“No estoy preparado.” That means “I am not prepared” in Spanish. I learned how to say that in ninth grade. My Spanish teacher had given us an assignment to create our own flash-cards to learn vocabulary words. On the day that it was due, she taught us each to say either “I am prepared” or “I am not prepared.” The assignment was too confusing, and I was afraid of the teacher. So I just learned how to say “I am not prepared.” That is one of my earliest memories of bailing out on a school project. As time went on I had many more.
Somehow I made it through high school. I often skipped homework assignments. Studying for tests usually meant cramming the night before the test. There were many times that I had good intentions about being consistent with studying – say, every night – but I was not able to keep it up for long. But I was very consistent with watching TV.
After high school I spent some time in college and I worked at various non-professional, low-paying jobs. When I was 19, I received an insurance settlement for an accident in which I had been seriously injured, years earlier. (By the time I got the money, though, I was, pretty much, fully recovered.) At the time, the money seemed like a fabulous fortune. I spent some of it on college tuition and other worthwhile causes, but a good chunk of that money turned into a “retirement” fund. In other words, I just used it to pay my day-to-day expenses, instead of working to earn the money to pay my on-going bills. Some of it went to beer, too.
Within just a few years the money was all gone.
Moving out of the house
I moved out of my parent’s house several times to live independently. For various reasons I returned home each time – until my final exit at the age of 26. During one of the stay-at-home periods, when I was about 23 or so, my mother and I got into a discussion about my career prospects. Her side of the conversation went like this: “I am going to spell it out for you: l-a-z-y! Now, you either get a job, or go back to college, or get out of here…” Unfortunately, that did not cure me, but, at least it did stick in my head. I felt kind of angry because she was putting the blame on me for my own situation. I was probably in the middle of one of my unemployed or partially-employed periods. I had many of them. Even though, what she had to say hurt, in my heart I had to agree with her basic point – which was that I was not exerting myself in a reasonable effort to become self-supporting.
Finally, when I was 26, I moved out for the last time. I spent a few more semesters in college (still without graduating.) During this time frame, I was again falling behind in school and I was very disappointed with myself over my lack of self-control.
I had a few instances in which I considered injuring myself in various ways. I think that part of what drove me to that point was that I thought that, by cutting myself, it would help me to “remember” to stay focused and on-track with my school work. Fortunately, I never did (consciously) injure myself. But while I say that, on the other hand I think that I really was injuring myself (in the long run) by my lack of self-control about my school work and in other areas of life.
There seemed to be a cycle in my college career in which I would get all caught up and be doing well – then I would slack off until there was a crisis (like a big assignment was due the next day or a big test was coming up.) Then I had to either work like a maniac to get ready for the deadline – or fail out or drop out of school. Each of these choices was painful and frustrating because I could see that I had been through the same cycle many times before. Although there were probably many other reasons, I think that one of the components that drove me to do nothing during the “slack off” stage was my habit of low self-exertion.
Near the bottom
Eventually, all of my money was gone and I still had not graduated from college. I was forced to choose between either becoming homeless or finding another one of those low-skill, low-paying jobs. Between jobs there were, again, stretches of inactivity – usually just as long as my meager funds would allow. By this time, I was living a very simple low-cost life-style – no car, no phone, renting a room, no health insurance and, generally, no dating. I had also developed two health-issues that, unfortunately, went untreated for a few years – both of which sapped away at my remaining energy. I was also dealing with a lot of depression and regret as I could look back over the multiple opportunities that I had squandered in college and the work-world. I realize that there is such a thing as “depression as a brain-based illness” – but, in my case, I kind of think that my on-going sadness was more of a natural reaction to the choices that I had made in life.
I found a warehouse job and stayed there for two years. That was a record for me. Previously, I had held two jobs, each for over one year – but the vast majority of my jobs only lasted days, weeks or a few months. (I just added them up – it came out to 35 different jobs – but I probably missed a few.)
During this period, I got some help with what had become a drinking problem. Basically I just met up with some other people that had the same trouble, and we helped each other to live without drinking. This was an important turning point for me. I still stay in touch with them, and it is a bright spot in my life. Amazingly (to me) I am still sober many years later.
I met some Spanish speaking friends, and it inspired me to try to get back to work brushing up on my Spanish. I began to write a diary in Spanish. I knew that my grammar was atrocious – but I made a commitment to myself to write in it every day until I had added at least 10 new words. When a word came up that I did not know, I just looked it up in my beat-up pocket dictionary and wrote the definition at the bottom of the page in my diary – as a footnote. Eventually, I got up to around 700+ “new” words in my diary.
Around that time, I started seeing a Columbian lady. We used to talk on the phone a lot. She was very patient with me to speak Spanish slowly enough so that I could understand her. One day we were talking on the phone, and I suddenly realized that I was piecing together complete sentences. That gave me a great sense of accomplishment. I continued on with the daily diary entries. This all happened about 15 years ago. In my mind I felt as though I had proved to myself that I could be successful in establishing a significant skill-learning goal, sticking with it, and succeeding. This sticks out in my mind as an important turning point. I can still speak Spanish pretty well.
I went back to college again. This was my seventh time in and out of college – and back in. The money was really tight and I had developed two more new health problems. Again, the new health issues were a drag on my energy level – although they were not anywhere near the level of being a full disability – even in their combined effect.
I was very happy to be back in college, and generally I was staying focused with my work. Eventually though, as I “got ahead” I began to slack off. As I mentioned before, this seems to be a theme that has run through my life, in that, as things get under control economically (or in this case academically), I tend to reduce my efforts. In practice, the way that this worked out was that, by the end of my first semester back in school, I was again falling seriously behind.
The Positives and the Negatives
As I saw it there were a few factors that were keeping me behind. Roughly I could call them the Positives and the Negatives. The Negatives were the things that were taking me away from my schoolwork. The Positives were the things that were keeping me focused on my schoolwork. Sounds simple, right? So I had too many Negatives and too few Positives. The Negatives were things like: TV (big time drain) and resentment (time and energy drain). Normally you think of romance as a Positive, but, in this case, it was probably a Negative. I did some dating during this period, but it really boiled down to emotionally spinning my wheels in most cases. Again another time and energy drain.
The Positives were things like prayer. (A part of me does not like to admit this, because I have the sense in my own mind that prayer sounds kind of weak. In another way, though, I strongly believe that prayer is a valid and important part of a successful life.) Anyway, as I got off track on my homework and study schedules, I found that prayer made a big difference in helping me to stay focused. Other positives were things like, eating healthy foods, getting regular vigorous exercise (I did a lot of walking), staying in touch with wholesome friends and writing in my journal (sometimes Spanish). Making regular gratitude lists also helped a lot. And reading inspirational books, too. My brother recommended “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.” That was great. I read it many times.
You might notice that none of the Positives included “just sit down and do your darn homework!” I guess, what I mean by the Positives and Negatives is that, by strengthening one and reducing the other, it ended up leaving me in a sufficiently energized state, that I could find the umph in my heart to sit down and do my homework and study.
Dealing with TV addiction
Getting back to the story of how I found myself slacking off after this seventh time in college, I had to admit to myself that one of the biggest negatives was the TV. It was taking up a lot of time and energy. As strange as this may seem, I think that I was addicted to it. Eventually it seemed as though the choice was between keeping my TV or, once again, shamefully crapping out in college. I tried several different methods to stop watching it entirely. (The TV belonged to my land-lady, so I didn’t really have the option to just throw it away or sell it. Also, she kept telling me that I should be watching TV from time-to-time – so I couldn’t hardly ask her to take it out of my room.)
I tried unplugging it. Then I plugged it back in. Then I tried unplugging it and wrapping tape around the plug. Eventually I reversed that, too. Then I tried unplugging it, wrapping tape around the plug and also hanging a bandana over the screen. There was also a lot of prayer going on to ask God to help me to stay focused on my school work. It was very tough to go without the TV – which is why I think that I was, at some level addicted to it. There was also a sense of craving to watch the TV that I felt as I came home from a long day at school. It took about a month for these cravings to go away. That was many years ago, and I havent had a working TV in my home since. From hindsight I would say that this was another important turning point in my life – and one of the best decisions that I have ever made. I ended up completing that semester, and the remaining two semesters with straight A’s.
Mental illness and medication
I have also struggled with some OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and perfectionism. I realize that there are medications for these kinds of mental aberrations (at least for the OCD.) I have always felt very reluctant about trying the meds though, since, I think that meds can (sometimes) just address the symptoms – which then can make it harder to solve the root problem. In many cases I believe that the root problem for me has revolved around my own choices and behaviors. So to the extent that I have allowed myself to fall behind in the self-control factors that are under my control, I think that the OCD and perfectionism and depression kind of just fall in behind them – almost as secondary effects.
I don’t want to get into a long discussion about psychiatry and the pros and cons of various meds. I don’t have any professional training in medicine. I fully believe that there are many times when meds make sense. I have seen the wondrous healing power of medicine in treating a physical illness that I once had. I also have a friend who is bi-polar. I have seen him in the manic phase and I totally agree that a psychiatrist was the right kind of doctor for my friend to go to. At the same time though, for the more mild cases of counter-productive human behaviors, I have to wonder where the cut-off point should be between treatments at the level of the mind (correct the thinking) versus treatment at the level of the brain (psychiatry.) Almost everybody agrees that Americans are heavily over-medicated. I think that, if I had to err, I would rather err on the side of the natural treatments – rather than pharmaceuticals.
Becoming relatively successful
I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics when I was 32. Eventually I found work as a computer programmer and the self-support issue was, at long last, solved.
I wish that I could say that, when I had the job as a programmer, that my laziness problem was solved. It was not. Although I was able to hold very good jobs during my corporate programmer years, I often found myself unable to move ahead in my career because of my inability to stay focused and consistent with on-going career training. Now, I would agree that, once I had become (baseline) self-supporting, the need for on-going training was not there, per se – but it was there in the sense that I think it is a normal human instinct to want to keep moving forward. (At least for the benefit of my own sense of self-actualization.) I have often made plans to read books and learn new skills, but it has been rare that I have been able to stick with those plans.
Continuing education – or not?
For example, I have often bought a “teach yourself” type computer book – something that I clearly knew would be helpful to me in my career, but I found myself unable to stick with it long enough to finish it and learn the skill that it offered. For example, many of these books are 300 or 400 pages long. Lets compromise, and say “365 pages”. Now, is one page a day, every day for a year, too much to ask? Of course not. I could have squeezed that in at work without even having to do any reading at home. But did I? Yes, there have been a few books that I have read that helped me to advance my career – for which I am very thankful. But my point is that, as in the case of this one-page-a-day for a year example, there are many skills that I have just missed out on because I have not been reasonably self-disciplined. In other words, kind of lazy. In practice, I think that 30 mins a day of independent, home-study on-going education after work is totally reasonable. Generally I have usually only worked an 8 or 9 hour day. My grandparents would probably look at my low-activity levels and grit their teeth.
I think that, in many cases, I have kind of lied to myself to justify skipping out on my work-related goals (whether it was finding a job, doing school work, or continuing with education once I had a job.) For example, I have used the excuse that I was too tired or I didn’t feel well. In reality, yes, I do get tired sometimes, and sometimes I really do not feel well – but, I kind of think that that type of excuse gets a little old after the 20th time that you (I mean “me”) use it. In fact, by the time an excuse has been trotted out 20 times, it probably is no longer even an excuse. By that time, it might be fairer to just call it a habit?
Anyway, at some point, in those cases in which I have decided to skip out on doing the reasonable activities that constituted the “today” portion of my goals, a more honest explanation might have been something like this : “I am willfully and foolishly choosing to sacrifice significant long-term gain for in-significant short-term ease. I recognize that this choice is a moral error, but I am still going to make it.” With that kind of explanation, maybe it would be shorter to just say: “I am lazy?” There’s probably also a big component of fear & perfectionism that keeps me stuck.
Where I am at today
I worked as a programmer for 12 years. These days, I am working on my own, on a few different hobby/business ventures. Essentially, though, I am really just retired for the medium-term, since I haven’t made any money yet with my business ideas. Also, in a way, it would probably not even be fair to say that I am really “working” on my projects – since I don’t actually spend that much time focused on them. I was able to save some money when I was a programmer so that is how I manage my day-to-day bills now – and for the medium-term going forward.
So now that I am “working” for myself, I find that the trap of laziness or sloth is particularly difficult to avoid. Generally, I make my own deadlines, so I can just as easily postpone them. I feel ashamed of myself sometimes when people ask me what I do, since there is a big gap between what I wish were doing with my time, and what I am actually occupied with. And it is not as if the things that I want to be doing with my time are difficult or strenuous or dangerous. They are not. I oftentimes just don’t do them – and I really have no excuse. So my sense is that a lot of the blockage has to do with my own habit of low self-exertion.
To those who would say that I am depressed, I agree, yes I am kind of depressed. But does the depression cause the low activity levels or do the low activity levels cause the depression? I am sure that the causative principle goes both ways. Also, I have noticed that, on days in which I get a lot done, I feel much better (in other words less depression.)
Trying an accountability and action partner
One thing that has helped me out recently has been working with an accountability partner. We talk on the phone for a few minutes every week-night (but we take weekends off.) We start by reviewing how we did on our commitments for today, and then we state our commitments for what we are going to do for the next day. Generally, for myself, I always commit to doing the same five things – which take about three hours to complete. The stuff that I commit to do is completely reasonable and do-able, so its not like I am trying to force myself to become a workaholic. I have plenty of time (since I am not working now). For someone who has good self-control skills this might sound like insanity, but it seems to help me.
About half of the time I do not complete the stuff that I commit to do. So you might wonder, then why do I commit to do it? Again, for someone who has good self-control skills this might not make a lot of sense. When I make my commitments, I do fully intend to do the things that I commit to do. But it seems like something always has a way of coming up – that keeps me from finishing my work. Really, I know that the stuff that “comes up” are just excuses 95% of the time. You might think then that I am just kind of playing a game – since I know that my excuses are excuses. I’m not. I mean, at least I don’t think that I am. Like I said before, I really do feel like I am being sincere when I make my commitments of what I am going to do.
What goes on in my head
Its very interesting to see what goes on in my head when I talk with my accountability or action partner. When I have completed all of my five things, I feel like celebrating (in a way.) But in another way, I feel like saying: “Duh! Of course you completed them! They were so trivial, how could you not complete them?” Alternatively, when I have not completed my daily five things, and the time comes for the phone call I often feel puzzled.
At one point, I remember thinking that I felt kind of ashamed of myself – and I wanted to apologize to my action partner. But they told me a few things that helped to put that all in perspective.
First off, if I had my life (really my self-discipline) together enough that failures never occurred, then I wouldn’t need to have an accountability parter. In other words, it makes total sense that failures (maybe even a lot of failures) are going to be part of the process. And the failures may even be things that seem to be based on “stupid” motives – like defiance. In other words, why would I ask someone to be my accountability partner, but then still be defiant? But the way that I look at it now is to think that I am just bringing the whole me, the real me to the process. And defiance is part of who I am. But I am also sincere in that I really do want to change and become more focused and more self-disciplined.
Another thing is this idea of the “process.” My action partner suggested that I just focus on trusting the process. That just means that I keep on showing up for the daily calls. That has helped me to feel more at ease.
So there is also a sense that, when I do not complete my five jobs, that I feel kind of ashamed of myself. Normally, I think of shame as being a bad thing – but I don’t think that that is the case here. In other words, there is good shame and bad shame. I think that the shame that I feel about admitting to my accountability partner that I haven’t finished my work is an instance of healthy shame, and it motivates me to stay on track.
I have also felt like the sense of shame has helped me to be successful several times. We always call at the same time every night. As the day goes on, and I see the clock getting closer to the call time, I tend to do a quick calculation in my mind to see if I still have more time to dilly-dally before I really have to get focused on completing my work – if I am going to be able to give a good report on the call. So, reluctantly, I am reminded throughout the day that I am making on-going decisions as to whether or not I will stay on track or end up being disappointed with myself again.
Hoping for a win-win
There is also a sense in which I feel like my success (or failure) echoes into the success or failure of my accountability/action partner. We have been working together for several months now. We have gotten to know each other pretty well. So I care about this person. They are also struggling with this habit of low self-exertion (or laziness). So the upshot is that I want to be a blessing to this person – a positive influence – rather than just another example of someone who craps out and gives up. That reminds me of the old saying that “Bad company corrupts good morals.”
To me, what it boils down to is that we all affect one another. So do I want to be a good influence or a bad one? I want to be a good one. Sometimes, in a way, it is almost a more important motive to me that I should be a good influence on my action partner – than whether or not I succeed in my own day-to-day life. Maybe that sounds like misplaced priorities? So what if it is? My main objective is to get my five things done every day. If that means that I have to put someone else’s needs ahead of my own in order to get it done, then so be it. Sounds to me like a win-win.