The Trouble with ‘Should’…

Carrot + Stick < Love
Creative Commons License photo credit: opensourceway

Greetings! Once again I find myself writing here after a much longer absence than I had planned, which is unfortunate – but also, in this case, instructive… Cutting straight to the chase, I have been struggling a little with motivation, focus and productivity lately. Well, actually I’ve been struggling either quite a bit, or not enough, depending on how you look at it. In any case it’s something I’ve been giving a good  deal of thought, and I think some of it merits sharing here. So, on with the show!

A fine kettle of fish

To clarify, I should explain that I have a number of interconnected projects, initiated over the past couple of years, all of which I’m quite invested in but all of which are also somewhat ‘stalled’ in one sense or another. While none of them are exactly poised on the brink of completion, let alone massive success or return on the considerable time and energy investment I’ve put into them, I do feel they all have significant potential in one sense or another – whether on an artistic or business level – and so I’m quite attached to them.

So besides the obvious – too many things on the go – part of what is going on is probably the paralysis that kicks in when I get close enough to something to realize that the stakes are high and failure, possibly public and highly disappointing, is an increasingly real possibility. I seem to suffer from a kind of allergy against going the distance, finishing what I’ve started. A sort of disconnect creeps in and my attention drifts.

How is it that we (assuming this affliction is not unique to me, which strikes me as unlikely) can become so disconnected from meaningful work that we’ve spent valuable time and energy starting, thinking through, imagining and problematizing and re-imagining? I am frequently amazed at how much time I can waste when in this state, switching back and forth between innumerable tabs monitoring websites of marginal importance at best, considering purchases of tools or resources I don’t really need to do creative work – instead of actually doing some…

However, this strikes me as a dangerous line of reasoning, and it is this danger I want to talk about here. There is a subtle but insidious psychological undercurrent at play here, and it has to do with the word ‘should’.  I’m beginning to think it’s a very destructive word, at least for me personally. Let’s explore it a little.

Shouldn’t you be doing something?

If we tell ourselves that we ‘should’ be more productive, or ‘should’ waste less time on trivialities, or ‘should’ meditate daly, or exercise, or whatever, it automatically sets up those positive changes our conscious selves would like to make, on a sub-conscious level, as negative. If these things are so wonderful and important, why have we been avoiding them? Why do we need to persuade and trick ourselves into doing them? Why do we need to promise ouselves little rewards to incentivize things we ‘know’ are good for us?

The trouble is that when we do this, when we give ourselves little speeches and offer incentives and set goals based on what we ‘should’ do more or less of, we set up the same antagonistic relationship with ourselves that many people seem to have with their children and/or have/had with their parents: judgmental, conditional, patronizing…

And, perhaps not surprisingly, this brings out our most childish behaviours: procrastinating, wasting time and generally doing the opposite of what we know we ‘should’ be doing, precisely because it’s vaguely naughty and rebellious. This appeals to our baser need to assert our independence from the overbearing authority figure that we’ve positioned our conscience to be.

A bigger rush

So how, then, do we shift the balance of our activity towards these positive things which we know (consciously at least) would be better for us and make us happier and more fulfilled? How do we disengage that rebellious inner child (or perhaps it’s a teenager?) that wants to assert its independence by doing the opposite out of spite?

I don’t have a magic-bullet answer for you here, and frankly I don’t believe there is one, but I suspect that it might help to take a clear look at the benefits of both courses of action – not in terms of the projected results or benefits, but in terms of the basic enjoyment of doing one or the other. In my case this means answering the question: which is more fun, really, on a deep level – surfing irrelevant websites, or creating something beautiful or fascinating or useful? Which is the bigger rush?

Going the distance

Let’s illustrate this with a parallel example that I’ve used before in these pages: distance running. I happen to be someone that relly likes to run (I understand that not everyone does, which mystifies me, but hey – life is like that). It quite simply feels good to me. So I’ve never needed to trick myself into running in the interests of achieving nebulous rewards. I’ve never needed to tell myself that I ‘should’ go out for a run, and I think this is lucky, because it’s not something I have complex layers of motivation and guilt around. It’s never been something I feel I need to suffer through in order to get to a big payoff. If it were, I’m quite sure I would never have completed a marathon, let alone 5 of them.

No, I was able to train for and finish marathons because I really like running. It’s a big rush and feels great most of the time, so the hard work is not really that hard… actually, it’s a blast. But here’s the thing: so is creating stuff. Rather than telling myself tha I really ‘should’ be doing more or less of one thing or another, I really just need to remind myself that getting ‘into the flow’ on a creative project is among the biggest and best rushes I know of. It beats surfing websites, whether relevant or not, by MILES.

Results may vary…

So I think we need to forget about ‘should’ for a while and ponder instead this question: why on earth would someone continually and consistently trade a lesser rush (an almost insignificant one, truth be told) for a much bigger, better, deeper, more lasting and fulfilling one? I mean, we do this all the time, but perhaps it’s because we haven’t looked at it through this lens.

And while we’re at it, I think we need to stop obsessing about results – at least for the moment. They won’t help us get out of a ‘should loop’, because they’re dangerously bound up into the world of ‘shoulds’ themselves. Yes, it’s also a big rush to finish something, to set a goal and achieve it, but once the goal is set and the course is charted, enjoying the journey will get you further than focusing on the end. At least that’s what seems to work for me… Of course, this assumes that you haven’t set a goal that requires a journey you can’t find a way to enjoy, which I can only advise you against.

Look, I know that life is not always that simple, that we often have to do things that are not fun and fulfilling, and that there are usually other factors that are outside our control. But inasmuch as we can choose what to do with our time, doesn’t it make sense to make conscious choices that do not entangle us in a web of inner struggles with authority and guilt? Doesn’t it make sense to prioritize activities that are both valuable and deeply satisfying, as opposed to merely diverting?

Well, that’s what I’m working on today, anyway!