How can I motivate myself at work?

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Dear Cary,
I need your help before I really mess things up for myself. I’m a single woman in my early 50s, I enjoy my job, nice people, understanding boss, etc. Earlier this year I spoke to my boss about a promotion/raise. She felt it was worthwhile to pursue and said we’d address it during the year how I could achieve that. In June a BIG PROJECT (BP) was suggested to me that two others in my department (at much higher pay levels) made feeble attempts to complete. One never did anything with it. The other put a few big patches on the problem. While it technically provided a solution, the project requires much more finesse and detail. The Big Boss wasn’t happy. And it turns out that this is a pet project for the Big Boss. He thinks well of me (he gave me a bonus potential when he came to the company three years ago and since then I’ve always gotten the maximum bonus) and I’d like to keep it that way. The only downside he has, IMO, is that our department truly needs someone to do the “little things” (make copies, process invoices, prepare FedEx, filing, etc.). We have three colleges within a half mile that offer majors in the line of work our company does. Yet the Big Boss is adamant that we not hire an intern a couple days a week to help out and get some experience. We (my boss, another woman who I also do a lot of work for, and myself) are baffled by his stance even though he knows it would be an asset to the entire group and free many of us up to more important work.
As most companies coming out of the recession, we have been doing more with less for a couple of years (hence no intern). However, in the last three years three more “chiefs” as I like to call them have been hired. There are only two “Indians” in my department and we have distinctly different job responsibilities. So my days normally range from A-Little-Free-Time-To-Cruise-The-Internet to Dear-God-Help-Me-Before-I-Go-Freaking-Insane! For the last six months I’m about 60% up that scale. In the meantime, the company has decided to change a major vendor that directly affects my job. That decision has and still is taking up a great deal of my time. There is a tremendous amount of detail to a move like this and I’m struggling with going to that level of minutiae even though it’s required. I’ve been diverted with some other projects and am having major difficulty in getting back to the remaining big parts and ALL the small parts of this switch that need to be addressed.
On top of that, the BP that will virtually guarantee my promotion and accompanying raise in the spring collects dust. Not just because I’m busy, because I have no idea where to start, how to start, or even if I WANT to start. I find myself doing all the things I want an intern to do – copy, file, update databases – rather then touching the BP. My therapist asked me if I’m afraid of success. Maybe I am a bit. But I also know that if I get this BP done (and I need to make “major progress” by year-end to be considered for the promotion) I don’t really want to have to “show up” for work in that capacity every day after that. Many years ago, I spoke with a lover about this subject. He was in upper management on his job of many years and enjoyed what he did. He knew I was/am smart and more than capable. I asked him if it was okay not to aspire to the corner office, or the office next to that…or even one along the window wall. He said, “Not everyone can be in charge. Not everyone wants to be.” It made me feel better at the time and remembering that still gives me a certain level of comfort in my discomfort about this promotion/project.
The thing is I really need the money that this promotion can bring me. I haven’t always been the best with money (and at 51 I’m still learning) and with more working years behind me then ahead of me, I have to be more conscious about my earnings (& savings). I’m able to pay my bills and have no creditors after me, but I also have no savings except for a couple hundred bucks in the bank. I don’t have a partner to split expenses like rent, food, utilities, etc. so I have to rely on my capabilities to bring in additional income. I’ve thought about looking for another job and have applied for a couple, but nothing has come through yet. However, a new job that would offer enough money to make a difference would also require me to commute to a major metropolitan area about an hour east of me. Taking a job in the city would mean a change to my daily life. Getting up 90 minutes to 2 hours earlier, no morning workouts (while I would love to have a reason to stop them, I’m over 50 and know that exercise is a must), getting home at 7 or 7:30 every night. I tell myself that after a few years of commuting I could move closer, into the outer neighborhoods of the city and take mass transit to work. But I’ve always lived in suburbia and don’t know how I would transition to living in an apartment building with neighbors on possibly 5 sides of me! And I also know that getting a new job right now is merely running away from a problem and that wherever I go, there I am.
It’s still early October, but not for long. My new vendor is asking me to send them more information so we may continue with the change. I’ve been putting them off, but can’t do it forever. The steam I had before we started the switch is depleted. I leave work at night, go home and want to watch TV and forget about it all. I find myself going to bed at 1 or 2 in the morning even though my eyes are closing and I fight to stay awake. I recently realized that I don’t want to go to sleep because I don’t want tomorrow to come! And the BP! What about the BP! It’s Ebenezer’s chains haunting me. Reminding me. Taunting. I know if I do nothing and don’t get the promotion I will probably hate myself for being lazy. Another part of me says I’m being true to myself by being content as a worker bee and not the queen bee. I don’t know how it might effect my bonus and I know you aren’t supposed to rely on that money, but I’m human and have come to count it as part of my income.
Where do people find the wherewithal to do stuff they don’t want to do, or are afraid to do (whatever my issue is) to move ahead in the world? Most people have families…kids they love, a partner they adore (if they are lucky). I suppose that kind of love could motivate anyone to do something they don’t want to do. But I don’t have that. No kids. No sweetheart. Heck, not even a date in the last year! It’s not like I’d be overachieving by completing the BP. After all I have a college degree. I’m well-read. My friends would say I’m thoughtful, conscientious, smart. I’m well-liked in my company and as I said, I do like my job 80-85% of the time. I think that’s great considering most people hate what they do or despise their boss. My commute is 15 minutes. I go to the gym before work, see friends after work, go to club meetings and such. Life is busy, mostly with good stuff. (I won’t go into Mom and Dad’s failing health and the pressure that is putting on my siblings and I since neither of them are able to drive any longer.)
What is wrong with me? Is there anything wrong with me? How can I overcome my inertia? I often wake up in the morning and make a mental list of the things I will do today at work. And then either some new “need-it-now” project comes my way, or this cloud of why-the-fuck-bother surrounds me and simply makes me move paper from one side of the desk to the other…fiddling while Rome burns. I need some good clear advice. NOW. Please!!!
Afraid or Lazy?

Dear Afraid or Lazy,

The reason you can’t do these things is that there’s no boat ride and there’s no torture chamber.

If you were crawling on your hands and knees under barbed wire in the rain toward a checkpoint where armed guards were peering into the night, ready to shoot you on sight, and I stopped and asked, in my breezy way, just out of curiosity, why in heaven’s name the urgency, in the mud and all, your answer would be some combination of the boat ride and the torture chamber. You’d be avoiding life’s most awful pain, or you’d be so full of desire for something that you are willing to endure great danger and discomfort to acquire it — or both.

You’d be highly motivated.

Motivation isn’t fake. You have to really want something, or really want to avoid something.

What do you love more than anything in the world? What would you die for? What is the most awful fate you could endure? Are any of those items involved here? Evidently not. Life will go on much the same.

At school I drifted off in class and woke with the faint imprint of the desk on my cheek. There was no boat ride and there was no torture chamber. Life would go on regardless. What was the point?

“Where do people find the wherewithal to do stuff they don’t want to do, or are afraid to do (whatever my issue is) to move ahead in the world?” you ask. They find it in deeply motivating passions. Like how dads look at pictures of their kids before going into a boring meeting: I’m doing this for those little critters whom I would lay down my life for.

You recognize the benefits of doing this thing but that’s not desiring it with animal urgency. That’s not keening with desire for it. Keening desire and animal urgency are at the heart of powerful motivation. I don’t think you really, truly crave to become the exalted leader of many office workers. The notion bores you and fills you with dread. So naturally you are not motivated to try to achieve it.

Would a bigger bonus motivate you? What about the prospect of achieving this one project success in order to bank it on your résumé and look for a new job? You have to find something tangible and delicious to link this thing to. Then you can say to yourself, Once I get this done, I can have that.

What would that great, delicious thing be? That’s why I ask, What is your mission in life? What is the thing that matters to you most? It’s not a silly exercise. It’s like finding out where your compass points, so you can go in that direction.

How do you find that out? It sounds like your therapist at least has some notions, though this business of being “afraid of success” is kind of vague: Are you afraid of being resented, afraid of being praised, afraid of having to tell people what to do, afraid of having to rub shoulders with people of higher social status, or afraid of having to work this hard all the time? Those fears make sense. “Fear of success” has to get down to the specifics — the boat ride, the torture chamber. Say you are afraid that on your congratulatory boat ride you will have to act chummy with bosses. That’s a real fear.

So exploring your deep motivations with your therapist might be useful. Focus on the things that truly, deeply drive you.

In closing, I offer you two things. One is the insight that to find your motivation you must connect with some vital value or desire. And the other thing is this: Remember that every day is precious, that your job is not the most important thing in life, and know that somehow, through the mysterious grace in the universe, regardless of what happens, you will be taken care of.

Knowing that: You’re 51. You might as well go for it.

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