An Anomaly of The Will
February 23, 2006 2:08 PM   Subscribe

I am having difficulty working. What are your tricks to get moving?

To be long-winded about it: I have had depression all my life. Most of it is very nicely under control, but I still suffer from a symptom that Kramer calls an "anomaly of the will"; the inability to begin those things which are in my own best interest. Specifically, I have a very difficult time getting started at work. I spend long days surfing the web. Shutting off the web doesn't help though, because before that was available, I would just stare off into space.

I'm in no danger of losing my job, because I do get the minimum done. Problem is, I really love my job. I love the challenges and the variety, and I want to give my best to it. I feel awful at the end of the day when I haven't done anything. It's affecting everything.

My therapist says to accept it with a "this too shall pass" attitude. Sure, that helps a little, but I do want to get back to work. He also suggested using different tricks to get myself going. I've run out of tricks. Help me discover some new ones?
update: The original poster of this thread wrote me to follow up, as the solution turned out to be surprising. The poster was recently diagnosed with adult ADD. Work blockages, procrastination, and the inability to focus on a task are very common symptoms. Professional treatment has been extremely helpful. The poster would like to pass along that if you've found this thread looking for help, consider a professional assessment. "Driven to Distraction" by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey, is an excellent source for more information.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (26 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
This has worked for me. At the beginning of the workday, tell yourself that you'll work for 10 minutes and that you can goof off after those 10 minutes if you so desire. Chances are you'll get some momentum going and want to continue. If not, you get to let yourself out the escape door for awhile.
posted by chef_boyardee at 2:21 PM on February 23, 2006

The "Get Back to Work" page helps me sometimes, because it forces me to pick a task, define it, and assign an amount of time to spend on it (I try to keep them to 1/2 hour max). Usually I realize that whatever I've been avoiding won't take me more than ten minutes, at least to take the first step.
posted by nevers at 2:38 PM on February 23, 2006

When I was having this problem once I actually explained to the boss that I was having trouble getting down to a particular task and could he just check my progress on it every day. He didn't mind, and from what I can recall his extra involvement helped a bit. I'll be interested in the answers to this question though!
posted by teleskiving at 2:39 PM on February 23, 2006

There are a lot of things that contribute to this. You may start thinking of all the stuff you could/should be doing, get overwhelmed, and shut down.

Try thinking just 1 day at a time. Choose 1 task to get done tomorrow in addition to the minimum. It might not be the most important, just pick one. Getting 1 thing done feels good, and you can do another the day after. Just don't get overwhelmed. The Getting things done approach might help. The idea is to make a montrous list of everything so you can use your time most wisely. Getting all the tasks out of your head, and on paper might help.

If you are a bit of a perfectionist, you may avoid tasks that you won't complete perfectly. Set a goal for just how well the task must be done.

Make a plan to exercise tomorrow. Even a 5 minute walk - to the convenience store for coffee or whatever - will increase your energy level.

Report back in tomorrow. Having a support group helps. In fact, your therapist could easily have you set goals weekly and report in.

Google Avoid Procrastination or Stop Procrastinating for more help. Depression makes it so hard to move sometimes. Celebrate your successes, and don't obsess over the past. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 2:58 PM on February 23, 2006

I usually make a list with about nine things I need to get to, with three of them being absurdly easy -- "Go to bathroom", "Check out what's new on Metafilter", etc.

I do the easy three first, and with one third of my tasks for the day completed I feel like I have some momentum going.

Stupid? Absolutely, but it works for me.
posted by tkolar at 2:58 PM on February 23, 2006

Have you tried making "to do" lists and working off those? This works for me: if I want to get more done, I can make myself do this by adding it to the list (just written on a piece of paper - I make a new one every day) and ticking it off when I'm done. I can put on small tasks or half-tasks ("start writing article" - doesn't have to be done) depending on how full the day is, but I have to work on everything that's on the list for that day.
On the days I don't make a list, nothing gets done aside from the absolute bare minimum.
posted by easternblot at 3:00 PM on February 23, 2006

On post: what tkolar said!
posted by easternblot at 3:01 PM on February 23, 2006

I used to have this problem.

I started out using a system where I'd work N minutes, and then take a break for M minutes. At first the ratio between these two numbers was frightening (more breaks than working), but I slowly adjusted it towards more work.

These days, I work, and probably waste about 5 minutes per hour on average.
posted by I Love Tacos at 3:03 PM on February 23, 2006

When was the last time you took a couple weeks off from work? The pattern you're describing sounds like mine, when I'm (a) well overdue for a break or (b) working hours that don't suit my body clock (i.e. mornings).

Also you're "getting the minimum done"; how do you do that? Maybe you could try writing down exactly what you're thinking right when you make the choice to move from zombie mode to worker mode, then figure out which of those thoughts are the most effective for you, then dotting a few of those around your workspace on sticky notes.
posted by flabdablet at 3:42 PM on February 23, 2006

I feel awful at the end of the day when I haven't done anything

This is really horribly draining. Why don't you make an agreement with yourself that after you leave work, that time is for you only and you will not waste it worrying about what you did or didn't do. I can further suggest setting a fixed (barring real emergencies) quitting time for yourself, which would give you an incentive to work harder during actual work hours. "This project is boring/stressful but I can deal with it because in 8 hours I can do whatever I like".

Put simply, I am suggesting cultivating a proper division between work time and your own time, and I think if you lead that by taking your own time for yourself the work time will follow.
posted by teleskiving at 3:50 PM on February 23, 2006

Through trial and error, I've found that I'm most productive first thing in the morning. If I start working and *immediately* tackle a project, I can get it done with no fuss, and then, like chef_boyardee says, I'm generally in the groove and just start ticking through the To Dos.

However, even if I goof off after getting the one thing done, I end work knowing that I got at least one thing done.

If you can find that one time of the day when you're pretty enthusiastic about the day -- it might be right after your coffee, or just before lunch, or whenever -- then just get in the habit of working right then.

And I second the boss checking-in/deadline thing. I've been getting my boss to set almost arbitrary deadlines for projects (just by asking, "When do you need this?" for each project she assigns) and writing those deadlines down on my calendar has freed up a lot of mental space -- I no longer feel like there are huge amorphous projects hanging over my head, which always made me want to procrastinate because it never felt like there was going to be a reprieve.
posted by occhiblu at 3:59 PM on February 23, 2006

I have been wrestling myself over this same exact issue for years. One approach I take to getting something done is to commit myself to doing something each day, and swearing off sleep until it gets done. You'd think that in time, I'd have learned to tackle things earlier, but I regularly commit to a task, spend all day screwing around and then stay up all night working. It's trying on the nerves, but at least I get it done.
posted by ori at 4:53 PM on February 23, 2006

what is the fear that forces you to get the minimum done? That's what motivates you - but only enough to keep the man off your ass. Dig deep into what exactly makes you procrastinate. Isolate that fear and then remedy it. Is it fear of failure? Fear of success? Fear of not having the free time to surf the web? Whatever that fear it you have to find it. Men will always be lazy as long as they fear. Once you overcome your fear your spirit will be reborn.
posted by any major dude at 4:57 PM on February 23, 2006

When you make a to-do list, break things down into the smallest possible components. Get downright ridiculous. (One of the steps for sending out a piece of correspondence can be, for example, "address envelope.") Get started. Check off stuff as you get it done. Before you know it, you've gotten started and you're picking up momentum. Don't knock it til you've tried it.
posted by availablelight at 4:59 PM on February 23, 2006

By the way--the above is the approach recommended by David Burns in his CBT oriented approach to procrastination--check out the chapter in "Feeling Good" or maybe try googling online, as suggested, to see if you can find excerpts.
posted by availablelight at 5:00 PM on February 23, 2006

I've had stretches like that. One thing that worked to jolt me out of it was to go to work an hour (or sometimes two or three) early, and let myself do all the space-staring and web-surfing I felt like. By the time I got the time-wasting out of my system for the moment, it was still early in the workday, and I didn't feel like I had wasted my whole day goofing off. That little mind trick let me get down to business for a while.

I think the above worked for me for several reasons: I changed up my sleep schedule, I changed the amount of traffic I was dealing with in the morning so I got to work faster (not so much of that zoned-out feeling you might get when driving an overly-familiar route), I tended to drink more coffee, and I was so tired at the end of the day that I didn't have the energy to berate myself for what I didn't get done.

You also might consider some regular vigorous exercise to help blow away the brain fuzzies.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:30 PM on February 23, 2006

I'll second nevers on the Get Back To Work page, it's a brilliant motivator.
posted by evariste at 6:19 PM on February 23, 2006

I agree with getting the boss involved. I have the same problem with housework -- even getting the dishes done or the bathroom cleaned -- so I keep deliberately inviting people over because I know that will force me to tidy everything. If I have someone vist three times a week, the house is pretty much always neat.

Get your boss to set specific deadlines that you feel obligated to meet, even if they're fairly minor.
posted by tracicle at 7:00 PM on February 23, 2006

If the problem is surfing the web too much (which I suspect) or other computer related try this program called Temptation Blocker:

Works great - you can set it to block yourself from using programs unless you enter a 32 character random passkey.
posted by gnash at 7:51 PM on February 23, 2006

i would try the above advice first, but you should also consider psychopharmaceuticals. A friend reported symptoms quite similar to what you describe for several years (during which he was in therapy) and ended up getting good results with adderall. He can focus at work, and only takes them when he needs to get stuff done, there have been some side effects however.
posted by shothotbot at 7:59 PM on February 23, 2006

I've had the same problem for most of my life. I'm always able to do enough to get by, but I know that I'm capable of much more. I feel like I'm going though life by "faking it" a lot of the time.

I've started to think of it as an addiction. I know that what I'm doing is damaging and unhealthy, but I just can't seem to change my habits. I don't know what it's like to kick smoking or deal with alcoholism, but I suspect it's at least somewhat similar.

But people are able to break out of addictive behaviors. They say admitting you have a problem is a good start. To that end, I went to see a therapist yesterday afternoon. I'm not sure how much it will help, but taking action in this small way has made me feel a bit more in control.
posted by aladfar at 8:49 PM on February 23, 2006

I third the boss idea. The only thing gets me going is knowing that my boss knows I promised to have X done by Monday. I never do more than X. If I don't get around to promising to do X, I do nothing. Make X as big or small as you like (and can get away with.)

That said, I'd love a better solution, too.
posted by callmejay at 11:04 PM on February 23, 2006

I'm reaching here, but you said you get the minimum done, so I'm going to assume you have a quota. Well, figure out how much you have to have done for the whole day. Then divide that by the number of hours you work (Total present minus lunches and breaks). Add 1. Strive to meet your hourly goal

For example. You are a snarflerecorder and you need to record 35 snarfles a day. YOu work 8 hours, but get an hour off for lunch and breaks. 35/7=5. Try to record 6 snarfles an hour.

This helps break it down so every hour you have a goal you can achieve. When you achieve this goal, in say forty minutes. You have a lot of small goals that are easy to achieve and help keep you motivated. I have a quota and this hourly breakdown helps to keep focused and helps me keep track of how I'm progressing through the day.
posted by Apoch at 12:45 AM on February 24, 2006

Don't be tricked into thinking motivation is supposed to be the first part of getting things done. Don't sit around waiting until you "want" to do something, it's perfectly normal to not want to do laundry, paperwork, etc.

Although there are exceptions, motivation is usually fueled by a sense of accomplishment and/or momentum. The best way to get motivated is simply getting started. The motivation usually kicks in surprisingly fast.

Although a more ideal approach might exist, I just accept getting started suck,, and dive right into it anyway, knowing that continuing is much easier than starting.
posted by yorick at 3:42 AM on February 24, 2006

Another good book to check out is "The Now Habit" by Neil Fiore. If you'd like to get a feel for the book, I posted the notes I took when reading it. The central theme of the book can be summed up by saying "Focus on starting, rather than finishing."
posted by xulu at 9:36 AM on February 24, 2006 [2 favorites]

The original and anonymous author of this question has contacted me to ask that I post this reply to the thread:

"Thanks everyone for your very good suggestions. I have used nearly all of them at one time or another, with varying degrees of success, with two exceptions: tkolar's idea of putting non-work items on a to-do list, and xulu's recommendation of The Now Habit. I shall give both of those a try. Overall, I shall use this thread to create a kit of sorts, where I can just keep doing different things until something works. Again, thanks."
posted by salt at 10:44 AM on February 24, 2006

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