Motivation in the Face of Procrastination

I have never excelled at self-motivation. No matter how many times I end up cramming in a project at the last-minute, frantically cleaning as friends walk in the door, or packing late into the night before a trip, I never learn.

The procrastination isn’t limited to chores or schoolwork, although putting those off were the hallmarks of my high school years. Prime example: I started this very blog post approximately two months ago. Even hobbies and fun projects get put off, or end up half started, like all of my energy is used up with the inspiration and none is left for the follow through.

I have a list, longer than I would like to admit, of things I need to get done, to say nothing of the things that I want to do. Especially now that I have a house to maintain and this blog that I have decided deserves some of my energy, it has started to get overwhelming.

When things like laundry and dishes start piling up, instead of choosing to take care of them, I let them aggravate me and put them off until they feel convenient, and of course they never do. This isn’t the way to live, in constant state of procrastination. I can’t let things get to the point where I choose from my to-do list the item that feels least distasteful and let the rest wait for tomorrow. At that rate, I will never be able to actually accomplish anything.

Thinking like this runs the risk of getting overwhelmed and never starting anything. If there’s so much to do that it won’t ever be finished, why even bother?

One of the best ways I’ve learned to deal with this mindset is to prioritize the tasks waiting for me and chip away at them with smaller goals in mind.

This is an approach we use in software development, dividing up more complex projects into a manageable size and working on the next most important thing until it is all eventually finished. By setting smaller goals they seem achievable instead of impossible, and that alone can make enough difference in perspective to get started.

It is very important to set goals that are reasonable to accomplish, but still require hard work to achieve. I can give myself a month to pack for a trip, but if that is the only goal I intend to accomplish during that time, I’m still procrastinating on the other tasks I should take on.

Having someone keep me accountable when I feel like procrastinating has also been helpful. Feeling like I’ll have to tell someone when I’ve failed sometimes is enough motivation to proceed with distasteful tasks. Other times that person is the one who tells me its OK to relax when my to-do list is stressing me out. I have found this so important to keep me from getting burnt out on a project and giving up entirely.

So now that I’ve procrastinated on publishing this post for another few weeks, I’m going to follow my own advice and call it finished. This post doesn’t have to be done perfectly, it just has to be done. And with one thing completed: do the next thing.

Life Is Not A Competition

One again, one of my “strengths” is also one of my fatal flaws. This time it is my competitive drive, to do the best, be the best. And most of the time I can keep that in check and focus on myself without comparing me to others.

During college I took a somewhat lame personality test that was all about finding traits that a person is strong in so that they can cultivate them. I don’t put a lot of stock in personality tests, for a variety of reasons, key amongst them is a distrust of labels. Since that time I’ve learned how labels can be tools for understanding and empathy instead of just alienation, and I can appreciate the use of such analysis to foster conversation about personality by providing vocabulary.

However, before I came to this understanding, I was dead set against taking a test to tell me who I am. My results from my college experience were a set of five traits that included empathy and competitiveness. I’ve already addressed and acknowledged my tenancy towards extreme empathy, but learning to deal with that behavior has been a wholly different animal than learning to balance competition.

In some ways the empathy and competitiveness combine to produce a horrible result: jealousy. My empathic heart lets me feel what others are feeling, but my mind just wants to compare my situation to theirs. I struggle with maintaining a sense of my own contentment when I am pushing for continual improvement in myself.

As the oldest child in my family, there have been a lot of things that I was the first to do: first to learn to drive, first to graduate, first to have a romantic relationship, first to purchase a home. Some of these things are a rite of passage, but others are never a guarantee in life.

I struggle a lot seeing other people get things that I want faster or more easily than I can. It sounds immature, but here’s an example I’m willing to admit: I want a puppy. I have wanted a dog for a long, long time, and it hasn’t ever been possible due to our housing situation. My family even got a dog after I went off to college. Visiting family and friends’ dogs isn’t the same as having my own, and I always leave feeling disappointed that other people can have something I want while I have to wait a long time or work really hard to make it happen.

It’s not just trivial things like wanting a pet, I have spent a lot of energy trying to accept the fact that my life’s path is not the same as anyone else’s, that my version of contentment and success is unique. I don’t have to have the most glamorous job, the most put together home, the most exciting vacations.

I can’t keep living like this. I can’t continue to envy everyone else’s successes. I have to choose not to see someone else’s successes as my failure in comparison. There’s no need for comparison.

If I can stop myself from trying to one-up everyone else…

That doesn’t sound quite right.

My life is nobody else’s and if there is something anyone else has that I want, I either need to use that as motivation to make it happen, or realize that I don’t care enough to make it happen…

Nope.

This one’s hard. I just don’t know. It’s not a healthy way to live, and I’m trying not to, but right now, I don’t think I have the answer.

And maybe that’s OK.

Stop Solving Other People's Problems

In my family of three sisters we get told a lot how similar we are. And it’s true, when you spend your formative years with someone all day every day, as our homeschool family did, a lot of behavior rubs off. But I see more differences between us than most people notice, especially in our motivations and the way we relate to the world. I oversimplify if I say we don’t still each have these traits, but in different proportions. The balance between them is what gives us each our unique personalities and motivations.

My youngest sister, for example, is a very empathetic person. She feels everyone’s feelings for them, pain, joy, sadness, excitement, everything. This makes things like reality TV and everyday interaction with people a challenge for her, but it stems from her vivid imagination, which in turn helps her to write engaging stories.

My other sister is empathetic too, but the way she shows it is to care deeply about everyone around her. She loves everyone in spite of their flaws, including when loving them means her heart breaks for them and their flaws. I can see this aspect of her personality shine through in the way she cares about nature and conservation. To her, even killing bugs hurts her heart.

I am the oldest of the three of us. I have always felt responsible for my sisters’ wellbeing, and sometimes for other people around me. I am also intensely curious. Those traits contribute to the fact that I am constantly driven to fix everyone’s problems.

Problem solving is a skill that serves me well in my job, and it is part of the reason that I got into the field of computer science in the first place. The critical analysis doesn’t always stop with coding problems though, I usually have an opinion on what is going on around me. I certainly have the drive to come up with solutions; I have a hard time letting things go. But it also means that I constantly have to control that impulse, and leave others to solve their own problems and live their own lives.

Coming up with solutions for other people’s problems is unhealthy for many reasons:

  • I can’t allow myself to be wrapped up in other people’s successes and failures. Like it or not I am responsible for myself and only myself.
  • Likewise, suggesting advice to others is like telling them that I know what they should do better than they do. It can offer a scapegoat for when things don’t work out. It can also be a crutch for them to rely on if they don’t continue to come up with their own solutions. Each person deserves credit and blame according to their choices and freedom to make those choices for themselves.
  • It isn’t really my business what other people do, even if their decisions directly affect me. If asked, I should be able to contribute my opinion without forcing the issue and while respecting the autonomy of each individual to reject that advice.

I shouldn’t view others challenges as a place for me to take over. When someone trusts me enough to tell me about their problems I need to show them respect and just listen. Sometimes a listening ear is all a person really needs, not someone to fix their problems, just someone to acknowledge that their problems matter. I want people to feel like they can talk to me without jeopardizing either of our emotional or mental states.

Choosing to use myself as the solution for everyone’s problems is a surefire way to wear myself out. It’s like using the same piece of duct tape over and over to fix everything. Even if I want to be the one to fix everything, I won’t have enough left to solve my own problems if I spend all my energy attacking problems I’m not responsible for solving.

If I want to keep myself sane, I need to learn how to balance the analytical drive I have to do good and to make a difference with respect and tact. I need to remember who I am responsible for and that what I can do to help others starts with the choices I make for myself, the way I approach my own problems. Instead of becoming wrapped up in someone else’s issues and triumphs, I should take what I observed in their situation and examine it for what I can apply to myself.

I don’t think I can really take this to heart without applying the command in the title directly to myself. This post is for me. I need to stop solving other people’s problems. I can’t really offer this advice without it becoming hypocritical. This is my problem and this is what I have decided I need to do to solve it. I hope that in challenging my predisposition to take other’s problems personally I can find more fulfillment and happiness, while remaining the critical, creative thinker I know myself to be.