask for this kind of help - and I'm lucky to have people who give their time to jumpstart my motivation. The pain is intense and there are days that I feel it every minute. But once on a roll, no once I take just that second step, hope comes back. For me, motivation is something that I have to work
for everyday. But it gets easier. Today, I did just 1 thing on my own and I feel like I can
do 1 thing tomorrow.
posted by Lil Bit of Pepper at 6:19 PM on June 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

Do you need to be successful? And by whose measure do you need to succeed?

I feel a lot like you - like I'm barely putting in any effort - but a lot of times my "barely scraping by" is someone else's "omg amazing". Maybe you are achieving more than you give yourself credit for?

I have a degree but no career in my field. I have worked steadily since graduation in this and that, nothing special or interesting, and certainly nothing pertinent to what I believe are my real talents and abilities. Recently I posted I have an opportunity to write, and have been doing so;

All of this sounds like you're doing plenty. Not having a career in your field is common given today's job market. Being able to work a steady job is a great achievement! And you are doing some writing which is great!

I don't think the "why bother" is necessarily a bad habit per se. If you've had to deal with a lot of external challenges it can be hard to find any intrinsic motivation to do so. It's like, why put yourself through this slog when you could spend your time doing something less painful, yknow? Maybe you just need to find what your "less painful" thing is. Do things not because they make you Special or Interesting, but because you find them interesting on some level. For the hell of it.
posted by divabat at 7:12 PM on June 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

I read this three times and I can't tell what you actually want to be motivated to do. It's some nebulous "doing more than the bare minimum." What is that? Do you mean that you literally only eat, breathe, and sleep? Surely not, so the "minimum" is arbitrary. Do you not shower, do your laundry, pay your bills, take out your garbage? I'm not clear on your starting point. If you cannot complete basic life tasks, then that probably needs to be dealt with on a medical level. Otherwise, step one is clearly defining your goals.

You say the only thing that makes you feel better is exercising in the gym. Can you set some goal, like running a marathon? Doing something tangible in one area can motivate me to achieve something in another.
posted by AFABulous at 7:20 PM on June 3, 2017 [9 favorites]

If you like being at the gym, why not switch your career goals to doing gym related activities. Seems like you would be automatically successful.
posted by gt2 at 9:56 PM on June 3, 2017

Best answer: ADHD
posted by [insert clever name here] at 2:07 AM on June 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

Seconding ADHD. Look into getting an actual diagnosis, switching meds and/or looking into cognitive/behavioral therapy.
posted by Delia at 6:45 AM on June 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was also thinking ADD/ADHD when I read this.

ADD/ADHD can contribute to low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, and can make it difficult to settle on goals and stick with then. Aerobic exercise is one way to manage it (often in combination with other methods).
posted by bunderful at 7:31 AM on June 4, 2017

Best answer: It sounds like you are saying that you lack motivation to do things to improve your self and your career (aside from the exercise, which is awesome by the way), because you are getting by all right and are not being pushed by emergency survival needs to do more. The desire for fame and glory that often drives other people to exploit their talents and abilities is not doing it for you. This may secretly be a good thing: you have achieved freedom from desire! Now the problem is finding a worthy channel into which you will feel motivated to direct your talents and energy.

It sounds like the things you are considering doing but not seeing the point of are all directed towards yourself: making yourself successful, for some culture-specific definition of success. Have you instead considered directing your energy outside yourself? Look around your local neighbourhood or town and see if there is some small thing that is missing, some function that you could perform to "make reality better" using your talents and abilities. Small and low-key is fine. Remember that you're not doing this for your own glory (which wouldn't matter anyway), instead you're doing it to make the world you actually live in a tiny bit more like the world you would like to live in. Start there, give it time, and see what develops. :)
posted by heatherlogan at 7:47 AM on June 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

I struggle with motivation too, but tend to find the adage that "motivation follows action" by itself to be strangely demoralizing and dismissive of how hard it is to start something and keep at it. I think instead it helps to focus on chipping off a small, manageable piece of a negative self-belief and trying to prove it wrong. Are there any harmful/limiting "rules" you're living by that you could try to break? (Maybe something to do with pursing a different job or a goal related to your writing). Try to focus on the lowest-hanging fruit, something you 'can't' do, but only because you haven't taken the action toward it yet, like submitting a job application or researching an opportunity that interests you and writing down the steps for how you might pursue it. Once you manage to break one rule, try to keep track of that 'win' somewhere so you can remember that you DID defeat the negative cycle on one occasion, and it's within your power to do it again.

You mention that you exercise a lot -- this is really difficult for some people! Do you give yourself credit for it? Was there ever a time when you didn't think you'd have the discipline to go to the gym regularly? This might be a victory you already won but your jerk brain tries to sweep under the rug because it doesn't mesh with the failure narrative. Is it possible to use it instead as a bit of 'evidence' that you have it in you to build positive habits?
posted by space snail at 10:54 AM on June 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I struggle with this as well. I feel like I've been looking in every nook and cranny and around every corner just to find motivation. Somehow, perhaps via AskMe, I found this discussion on reddit.

Though I have formatted it slightly, the very wise zbysheik shared the following:

"If you want to get anything done, there are two basic ways to get yourself to do it.

The first, more popular and devastatingly wrong option is to try to motivate yourself. The second, somewhat unpopular and entirely correct choice is to cultivate discipline.

This is one of these situations where adopting a different perspective immediately results in superior outcomes. Few uses of the term "paradigm shift" are actually legitimate, but this one is. It's a light bulb moment.

What's the difference? Motivation, broadly speaking, operates on the erroneous assumption that a particular mental or emotional state is necessary to complete a task. That's completely the wrong way around.

Discipline, by contrast, separates outwards functioning from moods and feelings and thereby ironically circumvents the problem by consistently improving them. The implications are huge. Successful completion of tasks brings about the inner states that chronic procrastinators think they need to initiate tasks in the first place.

Put in simpler form, you don't wait until you're in Olympic form to start training. You train to get into Olympic form. If action is conditional on feelings, waiting for the right mood becomes a particularly insidious form of procrastination. I know that too well, and wish somebody pointed it out for me twenty, fifteen or ten years ago before I learned the difference the hard way.

If you wait until you feel like doing stuff, you're fucked. That's precisely how the dreaded procrastinatory loops come about. At its core, chasing motivation is insistence on the infantile fantasy that we should only be doing things we feel like doing. The problem is then framed thus:

"How do I get myself to feel like doing what I have rationally decided to do?" Bad. The proper question is "How do I make my feelings inconsequential and do the things I consciously want to do without being a little bitch about it?" The point is to cut the link between feelings and actions, and do it anyway. You get to feel good and buzzed and energetic and eager afterwards.

Motivation has it the wrong way around. I am utterly 100% convinced that this faulty frame is the main driver of the "sitting about in underwear playing Xbox, and with yourself" epidemic currently sweeping developed countries.

There are psychological problems with relying on motivation as well. Because real life in the real world occasionally requires people do things that nobody in their right mind can be massively enthusiastic about, "motivation" runs into the insurmountable obstacle of trying to elicit enthusiasm for things that objectively do not merit it. The only solution besides slackery, then, is to put people out of their right minds. That’s a horrible, and fortunately fallacious, dilemma.

Trying to drum up enthusiasm for fundamentally dull and soul crushing activities is literally a form of deliberate psychological self-harm, a voluntary insanity: "I AM SO PASSIONATE ABOUT THESE SPREADSHEETS, I CAN’T WAIT TO FILL OUT THE EQUATION FOR FUTURE VALUE OF ANNUITY, I LOVE MY JOB SOOO MUCH!"

I do not consider self-inflicted episodes of hypomania the optimal driver of human activity. A thymic compensation via depressive episodes is inevitable, since the human brain will not tolerate abuse indefinitely. There are stops and safety valves. There are hormonal hangovers.

The worst thing that can happen is succeeding at the wrong thing – temporarily. A far superior scenario is retaining sanity, which unfortunately tends to be misinterpreted as moral failure: "I still don’t love my pointless paper-shuffling job, I must be doing something wrong." or "I still prefer cake to broccoli and can’t lose weight, maybe I’m just weak". "I should buy another book about motivation". Bullshit. The critical error is even approaching those issues in terms of motivation or lack thereof. The answer is discipline, not motivation.

There is another, practical problem with motivation. It has a tiny shelf life, and needs constant refreshing. Motivation is like manually winding up a crank to deliver a burst of force. At best, it stores and converts energy to a particular purpose. There are situations where it is the correct attitude, one-offs where getting psyched and spring-loading a metric fuckton of mental energy upfront is the best course of action. Olympic races and prison breaks come to mind. But it is a horrible basis for regular day-to-day functioning, and anything like consistent long-term results.
By contrast, discipline is like an engine that, once kick started, actually supplies energy to the system.

Productivity has no requisite mental states. For consistent, long-term results, discipline trumps motivation, runs circles around it, bangs its mom and eats its lunch.

In summary, motivation is trying to feel like doing stuff. Discipline is doing it even if you don’t feel like it. You get to feel good afterwards.

Discipline, in short, is a system, whereas motivation is analogous to goals. There is a symmetry. Discipline is more or less self-perpetuating and constant, whereas motivation is a bursty kind of thing.

How do you cultivate discipline? By building habits – starting as small as you can manage, even microscopic, and gathering momentum, reinvesting it in progressively bigger changes to your routine, and building a positive feedback loop.

Motivation is a counterproductive attitude to productivity. What counts is discipline.
posted by Juniper Toast at 10:31 AM on June 5, 2017 [14 favorites]

Don't just force yourself to do the thing even though you don't want to. Recognize that (part of) you doesn't want to, and then do it with the part of your brain that wants the end result. I call this giving a present to Future Me.
posted by danceswithlight at 12:43 PM on June 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

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