how can I improve my work ethic?

A reader writes:

Do you think it’s possible to improve your work ethic? If so, how? I feel like I’ve been lazy my entire life and I’m wondering if there is some way I could get past that. I work in a very cyclical industry, where some parts of the year we’re very busy and other times we’re incredibly slow. During those busy times, I can make myself focus and get everything done because of the momentum and adrenaline of trying to beat a deadline. But during slower times, I can hardly force myself to do anything and procrastinate terribly. I have always gotten positive reviews, but I’m afraid my lack of work ethic during slow times will eventually catch up to me and bite me in the rear.

I love what I do most of the time. I work on fairly technical projects that vary greatly in terms of complexity and duration. Some I can finish in a few hours, some take weeks. I feel like I’m very good at the small projects and pretty good at but still challenged by the big ones. The projects left to do during the slow times are typically the messy and difficult ones where information comes in piece by piece or are client special requests that are a hassle to deal with. But the thing is, once I actually do them, they are never that bad.

I think I just hit a mental roadblock and shut down when I think something is going to be hard. I was always a smart student who did well easily, and I don’t think I ever learned how to work hard consistently, even though I’ve been in the workforce for a decade now. I have had goals in the past I’ve wanted to achieve, long-term goals that take a lot of effort, and I’ve been able to do them, so I think it’s possible for me to learn how to work hard. But it seems like such a hurdle to overcome and I don’t know where to start.

Yeah, when you were a smart kid who didn’t have to try especially hard to excel at the things that brought you positive reinforcement, you can end up not developing much of a persistence muscle. You didn’t need to! Things were pretty easy, and you were probably able to avoid anything that wasn’t easy for you without much trouble, because your talents lined up well with the things that school and most parents reward. Then you hit adulthood and discover that when you have to do something difficult, that persistence muscle is atrophied and weak and it feels easier to just not bother. That can work out okay when the difficult thing is “learn to paint” or “do the Whole30,” but it tends not to be a viable option when it comes to your job.

But here’s the thing: This isn’t a moral failing on your part (which is how you’re thinking of it — “I’m lazy,” “my work ethic sucks”); it’s just an insufficiently developed skill. It’s something you can learn.

I speak from experience here. I’ve been a regular visitor to the land you described — I’ll put something off, spend days dreading it but simultaneously hating having it hanging over me, and then finally do it, discover that it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I’d thought it would be, and wonder why I spent all that time agonizing over it.

I found it really helpful to realize that all that time I spent dreading whatever the thing was and feeling guilty about not doing it meant that it was taking up exponentially more room in my head than the amount of time it would have taken me to just get it done. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found that thinking “if I just do this now, it’ll be done in a few hours and I won’t have to deal with days of it hanging over me” is pretty effective motivation.

Other things that you can try:

• Make an explicit connection in your mind between how you operate and what you want other people to think about you. You probably want to have a reputation as someone who’s respected and gets shit done, not someone who’s hanging out in her office playing Minecraft all day (or whatever you’re doing during those slow times), right? Sometimes staying focused on what kind of professional reputation you want — especially what kind of reputation you don’t want — can be pretty motivating. I think you’re conscientious enough for this to matter to you (as evidenced by the fact that you care that you’re not working hard). You just need to keep it in the forefront of your mind.

• On a more practical note, break things down. This might get right at the heart of your particular brand of procrastinating, since you’re good with small projects and struggle with big ones. Instead of letting a project remain huge and unwieldy, break it down into all of its component steps. For example, rather than thinking “I need to plan our fall event,” you want your to-do list to say “talk to Jane about the program / call the printer for cost estimates on signage / dig out the guest list from last year” and so forth.

• When you feel yourself procrastinating, decide that you’ll just work on whatever you’re dreading for just ten minutes. You can’t credibly tell yourself that you can’t tolerate ten minutes of work … and once you start, you’ll often end up putting in way longer than ten minutes. I am speaking without hyperbole when I say that using this method has changed my life. Sometimes after telling myself “I’ll just do this ghastly project for ten minutes,” I end up happily staying with it until I finish it. It works because this stuff tends to become far more awful in your mind than it is in reality. So if you can just get over the initial block and start it, you’ll usually be well on your way.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 198 comments… read them below }

    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      Yes, this has been helpful for me — and I’m someone who suffers from just what this LW and Alison are talking about. The Pomodoro method has been a game changer.

      1. Kelly O*

        I will add a +1 for the Pomodoro method. I have the app on my phone and use it all the time, for all sorts of things, both at work and at home.

      2. AnotherAnon*

        yeah :) now that I have the right adhd meds, pomodoro is awesome. (the app I’m using isn’t, though – often I don’t notice the time’s up when I’m hyperfocused. anyone got suggestions for an android app with more notification options?)

    2. AdAgencyChick*

      The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt school of time management! (I bet it’s effective, I just had to laugh because that piece of advice took me back to one particular scene on the show)

      1. Purest Green*

        Yes! I was hoping someone would reference that. “All you gotta do is take it 10 seconds at a time, ooooh oooh”

    3. many bells down*

      This is what I do with cleaning, from the blog Unfuck Your Habitat, except her thing is 20 cleaning/10 minute break. 20 minutes isn’t that long, and you just focus on one specific thing ie: I’m going to JUST clear this table. It does wonders for my housework-aversion.

      1. nonegiven*

        If you can grab a trash bag and look for things to throw away, or a laundry basket and look for dirty clothes or dishes or things that belong in another room, for 10 or even 5 minutes, you get more done than looking at the pile of shame another hour.

  1. afiendishthingy*

    Love. I needed this – and especially your disclosure that you struggled with this also! Thanks Alison.

  2. C Average*

    This could not have been more timely. I’m setting my timer and getting my lazy off of AAM in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . NOW!

    1. C Average*

      “I’m going to put on my big-girl houndstooth blazer and blouse with a bow and then I’m going to pick up my phone from 1984 and then I’m going to quit procrastinating and get stuff done! Go me!”

      1. Honeybee*

        I’m not even sure that’s the case – the little attribution line beneath says Getty Images, which is a stock image service.

  3. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

    I have to say, the regular “Anti-Procrastination Post” on the Friday threads is SUPER helpful to me too. I’ve just decided to take it seriously, and it nearly always results in me getting something done that I’ve been avoiding.

    1. V*

      Can you tell me more about this? I skip the Friday threads (ironically, in an effort not to procrastinate). I searched the archives and just scrolled through a recent Friday post, but couldn’t find any references to this. I’m envisioning some sort of AAM Guilt Hour check in, which would be amazing.

        1. V*

          I need this in my life; just set a recurring calendar item for it. Thanks, Alison, for responding and thank you, Folklorist, for doing it.

  4. Reg poster going anon*

    Wow, I literally had to look back in my emails to see if I had written this. I feel ya, OP! it’s getting worse the older I get. Good advice Alison. I plan to practice this skill with non-work related things at first; being more disciplined for home projects, forcing myself to learn something consistently, etc.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      RIGHT?! My immediate response was, “Did I write this while asleep?”

      The breaking down large projects into simple steps has worked the best for me. Also, since I have a bit of an OCD streak, my Google Tasks list is my best friend. There’s a lot of psychological pleasure in clicking a box as done.

      1. Adam*

        I’ve been known to make lists, do tasks that aren’t on them, and THEN write them on the list just so I can check them off. :P

        1. C Average*

          Approximately a jillion years ago, before Al Gore invented the interwebs, my father (who worked for the Forest Service) was sent to a time-management workshop put on by the Franklin Planner people. (This was so long ago that they weren’t Franklin Covey yet.) As he and his colleagues were developing their planner habits, they were actually instructed that if they performed a task they hadn’t yet written down, they should write it down and check it off as “done.” The theory was that a) the pleasure of checking that box reinforced the time management habits they were working to develop and b) writing down their “done” tasks helped ensure that their planner provided a thorough record of their accomplishments, something that would be useful at review time.

            1. C Average*

              As with anything else, it’s all in the framing. :)

              (Not that there’s anything wrong with “goofy,” especially if it helps you get your work done.)

          1. Emilia Bedelia*

            I really do find this useful because I forget what I’ve already done- if I emailed Fernando and put it on my list as complete, I don’t have to dig through my sent emails when I inevitably think OH NO! DID I EMAIL FERNANDO YET?? . It’s not redundant, I swear :)

            1. Heather*

              Exactly! It is so handy for keeping track of what you actually have done.

              And the box ticking is really satisfying.

          1. Kelly L.*

            And things I did before I even made the list! To remind myself that I really did accomplish things already.

      2. Honeybee*

        I have recently found that electronic to-do lists don’t work that well for me, but actual physical to-do lists work wonders. I had to search a little bit to find a paper to-do list, but once I found one, I take great pleasure in writing down my to-dos and checking them off.

    2. ali*

      Same here. This could have easily been something I wrote. I will definitely take this advice as well!

  5. Elizabeth S.*

    What an incredibly timely letter to print, and I have to tell you Alison that I so appreciate your response. I was the smart kid who never had to work too hard to do well (though I do have some regret looking back — how much better I could have done had I put in more effort!) and that has been a challenge for me now in the real world. While I have several tips and tricks (along the lines of “break down a task” or “just do it for ten minutes”) which work with varying success, I still get down on myself for my “bad” work ethic. I have never thought of it as an unlearned skill or an atrophied muscle and – this may sound cheesy – that was a bit of a light bulb moment for me. I care about my job and I care about *doing well* at my job — I am not/don’t want to be a bad worker/coworker/employee, but sometimes can really get down on myself about my work ethic, which of course results in feeling more stuck. I really think that this change in perspective will have a positive impact on me *and* my job — so thank you!

    1. many bells down*

      I failed so HARD when I first went to college because of this. I coasted through school with B-average grades and very little effort, and then I got to college where things were actually difficult and I realized I had NO study skills. I didn’t know how to take notes. I didn’t know how to prepare for an exam. I didn’t know how to do research. Because I’d never had to before. Suddenly there was so much I didn’t know and I had no idea how to learn it.

      1. Kelly L.*

        Right! Same here. And I think…I didn’t actually know it had been easy before? Like, I thought I was putting in a normal amount of effort, because I didn’t have any other frame of reference. It’s not like I was lazy and not working hard on purpose, I thought I was working hard.

        1. many bells down*

          See, my problem was everyone told me I was “brilliant” and “gifted” and maybe I was, in a couple areas. So I thought everything SHOULD be easy. I think mostly I was just good at giving teachers what they wanted and acing standardized tests.

      2. Adam*

        This sounds familiar. I generally got A’s and a few B’s in school, and I think a lot of the time all I had to do for that was show up. College was SO different and I struggled the first few years (I also had some severe depression issues at first which didn’t help). Fortunately I got better at it later on. I think the biggest hurdle is working on things that are important but don’t really have a deadline.

      3. Susan C.*

        I see you, and raise you: making it through undergrad much the same way, and saving the crash & burn for a fairly intense master’s program. Good times.

        1. Violet Rose*

          Same for me, right down to the masters! Fortunately for me, I managed to scrape together a passing grade – once you’ve got the diploma, no one cares if you were two point above the pass mark or twenty. I also maintain that I learned loads; I just wish I could do the course over again and learn more actual mathematics this time.

      4. Library Director*

        Don’t feel alone. I’ve seen this a lot over the years. The principal of the school where I worked and my son attended used to joke that we were the parents of the only average students. Our sons had to work hard for every good grade. They actually did better at school, and work, as they got older because they were used to putting in hours of study. The “bright child” syndrome can be a problem.

        1. many bells down*

          Yes, that was exactly the problem! I was a very early and very avid reader, and by the time I got to kindergarten chapter books were standard fare for me. I was told that I was “brilliant” and a “child prodigy” and yeah … that only takes you so far. Once you’re too old to be a child prodigy you actually have to learn to do stuff and you’re so not prepared.

      5. Anxa*

        I knew in theory how to do these things, but I physically couldn’t do it. It was so bizarre. It sounds so silly or humblebraggy to some, but I never learned how to tolerate and plug through “I don’t get this.” And more than than, it’s not just learning how to deal with struggling, but also how to deal with needing to learn things the first time. Just the idea of there being things I would have to read more than once or take a minute to absorb was so uncomfortable to me.

        I struggled a bit at first when I started middle school, because 90% of the challenge was administrative, even though the subject matter was still pretty easy. Having to do all that homework, all that busywork? Those open-ended projects that you’d put off until the last minute because there was so many options and you wanted to write all of the versions of that paper? Or maybe that was just me. Then college was like, THUMP!

      6. Heather*

        Yeah, I remember the smack in the face when I entered university too! It was such a perfect storm of subjects suddenly being challenging, and a strong case of imposter syndrome that just got worse the further up into the degrees I got. I was suicidal every spring, it was really tough.

        1. Kelly L.*

          The impostor syndrome! So much. In hindsight, I probably came in with as much knowledge and raw smarts as my classmates, but there were…ways of talking and writing? that they knew and I didn’t. Academic jargon. There was a specialized Talking About Intellectual Stuff vocabulary that apparently had been taught in their high schools and not in mine, and I felt like a dumb hick most of the time.

    2. Help with Google calendar goals*

      Same here! I’m so hard on myself for what I haven’t done, and I keep thinking I can hide that I haven’t done it and then real quick get it done, but the guilt and inertia of not having done it already makes me feel trapped and stuck.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        Geez, I change my user name to something topical once, and my phone wants to keep it that way forever.

      2. Violet Rose*

        You have summed up my procrastination habits *perfectly*, and I’m so relieved that it’s not just me! My masters thesis could’ve been so much better if I’d just said, “this paper is taking me a lot of time to read and understand” and adjusted my plan accordingly, rather than spending the first month procrastinating and then trying to do it in chaotic bursts.

    3. Marillenbaum*

      I needed this post so much! I’m going to grad school (orientation is the day after tomorrow!) and I want to make sure I put in more/better work than I did in college.

      1. irritable vowel*

        I was definitely not prepared for how much harder grad school was than undergrad – on one hand, it was more rewarding because all the classes were in a field I was super-interested in, but on the other, there was a lot more work and the grading curve seemed a lot higher. I had a moment of panic at the end of my first semester where I was worried that I might lose my scholarship because of my GPA, which was not something I ever had to worry about in undergrad. (I went to grad school right after undergrad, and I think I was expecting it to just be more of the same…it was not!) Good luck – it sounds like you have a much better understanding of things than I did!

  6. SarahTheEntwife*

    I’m not sure where this falls on armchair-diagnosing, but a lot of these issues (especially the “can focus, but only under pressure”) are very common in people with undiagnosed AD(H)D. If the excellent task-management skill tips here just don’t seem to be working, it might be worth talking to your doctor about getting evaluated.

    1. Leatherwings*

      My SO had an issue with this, and he ended up being diagnosed with ADHD once he had it checked out. I have an issue with this too, and it’s just because it’s a skill I always need to be working on. So you might be right, but a lot of the time (maybe even most of the time), it’s not about a medical issue but developing good habits and solid skills.

      1. AnotherAnon*

        I was about to say it can’t hurt to check, but then I remembered the reputation of the US healthcare system…

        anyways, the important thing is that if your inability to Just Do The Thing is causing anxiety and/or depression, definitely bring it up with the doctor. preferably before it gets to the point that you can’t function. :/ I wish I’d figured it out *before* I was too sick to probably ever work again…

      2. KH*

        This article fits me to a T as well. So one gets diagnosed as ADHD — is there anything that can be done about it? Unless there is something that can be done to make it better, I really don’t care whether I am ADHD or not.

    2. aebhel*

      That’s good advice, and I don’t think it falls under armchair-diagnosing; OP may not have undiagnosed ADHD, but a lot of adults do, particularly people who are primarily inattentive (so they weren’t hyperactive and causing enough trouble to get them noticed) and academically gifted enough that they didn’t struggle noticeably with schoolwork, at least in grade school. If good time-management skill tips don’t work, it’s definitely worth getting evaluated.

    3. Rat in the Sugar*

      Er, so…this post, as well as a few comments on past posts by Mike C. in the last week or so, made me look up a list of adult ADD symptoms for the first time in my life and my jaw dropped open. I’ve always believed my parents that I’m lazy and make bad decisions, that I could remember to do things and actually finish them if I just tried harder…but these lists of symptoms seem to make so much sense!

      So my question is…what do I do now, if you don’t mind my asking? Do I go to a GP? A psychiatrist? Some kind of specialist? I’m excited that this could make a difference in my life but I don’t know who to talk to, and I don’t want to do my usual thing of getting excited about something and then never actually starting it.

      (I’ll save this for Saturday if you want me to, Alison!)

      1. Leatherwings*

        Start with a GP and they might refer you to someone or they might just try a few prescriptions/samples and see what happens. luck!

      2. Anlyn*

        I’ve been needing to find a psychiatrist, but for some reason, most in my area won’t take my insurance. Apparently Anthem BC&BS has been screwing them over. :(

        I have the same problems, and I found a checklist for adults that seemed to hit all the points. One friend who has ADHD is convinced I do, another who doesn’t is convinced I don’t. At the very least, I’d like to rule it out.

        Good luck, hope you find someone who can help!

      3. Broke*

        I started with a talk therapist (LCSW) who talked me through some non-medical management strategies (sleep is a big one for me; my ability to keep on task and filter out distractions gets shot to hell as soon as I chart less than 7 hours of sleep in a night) and when we had narrowed down what kind of a medical avenue I wanted to pursue, I went to my GP to talk about the medical side of things.

      4. Rat in the Sugar*

        Thanks for the comments! I think I’ll start with a gp appointment and see where i end up after that; I’ll update on this week’s open thread!

      5. Cosetthetable*

        Depending on your insurance/geographic area/etc: You want someone with an MD, not a PhD. If you need to because of your insurance, start with your GP, otherwise, start with a psychiatrist. Specialist isn’t necessary, but someone who puts something related to ADHD/Executive Functioning/etc as an “interest” can be helpful. (Generalists are fine, someone who specializes in something else is not what you want). You can always start with your GP if you just don’t know where to start, even if your insurance doesn’t require it. If your work has an Employee Assistance Program, they can be helpful. If you’re associated with a school, they may have someone in health services or similar that can help you find the right resource. Your health insurer may have a website of phone line to help you find a professional who is covered. Some geographic areas have hotlines that help people figure out how to access mental healthcare in their area. It depends on your particular situation what the easiest first step is, but there are often a lot more resources out there than people realize, just waiting to be used!! Finding a doctor and making the appointment can be very hard, but it is also totally do-able!!!

        You’re going to be hoping to be screened for more than just ADHD, if you get a quality professional. ADHD, depression, anxiety, and a few others can look like each other, or coexist with each other. Someone good will want to get a bigger picture, not *just* slap one diagnosis on you and assume it’s 100% of the picture. (although, in a pinch, someone who does that can still be helpful, if they guess right!). If you get a diagnosis, medication might be suggested. There are options. What is best for you will depend on your life, your medical history, and your particular chemistry. My suggestion is to keep an open mind, and if you start taking something, keep notes about how it’s working (or not!) for you.

        You also don’t need to wait until a formal diagnosis to try some things. There are plenty of places (Additude Mag is my favorite) with good, evidence based, non-medication suggestions for people with this family of challenges. Self-medication with caffeine is also popular.

        Good luck!

      6. Susan C.*

        I had a similar moment about half a year ago. I don’t think I’ll ever get an official diagnosis, because I don’t think medication would be the best way for me, and I don’t really see the point then, but having this as a lens to look through at stuff, and as something to google for when looking for coping mechanisms has been extremely helpful.

        (Although I might bring it up with my mother one day, just to see how she reacts)

      7. Simonthegrey*

        I finally convinced my husband to talk to his doctor about ADD. I have it (diagnosed) and he had so many of the same criteria and symptoms. He talked to his GP, who referred him to a psychiatrist for testing, and then back to the GP who is able to prescribe the medication that helps him control it.

      8. SarahTheEntwife*

        I got evaluated through my existing therapist, but your GP may be able to do it or refer you to someone who does. It was absolutely game-changing for me. And ADD medications are way easier to try out than a lot of other psychiatric stuff, since most of them will start working very quickly and it will often be very, very obvious if they work for you, rather than this whole “try this antidepressant for 6-8 weeks and then maybe you’ll see a difference or maybe you’re just going through a happier phase that week” routine. The meds don’t make me any more enthusiastic about finishing that annoying report, but now I can keep up the focus to actually do it, and I can remember to write things down on my to-do lists and check on what still needs to be done.

        1. AnotherAnon*

          Yes! :) (except for me, the meds sometimes help with enthusiasm too

          Also keep in mind that the first day of medication you’ll essentially be high – don’t make any life-changing decisions until a couple of days later. :) but oh god was it amazing to discover what it felt like to just *choose* what to do…

      9. nonegiven*

        Some people really do need medication, sometimes they need to try more than one. My son was diagnosed as an adult after flunking out of college. One of the other things he tried was a life coach, but eventually he just accumulated enough coping skills that he no longer tests as ADHD. He sticks to a few of his self imposed rules pretty rigidly and seems to have buckled down pretty suddenly once he figured out what it was going to take.

      10. Jo*

        I just did that now and…wow. This might be something I need to talk to someone about the next time I’m home. It would explain SO MUCH.

      11. Valeriane*

        Based on my daughter’s experience (diagnosed at age 17 after about 9 years of struggle), I’d start with talk therapy and neuropsychological testing for diagnosis. Both can give you more detailed information about where your difficulties lie. Extended-release meds made a big difference because she only has to remember to take it once per day. But she’s working to develop skills to allow her to get off the meds, since they can have negative effects on some of her other health problems.

    4. A Non*

      For me, anxiety results in tons of procrastination too. When my anxiety isn’t well controlled it’s all but impossible to get stuff done. But once I get it under control – which for me has meant finding the right medication – suddenly it’s not only possible, but relatively easy. It’s been a drastic change. So that may also be worth getting checked out.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        That’s what I wonder about for myself. I think my anxiety is very high this past few months, but I don’t know what amount of anxiety is normal. I sometimes think, “Of course I’m anxious; look at everything I haven’t done!” And then I think, “Well, I haven’t done it because I’m anxious AF!” So chicken and egg, basically. I try to work harder to remove the cause of anxiety, but feelings of anxiety torpedo my focus on my work.

      2. 39281*

        Same here – once I got on meds/in therapy for anxiety and depression, I was able to tackle my work habits so much more easily.

      3. No longer new commenter*

        This hasn’t fixed the issue for me, but it has certainly helped. When my anxiety was totally out of control, nothing got done at all. Now I’m just a regular, disorganized procrastinator.

      4. Anon for this*

        Same here.

        I have an anxiety disorder, close to the OCD side of things, and ADHD. You might think they would cancel each other out. OH NO THEY DO NOT.

    5. NeurotypeBOUNCE*

      I can’t agree enough, and it really helps you move beyond the “I’m lazy/messy/etc.” and into “My brain works differently”. Getting diagnosed was a godsend.

    6. SystemsLady*

      My personal view (as a sufferer myself): I think because ADHD is so widely misdefined and stigmatized, it’s fair to assume somebody already seeking answers about how to improve their work ethic may not have heard it could cause problems with that, and to bring it up as a possibility to explore.

      Now telling a person who wrote in for advice about their husband’s behavior not only that their husband probably has ADHD, but also to completely excuse them for forgetting anniversaries all the time because of it? Yeah, that kind of thing is not OK. Neither is “you have ADHD full stop period” or “oh on [unrelated side mention not relevant to the actual question], you probably have ADHD”, but I don’t see any of that here.

    7. C Average*


      I got the ADHD testing (for similar reasons to the ones described here), and the testing uncovered not ADHD, but a learning disability I’d never even heard of. (Nonverbal learning disability–it’s actually an autism spectrum disorder, which explains SO MUCH about my entire academic and social life.)

      A diagnosis can be really empowering. It basically prompted me to create an informal IEP for my life: everything from how to drive places (plan extra time to get lost); how to structure my time when I’m trying to write or do other creative work (walk breaks, good nutrition, quiet); what kind of friendships and networking relationships to cultivate (drama-free, low contact, reciprocal); and even what kind of media to consume (AAM, obviously).

      1. Simonthegrey*

        This. I had never heard of dyscalculia until after college, and if I had known about it ten years earlier I think about how much better I could have been at certain skills, because instead of thinking I was a failure at math, I could finally see that I had a processing issue.

      2. No longer new commenter*

        Wow. I never met anyone else with this disorder. They never told me that the spectrum had anything to do with autism, though, just that it described a large disparity between scores verbal/spacial portions of an IQ test. I am not really surprised, though, because I grew up having just about the worst social skills imaginable, and had to learn through imitation.

        1. C Average*

          Hello, fellow NVLD person! I’ve never met anyone else with this disorder in real life, but once or twice I’ve seen another person mention it online. It’s pretty obscure. I’ve read a bunch of books about it and worked for a while with a therapist who specializes in spectrum disorders, and he really brought the social stuff to the fore in ways that were helpful to me.

          I think AAM is a fantastic resource for people like us, because we’re so very good at following written instructions and so very inept at picking up nonverbal queues. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve read a description of a workplace behavior or situation in this column or its comment section and said to myself, “Huh. Wow. That’s a thing. Wait, of course that’s a thing! How did I never notice before that that’s a thing?” And then I’ve gone forth, educated and empowered.

          1. Soupspoon McGee*

            You cannot hear me shouting through the internet, but I looked up NVLD and your description of not getting nonverbal cues and I related so hard I’m not using commas! That explains so much!

          2. Mephyle*

            Most of the list of NVLD characteristics didn’t resonate with me, but the ones on not picking up verbal cues or being able to read facial expressions and body language do. A lot.
            So apparently that thing when (other) people can tell that someone is tired, or upset, or happy, or angry, or sick, or well from just looking at their face is real? I’d always had this vague sense that people were making it up or faking it, because I just don’t see those things in people’s faces.
            Coincidentally, it’s been just recently (in the last few years, after 5 decades of not putting the pieces together) that I started thinking that this (reading faces) might be a real thing that other people can see and I can’t.

            1. AnotherAnon*

              I learnt body language from dogs (accidentally!), and then sorta reverse-engineered it to apply to humans. :) Maybe that’s why my own expressions are so exaggerated – so everyone can understand them, because anxiety makes me feel awful if I might have confused someone. :/

          1. AnotherAnon*

            I think it was mentioned in the written copy of my aspergers diagnosis too; I didn’t know it was its own thing :)

      3. Marillenbaum*

        That’s amazing! I love the idea of creating an IEP for my life–as far as I know, I don’t have a learning difference, but I do have anxiety and depression that make things…challenging, at times. I think I’m going to do this tomorrow.

      4. Tau*

        Yeah, autistic spectrum disorders can totally have similar effects. I have Asperger’s and procrastination, if we want to call it that, has been a huge problem in my life. Similar to you, I’ve found that structuring my life to avoid the things that give me trouble is the best way forward. It’s limiting in certain ways, but overall I am so much happier and my life is so much better now than when I kept trying to do things the NT way and then beat myself up when I crashed and burned.

    8. Marisol*

      Came here to say the same thing. I have adhd, diagnosed at age 40. I was a natural student, got straight a’s, no one ever suspected a thing. Plus, I was about 10 years behind the time when it became a common diagnosis.

      OP, adhd manifests in many ways, so even if you don’t think you have “typical” adhd symptoms, don’t rule out the possibility out of hand. My psychiatrist recommends the book “Driven to Distraction” by John Ratey, so I offer that suggestion in case you want to do some research on your own while sorting out the medical care situation. There is a comprehensive checklist to determine if you have adhd–you could even skip straight to that. If you can ask a friend to read the checklist as well and help you evaluate yourself objectively it might help, since people with adhd are notorious for not being able to see themselves objectively.

      Also, be aware that adhd is *commonly* misdiagnosed as bi-polar two, so do your due diligence and get a second opinion if necessary.

      Good luck!

    9. Anxa*

      Yeah, armchair diagnoses are so iffy and a minefield, but I can’t imagine how depressed I’d be at this point in my life had I been oblivious to the possibility of ADHD. I have no diagnosis; I’m a young women who has a phobia that led to an anxiety disorder on my EHR, so it seems no health professional can look past that (I’m seriously considering having it removed after one doctor refused to consider a TBI after a head injury once he saw I had anxiety…I mean I think he’s right, but I’ve just heard too many horror stories of women having to fight for a thorough examination if they have anxiety).

      I mean, I don’t have meds or therapy, but just putting some tips for ADHD individuals into practice has helped me feel a lot better and be a lot more productive. If only I could clear that last hurdle; it hasn’t really made much of a difference in beating underemployment.

      1. QA grump 42*

        It’s weird how much of a difference it made for me to have someone authoritative tell me that when I consistently fail at so many things I care about it’s probably because they are difficult for me. Somehow I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

  7. shep*

    As others have noted, this is so, SO relevant and timely to my own professional life. Thank you for your thoughts and resources!

  8. NW Mossy*

    When I find myself procrastinating on something, I tell myself, “You’ll never want to do this more than you do now, so you might as well get it over with.” It’s a reminder that it’s OK to acknowledge that a task is boring or unpleasant, but I still need to do it.

    I also tend to get involved in projects that have a big up-front investment for a steady payoff later. My strategy with these is to view them as facilitating future laziness – if I do this now, I won’t have to do X annoying thing again!

      1. Hermione*

        Yes, Present-me often retroactively high-fives (and or curses out) Past-me for (not) looking out for Future-me.

      2. MillersSpring*

        To your excellent advice, I’ll add that I sometimes remind myself of my larger life goals, such as a raise and/or promotion, saving to buy a house, etc. Those thoughts can get me moving, achieving and on my way to impressing others. I also remind myself how good it feels to have accomplishments and the respect of others, and how bad it feels if it seems like anyone is noticing that I’m not productive or have lackluster results.

      3. irritable vowel*

        It’s funny, I use this line of thinking all the time for things like public speaking, which cause me a great deal of anxiety – I’d much rather be the first to go in a lineup of speakers and get it over with, even if I’m dreading it. But it never occurred to me to also apply it to things I just don’t want to do, like replying to an irritating e-mail or make a phone call I’m not looking forward to.

    1. Kelly L.*

      I also got a lot out of the webcomic about the Dark Playground and the procrastination monkey and panic monster. The other night, I was able to plow ahead with something I was dreading by reminding myself that anything I did in the meantime would be the Dark Playground, and I might as well do the task and then I’d enjoy the fun thing more.

      1. Yes!*

        I hadn’t read that comic before– “Dark Playground” is the PERFECT way to sum up where so many unhappy hours go. I spent years framing this cycle as a work-related thing until realizing that my _work_ always got done just fine (see: Panic Monster). What I missed out on were discretionary things like sleep, reading, writing, dating, and general joy. Thanks for the rec!

    2. JMegan*

      I use this strategy for cleaning the cat litter – something that *really* doesn’t get easier the longer you leave it. It works!

    1. Mallory Janis Ian*

      I wouldn’t feel guilty about it either if it weren’t for other people’s expectations and my expectations of myself to meet them. I’d just feel like I was doing WTF I want to do and not affecting anyone but myself.

  9. Cosetthetable*

    First, yes, there are lots of people who would benefit from learning more persistence, but are perfectly well able to do so, end of story.

    But, speaking from experience, if this is something very difficult for you, a professional might be able to help. Many of the things needed to develop and regularly perform persistence involve executive functioning skills, and there are a number of problems that make executive functioning more difficult.

    Almost everyone has experienced a day when you didn’t get nearly enough sleep, and then had trouble doing something basic in the morning (ie– trying to make coffee without putting the coffee in). But for someone with under-treated ADHD, it can feel like that EVERY day, even with a good night’s sleep.

    While just about everyone can benefit from at least some of AAM’s suggestions, if you feel like you’re really struggling with this, it may make sense to talk to a doctor. Lots of people (especially smart women!) are often not diagnosed with executive functioning issues in childhood, but get stuck at some point in late high school/ college/ grad school/ work, when powering through at the last minute doesn’t cut it anymore. Some people benefit from just having a label, a framework, and some suggestions about how to better set up their days/lives/etc. Some people find medication to be life changing. But if you happen to feel like you’re struggling a lot more than your peers with this, that might be true, and there might be help out there for you.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      And I think it can sometimes help to take a kind of inchoate challenge and make it A THING. You don’t need a diagnosis to make it A THING but devoting some resources (money and time) to talking about it as a problem can make it feel more graspable and easier to address.

      1. Cosetthetable*

        Yup! In the same way breaking big tasks into smaller chunks can make it easier to do (like AAM suggests), breaking down one’s difficulty with executive functioning into tasks (read book about x, come up with one thing to try this month, try the pomodoro technique for the next two weeks, try bullet journal next month (this month- buy journal, watch youtube videos about bullet journal)) can help make it seem manageable.

        Beyond that, the advice given to people with a severe problem can also be valuable to people with a minor problem. So looking up typical advice to people with ADHD might provide help to someone without ADHD but having trouble with procrastination, the same way advice for Olympic runners can still be useful for the high school track team.

  10. LadyKelvin*

    The 10 minute rule is how I stay consistent on workouts. I tell myself that I have to do it for 10 minutes, then if I’m still not feeling it, I can quit and go home. 90% of the time, I am just fighting Newton’s first law of motion, but there are definitely times I work out for 10 minutes then leave. Staying true to promises to yourself also makes them more motivating. If I say I only have to do this for 10 min and then force myself to stay the whole time, its not going to motivate me next time. I just think its important to follow through on promises to yourself.

    1. SarahTheEntwife*

      I do a similar thing with cleaning. I have to clean/pick up one thing per day. It might be mopping the kitchen floor; it might be putting that one dirty sock in the hamper. And like you, 90% of the time just getting started gets me going and I end up doing a nice chunk of chores. But if I’m really low-energy, then hey, that’s one less sock that I have to pick up tomorrow.

    2. irritable vowel*

      What works for me is reminding myself that I’m definitely not going to regret going to the gym, I definitely won’t feel worse than I did before, and I’ll probably feel better (physically and about myself) afterwards. I can see how this type of thinking could work for job-related stuff, too!

  11. The Other Dawn*

    This is me, 100%. Drive me nuts, but I can’t seem to get myself out of it. I’m so happy to see that there’s a reason for it, other than me being lazy. I was that smart kid who never had to try in school. As an adult, I mostly found the same thing with work and my personal life. As a result, I often fizzle out fast when faced with something I need to work at. With working out, I’ve made my motto, “Just get it over with.” That helps me get through the workout. Perhaps I need to adopt motto that for work, also.

    1. Not a Real Giraffe*

      It literally wasn’t until this post and your comment that I put together my work ethic professionally with my inability to commit to other activities in my life. Instant gratification is a killer for me.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        Yes! It’s a killer for me, too, which is why working with a personal trainer towards the goal of core strengthening for excess skin removal (weight loss surgery post-op here) is very difficult for me. I can’t see the results right away. In fact, the only way I know I’m making any progress is when the trainer ups my weights or my reps. Sure, I occasionally see a drop in weight or I might look slightly different, but it’s definitely not instant! I’m struggling mightily with my current routine: it’s long, contains several exercises I hate, and doesn’t have any kind of instant gratification. Sprints, however, I enjoy, because I can run fast and actually feel like I’m getting somewhere/doing something. That make sense? It gives me a bit of that coveted instant gratification.

        1. DoDah*

          I’m no trainer but I hate working out and like sprinting. I found that exercising on a rebounder hit the sweet-spot for me. It’s hard not to be in a good mood after jumping up and down for 30 seconds.

  12. Nervous Accountant*

    OH MY GOD this SO applies to me for hte most part. I, too, was great in school, until middle school insecurities took over. College was a total struggle and I pretty much gave up on ever being smart again.

  13. BBBizAnalyst*

    This is great. I wish I could send this back to myself when I was in undergrad. Persistence didn’t resonate with me until my mid 20s.

  14. Hermione*

    I also find it helpful to put the things I’m dreading in context with any/everything else I have to do, usually via a brain-dump/to-do list, and have found it to be especially helpful when combined with Alison’s advice on breaking larger projects down into smaller components. I’m sure it’s just me tricking my brain/motivation, but I think it’s that I’m giving myself all of the information in one space, and then letting myself choose what tasks need to get done, and when. When I procrastinate a list, or it’s only in my head, the to-do’s seem less a choice and more a demand, I think.

    I’ve written about this on a previous thread, but dumping every single to-do into one unordered list on a large sheet of paper, and then reorganizing them into groups based on either project or similarity (for example, putting all mass e-mails into the same groups, regardless of which project they belong to), chunking larger to-do’s into their simplest components. Then, once I have everything I need to do, I start somewhere: usually one of four: the most daunting, the quickest, the one that has been overlooked the longest, or (if I’m in a really grouchy mood) the to-do I most enjoy.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      I find this really helpful too! One of my strengths is that I can see all of the steps between starting and finishing a project easily in my head, and I’m also a big J on the Myers-Briggs dimension (I like having things done and resolved). When those things get out of balance, I get overwhelmed by the things I need to do six weeks from now and shut down. It’s helpful to remind myself that I have written down the thing that needs to get done, I don’t have to remember or think about it right now, and I just need to do the next three action steps, not the whole project.

    2. Kelly L.*

      Yes! I also find that writing my list down helps. Because sometimes my brain will fail me by sort of…mentally listing a task more than once? So if I’m worried about Making the Difficult Phone Call, for example, I’ll churn about it so much that I’ll somehow start thinking there are really three Difficult Phone Calls. On paper I can see it’s just the one.

  15. Some Sort of Management Consulta*

    Yup, this is me. Only the LW put it much better than I ever could.

    I fear being fired from my job every day, to be honest. Laziness (or lack of persistence/dedication) coupled with terrible impostor syndrome… Not a good combo.

    1. Anlyn*

      Ooh, me too. For the first time in my career, I’ve been called out on letting things drop by the wayside. It was not a pleasant feeling.

  16. MD*

    OP is very much like me. One thing that helps me a lot is to break up tasks into extremely small incremental tasks, because those are “doable” in my mind when I’m feeling lazy. Each of these takes literally seconds to do, but with each one I finish makes me feel more accomplished, which makes the next task easier, and it builds from there. Example, if I need to send an email, I’ll break that down into very small incremental tasks….ie, 1. open a new message. 2 write the first sentence. 3. Write the 2nd setence. 4. Send message.

  17. Gwen*

    Something that my psychiatrist said that REALLY struck me was, “I like to rename procrastination as ‘difficulty starting.”” It’s so simple, but it really blew my mind? I definitely was on the same train as you, LW, and constantly obsessing over my laziness and the perceived moral failure of myself as a person for not being able to DO things (ftr, in case it helps anyone else, I was diagnosed with co-morbid anxiety & ADD). For some reason, I thought of procrastination as a failure to DO things…it just being a struggle with STARTING something suddenly made it seem so much more manageable. It definitely plays into both Alison’s bite-sized and “10 minutes” advice…it’s not something that makes it impossible for you to accomplish things. It’s just an extra hurdle to jump over at the beginning.

  18. Some Sort of Management Consulta*

    The Pomodoro Technique and Bullet Journaling help me, and might be helpful to others, I guess. Ymmv.

    1. LibbyG*

      Pomodoro works for me too, especially for writing. I also use the “park downhill” strategy: stopping at a place where I know exactly what my next step is going to be. Like, I don’t finish a section and stop, but rather write the first sentence of each of the next 4 paragraphs to fill in the next time.

  19. Kyrielle*

    This won’t work for everyone, but I’d add – ticky boxes (literal or not). Crossing things off on a list or checking them off in an app can be incredibly satisfying. Also, I sometimes look back and realize I was _not_ wasting the day, puttering. I was doing all the steps I needed to – but sometimes those steps don’t actually produce results (and thus, on to the next step, which otherwise would not be needed) and I forget that while I didn’t Solve This Bug, I did in fact take 7 of the 10 possible steps I came up with that might lead to finding the cause. That’s real work, and it mattered, even if it didn’t actually get me the answer.

  20. AVP*

    I also wonder if the heavy-workload periods mean that everyone is sort of burnt for the first few weeks after it ends, and not willing to pick up on longer projects. I have something similar and (with the permission of those above me!) where if we have a really busy period, it’s okay for me to say, “I feel kind of hungover from the last three months so I’m going to spend one week catching up on paperwork and doing the minimum, and then I’m really going to get at those bigger projects next Monday.” It works as long as there’s not a pressing deadline.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Great point. There is a roller coaster effect, OP, and this might apply to your setting. The rule of thumb is that if you go high then it is almost certain you will go low. So if you spend months working at 150% of your capacity then YES! you are going to need slower times. It’s not a want, it’s an absolute NEED on a par with food and water.

      I had one job where I never had to work so hard or move so fast in my life. I did it and came home flippin’ exhausted. It was both physically and mentally demanding. During the slow times I went down to a crawl. I had to because… I was flippin’ exhausted. I probably should not have been driving in that condition.

      However, I did pick up some tips.

      Diet, hydration and rest are key. People who try to take better care of themselves make out better than those who make no attempt.

      Watch the roller coastering. When you know you are in busy season, have a point during each day where you wind down. I would put my easiest work at the end of the day, when possible. This worked out so well, I could sit and I could do the things that required the least amount of brain power. It lowered my rate of screw-ups. (With the massive amount of stuff we handled, the likelihood of screwing up was very high.)

      Watch your self-talk. I say this often and here I am again. Please give your thoughts common sense test. Would a normal person be able to give 150% every day year round? I would strongly argue the answer to that is NO.
      Telling yourself you are lazy or wondering if you are lazy is NOT helpful. Picture a friend or family member saying this to you. It does not motivate you, does it? Same thing when we say it to ourselves, it only pulls us down lower. When you feel yourself slowing down and lagging behind, ask yourself what you ARE WILLING to do to move yourself forward.
      I have found that I can con myself into doing stupid little task x. Getting stupid little task x done, can motivate me to do slightly larger task y. And I inch along like this, gaining momentum by successfully completing these smaller things.

      When faced with a LARGE project, it helps to constantly remind yourself of alllll the large projects that you have worked on and successfully finished. And it helps to remind yourself of all the times something appeared to be a bfd and when you finally got to it, it was no where near as bad. You know there is a reason for that, don’t you? It is because we gain skills and we streamline our work without realizing how we are progressing. We look at a task as if we are newbies and tend to think “this is Mt. Everest”, which is a lie/illusion. Our skills have grown, and our ability to move a project along has grown. It’s no longer Mt Everest.

      Alison has shown a number of tools here, line them up and keep them handy. If one does not work today then bump to another tool see if that tool will work today.

      Last, only you know the answer to this one: You may need to move to work that is more on an even keel, with smaller seasonal explosions. I looked at what I was doing and said to myself, “Is this reasonable to think I can still be going at this pace when I am 50 or 60?” Hmmm. I was having trouble at 30 and so were my peers. I decided that the pace was not sustainable, at least for me. We used to joke that if we worked anywhere else the pace would be too slow and we would be too impatient with the slower pace. I found that to be true, but I also found that the pace we were working at was causing problems for me in other parts of my life. I knew what I had to do.

  21. AthenaC*

    Oh hello there, fellow public accountant! (Am I close?)

    I start each day with a to-do list that I update every night for the next morning. That way I trick myself into everything feeling more fresh.

    But honestly? On some level, just enjoy the slow times. That’s how you build up the motivation to do everything at break-neck speed during crunch time. Yes, you still have to be effective when things are slow, to some extent, but what people value much more is you pulling through when it’s busy.

    Good luck!

    1. OP*

      Yep. My “big achievement” was passing the CPA exam. So I KNOW I can work hard and do things that take a lot of sustained effort (studying three hours a day for the better part of a year), but once tax season is over, I’m so fried and have such a hard time working on the little crap projects like responding to IRS notices and researching random stuff.

      1. AthenaC*

        Oh my goodness – congratulations!!

        Okay, you’re definitely allowed a bit of a work ethic hangover after passing the CPA exam, and after tax season, or benefit plan reporting deadline season, or pushing through whatever deadlines you have. It is very, very common to lack motivation after a period of intense work. It’s why in bigger firms, teams that work on publicly traded companies all go out for drinks (on the company’s dime) and get smashed when the audit is done. Smaller firms (like my old firm) will have a happy hour to celebrate the end of tax season and people just quietly didn’t show up to work for a day or so.

        No one will ever say it explicitly, but everyone expects that people will just be lethargic for a bit. So yes, definitely use all the productivity tricks people are throwing at you (I’m kinda like you – I’m getting a paycheck every two weeks and I like to be able to know that I’ve earned it), but understand that the way you’re feeling and reacting is totally normal. Also, depending on your relationship with your partners / managers, feel free to ask them to give you a deadline for whatever they want you to do – I have found that deadlines of any sort (even artificial ones) are super helpful.

        I’ve been in public accounting for 8.5 years now (two big firms, one small firm), and although I’m 100% audit, you still have that cyclical nuclear meltdown –> not busy –> nuclear meltdown cycle and I see this with virtually everyone I work with.

  22. Zowayix*

    Oh gosh, this is *exactly* me. I’ve definitely fallen into the cycle of “lack motivation to do important thing” -> “do nothing productive all day” -> “feel like a dumb@$$ for having done so” -> “lose more motivation” many times before. Like others have said, thanks so much Alison, I needed this!

  23. J.B.*

    I like that Alison framed this as something you can learn, not as a moral failing. I would also add that it’s ok to not constantly run full tilt, and to have a few things that are on the back burner. Particularly promising things to other people! Intermediate and long term deadlines are so helpful. I can take a mental break here and there, but giving myself a deadline and having an overall plan makes me come back to them.

    1. J.B.*

      Also! I have a major tendency to overcommit, so making sure I see things through and taking a step back periodically helps.

  24. HR Pro*

    Having struggled with this for pretty much all of my working life, let me add two more tips that I’ve picked up along the way:

    1 – You might find that one strategy (such as the 10 minute thing Alison suggested) works for you for some long period of time but then stops working. Be open to changing your strategy at various points in your life.

    2 – If you can find a job/industry/company where you have more of a consistent workload, rather than huge ups and downs (busy then slow), that should help. If I’m consistently busy (but not tearing my hair out, crazy overwhelmed) then I can really keep up and stay motivated. If I have lots of instances of downtime, like days or weeks at a time, I lose a lot of motivation. tl;dr it helps to stay busy

  25. Art_ticulate*

    Yup, I feel this. Although in my case it’s my crippling anxiety that causes me to procrastinate. Then I fall into a spiral as I become more anxious, which makes me procrastinate more, which makes the anxiety worse… You get it. Alison’s advice is really good, though. I’m going to keep it in mind from now on!

  26. EngineerMommy*

    Procrastination is a frequent tendency in perfectionists. Our brain tells us that we don’t have the time/skills/energy/information to do a task perfectly, so why start on it at all? I’ve been working on my perfectionism for a while now, and try to tell myself that doing something less than perfectly is better than not doing it because I was waiting for perfection. This is true in the vast majority of both my professional and personal life. Some jobs have life/safety components where this wouldn’t hold true, but in those cases letting the non-critical tasks get done at less than 100% perfection can make it easier to get the critical ones done exactly right.

    I’ve found some of the other strategies suggested here helpful too. Pomodoro method, breaking a large task down into manageable activities, and reminding myself that getting something done means I don’t have to feel bad about not doing it any more have all helped move me through my less-than-motivated times. I have also found that getting enough sleep and eating regularly really helps my ability to focus and push through when I’d rather not.

    Although I’m sitting here typing this instead of sending some awkward emails that need to go out, so clearly it’s still an issue :)

  27. C Average*

    I think it also helps to identify what I think of as a work-ethic mentor and try to act like them, or act the way you’d act if they were around watching you.

    I used to work with a dude named Jay. Jay was freaking amazing. He might be the single most productive, focused human being I have ever met in my life. He was also a great manager: supportive, just the right amount of demanding, collaborative, respectful, and just all-around awesome. For a brief time I reported to him, and I did the best work of my life during that period simply because I was in proximity to the dervish of productivity and focus that was Jay. He brought out the best in everyone who worked for him, partly through his management style but mostly due to the example he set.

    After I stopped reporting to him, I found that my focus and my work ethic started to slide again. Sometimes, when I was really not doing well, I’d write WWJD on the top corner of my to-do list. It stood, of course, for “What Would Jay Do?” Ridiculous as it sounds, just THINKING about Jay made me want to not screw around when I should be working.

    1. HYDR*

      I agree with this! I had a terrible manager before and was like ‘eh’ with my work ethic and attitude. It was BAD. I gave about 40% and that was good enough. Now, in my new role, the people I work with are wonderful, smart, accomplished….and I want to be like them! So, my work ethic and attitude is much better. It’s amazing what a good/bad manager/coworkers can do.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      This is a great point, also.
      If you work with productive people who have a good attitude it’s amazing how that can influence your own productivity and even your own mindset.
      If you work with one or more Debbie Downers or Sad Sams that fatigue can set in early and stay long.

  28. JMegan*

    Joining the “me too” chorus. It’s *huge* to me to discover that I’m not alone in this, and I’m not (necessarily) defective!

  29. 39281*

    Are you me!? This is exactly what I’m struggling with now – I always get my work done, and get nothing but praise from my managers. But, I also spend a lot of time surfing the web and playing on my phone when there’s work I need to be doing.

    What’s worked for me:
    I have a list of work-ish related stuff all bookmarked in one folder (household budget that I’m using to learn new excel skills, Duolingo to practice French, a map quiz site – I work in the international field so knowing where each country is/their capital/flag makes things much easier, AAM – I’m slowly being given more management experience, and GitHub for technical skills). These are all of my “non-work work” things that I default to when I find myself procrastinating. It makes me feel like I’m doing something semi-productive, so I’m not feeling as guilty, and also gets me into work mode easier.

    I find that the boredom/guilt/procrastination cycle is hard to get out of. Accepting that some parts of my job are boring and that some days are slow, and letting go of the guilt has worked wonders for me over the past few weeks. I’m getting more work done at work, getting more “non-work work”/life stuff done, and don’t feel like a horrible employee that may get fired at any moment.

    Good luck!

  30. C Average*

    One other thing: some stuff can go for a long time without getting done because it’s unimportant and doesn’t need to get done, and sometimes it’s very freeing to just admit that. For example, I once had a side project at work that had been entirely my own idea, and it was always getting pushed down my to-do list by other, more urgent things. It was a complicated project that required some serious head space and the knowledge of some new software and the buy-in and assistance of some people outside my department. Every day, I put it on my to-do list, and every day, it sat there and mocked me. No one was asking me about it, no one was nagging me to do it, no one was suffering for the fact that it wasn’t getting done.

    Finally I worked up the nerve to go to my manager and say, “That thing we talked about back in January, that I was going to do in my white space? I don’t think I’m ever going to get enough white space to do it properly, because it’s complicated as all hell and involves a bunch of moving parts. I feel like I either need to block out some time–consecutive days, not dribs and drabs–and just bang it out, or I need to accept that I can’t do it. What are your thoughts?”

    “Kill it,” my boss said, without even thinking about it.

  31. FD*

    Another thing that can be helpful–if you can, set up systems that make it easy for you to succeed and hard to fail.

    I wanted to start working out more consistently. I tried and tried, and nothing stuck for more than a week.

    So I rented a locker at my local gym and keep my hair and makeup stuff there. Now, I have to go to the gym to get ready for work. I can tell myself that I don’t have to workout, but I do have to go–and once I’m there, I can tell myself that I might as well workout, since I’m here. As a result, I have been working out every weekday for the last month.

    In a work world, that might be something else. It might be doing your hardest stuff first thing, because everything else will feel downhill. It might be mentioning to a friend that you’re planning to do XYZ, so you’ll feel that you have to get it done now.

    But either way, the more decisions you have to make to get yourself to the outcome you desire, the more prone to failure your plan will be.

    1. 39281*

      +10000!! Eliminating all possible roadblocks ahead of time is so smart. I love the idea of keeping your hair and makeup stuff at the gym!

  32. Risha*

    Yet another in the “are you me?!?” chorus.

    I see that ADHD was touched on above, and anxiety very briefly, but another thing to keep an eye out for is depression. I’m bipolar (with generalized anxiety disorder co-morbid), and a slowdown at work often triggers a depressive cycle for me, which makes it more difficult to focus or start tasks, which feeds the depression. In fact, my initial diagnosis came after nearly six months of accomplishing next to nothing at all at work. Anxiety can also worsen for me at these times, both just as a part of the cycle and from guilt. That can make certain specific tasks (such as making phone calls), next to impossible.

  33. FCJ*

    Like Alison says, don’t think of this as a moral failing. If you’re from the US, you’ve most likely been raised to think of down-time as selfishness and busyness as virtue. Stop it, stop it right now. (Says the US-born person who also struggles with this type of thinking). Look as objectively as you can at what you’re accomplishing and ask if you’re happy with it. Not “Could I do more?” because the answer to that is ALWAYS yes, but “Do I like what I’ve done?” It sounds like you’re getting your work done. As long as procrastination or “laziness” aren’t causing you to miss important things (like paying your bills, seeing friends, whatever) or lose opportunities that you really want as opposed to things you think you should accomplish because That’s What’s Expected, and as long as you aren’t letting other people down and your employer is happy with your work, I honestly don’t think you have a work-ethic problem.

    That said, for me the thing that works best in raising my productivity is accountability. Try getting a physical calendar–I use a monthly/weekly one, but I have friends who use the bullet journal system (you can Google it). Physically write down all the things you need or want to do for each day, and physically cross them off either as you do them, or at the end of the day or week. I also give myself weekly and monthly goals sometimes. Not necessarily anything huge–“Clean the back patio” or “read a book not related to school.” Give yourself reasonable deadlines for things, even if they don’t technically have deadlines. If you respond well to gamefication, work out rewards for yourself for crossing everything off.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      The older timers used to consider it a moral failing. The problem with this solution is that it’s NOT a solution. It does not tell you how to build work ethic or how to be a better employee. It’s not instructive nor informative.

      I have often thought that lazy people tell others they are lazy so that they get off the hook for teaching others how to be better workers.

      1. FCJ*

        Which part isn’t a solution? The “don’t internalize irrelevant social expectations” part, or the “concrete ideas to help keep one motivated and on top of goals” part?

        Also, back off your tone. Just because you’re anonymous on the internet doesn’t mean you can be patronizing to people.

        1. turquoises*

          huh?? I think NewReader was critiquing the cultural tendency to paint procrastination/ADD as a moral failing. THAT doesn’t solve anything. I don’t think they were criticizing Alison’s post, just commenting on a common and unhelpful misperception.

  34. OK, but...*

    .. as long as OP is getting their work done on or before deadlines, and it’s of the same standard/quality as all their other work, why does it matter? It’s not the employee’s fault there’s not enough work to go around during slower months. OP says they always get positive reviews, so what’s the problem here? Do we really have to be “on” all the time, even when work is slow and can be spread out over longer periods as opposed to when we are always in a rush to get projects out, so we can move on to the next one?

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I thought to myself “how much of this is an actual concern?’ Many companies that have heavy busy seasons DO ignore slacking during the lulls. They understand why the slacking happens. For purposes of employee retention, they ignore the slacking.

      OP, do consider that if you worked a more even keeled job you might not even ask this question.

  35. Bianca*

    I use the “10 minute” rule when I don’t want to work out. Whenever I feel like I’m just too tired to work out, I tell myself that I’m giving myself permission to quit ten minutes in.

    But that hardly ever happens. The hardest part about working out is getting your butt to the gym/pool/sidewalk and actually starting out. And if I do poop out 10 minutes in, that probably means that I don’t actually have enough energy at that moment and shouldn’t push too hard.

  36. serenyty*

    Any tips on work focus? I get my work done on time and I think my quality is OK, but I find my brain wandering off all too often. I’ll be working on something, go “oh, time to check Facebook / Ask a Manager / etc.” I’m also really thrown off by phone calls or people coming up to my desk in person – it takes my brain a minute to shift back into the task I’m currently working on if that happens.

    1. JMegan*

      I posted this a few weeks ago, because I was so proud of myself for figuring it out. I take a blank piece of paper and write the word FOCUS! on top in big bright letters. Then underneath, I write the ONE thing that I need to work on.

      Underneath that, I make a running list of other things as they occur to me, or as the interruptions come in. Then I go back to working on the Focus item. It’s such a simple thing, but it really helps to see only one thing on my to-do list. It’s so much easier to come back to it after I’ve been interrupted, and it allows me to not interrupt *myself* with distractions as well.

      It looks like this:

      Finish first draft of teapot glazing procedure

      -book vacation for next week
      -answer email from Fergus
      -post funny cat pic to FB
      -listen to voice mail from Penelope

      1. AnotherAnon*

        I’ve been meaning to try this for several days now! there’s two whiteboards and some paper beside my computer, but… nothing to write with? oh! I helpfully put the pencil and whiteboard pen into clips and that somehow made them invisible. :) now they’re properly in reach, and I wrote down the thing! yay! :)

        I’m sure it’ll have turned into a mess a week from now, but, the easiest way to solve that is to take a photo and erase the whole board.

  37. ADHD sufferer*

    I don’t want to armchair diagnose OP, but I was diagnosed at age 23 with ADHD, and I would have written something similar before getting on medication. I always just figured I was “lazy.” I could only focus under extreme pressure, so I was a huge procrastinator. I would put off difficult tasks for as long as possible. As I got older, I became hyper-organized as a coping mechanism, but I still forgot to respond to emails, complete daily tasks, etc. In my undergraduate studies, I was a 4.0 student, but only because I was able to “coast” and complete assignments last-minute. In college, I floundered and realized I had no time management skills.

    Medication has changed my life – since getting on medication, I got a new, better job, and my anxiety has decreased tenfold. Not saying OP definitely has ADHD, but I think it’s worth him/her reading about the symptoms and possibly speaking to a doctor. Organization and focus tips are still great, though, even with medication. Medication doesn’t magically make me a good worker – it just gives me the focus and concentration I used to lack so that I am able to prioritize and dive into my work.

  38. FD*

    Ooh, and one other thing that is helpful. I have anxiety, and during the bad times, that can make it harder for me to focus, as well as making it more difficult to do things I dread.

    One thing that’s helpful to me is forcing myself to think through the alternatives.

    Let’s say that I’m dreading making a phone call to this vendor because they’re always snippy with me.

    On one hand–the worst thing that can happen if I make the call is that they’re rude. That would make me feel sad. However, it would not interfere with my job or cause problems for other people in my organization.

    On the other hand, if I don’t make the call, the worst thing that can happen is that we don’t get the order we need put in, which would interfere with my job and cause problems for others.

    Therefore, the less bad thing would be to make the call.

    I find this can be helpful because my anxiety-brain tends to blow risks out of proportion, so forcing myself to realistically assess the risks can be helpful.

  39. stevenz*

    A good answer by Alison. I have always suffered from this problem, too. I also feel guilty about it, and always will. But one explanation, which Alison alludes to and that may apply to you, is that this is common among very very smart people. Modesty aside, and speaking objectively, I’m one of those, and yes, so much has come easily to me that I approach everything as though it’s easy and it usually is once I get a round tuit. Intelligence, however, has not been an unmixed blessing. In fact, really super-intelligent people often hold menial jobs. (There is a little bit of research on high IQ individuals.) I’ve done OK but could have been a contender if other abilities were better developed than they are. You may do fine muddling through but you’re early in your career and you have time to break this habit, or at least reduce it. And don’t be afraid to admit to yourself that that just isn’t going to work for you. You may need to adjust your job expectations to be comfortable in what you do, and to be true to yourself. You need to make ends meet, be content, and live a full life.

  40. New Bee*

    One way this “persistence gap” is being addressed in schools is using Carol Dweck’s growth mindset framework. The idea is to teach kids to productively struggle and to see themselves as always working harder to get better (“grow their brains”), rather than to get the right answer and move on. It dovetails nicely with Common Core, since the standards are all about deepening understanding of a subject via gradual mastery (i.e., you are always learning how to be a better reader).

    I work with teachers, many of whom are novices, and as part of their data reflection cycles I encourage them to evaluate their own growth mindset using the adult version of the framework, which asks the extent to which they: embrace challenges, see effort as necessary, persist despite obstacles, learn from criticism, and are inspired by others’ success. I could imagine it working with adult novices in other contexts as well.

  41. TootsNYC*

    I so love that you made the point that this is not some moral failing–it’s a skill that can be strengthened.

    I’m going to send this link to my son, who just started at college and expressed some worry about whether he’d be able to be motivated to do his homework.

  42. Not So NewReader*

    OP, small consolation, but for a long time I have thought that the biggest challenge at work is NOT the work. The biggest challenge is making myself DO the work. Showing up everyday with one ounce of willingness to do the job was a huge challenge for me.

    What types of things wore me down? Toxic boss, toxic coworkers, rules that you only learned AFTER you broke them, being asked to lie, lack of tools, lack of resources, etc. If it were just one thing, I could power through it. But it was a big stack of things. No clue if this applies to your setting. But you could do a little check and ask yourself how many things you are tolerating. If a friend gave you that list, what would you advise that friend to do?

    1. KimberlyR*

      Good point about contributing factors. May or may not affect OP’s mindset but it is worth looking into.

  43. Anxa*

    I have a really difficult time switching between tasks and starting a new one, so I can’t rely on the traditional pomodoro techniques (plus, sometime I’ll just get into a groove right when it’s about to end).

    I find Alison’s “just do it for 10 minutes” much more helpful, so long as I don’t HAVE to make myself stop.

    I also kind of loathe UFYH because I can’t do the 20/10 thing. Instead, I use cleaning as my ‘break’ task when I’m doing harder work. Plus I love, love a Saturday afternoon marathon clean.

  44. NB*

    This has been my story my entire life. Thanks OP for the question and AAM for answering it! Will surely give your recommendations a try.

  45. C Average*

    So, it seems there are a lot of us who procrastinate, screw around, get and stay off task, and worry about our work ethics and attention spans.

    I’m curious: Does anyone out there NOT have trouble staying on task? Are any of you basically satisfied with your work ethic and your attention span?

    If so, have these things always been easy for you, or have you had to work at them? Have you done specific things to improve your work ethic and attention span?

    There have been some great hacks, shortcuts, and Jedi mind tricks shared here, but they’re all offered up by people who struggle with these things. I’d love to hear from people who DON’T struggle with these things.

    (Also, I have always wanted to see a unicorn. They look so pretty in the pictures!)

    1. misspiggy*

      Not me, but I know a couple of women like that, who get a huge amount done across several disciplines. They just seem to get their heads down and do it. Both seem to have almost no self-doubt – or rather, self-doubt is unusual for them.

      1. C Average*

        My mom is like this! It was maddening growing up in a house with her, and I’m sure it was equally maddening for her to grow up in a house with me. She has always been freakishly organized and disciplined, and never seemed to work at it at all or (like your examples) to have any self-doubt.

        But people like her who came of age before the Internet are different from people who came of age DURING the Internet age and still manage to be freakishly organized and disciplined. I believe Internet is a fiendish diversionary tactic designed by Satan and his minions to prevent people like me from ever accomplishing anything meaningful unless our life or livelihood is literally at risk. Anyone who can actually, consistently resist the pull of the Internet and stay on task has my undying admiration.

    2. many bells down*

      Staying on task is fine (now), it’s STARTING the task that’s my problem. Once I get started I’m fine, but I just have so much trouble committing to actually doing a thing.

  46. KimberlyR*

    Same, OP! Glad you wrote in on this. I feel so guilty and anxious, which makes me procrastinate more, which makes it a billion times worse. But when I buckle down and do it, its really not that bad (usually…) I NEED to make an effort to improve. Like OP, I get good reviews so I guess I’m not motivated to change. But that won’t last forever. Definitely going to keep this thread bookmarked for inspiration and ideas.

  47. Ruthan*

    These are all things I “know”, but hearing a Responsible Manager Person say them makes them feel more real somehow, like I should actually *do* them, and like I can. Thanks, Alison!

  48. alanjstr*

    To me this seems like it might be more of an issue of structured vs unstructured time. Some people don’t handle the latter very well, and some people thrive on it. Having the deadlines provides that structure that the OP needs.

  49. Beth Anne*

    This is so me! In school I always did all my homework but it was never SUPER HARD. I was able to pass tests by only studying an hour or so. Now in the real world you have to do all sorts of boring tasks with basically no shortcuts.

    Some things that have helped me are using a bullet journal or planner. Writing all the tasks and goals I have for the month/week/day are helpful. I’ve also done a 10 in 1 task list. I’d write the 10 things I HAVE to get done this week and the 1 thing that MUST get done.

    Another thing I’ve done is using a program called Asana. It helps keep me on task for different types of projects.

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