Why am I so useless?
June 16, 2008 5:14 AM   Subscribe

I am a useless procrastinator, I see it happening, and I can see the outcome but I can't help it, I feel out of control almost. It's something I tend to deal with okay at work (a more direct task-based environment I guess) but at home it's terrible.

My wife and I have had the same argument many times, about me not doing enough around the house. She doesn't ask a lot, and I have no objection to what she asks, but when it comes to doing it I just put it off and then either don't do it at all, or do a half-assed job. About the only thing I can do regularly is the dishes, but even that isn't great most of the time apparently.

From my wife's perspective I am simply choosing not to do it. She thinks it demonstrates that she and our son aren't important to me, but nothing could be further from the truth really, but at the same time I can't blame her for that feeling.

I don't know how to deal with it. These should be fairly simple chores - I am certainly capable of it - but when the time comes I just don't do them. I put them off in favor of other things. I seem to justify them to myself, or say 'in five minutes' but at the same time it doesn't even seem like a conscious decision I am making, and then it's all too late. I can almost hear my inner monologue saying "man, you really really have to do this now" but that seems to make no difference.

I don't even know where to begin in dealing with this, and more importantly in making my wife see that I really do want to change this behavior.

I've tried things that seem logical in the past - making myself little schedules, or reminders, but that seems to come to nothing, they just get put off like everything else. Thinking about it logically it almost seems pathological to me, I feel completely out of control in this.

I'm considering seeing a psychologist about it or something, but will that help me change my behavior?

The obvious answer is "just do the stuff" and it's the one I scream at myself but it doesn't seem to make a difference. I don't think I am lazy, but it's hard to see it any other way.

This is seriously jeopardizing my marriage now and I really really need to make some progress.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
Getting Things Done.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:34 AM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

comment from a MeFite who would prefer to remain anonymous.
"I went to a therapist for this same issue. It helped tremendously.
First of all, just going made me feel like I was taking steps to do
something to fix it, and that was huge. And, my particular therapist
(a PhD, not an MD) helped me develop mechanisms for dealing with this.
We agreed up front that I wanted that, and after 10-12 sessions, I
had what I needed, and have stopped seeing her so regularly (I still
go once a month or so, for some other things, but the procrastinating
I have help with). My husband has similar issues, and the stuff I do
doesn't work for him -- I really think everyone needs their own way,
and that's what the therapist is so good at helping get figured out.

My particular brand of procrastination seems to be rooted in two
things: boredom or minor depression (or both sometimes). Addressing
these underlying things helped in the long term, but having a plan
for coping also helped."
posted by jessamyn at 5:52 AM on June 16, 2008

Here are a couple of options that may or may not work for you.

1. Accept that you aren't the greatest at housework, and that it's important for your wife to have the housework done. Then hire a cleaner to come in once a week.

2. Try and acquire habits in which you clean and tidy as you go. Getting the habit in place is hard, and may require some helpful "reminding" from your wife. But once you have the habit, it will just happen naturally. The kind of thing I am thinking of is

- clean the pots and the worksurfaces as you cook, so you don't have to do it later.
- mop the sink straight after you shave
- put dirty clothes straight in the washing basket as you take them off
- put the bin straight out when you throw something in and notice the bin is full.

For each habit you need a "trigger" that reminds you to do the task. For example, are you pouring some pasta sauce out of a pan? Great, now give the pan a quick wash. Are you having a shave and dropping a lot of hair in the sink? Great, now wipe down the sink quickly.
This way you are always in the right part of the house to do the task, and you don't have to interrupt your valuable internet time to go and clean something. Plus, the tasks are quick and easy when you catch them early.

If you try this, aim to acquire only one habit at a time, and recruit your wife to help you make it work.
posted by emilyw at 5:57 AM on June 16, 2008

.........where to begin in dealing with this, and more importantly in making my wife see that I really do want......

that's the crux of it really, you clearly want to change your behaviour but you don't want to do those tasks so you have yourself in a classic passive-agreessive bind that is taking lots of the joy out of your relationships.

I do think therapy may help but to be frank, I could get a part time housekeeper for what the 12 sessions could cost.

Admittedly therapy may help you in the long run but you can have a cleaner, gardener, odd-job person tomorrow to clear up any backlog.

Can you substitute any of these support tasks for things you actually prefer doing or outsource them for payment from your own funds? (unless you keep joint funds)
posted by Wilder at 6:40 AM on June 16, 2008

One phrase I've read round these parts is "action precedes motivation". This doesn't always work for me, but has helped immensely - I make myself do something, anything, and realise that all those other tasks really aren't as bad as I've built them up to be in my head.

If you ignore the cutesy presentation of some of the advice on Flylady.com, some of their philosophy might work for you. Their 15 minutes tip is simple but effective - "you can do anything for 15 minutes!".
posted by minus zero at 6:45 AM on June 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

Hi me!

Seriously, this could have easily been me writing this - I live with my girlfriend (soon to be fiance, as soon as I get off my lazy ass and pick out a ring), and I have the same problems. I dealt with a lot of depression in college, and 2 years out, I have a better handle on it. That depression (combined with being bipolar), gave me great moments of utter productivity, and then long periods where I'd do absolutely NOTHING.

I'd suggest going to a therapist first - I tried it, and though it wasn't for me, it does help a lot of people.

In the mean time, what someone above me said about making habits is extremely important. I have that same urge to sit around, and just not do the relatively little housework that she asks of me. I have to constantly yell at myself to pick up that single piece of clothing, because if I don't, it's going to spiral out, and I'll have a large pile of shirts in the living room.

For me, something as simple as writing down a long list of what needs to be done, and then checking things off, can give some structure to the general amorphousness of housework. Clean dishes? Check. Do laundry? Check. Of course, I often fall into the trap of procrastinating doing lists, or making giant, unwieldy lists, so this may not work for you.

In the end, unfortunately, this is one of those things where you have to actually scold yourself. Don't let yourself say "Five minutes." Five turns into 30 far too easily for people like us. It has to be a completely, utterly physical response, where you just don't let yourself fall back. And you will slip back.

But you will also move forward. I'm fighting the same things right now, and I know it's not easy. But with the right combination of therapy and coercing yourself, you'll get this licked.

Good luck!
posted by SNWidget at 6:49 AM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Now Habit is a book that's helped me and many Mefites understand their procrastination.

What you really need to do is understand why you won't do these things. You hint at the fact that you don't do the dishes to your wife's satisfaction. You problem could be that you feel you don't do these chores particularly well and maybe you are one of those people who doesn't like to do things they aren't good at. If that's the issue maybe you could have your wife teach you how to do it correctly (or the way she likes it) then you won't feel like doing it is a practice in failure.

In order to do any task you have to find some fulfillment in it. What is important to you? Why do you wake up in the morning? Whatever your true goals are in life you must incorporate these chores as steps to reaching those goals. If your goal is to have a stable marriage you need to think of the times your wife is extremely happy and how that makes you feel and make washing the dishes a conduit to that feeling. I find connecting seemingly painful chores to a greater goal makes doing them more rewarding.
posted by any major dude at 6:53 AM on June 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

In my experience, it was indicative of an underlying perfectionism, a tendency to avoid conflict, plus, in my particular case, a partner who had to have things done a certain way. It's easy to say that it doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be done, but it's hard to live it. It's also easy to know that getting it done makes you feel a whole lot better, i.e. just forcing yourself to do it starts to create a positive cycle of reinforcement.

Don't be so hard on yourself. Forgive yourself for not being perfect. Get something done. When you get home, do one thing before you sit down. Turn the radio on, turn the TV off, don't get on the computer, and start doing dishes.

You're not useless. It could well be mild depression. I think a counselor would be a great idea.
posted by idb at 7:12 AM on June 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

So, you can cope OK in a direct task-based environment? Great! Turn your house into one.

Next time she's going to be out, get her to leave you a written list of the little jobs she'd like to see done before she gets back. Kiss her goodbye with that list and a pen in your hand. Put the list and the pen in your back pocket while you attend to the first item on it, then check that off the list and start on the next thing.

Having the radio (not a TV) on in the background is a good idea, too. Turn it to a station you like and she doesn't, and turn it up loud enough to hear over the vacuum cleaner.

You will be amazed how little effort it takes to work through an explicit checklist of jobs, you will be amazed at how good it feels to have done a bunch of things she wanted done, and she will be amazed how much you can get done if she gives you the organizational tools you need.
posted by flabdablet at 7:16 AM on June 16, 2008

In order to do any task you have to find some fulfillment in it. What is important to you? Why do you wake up in the morning? Whatever your true goals are in life you must incorporate these chores as steps to reaching those goals.

If this works for you, I'd hate to get in the way. But "action precedes motivation", mentioned upthread, is what works for me. Are you, on some semi-conscious, unverbalized level, telling yourself that you have to feel motivated to do these tasks? Self-help books and the culture in general get very excited about "getting motivated", but if you're requiring yourself to feel motivated you're actually setting up an extra hurdle to completing the tasks. This might not be your particular problem, but there can be amazing freedom in all sorts of areas of life in saying to yourself: yes, this feels wrong for whatever reason, and I'm not going to try to get rid of the feeling of wrongness, I'm going to accept that it's there, but at the same time, while feeling negative, I'm going to do this thing anyway.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:36 AM on June 16, 2008 [5 favorites]

Get a timer. Set it for 15 minutes. Go. When it's done, you're done (or, hit it for another 15 and take a break, lather rinse repeat).

This is the core FlyLady thing, as minus zero recommended. It's changed my life.
posted by catlet at 7:36 AM on June 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm a procrastinator too, so I know the feeling you're describing, albeit to a lesser magnitude. In your case, with your marriage at stake, I think a therapist is well worth trying. Not only will it show your wife that you'll do whatever it takes to fix the problem, but it might help in other ways, since - and I'm taking a shot here, so please bear with me - I'm guessing that this isn't the only problem in your marriage, because if everything else was great, the housework probably wouldn't be that big of a problem.

After you go for a while, maybe ask your wife if she wants to go with you, or even talk to your therapist separately. Her perspective might be very valuable in helping your therapist treat you.
posted by boomchicka at 8:12 AM on June 16, 2008

Randy Pausch on time management. Watch all 87 minutes.
posted by rhizome at 8:40 AM on June 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

When I can make myself do it, tricking myself into doing ten minutes of housework as soon as I walk in the door often works. Ten minutes a workday is only fifty minutes a week. But, what often happens is the ten will turn into twenty or thirty. And that little bit of work goes a long way.

GTD is great for managing things you can't remember. It's less great for regularly recurring things like washing the dishes or changing the cat box. Joe's Goals (or a list on the fridge or in a notebook) is pretty good for that sort of thing.
posted by wheat at 9:12 AM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Motivation comes after action"

Get that tattooed on your wrist.
posted by cyanide at 9:46 AM on June 16, 2008

I'll say this sounds like you may be passive-aggressive toward your wife about these things. I'm assuming you did these chores before you were married - you had to have washed dishes and picked up the house at some point.

I can do regularly is the dishes, but even that isn't great most of the time apparently

Perhaps you feel your wife is judging you when you do try to do your part? And you'll note I didn't say "help out", because that implies it is her job to do these things and you're just going the extra mile outside of your official duties. The dishes are either clean or they aren't. It isn't really a measure of how clean.

"man, you really really have to do this now" but that seems to make no difference

Talking to a therapist might be a good first step anyway, as this is possibly a symptom of a larger issue - mild depression, lack of communication, who knows. You already know the negative outcome for your action (or lack thereof), but you continue the behavior anyway.

One thing that helps me is to think of it almost like a competition; I do a large part of the housework just because of the difference in work schedules, but I try to see how much I can get done in a certain amount of time. If you really want to show your wife you are making an effort, then find a day (or afternoon, or hour) where you have her get away - even better, set up something for her, a massage, manicure/pedicure - and you keep your son at home and get some housework done. Now a one time event like that doesn't change the ongoing actions, but it can go a long way to helping the situation. Just make sure you don't use that as your "proof" that you're doing your part - it doesn't make up for all the times you didn't, it is just a good start for your future actions.

Also, I don't think GTD is going to help you with this specific issue. You already know what you have to do, which is the best state GTD or any list is going to get you to anyway.
posted by shinynewnick at 9:47 AM on June 16, 2008

For me there's an element of resentment and teen-age rebellion to procrastination: the more I yell at myself to do something, the more reluctant I am to do it. One thing that helps is to consider the positive aspects of the job itself. Housework can be relaxing if you approach it right--simple, repetitive tasks that don't require too much thought, allowing you to give your brain a rest and just enjoy the physicality of scrubbing a dish or sweeping a floor. Sitting at a computer all day, as so many of us do, doesn't provide a lot of opportunities to experience the physical world like that.

So you might try thinking about the immediate benefits of a task. Not that it will make your wife happy, not that it will make you feel better when it's done, just the way it will make you feel good right now.

I also find that I get a lot more housework done if my partner and I are both working on it at the same time--even if we're in different parts of the house--so you might ask your wife if she'd be willing to work with you. It's a lot harder to justify sitting around if your partner is right there in front of you sweeping the floor, plus it makes it into more of a social activity.
posted by fermion at 10:19 AM on June 16, 2008

GTD and Flylady are good resources, and are certainly worth a shot, but I don't think they address the root of this particular problem. If the OP can get tasks done at work, but not at home, his ability to tackle projects is not really the problem. I think the "apparently" in the OP hints at some resentment, and a lack of understanding exactly what it is his wife wants from him. That's why I suspect there's more to the problem than just being able to get shit done. In fact, if I were the wife in this situation, I think I would be even more upset that the husband didn't have this problem at work, only at home. While it's good that the OP's procrastination isn't affecting his job, I can see how the wife might take his lack of action personally. So what's the difference between his motivation at work vs. at home? I kind of doubt it's just the financial aspect, and I think he should explore that with the help of a good counselor.
posted by boomchicka at 11:12 AM on June 16, 2008

Dumb Little Man has lots of tips
Google it
Overcoming procrastination

The sheer quantity of articles on overcoming procrastination make it clear that you are not alone. Assess why you procrastinate. Are you overwhelmed, are your standards too high, do you really hate what you're doing, have you lost sight of your goals, is your energy level reduced by illness/depression?

Consider that you may have Attention Deficit Disorder with or without Hyperactivity. Lots of ask.mes on checking that out.

A far as housework goes, pick 1 task to do today, i.e., clean the toilet. Do it as soon as possible. Give yourself a big cheer for accomplishing it. Admire the accomplished task, and realize how nice it is to have done it.
posted by theora55 at 11:45 AM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, I have a degree from Oprah University...

Seriously, I recognized myself in both your query and in this article, and found that I'm often just unwilling to disengage myself from one task to move to another - or I'm, as it was said by idb above, a perfectionist. I don't want to do anything until I can invest myself and do the job wholly and perfectly from start to finish. As a perfectionistic polychrone who is raising a four-year old version of herself, it's a wonder I ever leave the house.

What makes things better:

*A few of the Flylady tenets, like the 15 minute plan. Seriously. As mentioned above - they do work.
*Mantras: "Out of the strain of the doing into the joy of the done." "I am not this moment."
*Momentum. Once started, I can keep on going. That's where the benefit of being polychronic comes in.
* A constant internal dialogue: "Hey, self - can you do that in less than a minute?" "Yes, I guess." "Then just do it. You'll feel better."

Also? Talk to your doctor/a therapist. For me, I found help for a low-grade stress-related depression. For so long, I'd felt like I was wearing a wet cement scuba suit. A low dose of chemical help allowed me to shed it, and now I can carry on without it.
posted by peagood at 5:54 PM on June 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

Adderall? Hire a maid?
posted by Jacqueline at 6:48 PM on June 16, 2008

I have this problem, or a facsimile of it. I do have ADD, which is relevant to the procrastination problem, but I'm finding that it's rooted more in anxiety-related avoidance. Seeing a cognitive behavioral therapist is really helping me. CBT is very practical and goal-oriented, and the benefits are concrete rather than just vaguely feeling better about myself. I really do get things done now.

Here's the trick that really got me going: setting the timer for 30 minutes, similar to the FlyLady suggestion mentioned above by catlet. But here's what I want to emphasize: when the timer goes off, you have to stop. Even if you're on a roll. Even if you feel like you could keep going all night. You have to stop and at least take a significant break before starting again. Here's why it works:

1. You know you have limited time, so you force yourself to focus and get as much done as you can before the timer rings. You don't have time to procrastinate. I seriously get more done in this half an hour than I would when I used to set aside entire weekends to "get my shit together."
2. You really do accomplish a lot in half an hour, and your tasks seem less overwhelming. You can always add another half-hour later, if you don't get everything done that you need to.
3. It's not unpleasant and draining like a day-long cleaning binge, so you're less likely to put it off.
4. You free your mind of worry for the rest of the day. When you have a set time to get things done, you're not always thinking "I should be doing this right now! I could be doing this right now!"

I hope that helps. Best of luck to you - you really can do this.
posted by granted at 7:30 PM on June 16, 2008 [6 favorites]

Mr. Desjardins is like this at times. He has ADD. Handing him a todo list and walking out the door is a surefire way to ensure nothing gets done. What works is to work together and to keep it interesting for him. He's a guy, so yeah, THAT kind of interesting. Grabbing his butt while he vacuums, wearing skimpy clothes (me, not him), giving him an ample reward when he's done.. that all makes it worth it for both of us. We get a clean house and physical intimacy. For me, it's hard to relax and enjoy his company when the house is messy. For him, it's hard to get motivated to clean the house when I'm annoyed and pissed off. This advice applies more to your wife than to you, but if you can show her this, if she can let go of her annoyance enough to help you get off your ass without nagging, then you'll both benefit. One of you has to get the ball rolling.
posted by desjardins at 9:48 PM on June 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

Also, try physically disconnecting the internet for a couple of hours and not turning it back on (give your wife the router or something) until you complete a certain number of tasks on the list.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:19 AM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

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