The past month or so has been pretty rocky for me. The progress I’m so used to making just hasn’t been there. I’m filled with an overwhelming sense of stagnation in pretty much every area of my life. It seems that no matter how hard I try, I can’t string together more than a couple days of productivity before going back to my lazy habits.
Motivational struggles are nothing new to me. Finding the motivation to go after what I truly want in life has always been difficult. I guess that’s part of what makes my current struggles even more frustrating than usual. However, my inability to generate much momentum lately has made me take a step back and really examine this whole situation.
A while back I wrote a post on the benefits I found in living intentionally as opposed to making a bunch of strict goals for myself. One of the main themes behind that post was my own tendency to be very hard on myself when I failed to reach my goals. At the time, I saw clearly that being overly critical of myself usually made me less productive overall.
It seems I’ve forgotten that message since coming back home. I may not have set concrete goals for myself, but I did have a mental picture of all the amazing things I would accomplish this summer. And this picture left little room for the struggles I’m having at the moment.
What has my response beens? Overwhelmingly negative. Every time I miss a day of writing or end up sitting in front of the TV all night, I compound the failure by mentally abusing myself. “What wrong with me?” “Why can’t I be more productive?” “Do I even want to change at all, or am I just lying to myself?” “If I keep this up, I’m definitely going to end up a failure.” This kind of self-talk has been the norm for me for as long as I can remember. Only now have I stopped to consider that it might be doing more harm than good. It’s not just the words themselves though. It’s the mindset behind them; a mindset that expects perfection where perfection is impossible.
If I were to take some perspective on the past month and a half, I might be able to see a different side to the story. I’ve been so focused on everything I’ve done wrong that I’ve failed to see all the things I’ve done right. I’ve stuck to a consistent gym routine and diet. I’ve been meditating fairly consistently. I’ve been working a ton and I’ve managed to save up a considerable amount of my future travels. While I may not be this perfect productivity machine, those are all things that I should be proud of.
Negative vs. Positive Reinforcement
In the little over a year that I’ve worked with kids (as both a recreation leader and an English language assistant), one major lesson has stood out to me: positive reinforcement is infinitely more effective than negative reinforcement. Focusing less on children’s’ negative behavior and more on their positive behavior can lead, not only to better behavior in the future, but also happier, more confident kids.
Does the need for positive reinforcement go away once we reach a certain age? I doubt it. We may need less validation from the people around us in order to feel good, but there is still a strong need for our own validation at the very least. Yet positive reinforcement is often the last thing we are willing to give ourselves.
Maybe it’s because we are the only people who know our true potentials. We can close our eyes and envision all that we can be and all the great things we can accomplish. With this vision in mind, it’s all the more disappointing when we fail to live up to it. So we get mad at ourselves. We criticize ourselves. We even hate ourselves at times.
But would we treat a child that way? Would we lash out at them every time they make a mistake, every time they don’t know how to do something with the ease of an expert? Of course not. Part of the reason it’s easier for us (at times) to be more understanding with children is because we know they are still learning and growing. Of course they are going to make mistakes; they don’t know everything yet.
But as adults, are we really that different than children? Sure we have more responsibilities and we know how to do a few more things, but aren’t we still learning? Aren’t we still trying to figure everything out? Don’t we still feel lost and confused at times? Maybe I’m alone in this, but a lot of times I still feel like a kid in a really tall adult’s body, still as clueless as I ever was.
With this in mind, what I’m really focusing on lately is giving myself the same positive reinforcement that I would give a child. I guess you could say I’m just trying to take care of my inner child. This means celebrating all of the small victories in my life and not beating myself up for my mistakes and failures. It means giving myself room to be completely imperfect. It means reminding myself daily that I’m still learning and growing, and that progress usually doesn’t take the route we expect it to. Most of all, it means showing myself the same love and compassion that I would show anyone else I care about in my life.
This is a lot easier said than done. My ever-present fear is that, by being so understanding with myself, I’ll just end up patting myself on the back for being lazy and never actually accomplish anything. There is clearly a balance that must be maintained between being compassionate with yourself and pushing yourself to take action. Honestly I’m not sure how to find that balance. I have a feeling it will be a lifelong journey of trial and error.
I once heard someone say that every great life has had in it a great renunciation. Now I don’t know enough about great lives to sway whether or not that’s true, but it definitely resonates with me. Ever since I turned 21 I’ve been on a journey of personal growth, determined to change myself and my life for the better. In the three years since then I’ve undoubtedly changed a lot. Yet the whole time there has been something keeping me from making the types of changes I’ve really wanted to make: the core level changes. That something is the past.
By past I don’t mean just the past events that have made up my life. I’m talking about the old habits, actions, beliefs, and thought patterns that have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. The remnants of my past have stood out clearly to me as of late. Two weeks ago I finished my 8 month stint teaching English in Spain and moved back home to California for the summer. This isn’t the first time I’ve returned home after being away, but 8 months is the longest I’ve been gone.
I can’t say that I’m a completely different person than when I left back in October. I’ve definitely changed though. I’ve got new experiences under my belt, new perspectives, new insights into the inner workings of my mind. Yet upon arriving home, all of the “new” has quickly managed to take a backseat to the old. I’ve found myself instinctively falling back into old patterns, regardless of the changes I made while abroad. For me those old patterns include a lot of negativity, a lot of sitting in front of the TV, and a general lack of action. All of the great habits I built up while abroad like meditation, eating healthy, reading, and writing seem to have gone straight by the wayside.
The big issue for me isn’t how I’ve struggled in the two weeks since coming home. To be honest I expected to need a week or two to get my positive momentum back and generally adjust to life back in the states. But seeing how quickly and easily I’ve gone back to old behaviors has made me question just how badly I’ve been wanting change in my life.
I’ve talked a lot about wanting change in my life, about wanting to live a life of excellence. While that is my genuine desire, I’ve also been holding onto my comfortable past. Things like laziness, negative self-talk, judging others, complaining, staying in my comfort zone, and allowing fear to control me. These might seem like pretty normal habits, and they have been for me, but they are not congruent with who I say I want to be. They aren’t congruent with the desires that motivated me to start this blog.
I’m starting to realize that I can’t have a new and exciting future while holding on to the mindsets and behaviors that made up my past. It’s as if I’ve been driving, but the whole time I’ve had one eye on the road in front of me and one on the rear view mirror. Sure, it’s okay to occasionally look behind me, but having one eye always focused there makes it a lot harder to stay on the proper path ahead.
So as I sit here contemplating my attachment to the past, the idea of a great renunciation keeps crossing my mind. Am I willing to renounce all the things in my life that aren’t contributing to the bright future I desire? My instinctual answer is yes. But saying yes is a lot easier than actually acting on it. I’ve held onto my past for a reason. It may not bring me the happiness I desire but it’s comfortable. It’s safe. The future I want is full of unknowns. Plus there’s a big part of me that doubts I can even do it. What if I fail? What if I go back to my old ways after a few days or a few weeks?
Of course, these are all hypotheticals. The only way to actually know whether or not I can make such a great renunciation is to try it. So here goes nothing…
I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of achievement. There’s an undeniable satisfaction that comes from knowing you’ve put in the work to accomplish something, no matter how small it is. Hell, even as I write this, I feel damn good for get getting these words on paper.
I suppose the simplest way of experiencing the satisfaction of achievement is through goals. They are straight forward. Black and white. You always know when and how you accomplished them.
Yet despite how much I enjoy achievement, I’ve always been terrible at following through with goals. For as long as I can remember I’ve been setting goals and subsequently failing to achieve them. Everything from getting a six-pack to writing every day. Nothing ever seems to stick.
This isn’t a new story of course. Goals are something most people struggle with. I read a statistic that out of the 45% of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% successfully achieve them. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but it doesn’t sound too far from the truth. I don’t think this is an American phenomenon either.
For a long time I attributed my inability to follow through on goals to my own laziness or lack of will power. This translated into me telling myself things like, “I can’t achieve my goals because I’m a lazy person” and “I don’t have enough will power to accomplish anything significant.” With this kind of negative self-talk, setting and working towards goals became less and less about the goals themselves and more about vindicating myself from those negative labels (which, ironically, I had self-applied). As you can imagine, this didn’t make sticking to my goals any easier. All it did was make the pain of failing so much greater. My failures to achieve my goals became indicators of my own inadequacies.
About a month ago, after years of dealing with this internal conflict, I decided to take a step back from goals all together. I didn’t really have a plan or even a time frame (it took a lot of effort to not make not setting goals a goal). I just knew that my current method of setting goals and working meticulously to achieve them wasn’t bringing me many positive results.
Upon making this decision, it felt as if a weight had been lifted off of me. What I had essentially done was give myself permission to not accomplish anything. No goals. No mission statements. No super-important tasks to get to outside of going to work. It was liberating.
Unfortunately, along with this feeling of liberation came a huge feeling of guilt, at least in the beginning. For the past three years all I had done was focus on improving myself, usually by way of setting goals and working towards them. While letting go of those goals felt good, I also felt as though I was letting myself down in some way. If I wasn’t working towards something, then how could I possibly be happy?
This internal conflict was, at its core, a symptom of my underlying belief structure, mainly in regards to how life is supposed to be lived. For simplicity’s sake I would characterize my normal way of thinking as “achievement-oriented.” I’ve always based my self-worth on what I could achieve, or at the very least what I was working towards. Going even deeper than that, I’ve always assumed that true happiness required struggling to overcome challenges, that I didn’t deserve to be happy unless I was working towards a bigger purpose in life and challenging myself every day.
Still, it was obvious that setting goals is not an effective strategy for me, regardless of the reason why. Yet my own happiness is still in many ways tied to achievement and the idea of working towards a purpose. It’s a paradox that I don’t see changing any time soon. So I came up with sort of a mental compromise.
What’s interesting is that in the month since I abandoned goal setting, I haven’t been any less productive. In fact, I’ve made more progress towards the life I want than I had in the several months prior to this change. I began meditating consistently. My diet improved notably. I’ve read more. I started this blog. Overall, I’m feeling a lot happier, which is most likely the result of constantly feeling as though I’m achieving something.
So how have I been able to be productive without any clear goals to work towards?
Simply put, instead of setting goals I just started focusing on what I wanted out of life. Not what I thought I should want, or what I thought I should accomplish. What I really WANTED. I started getting in touch with my core desires.
Waking up in the morning I didn’t think of my normal checklist for that day. I just paused and considered what I wanted my life to look like. To give you an example, some of the things I thought of included being more present to the moment, being more positive, filling my days with things I love doing, and creating an amazing blog.
I found that, by simply having what I wanted at the forefront of my mind throughout the day, I naturally started taking the actions that would bring me closer to those things. I began to live intentionally instead of in reaction to my environment.
Up and Down Cycle
For most of my life I repeated the same cycle of rapid progress and equally rapid burnout. I would be super consistent when it came to my goals, using every ounce of willpower I had in order to reach them…for a couple of weeks. Then, one day when the willpower just seemed to escape me, I would end up on the couch, binge-watching Netflix and hating myself. A few weeks later I would start the process over again, vowing that this time would be different, this time I would stick to my goals. On and on the cycle went.
While it’s only been about a month, I haven’t experienced any of those drastic motivational ups and downs. I might spend an hour or two watching Game of Thrones or catching up on some NBA highlights, but I don’t find myself binging on entertainment the way I used to. After a couple of hours of doing anything that doesn’t bring me closer to the life I want, I just get antsy and want to start taking action again.
I think what this really comes down to is allowing myself room to be imperfect. What I’ve found with goals is that they box me in to a specific result and a specific course of action. Maybe it’s just the rebellious kid in me, but being told I have to do something, even by myself, makes me really not want to do it. I think meditation is the most relevant example in this case. If you were to come up to me right now and ask me how I feel about meditation, you would only hear good things come out of my mouth. I freaking love meditation! Yet whenever I’ve set a goal for myself to do it every day, meditation and I stop being such close friends.
However, when I simply start my day by thinking about how much I want presence and positivity in my life, it seems only natural that I would meditate at some point. I go from begrudging it to looking forward to it. Now, after about 30 days of doing it, mediation just feels like a normal part of my life.
A lot of people would probably argue that the point of goals isn’t to have a rigid structure, but to give you a direction to head. That may be true but for whatever reason I have a hard time viewing goals in a healthy way. That’s just me though.
If I really analyze the past month, all I’ve done is simply make my goals a little less strict, a little less absolute. Either way I’m glad it’s working.
As cliché as it may be, I absolutely love this quote. Life is short so why spend it doing things you hate, or even feel lukewarm towards?
Of course, sometimes the trickiest part is figuring out what your bliss really is…