Ideas and strategies for getting my life back on track?
December 3, 2018 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Please help me get back into the world. For various reasons, I have ended up in a situation where I primarily spend my days and evenings at home alone watching TV shows and farting around on the internet. Some of this is motivation related, some is health related, and some is situational. My mental health is suffering! So are my finances.

So the problem is that I need to figure out how to motivate myself. My go-to motivator is self-imposed fear, and that is not helpful.

I would appreciate it if you would read the specifics and see if you have any ideas you can share to help me get to my ultimate goal of getting back into society with a job and a social network. I think, basically, I need to figure out how to create structure in my days that includes doing both work-like activities and fun activities (with other people). To be successful, I need to find the balance of recognizing my limitations and not having them define me or make me just give up trying. Also, very importantly, I need to avoid having anxiety be my primary motivator.

I'm not currently working for a couple of reasons. First, I took medical leave for a thing that exacerbated another thing, and then after months and months of recovery I got laid off. (My workplace was very accommodating and I do not hold a grudge at all). It's coming up on two years now since I first stopped working.

My current level of functioning is that I am able to get out to medical appointments with no problems. Setting up and following through on other activities (social or work-adjacent) is iffy. When I successfully have and follow through on plans, I almost always enjoy them. I am having extreme motivation problems doing work-like things--cleaning, buffing up the resume, applying for jobs, house maintenance, etc. Unfortunately, that also includes some basics things like taking a shower and getting dressed every day.

Physical health issues:
• I currently fatigue easily because I am recovering from a surgery. This should pass eventually.
• I am also prone to extreme sleepiness and the resulting effects of getting crappy sleep. (Note: I do not need advice about sleep at all. Trust me. It's not a behavioral thing, and I am under great medical care.)

Mental health issues:
• Anxiety and depression.
• Fatigue unrelated to the surgery recovery.
• Lack of motivation, self-isolation, and perfectionism and accompanied by her siblings procrastination and black and white thinking.
(I am working on all of this with a team of professionals.)

Interpersonal stuff:
• I live alone.
• I have ended up pretty isolated. While I do have many friends, I have drifted away from them.
• Live far from family, and they have their own problems right now.
• No kids.

Other info:
• Middle aged
• Money's tight but not desperate yet. It will be getting desperate starting June 1, 2019.
• I'm usually dead to the world by 3 or 4 p.m. if I spend my day doing things other than puttering around the house mostly doing internet stuff.
• I have to be home by 10 p.m. or I screw up my sleep massively.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm. I'm in a surprisingly similar place at the moment, so take my advice with a grain of salt. It may not ultimately work for you (or me in the long run...), but it's probably a place to start. I've been working on short term goal setting. It's hard to fix all of your life all at once, but easier to set one or two short term goals. Maybe you could start with setting a goal for reduced internet/TV time? My computer just broke and while it was being repaired I was shocked at how much more time I seemed to have to try productive things. Maybe reconnecting with old friends? What do you think would be the best goal for you to set?
posted by Thesisaurus at 8:56 AM on December 3, 2018

Believe me, I know what it's like to look at the clock and realise I've been pootering around on various screens all day with nothing to show for it.

In recent times, I've got better (not great, but better) at structuring my very unstructured time. It's a work in progress, but baby steps are at least in the right direction. I think starting the day on a gentle and positive note has been really important for me, specifically:

1. Leo Babauta's MITs

I find this super helpful. Each morning you set your three Most Important Tasks for the day. So even if I know I haven't got the spoons to do loads at the moment, at least I can focus on accomplishing a little each day. On rough days this might be as simple as a) shower and dress, b) text a friend and c) go for a walk around the block. Ticking things off feels good, just keep it very short and very achievable at first. Do anything extra? Write it on the list and check it off immediately. Yay!

2. Prepare breakfast the day before

Each morning I have a hot porridge-style breakfast of fruit, nuts, cinnamon and ground chia seeds, heated up in the microwave. I buy loads of different types of frozen fruit from the supermarket, so it's super easy to throw together with a little water. The BIG change: I mix up the next day's healthy breakfast as I microwave today's, so that it's left to soak overnight in the fridge.

Knowing that a healthy breakfast is just a couple of minutes away helps me get out of bed and starting with something nourishing makes me feel like I've already won. Could you perhaps help out your future self by preparing a similarly good breakfast the day before? Overnight oats are very easy if chia seeds aren't your thing.
posted by doornoise at 8:59 AM on December 3, 2018 [7 favorites]

When I get into that kind of doldrum, I find it's helpful to pull myself up a tiny bit at a time, rather than trying to make Monday the day I change my life and fix everything at once. I use a series of checkbox habits that I try to build, adding one a week. I use Joe's Goals, but there are other online habit trackers that will do the same thing. As can a paper calendar or a spreadsheet.

The goals can be a bunch of different things depending on what I'm trying to fix about my life, but for me, I always start with drinking 2 liters of water a day because
a) it's something that I am not good at doing without reminders and
b) it leads to success in my other goals (for example, I drink less soda when I drink more water; I get more steps in when I go to refill my water a few times a day; I clean the kitchen more when I'm in there several times a day to get water) and
c) it makes me feel physically better in a way that helps me achieve other things
d) it's dead simple and something I can succeed it.

You could pick your own thing to start with. Maybe it's showering and getting dressed before 9am every day, even if you don't plan to do anything else that day. Because it will use up some of your energy, but a whole bunch of other things become a lot easier if you are already dressed. And it will make you feel better physically and about yourself.

Each week, if I've managed to keep up the previous weeks goals well (it doesn't have to be perfectly, just well), I add a new thing. It might be to write 100 words a day or knit 100 stitches a day if I want to spend more time on my hobbies instead of watching TV. Or to attend one social event per week. Or to make sure all my cupboards are closed before bed if I want to focus on housekeeping (I tend to leave drawers and cupboards open and it looks sloppy and annoys me later). Or to walk somewhere on purpose. Or to apply to one job a day. Or ... there a million of these you can add. Small things that can add up over time, without overwhelming you all at once.

And sometimes all those things become too much and I backslide a bit, but I know if all else fails I can return to drinking 8 glasses of water a day and rebuild myself because I've done it before.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:01 AM on December 3, 2018 [6 favorites]

The best antidote for the mood and motivation factors you describe is to find something you can do for someone(s) else. Of course, YMMV, but this is much more effective than most people credit.

Find something (a group/demographic/cause) you're even slightly interested in, that needs help and volunteer a modest amount of time. You seem pretty bright and articulate, so I bet you can list out all the reasons why this is such a useful approach.

You've already started the first small step in turning things around, so 'yay' for you, and best wishes going forward.
posted by dancing leaves at 9:08 AM on December 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

I recruited an old college friend (high energy and organized) to be my accountability partner. She didn't have to do anything, just read my texts that said "Good morning! I just washed a dish." Knowing that she was on the other end was really helpful. We hadn't been in touch for a while when I approached her, but she was glad to help out and now we're in touch again.
posted by 8603 at 9:23 AM on December 3, 2018

I just returned to work after an extended medical leave and I could have written this question while I was out. Right now, my life is work, nap, dinner, bed, basically. But anyway. The thing that helped me the most was learning how to celebrate my successes. Taking a shower, for example, was extremely exhausting, so when I took one, I celebrated the shit out of it. Yay! I took a shower! Did I feel stupid and self-pitying at first? Yup. But then it started to stick that taking that shower really was an accomplishment that I should be proud of it. That helped motivate me to slowly try to take on other things and make peace with my limitations without self-pity.
posted by Ruki at 9:38 AM on December 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Totally unstructured time is the worst! Don't be too hard on yourself, it can be extremely hard to psychologically manage in that kind of situation (it is EXTREMELY isolating and requires a ton of self-discipline with little/no tangible reward).

What helped me when I was in a similar situation was:
-- going for a run every day (can be very short! like less than 10 mins walking/running is fine);
-- showering/dressing every day (immediately after the run);
-- keeping dishes clean, laundry done, and bed made.

Keeping clean and getting some fresh air every day just helped so much with mood.

My confidence was also down in the dumps, so doing things that made me feel respected/valued/important were a huge boost. This was this one org that I joined and started volunteering for that I had always thought was just for very impressive people doing very sophisticated things, and it made me feel so good to be accepted there. Social stuff with friends can be daunting because it's tough to do unstructured things when your whole life is unstructured -- so I would actually seek out a really structured and formal sort of social/community activity, and especially one that makes you feel very "respectable" and like "a big shot" (whatever that might mean to you).

Also, you don't have to absolutely kill it with job apps, 2/wk is fantastic and likely to land you something eventually. There's a huge jump between 1-2/wk and 0/wk. What I did last time I was out of work was to make Tuesday "Job App Day" and got two in every Tuesday. The two didn't even have to be great ones, I just had to turn in two.

Oh, and something else I did that helped a bit was to work in public places, especially the library, and to make "working at the library" a routine (if not always daily) activity.

Don't worry too much about other, tertiary stuff right now. I mean, definitely pursue hobbies and things that make you feel good, but you don't have to be killing it in every aspect of your life at all times, you know? Once you get the work/financial stuff worked out, then you can add social stuff, and then you can add hobby stuff. If my experience is anything to go by, it'll come together naturally as you start feeling better and have a more stable routine and can start taking on more and more, don't worry.
posted by rue72 at 10:29 AM on December 3, 2018 [7 favorites]

If you are already doing stuff on the computer, you can use that to provide yourself with productivity structure by choosing your activities and apps. What you need is an activity that keeps stopping and restarting over a short duration. If you game, a game like minecraft where there is a dangerous night and a safe day works, or a clicker game. If you are communicating with people in real time where you have to wait for them to reply that works, or if you have to wait for things to download, use them, and then wait for the next stage to download or process or install.

As soon as you are safe in your minecraft bolt hole, or the download starts, get up and go do something that takes approximately the same amount of time as the wait. You could do some pushups, or cycle the laundry, or contact one of the references on your resume to see if their contact data is still current and if they are still okay with you using them as a reference, or pedel a mile on an exercise bike, or put on deodorant and get dressed or anything that would feel like you were chipping away at doing stuff.

Then you do whatever on the computer, such as play through the minecraft day cycle or work in the app, or reply to your correspondent. As soon as the next wait comes along you get straight up and go do something else useful. At the end of the day you will have still spent the day on the computer but you will have met your exercise goals, look presentable and have focused on that eventual job search.

Alternatively you can use your computer to be productive. You can be on the computer but it has to be something useful or productive. Instead of BuzzFeed or Juste Pour Rire, brush up on your professional skills, network with people you will be contacting in your job search, use a productivity app, find an exercise video and do exercises to it and keep staring intently at that screen.

It may be easier to work with your computer than to try to break away from it entirely. Often people get trapped by their computer because they are just too brain dead to break away from the reflex to click on that next link. The description of your sleeping habit makes me think that you are perhaps using the computer so much and being passive because you are still physically wiped out. So I would work on doing what seems to raise your energy level and get you exercising and moving. It might be worth checking what happens if instead of being on the computer you go lie down. It may be that your body is still begging for sixteen hours of sleep a day, but you are only sleeping nine and spending seven staring at the computer in a state of exhaustion. If that is the case then perhaps trying to take a nap for an hour and forty-five minutes (one full sleep cycle) with your alarm clock set and then getting up again could give you more time doing functional stuff. Additionally it could help re-train you to get up when the alarm goes off.

Sometimes if you have an ADD type issue it can be hard to tear yourself away from the computer even when you know you want to. The clicks keep happening even while you think, "I should get up." In a really bad case you are desperate to go pee and yet you still keep clicking. In that case sometimes you can tear yourself away by doing it in stages. point in the direction you want to go without trying to pull your hand off the mouse. Then stand up while still holding the mouse and looking at the screen. That may be enough to help you tear away.

Another thing that may help is if you try to get a regular gathering at your own house, such as a weekly choir practice, or job search support group meeting, or volunteer job activity. You don't have to go to so much effort as if you are going out, and the fact that people are going to land on you at 6PM unless you message all of them to cancel can give you the incentive to be dressed, awake, have the meeting area tidy enough to use, and get you to review your material, practice the song, or have checked up the job search boards.

If you do not feel ready to job search yet, then look into the conditions of your job search, without actually making applications. Try and find three decent jobs a week that you could apply for, but don't apply for them yet, because you are still convalescent. This means that when the time comes that you actually decide you have recupperated enough to look for work you will know which job posting to get excited about and will have a file of tailored cover letters for the different types of job offerings that you never sent out but which can readily be tweaked for the job you do send it out for.

Additionally consider looking for paid or volunteer part time and temporary work. You may not be ready to work full time but if you get out of the house to walk shelter dogs, or help serve at a banquet for a caterer, or address envelopes for a mail out for your political party, or do some editing on line, you might get paid and it will get you that much more in training for a full time permanent position, and will help give you an answer if you are asked at an interview, "What did you do during that year between surgery and applying for this job?"
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:38 AM on December 4, 2018

So, a few things come to mind.

1. Having a morning routine that forces you to leave the house could be golden. Go to the grocery store, buy a really inexpensive cookie, say hi to the person who hands it to you, enjoy the cookie. This forces you to shower every other day, and to stand up at some point in the AM, pull on pants, and get your day going.

2. For anxiety, depression, and fatigue, both exercise or meditation have helped pretty much everyone who's tried them. Try at least one. When you fail to continue, don't give up, but try again.

3. "I'm usually dead to the world by 3 or 4 p.m. if I spend my day doing things other than puttering around the house mostly doing internet stuff." Is there any chance that spending that much time "doing internet stuff" is *why* you're dead to the world by 3 or 4 pm?

I got the advice one time from someone famous to throw out my Nintendo, as as long as I had that crutch around - endless digital low-grade amusement - that I'd never really *do* anything substantially different than what I was doing. They... were not wrong, although it took me another two or three years to give it a shot. Suggestion: try going a week with limited (or *zero*) internet or teevee.

4. For building better habits, pay attention to what works better than other things. In my case, I'm shit at going to the gym, as spending 90 minutes of that... it ain't fun. So I tried 30 minute sessions, and still didn't work. What I eventually found was that 20-25 minutes is fantastic... if it's literally every day, so that it's Just What I Do. But it took me three or four years of tinkering to figure out that 4:30p-5:00p, six or seven days a week, is what works for me. Suggestion: tinker with your habits and pay attention to what sucks and what sucks less?

5. I think Jane the Brown, above, gave some *fantastic* advice re: the job and upcoming money crisis, so just +1 to all of that. ;-)
posted by talldean at 2:11 PM on December 9, 2018

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