*staring into space*
April 3, 2006 5:03 PM   Subscribe

How do I become an ass-kicking high achiever?

At 34, I find myself totally loaded with things that need to get done, but aren't.

Work-wise, I've got 21 papers stacked up on the runway, waiting for me to start kicking out drafts. Home-wise, the wife comes up with five new projects for every one that takes me a month to complete. Career-wise, there's just a ton of stuff I need to be doing. I'm pathetically inactive wrt citizenship, politics, world events, future/contingency planning, and a host of other adult responsibilities.

I've made huge changes in the last two years that should have made all the difference; got a handle on my mild depression, drastically cut time spent on computer-related recreation, totally beat a decade-long battle with debilitating neck and back pain, put a firm GTD scheme in place, tripled how much I can bench, got more sleep, and have the Diet Of The Gods. Hell, I even use my drivetime for audiobooks.

The changes have made a difference in my productivity, it's true, but I'm wondering what I can do to take things to the next level when the simple truth is that I fundamentally lack the hard-driving burning desire most successful people seem to have. If no one is in my face demanding something then I just flake out and turn to useless mush, and things are going undone for very long periods of time.

I know the answer is probably different for all people and might be buried in the details of my own personal situation, but just generally... Any ideas on how a comfortable, lazy sack turns himself into a Rocking God? I don't expect to become Bob Page and get close to ruling the world, I just want to have my NA list in front of me and be able to dredge up the stones to actually do some of those things.
posted by BruceL to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Lots of stimulants.
posted by cellphone at 5:26 PM on April 3, 2006

How about putting yourself into a severely emotionally damaging situation after which you'll become a workaholic who cannot slow down for one instant lest the pain come rushing back and render you completely and permanently despondent?

It seems like that's what a lot "ass-kicker's" I know have done.

Good luck! :)
posted by nonmyopicdave at 5:32 PM on April 3, 2006 [2 favorites]

Yeah, dude. Seriously, use Ritalin or Adderall or something like that. It seriously helps you concentrate on whatever you're doing, so for a given period of working time, you're more productive.
posted by number9dream at 5:35 PM on April 3, 2006

posted by I Love Tacos at 5:40 PM on April 3, 2006

sorry, modafinil.
posted by I Love Tacos at 5:40 PM on April 3, 2006

Dude, let me save you some time and trouble.

By the time you're about 50, if not sooner, you're going to realize that being an ass-kicking rocking god isn't worth a damn.

While we all want to make a comfortable living, don't kill yourself beyond that. If you keep your nose to the grindstone, all you'll end up with is a sore nose.

Reprioritize, dude. Do the things you enjoy and spend time with your family. Forget all that other crap. Good luck.
posted by bim at 5:44 PM on April 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

nonmyopicdave pretty much called it.

If there was an implicit "and remain a fully functional human being" at the end of your question, the answer is: You can't, and you really shouldn't bother. There may be people who get more done than you do, and there are certainly people who get less done, but there is absolutely nobody that gets it all done.

In short, it sounds like you're doing plenty already. Relax and have a beer.
posted by tkolar at 5:49 PM on April 3, 2006

Personally, I'm exceedingly unmotivated. However, this is a great speech that you might find helpful. It pertains to science specifically, but there's a lot that might be relevant:

Richard Hammond: You and Your Research
posted by callmejay at 6:15 PM on April 3, 2006 [2 favorites]

First of all - great question; made me laugh out loud.

Get your ass-kicking hands on Anthony Robbins's Personal Power II CDs. Listen to them, !!! DO ALL THE EXERCISES !!! (don't just listen to the CDs), then go to one of his seminars when he comes to town.

Have fun, and rock on.
posted by blahtsk at 6:17 PM on April 3, 2006

Self discipline is like a muscle. You have to train and exercise it frequently for it to develop.

I think what you should do is stop accepting any new projects until your current ones are done. Take a look at the queue and figure out which ones you can realistically achieve, and which you can't (ie, which ones are just going to weigh on you and make you feel bad for not finishing them). Then, sit down and power through the list.

I'm young, still a university student, and I recently sought guidance about how to run my life efficiently from the best source of wisdom and advice in my life -- my mother. She's basically coaching me about how to take care of the things that need to be done, how to be successful at work, things like that. It's really helped me to start from a clean slate. And I have all the tools I need, skill-wise, etc...I just had no idea how or where to apply them, and I needed someone to sit with me and show me the ropes.

Anyway, it sounds like you've got yourself mostly covered. Maybe it'll help you to sit and list your short- and long-term goals (since you mention that you have household projects as well as career goals) and figure out what it'll take to get those done.

Oh...as for politics and world events, just skim the BBC site daily and you'll be caught up pretty quickly.
posted by lhall at 6:25 PM on April 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Randy Pausch, a computer science prof at carnegie mellon, has his outline up of a great time management talk. My hubby has worked with this guy before - he gets an insane amount done.

One of my favorite Randy-isms is "Do the ugliest thing first." I always mentally scan my to-do list for the thing I most dread. Forcing myself to spend 15 minutes dealing with it energizes me for the rest of the day.

Also: "Only read something if you will get fired for not reading it."

One big component of doing a lot is NOT doing stuff. If it's something you can do a half-assed job on and move on, then do so. Perfection paralyzes. Even better if you decide it's not worth doing.

Flylady.net is a frighteningly cutesy site about housekeeping that actually has tons of brilliant advice about how not to get bogged down in your own perfectionism. I love it. One of her maxims is, "You can do anything for 15 minutes." Try setting a timer and just diving into one of the ugly things for just 15 minutes. You will surprise yourself. A key to this is to STOP when the timer goes off.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:30 PM on April 3, 2006 [3 favorites]

Be terrified. Be absolutely terrified of ever doing anything wrong.

Imagine all the consequences your (in)action could have. You don't finish that report on time? What if that's once too often, and your boss fires you? Will you be able to get another job in this economy? Do you have enough to live on, or will you lose your house and be unable to feed your family? If you don't keep in touch with all your friends and family, will everyone find people they like better, and ignore you? If you don't do those projects for your wife, will she be pissed off? Will that be the last straw -- will she leave you?

Adopt the mindset "Screw up once, and your life is over." You will do everything that needs to be done.
posted by booksandlibretti at 6:33 PM on April 3, 2006

I second the advice about Tony Robbins "Personal Power II" series. It's excellent. In fact, it really changed my life about three years ago. I was in much the same situation as you.

I hope you don't take the advice about drugs. That's not the answer.

There is a lot to be said for work/life balance, but I worry when I read from so many MeFites how we need to just "chill, dude," and offer slacking as the answer to questions regarding unrealized ambition, goals, etc.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 6:35 PM on April 3, 2006

Randy Pausch, a computer science prof at carnegie mellon, has his outline up of a great time management talk. My hubby has worked with this guy before - he gets an insane amount done.

Randy is also pretty universally reviled for these obnoxious time management ways among those I have know that have had to work with him.
posted by ch1x0r at 6:43 PM on April 3, 2006

Gerard -- Enjoying life is not the same as slacking or doing a shitty job. Life goals are important, but not all life goals can be monetized or are a function of a person's worklife alone.

Money is nice -- don't get me wrong -- but endlessly working to get that next promotion or spending all your time in the lab looking for that cure for cancer is only one side of the equation. A personal life is important too.

Unfortunately, some folks don't figure that out until they have a heart attack or their spouse leaves because they're never home or somebody's kids hate them because the parent never spent anytime with them.

So relax, enjoy life and, as tkolar suggested, have a beer. And if anybody needs an ass-kicking, it's hyperactive Tony Robbins.
posted by bim at 7:05 PM on April 3, 2006

I am enormously ambitious. I have been extremely successful in my profession. There are three things that fuel my ambition: 1) Passion. I absolutely love what I do. This makes me want to get better at it and learn more about it every day. That leads me to: 2) Tangible Rewards. Everytime I work at getting BETTER at what I do, not so much the HOURS, but the skills, I get rewarded financially and emotionally. With either a great job, or higher pay, or professional recognition. And that makes me more passionate about the work. Lastly, this is like the tabasco sauce on my ambition: 3) Petty Jealousy. I work in a business that has trade papers that essentially scream LOOK WHO'S DOING BETTER THAN YOU THAT DOESN'T DESERVE IT!! That riles me up good, and it's a great kick in the ass. It makes me stop wasting hours of my time doing nothing and gets me back writing and creating.
posted by generic230 at 7:23 PM on April 3, 2006

I fundamentally lack the hard-driving burning desire

So what you have is sort of a tepid, insipid desire, and yet you expect to burn with the hard gemlike flameā„¢?

Why? Why do you expect this?

The things that I do, I either do because they please me, or because sick people need help, or because years of training have left me monstrously dissatisfied with the current state of affairs in my field. These are all hugely compelling reasons and they drive me.

If I didn't have these things going on, I'd sit around and drink wine all day, tend to a small garden, and smoke a cigar every so often.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:31 PM on April 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

You say you've "put a firm GTD system in place", yet it sounds like procrastination is getting the better of you (at least to the degree that you seem motivated to change things). The GTD system may need some polishing, is what it sounds like to me.

Also, ambition is all well and good, but in the end, you're going to be dead just like the rest of us. Do the things you want to do feed your life satisfaction, or are they about what other people want from you?
posted by beth at 7:39 PM on April 3, 2006

Ikkyu2, the hard gemlike flame has nothing to do with careers. Come on man.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:44 PM on April 3, 2006

All good stuff, people, thanks in advance.... I'll return to reply in a bit more depth, but now it's 8:00 p.m., I've finally got the kids asleep and the kitchen clean, so it's time to work on that trench in the backyard to reroute the pool drain.

Two things, though... beth, I have to disagree that the GTD system has anything to do with procrastination. A super-organized system with a tightly delineated Next Action list is meaningless for someone who can sit in front of it but be unable to raise a finger to actually do something.

ikkyu2: I'm not sure I expect to burn... maybe more just wondering if there are any hacks that can help me fake it. For instance, one of the things that has made a very clear difference is revisiting my goals, in writing, as often as I need. Typically in the morning I'll go over my daily plans in a journal, then update at lunch or after work or at night with how I did. It helps keep the todos in the forefront of my mind rather than being pushed aside by distractions and etc. Another idea I've seen in similar questions is to actually create external motivators... either giving yourself a deadline and then telling someone, or giving your boss a weekly progress report, etc. I'm going to definitely work that one in.

Thanks again, everyone.
posted by BruceL at 8:18 PM on April 3, 2006

Ok, individual comments.

Stimulants: Out of the question, although I did give them some consideration before crossing the option off the list. In fact, I cut my 4-cup-a-day coffee habit in half and don't really plan on going back. It's certainly a suggestion that would help the core question, no doubt about it. There are drawbacks, of course.

Reprioritize/lighten the load: My kids take up the absolute bulk of my time that isn't spent commuting or sitting in my cubicle. I get them up, dressed, fed, and packaged for the wife to take to school. I grab them all as soon as I get home to play, do homework, bathe, brush, read stories, then wrestle the lights out. It's me and them all weekend. My priorities in that regard actually rock. But I think there are things that are required of a modern father/husband/wage-earner over and above kids and beer.

Despite the backlog appearing to be the problem, the real issue is that I select one thing as the next action and then... nothing happens. I *know* I can bust ass, because there have been days where I've either randomly been pumped up, someone's been on my neck, or I've just snorked a half-gallon of coffee and it's either produce or explode. Reliably reproducing this burst during time alotted to working is one thing I'd like to achieve. This would allow me to enjoy the down times more.

Hammond/Robbins/Pausch: Thanks for the recommendations, I'll dig into those over the next couple of days.

Terror: That's an interesting idea, but the only stumbling block is that it's a hard self-sell because work seems to love me no matter what and the wife is never satisfied anyway :)

generic230: I appreciate the testimonial, was hoping to hear some of that. You burn with a hard, gemlike flame, no doubt about it. I like what I do but I'm not fortunate enough to be totally passionate, so I need to make do since the Chronic Masturbation industry is in a hiring freeze right now. I've got loads of money so that makes the job rewards a tricky thing to try to tap, although the professional recognition and accomplishment angle is something I'm actively pursuing with some success. Petty jealousy is hard to come by as the succeeders around me have very clearly earned their place, while I spent years getting good at UT.
posted by BruceL at 9:46 PM on April 3, 2006

On the flip side of this... this is why I'm looking for another career and another workplace. I work surrounded by these types of people, and they are obsessive and insufferable as people. They may be successful in their fields, but they are rotten to every other person around them. I've quite revised my ideas about what makes a "successful" person in life, and it has little to do with the American idea of "success" in money and status and productivity.

Just remember that if you achive this level you want, not everyone you work with (or who works for you) is going to care about the things you care about as much as you do, and if you expect them to, well, you'll be cycling through more people than not in your life, and they will never have much good to say about you. And remember, these people are not you. They are not going to care as much about what you care about as you do.
posted by smallerdemon at 10:05 PM on April 3, 2006

Be terrified. Be absolutely terrified of ever doing anything wrong.

I would recommend against this, as fear often leads to procrastination--rather the opposite of what you desire. Not to mention fear is not a preferred stimulus.

I would recommend going through some of the stuff on Steve Pavlina's site and blog, stevepavlina.com (it is rather ad-heavy, but still has good info). One good article for you looks like, "How to Get From a 7 to a 10", though there are many others that will probably help. There is also likely stuff on there that you don't agree with; I recommend just taking what you like. :)
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 10:43 PM on April 3, 2006

In Neil Fiore's The Now Habit , there's a chapter on brief (2 minute) focusing exercises. These are designed to tackled exactly the problem you're having: putting in a focussed effort on a particular project at will.

They're light meditations: you sit still, you relax, you control your breathing and you cast out of your mind your past performance and all future pressures. Then you "place yourself" into the present, and immediately start work.

Now I had been nodding along to all Fiore's sage advice up to that point in the book, but I encountered this chapter and I thought "What a load of old balls. I'm a rational, thinking human being, and the idea that a bit of deep breathing is going to change the way I work is insulting and ridiculous". And then I tried it, and it changed the way I work.

That technique gives me access to the most energetic and focused periods of work I've ever experienced. It's sort of tied up in his other advice, about making positive choices to do the things you know you have to do, about just making a small imperfect start rather than tackling the whole project. All in all it's a fantastic book.

Also, that chapter turned me on to meditation in general which has been fruitful. You'll be amazed how malleable your mind is. Check out the brilliant Mind Performance Hacks too. Apart from having the word hacks in the title, it's wonderful.
posted by godawful at 1:14 AM on April 4, 2006 [3 favorites]

There is an appealing theory which states that the imagination is more powerful than the will. Let's say that you are trying to lose weight... if your desire for a piece of cake is accompanied by a vivid fantasy of what it is going to be like, then you'll cave, but if you replace that with a vivid fantasy of what it would be like to be trim and fit you'll find it much easier to stick to it.

Why don't you try imagining the changes you want as vividly and see what happens? E.g. see yourself applying to the things you need to do in a passionate way.
posted by teleskiving at 2:26 AM on April 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

I know exactly what you're talking about. I have two suggestions, both of which have worked for me.

1. Get up earlier. I'm not sure what your schedule is, and it may be that you're up at 5 and in bed at 9 anyway; but extra morning hours are far more useful than extra evening hours.

2. Read this book: How to Work the Competition Into the Ground (And Have Fun Doing It) by John T. Molloy. It has been the missing piece in the GTD approach for me--the hard-ass, very un-Zen get your ass to work part. It sounds goofy, and the book is hilarious (like a productivity book written by Philip Marlowe), but it is full of sound strategies for simply getting yourself to work.

One other thing to remember is that working harder ought to be something you slowly ramp up to, not something you do whole hog. To take a page from the Molloy playbook: buy yourself a stopwatch. Run it when you're working, and stop it when you're not working. This will have the immediate effect of getting yourself working sooner. Then, every day, aim at increasing your total work time by 5 minutes.

It worked for me!
posted by josh at 4:08 AM on April 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

One thing you may want to look into is why you don't have the motivation you're looking for. I think someone posted a link to this piece on causes of procrastination on a recent AskMe thread and I found it pretty useful.

The other way to think about it might be to try to imagine what things you really do want to do - this may actually be harder than it first seems if you're snowed under with things you have to, or ought to get done. Try to imagine your life from a clean slate - plenty of money, no commitments, etc - what would you want to be doing with yourself? It won't solve your problem, but it may give you some insight into what would fire you up, and what's getting in the way of that.
posted by crocomancer at 5:32 AM on April 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

1. Eliminate things that you don't really need to do. If there's a "this would be nice" on your list, kill it for now. Smaller lists are less scary.
2. Delegate. You might not have the ability to hire people to help with handyman work around the house, but there might be room in the budget for one or two things. The same goes at work -- instead of staring at something for days trying to figure it out, rely on someone who has the skill to get it done faster.
3. Combine activities. If you're falling behind on home repair, haven't talked to friends for a while, and want to hang out over a few beers then have friends over to build a deck or install a window. It'll turn into dumb guy stuff and might take a little longer but you'll end up doing it better than you could alone and will do several things with one project.
4. Do more than one thing at a time. Some projects have a lag in the middle where you can get something else done.
5. Learn while you're doing tasks. It sounds like you've been getting in shape. Does that mean you're working out with someone? That could be your time to talk politics and get involved. We have a fitness center at work and some coworkers use it as an opportunity to talk to others. Likewise, there are often lunch groups that are active in politics or the community.

Don't panic. There are a lot of things that you might be missing in life, but it sounds like you're enjoying what you have which is much more important -- just don't make the mistake that some people do and assume the world outside is just great because you're doing well. booksandlibretti's point is pretty much the opposite of what I think -- I try to remember the important things are usually pretty easy so I might as well get them done first. Thinking that things are important and being anxious is one of the key causes of of a type of procrastination where you'll find perfectionists that never do anything.
posted by mikeh at 10:32 AM on April 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

--the real issue is that I select one thing as the next action and then... nothing happens.

A couple suggestions:

1. Emotion is a powerful motivator. booksandlibretti suggested fear; generic230 suggested jealousy. In my own experience, I find that I work harder when I'm feeling dissatisfied. If I'm happy and relaxed, it's more like I'm on vacation. So I deliberately cultivate a dissatisfied/mildly irritated mindset when I'm trying to get things done. (If I'm flat-out angry, it works even better, but I figure it wouldn't be too healthy to work myself up into an angry state on a regular basis.)

2. Specific tactics: time management books usually include some advice on how to increase your "stick-to-itiveness." Alan Lakein's How To Get Control of Your Time and Your Life includes some good advice, for example.

One technique that I've found useful is the "salami method": if you find yourself stalling on a big task, pick one small sub-task and start on that.

Another is to tell yourself that you'll focus on an unpleasant task for however long you think you can manage easily--even five minutes. After that time, take a short break. See if you can extend this time gradually.

Practice delayed gratification.

3. Habits. Try to establish good habits and routines. If you can sit down at the same time and put in some solid work for a couple of weeks, it'll become much easier over time.

4. Gradualism. I wouldn't try to go straight from "sad sack" to "ass-kicking high achiever." I'd suggest taking a more gradual approach. Climb some hills before you start tackling mountains. The changes that you've made in the last couple of years sound like good progress.

Good luck!
posted by russilwvong at 1:58 PM on April 6, 2006

Thanks to the thread latecomers for some additional great ideas. As it's probably obvious, I'm a lapsed gamer who's got a great fondness for the blinking pixel, so the "practice delayed gratification" comment hits close to the bone. For posterity I'll add the occasionally very helpful *backup your saves, uninstall all your games, and take your CDs somewhere with no PC until you're sufficiently ass-kicking* trick.

THE NOW HABIT and Molloy book have been hazily on my to-read list for a while, so once I'm done with NEVER EAT ALONE and READY FOR ANYTHING I'll jump into those.

Off I ride, into an uncertain sunset obsuring possible triumph or possible tragedy. Thanks again!
posted by BruceL at 4:32 PM on April 8, 2006

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