Friday, January 29, 2016

Why don't you do it then?

Classic human problems: there's something you want to do.  You want to work out, or get more housework done, or stop losing your temper.  And yet, despite feeling strongly that you want to do it, you don't actually do it.

I've been trying to dig into this reality lately, because I've always written it off to "lack of virtue" or "just not trying hard enough" when in reality, that's kind of a non-explanation.  Sure, stuffing my face with an entire pan of brownies is not virtuous.  But what is causing that lack of virtue?  Because let me tell you, years of kicking myself and saying "I shouldn't have done that" isn't doing a thing to change the situation.

So, think of a thing you want to change.  A thing you've told yourself more than once you were going to do differently.  And ask: why don't you do it then?

You don't really want to that much.  This is probably the case with me and the brownies.  I probably shouldn't eat so many brownies, but it's not like I pig out on them that often, and I don't have the motivating factor of gaining weight.  Sometimes I get a bellyache from eating too many brownies, but it's not as unpleasant as the brownies are delicious, so I find that on some level I've pretty much made my peace with occasionally going wild on a sugary treat.  Sometimes a person has a habitual sin that they always confess, but when it comes down to it, they aren't really that sorry because in reality they don't think it's that bad.  They know they should think it's bad, but they don't feel it is, and that's why they're not putting forth any serious effort to change.

The price is too high.  You want a promotion, but it would take a lot of extra hours and extra work and in reality, you don't want that promotion enough to accept the price.  Maybe it's time to make your peace with your choices.  Instead of telling yourself over and over you want the promotion while not working any harder, say, "I'd like the promotion, but it isn't worth the extra work it would take."  You have my permission to whine about how high the price is.  Life is unfair and you don't have to like that.

You're scared.  This is why I don't go to the dentist, even though I really sincerely do want to go to the dentist.  I tell myself it's because I'm not sure I have the money in the bank this month or because I'm too busy or because I forgot to call them, but those are all smokescreens.  In reality, I'm terrified of calling them because calling strangers is scary.  And I'm also not super keen about getting my cavities drilled.  I'm going to have to reach a point where my desire to go overcomes my fear, and then I'm going to have to use a zillion coping mechanisms to make myself make the call.

You don't have a time to do it.  If you make a plan to "work out daily" but you don't have a special time in the day to do it, you're not going to do it.  If you want a thing to be part of your routine, you put it in your routine in a specific place and always do it at that time.  It may be that your whole schedule doesn't have room for the thing you want to add, or maybe you don't have any routines and live every day like a free spirit.  If you really want to acquire a habit, you're going to have to sit down and make a routine or schedule of your time.  Most of my day is unscheduled but I used to have a clear system for my mornings in which I got the essential stuff done.  Just figure out when you're going to do the thing, and stick to it slavishly.  If you skip a day, you're just making it harder for yourself.  Once you've done it every day for a couple of weeks, you can coast on the momentum.

You forget.  Some things don't fit into a daily schedule.  How will you remember to pay the bills monthly, call the dentist, whatever?  Well, if you're like me, you forget because you didn't write it down.  Make a system.  There are a zillion online apps for this.  Google Calendars is good for things that have to be on a certain day, Trello is good for to-do lists.  Or there's always a sticky note on the fridge.  Don't invent a whole new system each time you have to remember something.  Have a place where all the stuff you have to remember is, and check it often.

You have a short time preference.  That is, you care a lot more about the present than the future.  This can be a real flaw, because there are some long-term things you really are going to have to do.  But you can help yourself out by breaking a task down and rewarding yourself for completing bits of it.  If you want to lose weight, that's a long goal, whereas the brownies are a quick reward.  Some people make themselves work out extra if they go off their diet.  It doesn't have to be enough to burn off the junk food, just enough to make it not worth it to eat the junk food because you're going to have to pay for it that same day.  I sometimes promise myself something I enjoy -- a cup of tea, some time with a book -- if I get my chores done.  Just something to make the chores immediately rewarding, because I'm not that motivated by "the sense of accomplishment" or working toward a faraway goal.

You aren't actually capable of it.  When Miriam was very small, I couldn't keep my temper.  I tried and tried.  I desperately wanted to because there's nothing worse than the guilt of having yelled at my kids.  I just wasn't able to do it, despite lots of motivation and trying different tactics.  In the end, I am almost positive it had to do with postpartum hormones, sleep deprivation, and a total lack of space to decompress.  It's useless to say "I should be virtuous enough to overcome those things."  I wasn't!  So you can accept your limits and try to work within your deficiency -- that is, I would ask for a chance to nap on the weekends, try to get some time to decompress in the evenings, and so forth.  That was helpful.  Or you could try to heal the problem -- which in that case probably would have meant going to see a doctor, though I do think meditation was helpful to some degree.  Currently, the thing I'm not doing is chores.  I get the dishes and laundry done each day and I feel exhausted.  I want to do more.  I always say I'm going to do some folding or organizing or sweeping and it just doesn't happen.  And I've realized it's not a lack of motivation -- I very simply lack energy to do those things.  I know because if I were just slacking, I'd be doing fun stuff like spinning or taking the kids to the library, but I don't have energy for those things either.  And periodically I do have energy and I do a ton without any real effort.  So maybe rather than motivational tactics, I need to get my iron levels checked or something.  I'm not entirely sure what's the matter with me, but till I find out, I'm going to try not to be so hard on myself.  I've gotten the kids to pick up their toys more, and I try not to look at the cobwebs.  Things will get better and then I'll do better.  No use beating myself up for something that's not a character flaw.

What do you want to do that you never do?  Why do you think you're not doing it?


Enbrethiliel said...


I really want to listen to that new musical Hamilton. I'm not listening to that new musical Hamilton because I'm upset that I haven't already memorised it. I have fantasies of friends tying me to a chair, putting it on perpetual loop, and leaving me alone in a room for twenty-four hours, because that is the only way I can envision myself ever listening to that new musical Hamilton.

Incidentally, this is also the reason I have never studied a certain language that I've since learned to refer to as "broken Italian" or "the barbaric version of Portuguese." I may go to my grave like this.

Anonymous said...

Mop the kitchen, vacuum the staircase, really clean the countertops instead of running a rag over them as company walks through the door... I could go on and on. Lose that last 10 pounds. Say no to a 2nd glass of wine, a 2nd cup of coffee, a 2nd scoop of ice cream.
What's stopping me? Plain old fashioned self-discipline.
There is always that woman out there who makes the rest of us feel awful. Her house is spotless, she's got the legs of a ballerina, and she never complains about anything. I want to be her.

Sheila said...

E, you're just going to have to lock *yourself* in a room with Hamilton! I haven't ever heard it either, so you're not alone.

Anon, it seems to me that you'd probably be able to do it if you were motivated enough. If, for instance, a wicked witch was coming home at six pm and would kill you if the kitchen weren't mopped, you'd surely find the willpower! But maybe those things are just a low priority, and that's okay. I mean, that woman with the spotless house and amazing legs probably struggles with crippling self-doubt and that's what drives her to be perfect in all the outward ways. I'm happier being lazy, messy, squishy me.

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