i need to get my shit together!
June 28, 2007 2:21 PM   Subscribe

Why is it so hard for me to do the things I need to do to make my life better? How can I motivate myself to get my shit together?

I have a long list of things I'd like to do (jog daily, avoid refined carbs, walk home from work instead of drive, work on my illustration portfolio, go to sleep earlier, take classes, etc.) that would make me healthier, happier, and improve my quality of life. Despite the fact that I need, want, and should do these things, despite the fact that they are easy and completely in my control, I find myself doing none of them, day after day. I get home from work, lay on the couch with my dog, and watch a movie or read a book. Then beat myself up for letting myself down again. I complain about how bored I am even though there are so many things I can and should be doing. I've been like this for as long as I can remember, but it's getting more and more frustrating as I get older (I'm 25).

So I guess my question is how do I motivate myself to live the kind of life I want to live, instead of being boring and dull and unhappy with myself?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 219 users marked this as a favorite
my first suggestion is to join something that obligates you to get off your rumpus-- a softball team, a running group, hell--a book club. stuff like softball teams are nice because the rest of the team gets screwed if you don't show up and they have to forfeit. other people's ill will is always a good motivator!

also, if you have a huge list of self-improvement things, fer gosh sakes TAKE THEM ONE AT A TIME. nothing can cause quicker procrastination than a huge list of to-do's that seem insurmountable when viewed as a whole.

good luck!
posted by mcstayinskool at 2:31 PM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Choose one thing. You may be overwhelming yourself by giving yourself a long list of things to do, and then you feel like a failure if you don't do all of them, so you do none of them. Choose one, and focus on that. Then, after a few weeks/months when you've incorporated that into your routine and it's easy for you, you can think about adding a second one, and so on.
posted by decathecting at 2:31 PM on June 28, 2007 [3 favorites]

try to do ONE 'sponsible every day...then reward yourself. Some days the responsible thing will be small, such as writing a list on a post it for what you want to do. Other days, the thing will be bigger...jog, or research a class, go to a class, etc. Make the size of the reward unrelated to the size of the 'sponsible. Just do whatever YOU FEEL LIKE...as long as you accomplish 1 thing...big or small.

You'll find that some days you'll actually get on a roll and do more than one thing...even if it's five small things.

I find that for me, my reward is usually sitting on my ass and doing nothing...but not before I've cleared the coffee table, or picked out tomorrow's clothes, or gone to yoga class, etc. You get the idea.

You're trying to change your activity levels and develop new habits. Start small and reward often.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:32 PM on June 28, 2007

This will take two parts to answer.

First it helps to take inventory of the things in your life that are competing with your goals. If TV and your couch are keeping from doing the things you know you need to do then get rid of the TV and the couch. Seriously.

That sounds drastic - but whats worse? A big bare spot in your living room where you couch used to be or continual disappointments?

Now, maybe the couch isn't the problem. Maybe there are other things in your routine that interfere with you goals. Take a second, look around your environment and figure out what can go, what should stay, and what you need to change. Sometimes just rearanging the funiture, cleaning out your closet, or doing other physical, environemnt changing exersices can get you going.

What you want to do is create an environment that makes it easy, not difficult, to do the things you want.

Now the second part - which I only want to touch on briefly. You don't say anything about feelings of depression, but this cycle of wanting to do things, finding yourself unable to do them, and then beating yourself up (or stressing) because you let yourself down is sometimes indicative of some forms of mild depression.

Some times you can't tell yourself, so ask the people who you're close too what they think. Often times friends and family will notice things that we overlook. If you think you might be depressed see a doctor.

Good luck.
posted by wfrgms at 2:32 PM on June 28, 2007 [5 favorites]

I find myself struggling with this a lot as well, so I will be keeping my eye on this thread for suggestions I may not have thought of.

That said, here's what's helped in my own life:

- Schedules. A calendar. Routines. External motivators. You get the idea. It's much easier to work out if you have an appointment with a personal trainer, a jogging date with a friend, or a team practice to attend. A big part of this problem is turning the intangibles that seem insurmountable (work out more, for example) into tangibles that are easily done (obligations you can schedule on your calendar).

- For things like "go to sleep earlier," set an alarm on your cell phone for a half an hour before you'd like to be in bed, then when it goes off, stop whatever you're doing and get ready to go to sleep.

- Getting Things Done. I think a lot of people who get caught up in GTD become obsessed with the methodology more than actually doing what they'd like to be doing, but beyond all of the moleskine, hipster PDA, levenger etc. fetishes there are good lessons to be learned. Namely--make your to dos small and actionable, and review, review, review. I can't stress that enough. Make improving yourself a project (or if you like, make projects of different components you'd like to improve--health, fitness, education, etc.) Make sure you know the exact next actions you can take to move forward on your projects, and check in with yourself regularly to make sure you're making progress.

- Most importantly: don't beat yourself up or try and take on too much at once. Remember that 'some' is always better than 'none.' If you walk to work but eat refined carbs for lunch, that's better than driving to work and eating refined carbs for lunch.
posted by cosmic osmo at 2:49 PM on June 28, 2007 [5 favorites]

Not an expert by any means, but you sound like you are trying to make major changes in your life and lifestyle, and then feeling a bit overwhelmed. My suggestion is to take one thing at a time. Once you experience the success of one, you can move to the next.

Fer 'zample, start by walking during the evening after you get home. This will lead you to looking and feeling better, and you will then want to start eating better (like avoiding the refined carbs). You can't do it all the things you listed at one time.

You do sound like you need some additional stimulation in your life - maybe you are bored? Go out to a play with some friends. Make some phone calls. No one is calling you because they think you are busy with your regular life.

You sound like you expect to be "On" at all times. If you are like me, a certain amount of stimulation also requires a certain amount of downtime to process the stimulation. You probably find it easier to avoid this excitement / change than to do it because you are still processing the issues of the day. Understand that doing something different is a good way to process the day.

Good luck. I have been exactly where you are, and it sucks.
posted by fox_terrier_guy at 2:50 PM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with everyone on the one thing a day, but for your creative pursuits, you might check out The Artist's Way. It's pretty hippie-dippie (even for me, a certified hippie-dippie) but I've found that doing the morning pages has helped my creative output immensely.
posted by sugarfish at 2:56 PM on June 28, 2007

One of the laws of physics (with apologies to all scientists out there) is that it takes less energy to change the direction of a moving body than to put a standing body in motion. Meaning, once you get up and start doing it is far easier to keep moving on to other things.

What I like to do is pick something incredibly simple, easy, and short to do as a starting point -- it must be able to be finished in less than two minutes although 30 seconds is even better. It doesn't need to have anything to do with those items on your improvement list. The entire point is to get you up and moving and doing.

From that point I pick something else and just keep going. Before long I am working on the important things.

Bear in mind that the cumulative weight of unfinished work will keep you on the couch unless you start chipping away at it.

I have a huge weed problem at my new house, inherited from the previous owners. Although I could spend every hour for days clearing out the weeds I instead am working 15 minutes each evening. It satisfying to see the weeds losing the battle three feet at a time and it doesn't interfere with my other projects that also need attention.

So, start moving (in any direction) then keep moving and keep your tasks very short. And read GTD.
posted by trinity8-director at 3:02 PM on June 28, 2007 [3 favorites]

The way to change your habits is to change your environment.

To start eating a healthier diet, buy healthier food - walk around the outside of the supermarket and buy vegetables and meat, don't keep a loaf of white bread in the house, etc. That way when you go looking for food you see yogurt and granola (or whatever you like) rather than potato chips and soda. Learn what restaurants near your home or office have good low-carb options.

Similarly, find a way to make exercise convenient. Keep your gym clothes in the car and stop there for fifteen minutes or half an hour sometime you're already out of the house (say, coming home from work).

Getting others involved also makes it a lot harder to just let things slide. Find someone to go to the gym with you. Sign up for a class where you have to appear in person, and keep your calendar clear on that night.

The trick is not to force yourself to do these things, but to make it easier to do them than not.

(on preview, nth-ing patience: you don't have to reform everything all at once. keep an eye out for opportunities to do something small in pursuit of your goals - the small things add up.)
posted by Lady Li at 3:03 PM on June 28, 2007

cosmic osmo, as soon as I read your 'review, review, review' comment, I stopped what I'm doing, and printed it in 72pt Helvetica. It now proudly hangs in my cube!
posted by neilkod at 3:15 PM on June 28, 2007

Motivation comes after action. Not before it. Raise your standards, your self expectations, schedule your day, and follow through. Expect yourself to follow through. Commit to it. Just one day, like, maybe tomorrow? It's like when you have a huge deadline at work, it's not fun, but you meet it, right? You just do it. Meeting your own goals is more fun, but don't wait for motivation. Seriously.

So I say to you, Friday is your good self day, Friday is the day every week you will accomplish your goals. I think you'll find your good behaviour (because of the intrinsic rewards) will leak into the rest of the week.
posted by b33j at 3:28 PM on June 28, 2007 [22 favorites]

Do not take one step at a time. Jump in so deep that there is no way out. While it may seem trivial, treat this as a major change. The slow and steady pace works for some, but not everyone.

Don't try to do the things on your list directly. Try to do things that will make your list seem easy or just come about naturally.

Get rid of all the junk in your home. Get rid of some of the non-junk too. Follow the advice above to get rid of your tv and your couch. Instead of laying around with your dog, take your dog for a walk. Get new shoes just for that purpose.

Get rid of your car. If you can walk to and from work, you can get around without it for awhile. Don't sell it, donate it to charity. When you acquire a new car, keep it covered up when not in use.

Become optimistic about everything. Assuredly speak in the affirmative whenever possible.

Be proud of the fact that you are going to make your life into the one that you want for yourself. Think like this: "Even if I don't start jogging everyday and eating better, my life will be closer to how I envision it just by doing it today. And that is why I'm kickass."

You don't necessarily want to just do this list of things. You want to want to do this list of things.

Don't try to do all of this by yourself. Let your friends, family, and coworkers know you are getting your shit together. They will be supportive, even in these days of cynicism. (Seriously, I don't know why this question is anonymous.)

And go to more rock shows.
posted by dogwalker at 3:33 PM on June 28, 2007 [12 favorites]

Don't try changing everything at once, you will only feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Pick one or two things and set a time span when you will do them. I usually pick a month, which is long enough to make something a habit, and focus on doing those things regularly for that time span. If you don't like the new habit you can keep telling yourself, "Well, I can quit it in x days". Each month, add one or two new things. This is how I got myself to start getting up at 5 am, jogging four days a week, stop drinking soda and improve my oral hygiene.

For me, it's a lot easier to exercise in classes or with a personal trainer, otherwise I don't focus. You might try this instead of going it alone.

I've found it's easier to try to reform your habits when you are in better physical condition (healthier food tastes better when I'm in shape, and junk food doesn't taste as good, for instance) so you might want to enroll in some exercise courses first, then tackle your habits.

Exercise is also a way to increase your energy, and everything is easier when you have more energy.
posted by aofl at 3:33 PM on June 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

hey, it's almost july! pick six things you want to start doing, and then start one on the first of each month for the rest of the year.

also, i find telling someone what i'm planning to do can help me stick to my goal.

as for getting out and doing more, maybe you can find an exercise buddy, or someone to walk home with? that can blossom into more activities.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:34 PM on June 28, 2007

"Motivation comes after action"

Get this tattooed around your wrist.
posted by dogwalker at 3:34 PM on June 28, 2007 [9 favorites]

Dogwalker-- I suffer from the same malady as the poster. And your advice 'go to more rock shows' I have put in to practice when I'm feeling particularly unmotivated. I can go for at least two days straight of motivation and focus after a good show.
So, poster, seconding go to more shows as a first step in the process. Pump your fists. Feel good. This is one of those things that doesn't ever NEED to be done (especially when there is alcohol involved) so it's a little easier to motivate yourself to do it. The rush can give you momentum for a little while.
Seriously, I swear by this.
posted by greta simone at 3:52 PM on June 28, 2007

Hello my amotivated doppelganger. I have also been like this for about as long as I can remember.

Have you considered that you might have ADD? Getting diagnosed with and treated for that helped me be immensely more productive. Prior to medication, my brain was so bombarded with stimuli and "should-do"s that I couldn't process any of it, so as a coping mechanism, I'd just shut down and play video games for four hours. If that sounds at all familiar, you might want to check out some more information and see if you identify.

Regarding giving up refined carbs, I couldn't have done it without this website, which separates the overwhelming process into small steps. I found that improving my diet also helped my mental state immeasurably, so achieving that goal in particular might also help in the long run. Best of luck to you!
posted by granted at 3:54 PM on June 28, 2007

"To thine own self be true." You'd be suprised at how far this gets you if you live it every day. Also what dogwalker said...
posted by wafaa at 4:11 PM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think a lot of what's making it hard to do these things is that you're so hung up on the idea that you "need" to do them. The things you listed as "needing" to do are (1) totally optional, and (2) pretty unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

Instead of thinking "I absolutely need to do X", think "I can freely choose whether or not to do X based on whether I find it sufficiently rewarding, important, etc. And if I choose not to, it's no problem."

Strangely, it's a lot easier to do something when you really don't care one way or another whether you do it than something that you've built up as absolutely *needing* to do.
posted by mcguirk at 4:21 PM on June 28, 2007 [5 favorites]

I had the same problem as you forever and just recently I have started to take action after many failed attempts. This time I think I am surely succeeding. Maybe some of these things I did will apply to you.

First off, I discovered the main thing that was causing me to always lose my motivation to do productive things I needed to do was the evil television. I was raised on the tube and could often average 10 hours in one day. Just a few weeks ago I realized that this television is sucking the life out of me. For example, before when I would set a plan to start exercising daily I would never keep up with it because I would start watching TV when I came home and then 2 hours later it was too late to exercise and I was just too lazy. To end this bad habit with the TV I had to wean myself off of it. I first stopped watching it in the mornings for a while, then stopped in the afternoons, then at night before bed. I have found this to make my life substantially better.

Secondly, I made a short list of things I will change about my life. I only listed about 10 things such as “Do homework everyday,” “Exercise at least 5 times a week,” “Read at least 14 pages of a book before bed,” etc. Ok, so the next few days I start actually doing these things. Then before I knew it I had exercised 4 days in a row, which I had never done before. Even one day I was so tired when I came home, but I still exercised that day and I felt *really* good about myself and how I managed to do that thing on my list. Then I was really tired again and didn’t feel like doing my homework, but I did it that day anyway and I felt really good again. I was even still buzzing about it the next day, like “wow I finally did something I normally would have just put off.”

It also helps if you buy a little daily schedule calendar and plan out the things you will do daily for the next week. That way you can allot what things you will do on what days and maybe tweak it so that you will have a Saturday free.

Now that I am building this pattern and feeling proud about it it’s becoming much easier to keep it going. Then I can start adding some other things to the list if I feel it necessary. It’s definitely something to work at, but obviously it will pay off.
posted by koshka at 4:21 PM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

For me, it's all about:
1. Remembering what I want to do (reminders ever 2-3 days initially) Us humans are not great at consistently remembering our own motives and reasons..
2. Realizing that everything new thing I want to do is simply forming a habit.

Also, exercise seems to the most important of my habits, it kind of infuses my willpower and energy to do other things.
posted by parallax7d at 4:30 PM on June 28, 2007

Re the exercise thing: I'm going to second thinkingwoman's suggestion to find an exercise buddy. If you make a commintment to somebody else that you will meet them at location X for a run, or Gym Y every Tuesday and Thursday at 6, or whatever, you will find yourself far more compelled to go. Our sense of obligation is (usually) much greater to other people than to ourselves, so it's much easier to decide not to do something if the only person it affects is yourself. The only thing is that your exercise buddy has to be a pretty reliable person, likely to have the same sense of obligation.
posted by kisch mokusch at 4:38 PM on June 28, 2007

I used to feel like I was incapable of accomplishing anything out of the ordinary, but a couple of years ago I taught myself that I could be consistent and accomplish things with these little 100 day projects I did. For the first two hundred days, I did things that I considered frivolous--I wrote poetry every day (and a silly haiku was fine), and then I drew every day. That 100 day project was the only thing in my life that was non-negotiable every day. I could come home and skip the dishes or the gym, but I had to do that project, and many nights I had to stay up a little late to do my silly little bit of art. After I had a pile of goofy poems and a bigger pile of really bad art, I spent the next 100 days lifting weights every day (ow) and then 100 days playing DDR for a set amount of time every day. It doesn't sound like a whole lot, but it was so much more awesome than doing nothing, and since I kept track of it, I could see just how awesome I was being, and most importantly I could see that I could actually be consistent with something, that it did matter whether it did it each day, and I could learn how it felt to be that kind of person.

So I guess my advice is to, like someone else said, pick one thing and start with that. If it causes too much anxiety or you find you're not doing it, pick something completely silly and promise yourself you'll do that every day, just to see what it feels like to be consistent.

I am not perfect now by any stretch, but after that experience I am so, so much better at doing things consistently. It really taught me a lot about possibilities and how little time it takes to get things done.
posted by hought20 at 5:35 PM on June 28, 2007 [19 favorites]

I have this problem often as well, and one thing I find that helps a lot (although I think some people will say it is not necessary) is if you take stock of your evenings and figure out what it is that takes up the biggest chunk of your time.
Then forbid yourself from doing that 2 or 3 nights a week.
It might be tv or movies or videogames or whatever, just stop doing it once in awhile.
When I find myself with large blocks of time in which I would normally be doing something, but I can't, I suddenly discover better things I could be doing.
posted by nightchrome at 6:12 PM on June 28, 2007

Holy cow, I could have written this Askme. You might even be me and I posted this and am now answering my own question. I may need therapy. Ok, here are some things that I do or have done to pick myself out of the same fix in which you find yourself.

1. Like many have said, pick one thing. Do it for two weeks and it may be habit enough to pick up another thing.

2. Get rid of the TV and restrict your movie watching to one or two a week on the computer. Seriously, I did this and I don't know how I found the time to watch all that damn tv. My life is much fuller now. I play on the internets! No, seriously, I am much MUCH happier.

3. Talking about the computer, restrict your online time.

4. If you are going to do any habit first, try exercise. I find that, after I have taken a hike, I can fall asleep earlier and sleep better. I also have less time to obsess about awesome stuff like cupcakes and Aquateen Hunger Force.

5. Get to bed earlier to give yourself time in the morning to prepare for your day. Things like packing a lunch or getting to work with enough time to take a 1 1/2 hour lunch break. Then I can go swimming. Mental rewards abound.

6. When you can't get motivated to get off the couch to do something like clean your place, set 15 minutes on a timer. Do your thing for 15 minutes and then quit. It's hard to justify not doing 15 minutes. Often, when I do that, I just keep going and finish already. It's the getting going that's hard.

7. When you can't seem to get jack shit done in an evening, relish it with all your might and don't beat yourself up about it.

When I manage to do some of this mighty list in a day, I feel pretty good about myself. On the days that I don't, I tell myself that tomorrow I will. More and more I find that it's coming true.
posted by Foam Pants at 10:59 PM on June 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'm with dogwalker. One change at a time might feel half arsed, is too easy to backslide on and feels insubstantial. I reckon throwing yourself inthe deep end so you have no choice but to do these things will train you up.

It takes two weeks to form a new habit, except exercise which you usually get over in week three so look out for that one. Exercise is the most helpful for you so attack that one first. It's a fantastic motivator. It will give you the energy to do all the stuff you want to do in the evening, make sure you get to bed at a reasonable hour and often helps make you want to eat better.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 11:56 PM on June 28, 2007

You might want to get screened for ADHD/ADD. Seriously.

Eye-rollers, please hear me out...I've got a good suggestion regardless of whether that's the cause of the problem or not.

If you're doing "all the right things" such as writing down your goals, keeping a calendar, planning your time out, making to-do lists and the rest, and for some reason you can't put your finger on you can't get it together, there may be a reason beyond what you can see. People often have the wrong idea of how adult ADHD can manifest -- what you've described about the rut you can't pull yourself out of could easily fit the bill.

If you didn't have any of your current problems until recently, you can probably rule out ADHD, b/c people don't suddenly develop it as adults.

However, you might still want to check out life-organization tips and motivation strategies for adults with ADHD/ADD. There's tons of stuff on the web. The methods for really work, and if they work for people who have neurological hurdles to getting themselves out of the couch-lying zone-out cycle, I think they'd probably work just as well for someone who doesn't.

Do a little googling and see if you find something that might be useful for you. A lot of this material is very GTD-ish, btw. I second the people who have said that GTD is fabulous tool for anyone.
posted by purplegenie at 9:13 AM on June 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've found that if I go straight home from work, I do what you do and collapse with the television. If I want to get stuff done, I just plain don't go home. I go to the gym and work out before I go home (I do NOT think, "Oh, I'll just go home and change clothes and go," because I won't. Make sure there are no excuses to go home), I sign up for classes that start within an hour or so of me getting off work. (Btw, once you've laid out the bucks for a class that you can't drop for a refund, that's kind of a motivator to show up.) Or you could always do the "go to a coffee shop and work on stuff" thing.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:10 AM on June 29, 2007

Motivation comes after action. Not before it.

I know dogwalker already quoted it but I'm going to do it again, because it's the crux. I understand how you feel quite well, which is why I feel a need to share one particular insight: as much as you would like there to be, there is no magic bullet that's going to make you want to do things without you actually wanting to do them.

There is no secret trick for suddenly finding yourself doing what you need to do, having bypassed the decision to say no to fear and inertia and actually do it. It's in that moment of decision that you are utterly alone.

Take power from that fact. Valorize yourself. Realize what a big damn hero you are each time you choose to do what's good for you, and though you were expected to watch TV, drive to the mall, and absolve your responsibility to engage with your life, you did otherwise, even though there's no real immediate reason to do so. If the idea of making that choice makes you sleepy or unfocused or nervous, all the more reason to make it, and all the more heroic when you do.

That said, there are things you can do to make the moments immediately before and after that moment go much more smoothly.
  • Why do you want to do all these things? What larger goals are they connected to? Take stock of your life. What do you want to have accomplished in ten years? Five years? One year? Six months? One month? One week? One day? Don't get all OCD about it. But things are easier to do if you feel they're part of something bigger. What meaningful contribution are you going to make to the world and the lives of those around you? See your personal development as the foundations of this, and see this as the thing that ultimately feeds your personal development.
  • As others have said, break things down in to smaller actions, and do one small thing at a time. The combination of this point and the previous one are powerful. You don't stress about having to "do it all," but you have the motivation of knowing how your one little action feeds in to "it all." Make sure you have plenty of time to do things just becaus they feel good in the moment though. Don't over-plan- personally I have no patience for the GTD cult, since I see it as clever avoidance: just another form of carefully managed panic/fear/procrastination. I know others will disagree, and probably quite eloquently and correctly. I just feel that if you really want to do things, a list of what those things are and the repeated choice to get off your duff (motivated by passion) are all you need. The best things in life almost always happen by accident; you're just preparing to be able to take advantage of those accidents.
  • The 5 minute rule. Whenever you don't want to do something, tell yourself you will just do it for 5 minutes. If, at the end of those 5 minutes, you really don't want to do it, stop. You'll find that most of the time you won't want to stop , because you've started a flow. But the key is this: if 5 minutes arrives and you still want to stop, you have to, and you have to let yourself do it completely free of guilt, otherwise the rule doesn't work.
  • I've never been able to get through The Artist's Way, having tried several times, but Morning Pages are, as others have already said, immensely valuable.
Other than that, yeah, get rid of your TV if you have it, limit online time, and, finally, because I'm a quote fiend:

"Most people die before they are fully born. Creativeness means to be born before one dies." - Erich Fromm

"A sedentary life is the real sin against the Holy Spirit. Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value." - Nietzsche
posted by regicide is good for you at 11:12 AM on June 29, 2007 [20 favorites]

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