Wednesday, October 21, 2009


In therapy lately, we've been talking (of course) about my unusual degree of inability to make myself do things. Of course, everyone struggles with self-discipline to some extent - working is hard - but I seem to struggle less successfully than most.

I got frustrated with my therapist because he was doing more talking than listening and saying things about setting goals for yourself and finding out what is holding me back from performing and blah de blah, and I felt like a person missing a leg being asked why they don't want to walk and whether they've tried building up to it with just a few steps at a time. Like, no, you don't fucking get it, that is not what is going on here.

I specifically do not believe (though I would love to find out that I'm wrong) that something is blocking or preventing me from applying myself. I think I have an actual deficit of whatever it is that people use to get things done.

Way to take responsibility there, Tam.

One of the ways people motivate themselves is by setting small (at first) goals, and then building on their success in meeting those goals. But I have set goals so many times, and not met them so unbelievably many times, that I don't even believe myself when I say I'm going to do something. I mean, I can tell myself I am going to do something that takes 5 minutes later that very same day, and I know all along that I'm probably not going to actually do it.

How many times does a person have to let you down before you stop thinking they might step up? When the person is yourself, it seems the answer is "quite a few times," but those quite a few times have long since passed by. (I'm tired tonight, so this is a slightly more negative view than I usually have, but not far off.)

However, obviously I do in fact do some things. I go to work every day, get some work done on most of those days, and I keep up with my classes well enough to ace most of them, which does require some work. I attend classes more than half the time. I sometimes clean the kitchen or wash the towels. I have clean laundry to wear every day. I am able to present as a functional person.

There are strategies I use to get myself to do things. First, I'll tell you what I don't use:
  • Ongoing To-Do Lists: I often make one for the next few hours, but never one for days from now, because then I will just avoid even looking at or thinking about the list or anything on it.
  • Small Goals: Discussed above.
  • Rewards: I know I won't honor this type of promise to myself, so there's no point. I'll get the reward later whether I did the thing to earn it or not, if I want it. This includes very short-term rewards like "I'll work for 30 minutes, then relax for 10 minutes," because I won't follow through on those either.
  • Punishments/Consequences: I definitely won't honor these.
So, let's look at some specific things I do and see if there is a pattern. For work (at my job) or homework, I turn on music when I am working, and only very rarely at other times. (I also listen to music in my car, but that's about it.) Sometimes I will start working because the idea of putting on some music is appealing. The appeal of the music kind of bleeds into the appeal of the work.

At home, for homework, I almost always sit down with a glass of iced tea, which I brew first. I keep regular and decaf tea bags for this purpose. The brewing time lets me goof off while knowing I'll soon start working. I can let the tea go for a while but eventually I need to go pour it over the ice. I really enjoy the tea and, although I sometimes drink it when I'm not doing homework, I mostly have it with homework (to the point that I feel cheated when I try to do homework with just a glass of water). Tea time = homework time.

Some household tasks are naturally appealing to me, like washing the towels. I don't have too much trouble at least getting that started, though sometimes I fail to ever fold them afterwards. Other household tasks, like doing the dishes, I just push myself to do in whatever way I can. "This will only take 5 minutes," I tell myself. "All you have to do is put them in the dishwasher. Look, it's 9:17. By 9:25 you'll be done. And Ed will be really happy." Sometimes that works.

There are two things that need to happen in order for me to do some work. First, I have to actually decide to do it. That may seem really basic, but sometimes I can feel myself, in my mind, simply refusing to do something, even a task at my actual job, where they pay me to do things I don't necessarily want to do. Dishes is a hard task to decide to do. Sending a letter or calling someone on the phone is hard. Homework, by contrast, is a very, very easy task to decide to do - there is almost no barrier there at all. I am always open to doing homework.

The second thing that needs to happen is for me to get around to actually starting to do the task. That is also often a challenge. Sometimes I start and then drift off to doing something else, if I'm not careful. Sometimes hours go by while I just don't quite get started. (Brewing tea helps this problem with homework, since it puts a soft, flexible time limit on goofing off. Of course, sometimes it takes me a while to get up and actually start the tea brewing.)

Then, of course, you have to stick with the task. Some tasks, like washing dishes, are so short and different from the rest of life that they're easy to stick with. Working at my job is the hardest task to stick with, because I'm almost always using the computer, which makes it very easy to slide over to looking at things on the Internet instead. Homework is intermediate, because I take the keyboard off my desk and usually only surf the net intermittently when I need a little break; I can't get too absorbed with all the papers between me and the monitor. Also there is my glass of tea looking at me, saying, "Don't finish me too soon - you still have a lot of homework left."

So I guess I kind of try to condition myself to work by associating work with other pleasant things - not future rewards, but things going on at the same time, like iced tea and music. (I sometimes use hot herbal tea at work in a similar way, but it's not as rewarding as iced tea, which is too much trouble to make at work.) I am like a bad little mule, led on with a lot of kind pats and the simple conditioning of, "OK, here's your lead, must be time to get on with things."

Refraining from doing things is another story entirely, and I have almost no success whatsoever with that.* Occasionally I can substitute one pleasure for another ("instead of going out to eat, I could read this book, that sounds great") but otherwise it's hard to associate refraining with an immediate pleasure.

Despite my gloomy outlook here, it should be pointed out that I am far, far better at this than I used to be, so it's possible I will continue to improve over time.

(* "No success" relative to most people, that is. Obviously I refrain from doing quite a lot of things all the time.)


Sally said...
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Sally said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sally said...

On the leg thing - you sayin you ain't got no dorsolateral prefrontal cortex or something? (I appreciate the opportunity to use some of my limited neuroscience terminology.) It's unclear whether you are more like the person with the missing leg or the person who has been sitting on his ass for half a decade and his muscles have atrophied. In either case, you won't be running marathons any time soon, if at all.

I understand that you found it frustrating, but it sounds like he is taking a pretty standard CBT line here. (And I feel that he was probably frustrated by you also. Or maybe that's just me projecting my own response when I hear too much of this kind of thing from someone - I suffer ego-depletion from suppressing comments like "if you spent 1/3 the effort doing something as whining about it, you would be done by now" etc.)

One thing you may not know is that research is finding that emotion regulation appears to take priority over other types of self-regulation (e.g. delay of gratification). Of course, individual differences exist also, and you may have drawn the short end of the self-control stick. I've also been reading some old research (from the 1970's/1980's) suggesting that "ego control manifested by adults in their mid-30's was positively associated with childhood family environments emphasizing structure, order, and conservative values." So you can blame your mom for this one, too, if you wish.

(god it's hard to type that opening sentence with the errors in the right places!)

Tam said...

I don't think I've said anything much to frustrate my therapist, though of course I can't speak to his mental state. And it is always easy to look at other people's problems and feel like if they tried harder, they wouldn't have them.

Sally said...

I often find it's easy to look at my own problems and think that if I tried harder, I wouldn't have them, too.

Tam said...

Yeah, me too, it's just in my case it's pretty obviously true. And yet...

Sally said...

To a relatively large extent, it depends on how "trying harder" is operationalized. And perhaps whether a person has over time (re)conceptualized the idea of "trying" to be that stage that occurs before inevitable failure.

"Try" is a sort of weaselly word anyway. I tend to fall in the Yoda camp on this one, not because I think it is empirically true, but because it seems more useful to me.

Obviously "trying harder" (or whatever you want to call it) cannot work for some things, like growing wings and flying across the university quad. But I wonder whether believing that one's problem has little or nothing to do with applying effort - or having what one might call an "entity" view of their own self-regulation ability (a la Carol Dweck's theories of intelligence) - gets you anywhere either.

Tam said...

It's hard to say. I have pretty good results when I apply effort to situations. My problem is that I often cannot (do not?) bring myself to apply effort. I either internally refuse, or I simply dither/procrastinate so long that it becomes irrelevant or impossible to do whatever it was I needed to do.

I am not sure how to apply effort to the problem of not being able to apply effort, is I guess what I'm saying. And I realize I sound pretty fatalistic here, and that that's not correct, but of course I am only talking about the problem from a particular angle.

Sally said...

Before I got derailed a bit onto this devil's advocate position, I was meaning to say that I think it's interesting that you do seem to have had some success through evaluative conditioning (associating work with things that you like, e.g. music and iced tea). I guess one question this brings up is whether you could approach the "refraining" problem with evaluative conditioning from the other side - by associating the thing you don't want to do with something negative.