How do you motivate yourself and handle obstacles?
December 27, 2007 6:59 PM   Subscribe

What is holding you back from doing the things you want to do? And if you were able to accomplish something special how did you do it?

Thinking about the next year and turning 40. Would like to set some goals (play adult league soccer, learn capoeira, etc). Saw online today someone who writes out his list of goals and then mails it to himself but doesn't open it until the end of year at which point he'll open it and assess how much he accomplished.
posted by philad to Grab Bag (25 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a hardcore perfectionist, which means I avoid a lot of things because I know I won't do them perfectly. (You didn't say it had to be a rational reason.)

When I do get things done, it's generally because I've given myself advance permission to fail horribly and to look like an idiot. Mostly I do average or above-average at the thing in question, and I've never even come close to humiliating myself, but for some reason this positive feedback doesn't seem to overcome my perfectionist tendencies.
posted by desjardins at 7:14 PM on December 27, 2007 [5 favorites]

at this point in my life (i'm 21), the biggest thing holding me back is money.
because i am a student (and also very, very stupid when it comes to my finances) i find it hard to scrape together enough money to do the things i want to do.

i have accomplished some of my life goals by breaking them into smaller steps. that way, instead of staring at the goal written down on paper (e.g. "write a screenplay") and being overwhelmed by its vastness, you can see the smaller steps that will help you accomplish it (e.g. "decide on main character's traits" or "write one scene of dialogue").

(i've never written a screenplay)
posted by gursky at 7:15 PM on December 27, 2007

I have always been a big advocate of the "one step at a time" approach. I like to break my goals down into manageable sections. I also build a list of these sections into my database journal. The list carries forward as the days pass. As I accomplish a goal I mark it off my list with comments of what either helped me accomplish it or held me back- no matter how stupid they might be... for instance- drank three beers at lunch- got nothing done. On the other side, when I do accomplish something you might see- ate a bowl of oatmeal, worked out, sat down and worked on project X for three hours.

This has worked well for me as I can see where I am screwing up and what might be helping me accomplish tasks and goals.
posted by bkeene12 at 7:17 PM on December 27, 2007

You can't accomplish anything unless you do it. It sounds simple, but it's hard work!

Learning Capoeira means starting, even though you know nothing about it, and sticking with it. Simple as that. You can worry about being awesome at Capoeira at some later date in time. Don't compare yourself to anyone else; compare yourself to you before you started taking classes.

Everything I'm proud of happened because I dumbly charged through it, and just did it. Even if I didn't want to get out of bed, even if I wanted to do something more fun, even if I sucked at first. Aim low and persist.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 7:18 PM on December 27, 2007 [3 favorites]

After being pressed into service by a girlfriend in college, I really fell in love with radio. I had done college radio before, but doing NPR work was totally amazing even though I was only reading news live for five minutes every afternoon. When I graduated, against the odds I got an internship at the BBC in London - I had been in Ashland, Oregon before that. The BBC taught me that first of all, I was really good at persuading people to take a minute and tell me something good; and second, that I really knew absolutely nothing about how to do radio even how to edit.
When I got back to the states I discovered that I could not get a job in radio without prerequisites and worked all sorts of shitty little jobs in New York "in the media" to no great effect. I finally figured out I needed to re-train. It was a trying time beforehand. My mother and brother tried to get me to do other things, and finally I made a deal with my older brother that if, by a certain day in 2004 I did not have a "real" job I would do training to sell bonds on Wall Street. I got into grad school the day before. I did my entire professional producing training in 25 weeks. It was very intense, and it was work every day and I often felt that I was not the best at what I was doing but when I went to my internship I realized how impressed people were and how happy they were to meet someone who understood the value of taking risks. I ended up producing shows for the BBC for a year before landing my first NPR job in Washington.

My advice is that you try to take some time off to find something really rigorous that will give you the basis for a future, then go out and do that every day.
posted by parmanparman at 7:33 PM on December 27, 2007 [3 favorites]

What is holding you back from doing the things you want to do? ... Thinking about the next year and turning 40.

Hoo boy, I hear you. What holds me back? A sense of entitlement, oddly enough. The sense that I'm entitled to some downtime after yet another stressful day in my thirties.

I've got to stop that.

My favorite writer, William Trevor, claims that your 40s is the decade when you finally get things done--you're free from the insecurities of your 20s, and from the worries of your 30s. I, for one, look forward to it.

Best of luck.
posted by YamwotIam at 7:38 PM on December 27, 2007


You can't really do a whole bunch of things well. You can do one or two things well. So focus. For example, last year, outside work, I focussed on mountain biking (and building a house). Now I've got a house built, and I have a huge, epic mountainbike trip to look back on (and improved my skills enormously). I did a few other things but those were the two things that I really allowed to dominate. When push came to shove it was the house.

Also, you can take small concrete steps towards lesser ambitions. EG I bought up a bunch of old darkroom equipment from a lab that was closing down for $100. Now I've got a darkroom in the basement, which I really like.

My final tip is: read how-to books. I'm a massive fan of them. Nothing gets you motivated like a how-to book.
posted by unSane at 7:41 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Seconding the 40s being when you get things done.
posted by unSane at 7:42 PM on December 27, 2007

A couple of things consistently hold me back: fear, self-doubt & lack of self discipline.

However, now at 40 (and 3 months), I seem to be getting better at the self discipline. Lots of mini-goals and consistency mean in the last two years I have quit smoking, quit drinking, dropped 20 kilos (um 44 pounds) and completed two years of a three year degree. My primary goals at the moment are: to lose the other 20 kilos (and now I know I can), finish the degree (I should be able to but there's a heap of self-doubt so I'm just going to pretend I can until I get to the end), learn to drive (okay, that's the biggest fear) and get a job in my new field.

Back on the self discipline, this means to me that even if I do fuck up, I don't use that as an excuse to give up. I track my food intake and weight every single day so that I can adjust my behaviour if I go off track. It also means going "meh" at pain. This is taking a lot of practice but I am better now at going "meh" at a craving for example, or hunger, or physical fatigue than I was at 35.

To motivate myself with study, I have as my wallpaper a chart I made with each week of semester that I fill as I complete it, and extra boxes for assignments done. At the bottom of this chart, it shows boxes for each the 15 courses I have already completed and the grades I recieved for them. I subscribe to an employment website that sends me jobs that I will be qualified for, and I print them off and save them as something to aim towards.

Little goals (basically a to-do list) I've been keeping in all sorts of places (outlook, umpteen paper versions, online) and for the most part, when I find them again, I can usually cross off 75%. But the biggies right now, study & weight loss, I remind myself about them every single day. I find two massive goals are about all I can really handle at once.
posted by b33j at 7:42 PM on December 27, 2007

your goals seem super doable. pick one. go for it. i'm curious about what's holding YOU back. i agree with comments about focus, which is why i say pick ONE. 43things has helped me in the past: after you list the goal, make regular updates to it about things you did (googled nearby capoeira studios; found a drop-in class for beginners; went to my first class...). i found myself wanting to take steps forward so i could post new updates. also i wanted to create a sort of blog that could show other people the steps i followed to achieve my goal in case somebody else wanted to achieve it. so that was another motivator.

for your second question: a year ago, quitting my editorial day job and becoming a professional acrobat was a dream. now i freelance write and edit from home, have performed professionally in many gigs and shows, and am a member of the acro troupe of my dreams. that feels like a pretty special accomplishment to me. it was never a matter of motivation because i wanted it SO BAD. one thing i did keep in mind, though, was this naomi shihab nye quote:

"Once you find out what you care about in life, you have No choice. You have to work for it."

this helped me make sacrifices (saving money, doing physical therapy for my shoulders that felt boring and futile) toward my goal. not sure this is relevant to your post, since it seems like you're thinking about hobbies you'd like to try more than a direction in life you want to pursue.
posted by nevers at 8:05 PM on December 27, 2007

The biggest barrier is overthinking. One can find reasons not to do any given thing. Think about everything cool and successful ever every case there was ample reason not to take the leap.

Of course, you don't want to jump blindly and impulsively, either.

Finding that balance is the whole key to everything. It's really really hard. Keep your head clear. One trick to keeping a clear perspective is to purposefully change your environment (via travel, exercise, the arts, long walks, whatever it takes) to jar yourself into fresh perspective on your idea or on your psychology re: the idea.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 8:08 PM on December 27, 2007

Money is holding me back from doing the things I want to do. Student loan debt is hanging over my head and I want to pay it off before I do anything drastic.

But I tend to overthink everything and I sometimes take pragmatism too far. I have to force myself to take risks that I know will pay off.
posted by HotPatatta at 8:20 PM on December 27, 2007

The main thing holding me back is family pressure. The things I would most like to do are things that my parents aren't so keen on. They're very traditional and never understood our unorthodox choices. This isn't about stuff like drinking or drugs or whatever (was never into that), but things like travel and learning something that's not Science. It didn't help that my typically-goody-goody sister broke out of that before me, so now I get extra pressure "not to be like her". It's worse because it's not explicit, but subtle - the put-downs, the "oh, why do you even want to do that?", the slight disdain.

My parents are also overprotective to an obsessive degree. They seriously got into fits when I used public transport for the first time. The only way I could get away with going to Scandinavia on my own was to buy the tickets and settle my visa before telling them about my plans (and then they yelled at me for using their "buying a house in Australia money" - fat chance of that ever happening!). They're always looking for ways to control me and what I do, and when I break away I get laden with guilt-trips. It's frustrating. My boyfriend's mum has become my surrogate mother now because she gives me the support my mother can't seem to give me (unless interviewed).

I'm unable to earn enough income to be totally independent (i'm studying overseas and scholarships are nearly non-existent) so I still depend on them for money. And it SUCKS.

To get things done I have to do it quietly. And somehow deal with the emotional guilt trips. Every so often I wonder if I've been thrown out of the house. Unlikely, but I never know what will be the one thing that sends them over the edge.
posted by divabat at 8:26 PM on December 27, 2007

posted by sien at 8:28 PM on December 27, 2007

Set a goal and don't let yourself ever consider the possibility of not reaching it.

When you decide what you want to do, make a mental and emotional commitment to that goal. Come up with a plan for getting there and just fucking do it.

In September 2006, I saw my friend cross the finish line at a local triathlon and told myself I wanted to complete an Ironman by 2008. I was a completely unfit, non-runner, non-swimmer... but I wanted it bad. So I spent all of this year training, racing and introducing myself to the sport. I've since signed up for my Ironman (which is this July) and have never once told myself that I might not be able to do it.

One of my all-time favorite quotes... "A goal without a plan is just a wish."
posted by csimpkins at 8:34 PM on December 27, 2007

Hack yourself.
posted by jdroth at 8:55 PM on December 27, 2007 [4 favorites]

Lack of focus is one huge reason for not doing things I set out to do. I'm always starting out on one project enthusiastically only to abandon it for the next shiny thing that comes along.
I also have the problem that desjardins mentioned -- I hate to think that I'm doing something that isn't perfect in every way. That makes it very difficult for me to sometimes grab opportunities that come along since I'll be afraid that I'm not going to do as good a job on the thing as I expect from myself. It's a hard lesson to learn that it's not like everyone else is doing a perfect job on everything they set out to do -- they're just willing to give it a shot even if they're not completely confident in their abilities.
posted by peacheater at 9:38 PM on December 27, 2007

Getting started. Then, following thr
posted by iamkimiam at 12:40 AM on December 28, 2007

Money is the biggest thing holding me back. I've got an entire head full of ideas, but sadly, I've got so much debt right now, there are days where I cant even afford to eat.

If I could somehow get out of debt (I'm already working 4 jobs)...I'm sure I could parlay some of my ideas into profitable businesses... I just dont have the resources to do it where I stand right now.
posted by jmnugent at 1:12 AM on December 28, 2007

This may not be completely related (I am a little drunk). Perfectionism is what holds me back.

I find that really looking closely at things around me helps me remember that it's simply not worth it to worry about perfection, man. You should see the terrible plastering job on the walls in my bedroom. I didn't do it and I will probably never meet the person who did, but this wall is totally cracking and the layers of paint aren't even of the same sheen level! OMG! These unassuming walls do succeed pretty well in keeping the elements out, though.

That tree across the street? It's phenomenally asymmetrical, and no one else seems to care! I cannot believe there's an extra apostrophe in that sign! Do they not see how dirty these windows are?!?

Take. It. Easy. Be gentle with yourself. Do one stupid little tiny ridiculous step at a time, do it wrong, and laugh about it later. As my friend Amanda wrote me today, "The same things will keep cropping up in your life until you GET IT. You will repeat lessons. There is no fail, you do it again."

Seriously. No one is stopping you but yourself. Now you just have to find a way to trick yourself into starting it. Live sloppily, live noisily, live well.
posted by lauranesson at 1:40 AM on December 28, 2007

Self confidence. Or lack thereof.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:56 AM on December 28, 2007

Other people can be terrible stumbling blocks. They will rarely actually attempt to stop your efforts, but, if you need their help in any way, they can prevent a project from happening through undependability or incompetence. A lot of what I do is collaborative, and it is imperative to work with collaborators you know and trust, and to build in solutions for when others prove undependable.

My 20s were essentially wasted in terms of accomplishment, but I've gotten quite a lot done in my 30s, and plan to do more in my 40s, which are right around the corner. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I know longer wait for permission or approval to do something. I try to design projects I can do, and then work from smaller successes to larger successes.

Also, it helps not to be too discouraged by a few failures.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:50 AM on December 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

The things that hold me back are lack of consistent effort on a day-to-day basis (typically I'd rather do *anything* than the most important task at hand), getting overwhelmed by my own unrealistic standards, and my difficulties with breaking tasks into manageable steps. So I don't do what I should do and gradually all the things I haven't done pile up on me and I freeze up.

I won't claim to have conquered this at all, but I've found some steps that help. One thing that helps is designating certain times in the week to do this or that. Sunday has become my "work on the house day". I don't do anything else that day, and I make sure I get the supplies and do whatever research I need to do so I can forge ahead on Sundays. Every night when I come home from work, I have a routine: I take an hour to make supper, eat it, and relax, then I go on my four-mile one-hour walk, then I write for an hour. I also have a housekeeping schedule. It takes some experimenting and tinkering to find a schedule I can stick to, but once I hit upon the right one it works really well.

Another important step is careful planning. Every night I write a to do list for the next day. I estimate how much time it will take me to accomplish each task to make sure the list is realistic - it's all too common for me to find I've listed items that would amount to 18 hours of work in one day. I think about how I can combine tasks for maximum efficiency (i.e., I can drop off library items during my walk, or run an errand on my lunch hour) or postpone things for the sake of doing something higher priority.

When I write I find I really have a hard time thinking things like "no one is ever going to read this and/or this is terrible, etc." I'm a professional editor, and it's hard for me to switch off that critical mindset. So my mantra when I'm writing is "Get the shit on the screen and edit later."

That's what I've come up with, and I'm always looking for other tricks that might work.
posted by orange swan at 6:39 AM on December 28, 2007

Apathy seems to be the main thing that holds me back. I want things, but I don't want to put in all the hard work necessary to get them.
posted by Solomon at 10:18 AM on December 28, 2007

Nothing is holding me back. I do exactly what I want to do.

I used to be held back a lot by fear of consequences. I've pretty much stopped caring, and I have to say I'm a lot happier for it.

Example: I get deeply interested in projects or areas of study. I usually stay interested for about three months after which I find something else more compelling. As a result I am considered by people around me to be a dilletante and a flake. Used to care. Don't now.

Another example: I wanted to see the Galapagos during my Christmas break. The very predictable consequences: travel anxiety, embarrassment over my piss-poor Spanish, confusion in strange airports, third world travel hassles, traveler's stomach, seasickness, loneliness on the holidays, being seen as an oddball for travelling alone. Almost all of these have come to pass (I didn't get seasick), and well ... I'm still walking and talking and I've seen the Galapagos over my Christmas break.

As a result of this freedom I have learned to differentiate between things that I really want to do but that I can't find a way to (ending human suffering, for example) versus the things I say I want to do (write a book, earn my black-belt, etc.) but I don't care enough about to actually get around to. The latter will continually be shuffled off the priority list in favor of more pressing wants ( staying in bed on cold mornings edges them out a lot ).

If you're asking how to change your own priorities then I don't know. I'm not even sure it's a good idea. But in general my secret doing what I want is to accept up front that there's going to be a certain amount of suck involved and then go do things anyway.
posted by tkolar at 11:01 AM on December 28, 2007

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