I’ve been having a rough week or so, in terms of motivation. It’s been difficult for me to get much done. The silver lining to this, as much as there is one, is that it’s an opportunity for introspection: A life, lived day to day, has a mechanical aspect, where each activity leads one to other activities, each pursuit fuels other pursuits. Any time the machine of a life fails to produce the desired results (such as a happy and satisfied body and mind), it provides a glimpse into the machine. Something that’s running perfectly provides no data to diagnose, and thus difficult to improve: Something that runs unreliably, and provides interesting problems when it fails, provides a wealth of data with which to foster its improvement.
This isn’t particularly encouraging, when one is otherwise feeling like crap, but at least provides something to think about.
One brain malfunction, which I think everyone has some degree of familiarity with, is not doing things which you know will make you feel better, and which you even will probably enjoy while doing them. The longer you put them off the worse you feel about not doing them, until every positive association shifts towards a negative association. The importance of habit and routine is the ability to keep this destructive feedback loop from forming in the first place. Habit and routine, though, will always eventually be interrupted by circumstances. By themselves, they can only carry you so far.
The problem is, any positive association, any joy you take from an activity, can become inverted incredibly easily. For a long while I was walking a couple of miles a day just to keep from becoming too inert and to give my mind some space to work. I enjoyed these walks – and yet, once the habit was broken, I didn’t pick it back up. Examining it now, I think that it was partially the enjoyment that made it a difficult habit to keep – because how can I do something I enjoy, that takes a significant amount of time and effort, when there’s so much else around that I need to do and that seems so important?
And yet, without the momentum of pursuing enjoyable activities, what do I actually do with my time? Mostly sit around and do even less active things while picking away, bit by bit, at the tasks I actually need to do. The enjoyment of the task, which should have made it easier to perform, has been turned around against me, made it something that is in between a guilty pleasure and and empty chore, at times taking on properties of either.
Aside from the feedback loop that can sour my relationship with activities I enjoy, there’s the feedback loop that can sour my relationship with myself. Say there’s an activity which I still enjoy, without any weird guilty overtones or counterproductive reward mechanism. When I start feeling really shitty, it’s hard for me to reconcile the image of an enjoyable task with the image I have of myself. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that that I feel I don’t deserve to do things I like – more that the version of me who feels this way doesn’t have much in common with the version of me who would be doing those things. This disconnect seems wider and wider the longer it goes on, and again can feed upon itself, pushing me further and further from doing the things I think would make me feel better.
As each of these mechanisms progresses to make me feel more isolated and unmotivated, I start feeling worse and worse about not getting things done, and about the rapid pace I’m not achieving. I start thinking about how much great work other people have gotten done at this point in their life or about how much better at some particular skill someone else is and I get utterly frustrated with being so imperfect. This, too, is an impulse which, when properly controlled, can be very beneficial – I think I’ve learned a great deal from the mindset that I can always improve, and to always be able to respect and learn from the accomplishments of others – but when it gets out of control, nothing I can ever do will ever be good enough to satisfy me. This is probably exacerbated by the lack of recognition I generally get from elsewhere, but I think even if I were some sort of famous and respected genius I would still feel the same way… Sometimes, at least.
There may be other mechanisms at play as well, which I haven’t noticed enough to comment on. I feel better already, actually – perhaps writing this helped, or perhaps having the clarity to write this is merely a symptom of the natural ebb and flow of emotion finally going my way. Either way is fine. Hopefully the insight I’ve gleaned into my own inner workings by the trip will be helpful – sometime in the future, maybe, maybe for you, maybe for me.