As I think many people do, I can get into a mindset of constantly forcing myself to work, and never giving myself a moment of “free time.” If I carefully look at the reason I’m doing that, it’s usually because I’m afraid that, if I stopped working for a moment, I’d somehow never be able to start again. Instead, I would revert to my “true nature” of being lazy, and my lollygagging would continue until the end of my days.
Often, if I honestly ask myself why I’m compulsively working, I also notice that I’m worried about other people’s opinions. After all, I don’t want to be seen as shiftless, selfish or apathetic, and in our culture it often seems like constant activity is valued for its own sake.
But Aren’t We Supposed To Just “Shut Up And Do It”?
The ability to force myself to work even when I don’t feel like it, on the surface, may look like a good thing. I mean, isn’t that what all the “productivity” advice out there tells us — just shut off the internet, grit your teeth and slog your way through what you’re trying to accomplish? Isn’t life all about constantly battling our laziness?
Unfortunately, when I buy into this mentality of pushing myself to work, I usually don’t end up producing much that’s worthwhile. Instead, I normally find myself churning out mediocre work that I probably won’t end up using, or constantly bouncing around between ideas, unsatisfied with everything I come up with.
Listening To Our Laziness
What I’ve found is that I can restore my focus and energy by simply admitting to myself that I don’t feel like working, if that’s the truth in the moment. At times, the truth is even “uglier” than that — sometimes, I can’t even bring myself to care about the work I’m doing or the people I plan to serve with it. If that’s the case, I simply admit it too.
When I acknowledge what’s true for me right now in my relationship with my work, it’s as if muscles I didn’t know I had suddenly relax. Often, the sense of relief I experience is so palpable that I start laughing. And then, a moment later, my vitality and sense of purpose come back, and pretty soon I’m able to get back to work again without so much struggle and frustration.
Why does this happen? My sense is that we diminish our vitality whenever we reject what we’re actually thinking and feeling. If some part of me feels frustrated and unmotivated, and I basically try to beat that part into submission or pretend it doesn’t exist, the war I’m fighting against myself drains my energy. It’s much easier if I make peace with the part that doesn’t want to work right now, and let it know I’m willing to hear it out.
So if you ever hear me say “I hate writing” or something along those lines, rest assured, it’s just because I’m motivating myself.
Photo of my place while writing this show (okay, actually some Steve’s Quest background art)
Watching a few seconds of my show (which you’ll be able to do very soon!) will probably make it clear that I didn’t write the piece with any particular “market” or “demographic” in mind.
After all, the main character is a software engineer in his early to mid-twenties, and most of the other characters are in his age range. However, the show’s music is deeply influenced by rock music from the mid-to-late ‘80s — around the time people in their twenties today were being born.
That is to say, I didn’t try to tailor the music or the content of the show to people in the age group of the main characters, or people of any other age, race, gender, income, IQ, shoe size, or anything else. I wrote the piece purely based on what I see as entertaining and meaningful.
Strangely Enough, I’ve Been Doing Research
The funny thing is that, even though I set out to do this project solely to please myself, I’ve found myself doing a lot of “research” while writing the show — listening to songs from other musicals, reading excerpts from sci-fi novels, watching animes to get a sense of the art style I want, and so on.
As long as the research I’ve done has been in the service of getting my own, unique message across, as opposed to making sure I appease this or that “demographic,” it’s been surprisingly easy and even fun to do.
On the other hand, if I’d gone into the project with the goal of getting lots of visitors or ad revenue or some other measure of internet success, or modeled the songs or plot on past hit musicals, I probably would have felt too much resentment to stay as motivated as I’ve been.
Market Research and the Inner Sulky Teenager
I think the reason is this: whenever I do anything from a place of trying to get approval, some part of me instinctively rebels. There’s a part of me that knows I’m okay whether or not people like me, and that part gets annoyed when I lose sight of that truth. The result is passive-aggressive sluggishness.
Maybe there are people who don’t feel this kind of resentment, or are able to just muscle through the part of them that hates approval-seeking. But my sense, from just being with myself and talking to people, is that the best way to stay motivated in working on a project is to do something that would be compelling and exciting to you even if the rest of the world ignored it.
What do you think? Is all this totally unrealistic or does it make sense?
I can’t believe it was nearly a year ago that, on this very blog, we had our fascinating discussion about the productivity challenges readers are facing, and how mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga can help us move through those challenges. It was an inspiring chat for me, and I’ve re-read it many times.
Last time I re-read the post, it proved to be more than just a source of nostalgia — it gave me the idea to put out an audio program dealing with the questions people asked in the comments, and in the many other settings where I’ve spoken to people about Inner Productivity.
I now have voluminous notes about what I’m going to say in the program, and I’ve started recording it. Before I release it, I want to check in with you to make sure I’m not leaving out any concerns you may be dealing with in your working life, whether it comes to focusing, staying motivated, letting go of anxiety, actually enjoying what you do, or something else. Simple as that.
So, I want to throw the floor open to you. Maybe “throwing the floor” isn’t the most coherent figure of speech, but you get the point. I want to know what you’d like to hear me address in the program, and if you let me know I’ll do my best to cover it.
To get the creative juices flowing, here’s a list of some common issues people raised in our earlier conversation:
Self-Starting: “I’m working from home, and it’s hard to stay on task when no one’s keeping tabs on me.”
Overwhelm: “I feel overwhelmed when I see a lot of items on my to-do list.”
Perfectionism: “I struggle with a sense that I’ve got to do everything perfectly, or not do it at all.”
Inadequacy: “I have trouble starting the project I want to do, because I worry that it’s not going to be good enough.”
Image Consciousness: “I’m having difficulty doing the work I want to do, because I get too concerned about what others will think of it.”
“I haven’t done enough”: “I keep getting to the end of the day, and feeling like I didn’t accomplish enough.”
Resentment: “I get bogged down in resentment, because it seems like people are asking so much from me in my work.”
Distraction: “My mind keeps jumping around to all kinds of different ideas when I’m trying to focus on something.”
How about you? What issues would you like to hear about in the program?
“I teach people how to use mindfulness practices, like meditation and yoga, to focus while they work. I help them bring these practices into their in-the-moment experience of working — to go beyond just using them on the yoga mat or the meditation cushion.”
This is a correct description of what I do. Unfortunately, it also tends to make people’s eyes roll and/or glaze over.
I know this all too well, because I delivered this “elevator pitch” many times. What’s more, for many months, I kept describing what I do in this way, even though I knew it was boring and confusing people.
Why did I keep saying this to people, despite its obvious soporific effect? The answer is that lots of resistance came up inside when I thought about changing it. Because I found the resistance uncomfortable, I left my pitch unchanged so I wouldn’t have to feel it.
Welcoming My Resistance
I finally started getting traction around this issue when I decided to re-read my book and take my own medicine. Rather than fleeing from the resistance, I chose to sit with it. I got intimately familiar with its contours — where I felt it in my body, whether it manifested as a tingling, pulsing, tension, or something else, and so on.
As I’ve experienced so many times, putting my full attention on the tightness in my body actually dissolved it. My solar plexus, where the most tension was, relaxed, and I sighed with relief. And, as usual, with that relaxation came helpful insight. What I saw was that I was clinging to this dull description of my services because, in my mind, it made me sound intelligent and unique.
After all, even if people didn’t buy my book or take my workshop, at least they wouldn’t see me as just another rah-rah jump-up-and-down-to-”Simply-The-Best” motivational speaker. At least they’d know I don’t spout self-help cliches like “take action! Think happy thoughts! Like attracts like!” You see, I use sophisticated words like “mindfulness,” and that makes me different!
In other words, I recognized through self-exploration that I was afraid of looking average — and, most importantly, that I was allowing that fear to control my business decisions. I was letting concerns about my image get in the way of actually delivering value to people.
Allowing My Averageness
Getting conscious of this fear also helped to liberate me from it. After all, I realized, what’s really going to happen if someone sees me as average? Will I disintegrate or spontaneously combust or something? Probably not.
What’s more, I recognized that, no matter what I accomplish, there are many ways in which I’m forever doomed to be average. Studies have shown, for example, that I share approximately 99.999999% of my DNA not only with you, Dear Readers, but also with orangutans and mandrills. Why go to such lengths to conceal my built-in averageness?
Armed with this new awareness, I came up with a much more clear and concise summary of what I do. It goes a little something like this:
“I help people get focused and motivated at work.”
I’ve noticed that this produces a lot less nodding off, and a lot more purchasing of my stuff, among potential customers.
What about you, Dear Reader? How are you letting image-consciousness get in the way of giving your gifts to the world?
I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be holding a full-day workshop, which I’m calling the Inner Productivity Intensive, in the San Francisco Bay Area on Saturday, June 12, 2010.
This will be an intimate, small-group affair, limited to ten people, where we’ll be deeply exploring the challenges each participant is facing in their work, and how mindfulness practices can help them stay focused and inspired in what they do.
You can register for the event here. More information about the workshop is below.
Supercharge Your Focus And Motivation In Your Work!
Why do you know what you want to do in your work, but you still don’t do it?
Why do you know you want to work more efficiently, but you end up wasting time on e-mail and social media? Why do you want to write that book or start that business, but it’s never gotten off the ground? Why do you want to change jobs, but you can’t seem to begin your search?
I think we’ve all asked ourselves this kind of question at some point, and the answer often seems maddeningly unclear. What is clear, however, is that the usual organization and time management literature doesn’t shed much light on it.
Yes, there are neat tricks and “hacks” out there for organizing your e-mail, color-coding your folders, and finding the right iPhone apps. But as I think you know from painful experience, these tricks are useless if you aren’t focused and motivated enough to put them into practice.
What Are You Running From?
So how do you find the focus and motivation you’re looking for? In my experience working with people around their productivity issues, to really get what we want out of what we do, the first step is to take a close look at what we’re avoiding.
What do I mean? You’ll see for yourself, I think, if you carefully watch what’s happening when you’re at work, and you’re about to start procrastinating. You’ll notice that, in that “clutch” moment right before you put off a task to do something else, you start having some thought or sensation — some inner experience – that feels uncomfortable or even dangerous to you.
The thought or sensation I’m talking about is different for each of us. For some, it’s tension in their body — maybe a tightness in their neck or shoulders. For others, it’s a painful memory or a worry about the future. Perhaps, for you, it’s something else.
While the inner experience I’m talking about is unique for each person, the way people tend to deal with that experience is pretty much the same. Because it’s scary and uncomfortable, we try to distract ourselves from it — perhaps by checking e-mail, playing Minesweeper, surfing the Web, or something else.
The trouble with this approach is that, when we distract ourselves, we take our attention away from our work. We can’t code that computer program, paint that painting, or do anything else that’s productive when we’re messing around on Facebook.
The Art Of Allowing
As it turns out, there’s a better way to relate to this inner experience: to fully allow it. When you feel that tension, painful memory, or whatever it is coming up, simply hold your attention on your work, keep breathing, relax your body, and allow that experience to pass away on its own. If you’ve done meditation, you probably have some idea what I mean.
The more you practice this, the more comfortable and familiar that experience will become. You’ll start to realize it isn’t as scary as you’d thought. More importantly, you’ll become able to move forward in your work, even in the face of that pesky experience.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Usually, we’ve become so accustomed to running from that troublesome inner experience that we’re no longer aware we’re avoiding it. We just “find ourselves” checking e-mail, playing FreeCell, or whatever our favorite distraction is, totally oblivious to why it’s happening.
The Inner Productivity Intensive is about getting conscious of that difficult inner experience, and developing a new relationship with it that gives you a new sense of purpose and freedom in your work.
What This Workshop Offers You
As you may know, I wrote a book called Inner Productivity: A Mindful Path to Efficiency and Enjoyment in Your Work. Inner Productivity, which Getting Things Done author David Allen calls “a great read and a useful guidebook for turning the daily grind into something much more interesting and engaging,” is all about learning to allow – rather than resist — the thoughts and sensations that tend to disrupt our focus.
In this full-day workshop, we put the book’s ideas and techniques into practice. Basing our approach on meditation, yoga and other mindfulness practices that have improved people’s lives for thousands of years, I and my skilled facilitators will help you notice, and transform, the patterns of thinking and behavior holding you back in your work.
You’ll come out of the workshop with an increased ability to focus on your work, a stronger sense of mission, and a deep-seated knowledge that you’ve got what it takes to face the challenges that arise in what you do.
This workshop is unlike any other seminar on organization or time management. I’ve designed the course to be small — ten people or so — to make sure each person gets the individual attention they need, and the breakthrough they want. This won’t be a lecture — you’ll be diving right into exercises that make you aware of the places where you’re limiting yourself.
I’d recommend this workshop to people who are ready to take a deep look at what’s really holding them back in their work. If that’s what you’re interested in, this course will radically change the way you think about and relate to what you do.
The workshop will be on Saturday, June 12, 2010, in San Jose, California, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Registration for the workshop is $135.00 per person. You’ll receive more information, including directions and the schedule, when you register, which you can do by clicking here.
I’ve just published a guest post at The Change Blog called “3 Ways Your Breathing Can Improve Your Productivity,” which is about using conscious breathing techniques to get focused and motivated while you work. I hope you enjoy it.
(Inspired by a comment I left on Stacey Shipman’s great post about me-time)
One common complaint I hear from people is that they don’t get enough “me time.” That is, they spend too much time doing things for others, and not enough serving their own wants and needs, and they feel tired and resentful as a result.
Yes, many of us could use a break to meditate, watch the tide roll in at the beach, play with the dog, or do something else to relax. And, I wonder if some of this “me time” problem results from how we tend to think about our day-to-day activities.
Is “Them-Time” Really All About “Them”?
Let’s look at the activities we tend to see as “them time” — as things we do for others rather than ourselves. Common examples include driving the kids to school, going to work in the morning, and cleaning the house. Our attitude toward these things tends to be “I don’t like to do it, but I will because others need my help.”
But are these things really just “them time”? Do we do them purely out of self-sacrifice, just to be martyrs? Or do we do them because, on some level, they fulfill our own needs and wants?
Take driving the kids to school, for instance. Yes, from one point of view, this serves the kids’ needs, because they need to get to school. But doesn’t it serve yours too? Don’t you want your children to get an education?
And how about going to work? Yes, you’re giving your boss, customers, or someone else what they want by showing up. But what about you? Didn’t you pick this career because you were interested in it? Or, at the very least, don’t you want the money and benefits this job gets you?
What I’m asking you to do is take a step back and look at the larger reason why you’re doing the task you’re involved in. What’s the bigger goal you’re trying to accomplish with what you’re doing? How does it serve your own wants and needs?
When we get back in touch with the larger reason why we’re doing a task, we reconnect with the sense of mission that drove us to the path we’re on in the first place, and that can be a great source of motivation. We can even feel inspired replying to e-mails and rearranging our folders when we’re in touch with the broader purpose behind those things. In other words, even the time we spend doing those tasks can become “me time” with the right mindset.
The Cost of Consciousness
Of course, there are reasons why many of us prefer not to look at the big picture. We’re afraid that, if we asked ourselves why we do something, we’d discover we really don’t know. We might learn that we have no idea why we’re working this job, why we care about cleaning the house, or even why we decided to create this family.
Because we’re afraid of what we might find out if we took the big-picture view, it can seem easier just to treat everything we do as “them time.” What’s more, when we view everything we do as an obligation, we get to feel like hard-working, responsible people (and maybe that other people owe us for our sacrifices as well). The trouble is that, when we think of everything we do as “them time,” we feel stressed and frustrated, and our energy level and relationships suffer.
My point is that whether something we do is “me time” or “them time” is often a matter of perspective. When you get back in touch with the bigger purpose behind what you’re doing, the sense of fatigue and irritation can fall away, and you can feel the inspiration that got you onto your path.
There’s a nasty mental trap we often fall into when we’re considering trying something new, whether in our business, our social lives, or somewhere else. I’m talking about what’s often called “the chicken or egg problem.” The way of thinking I mean goes like this: “I can’t do A unless I do B, but I can’t do B unless I do A. So I guess I won’t bother trying to do either A or B.”
I’ll give you a few examples from my own life. When I first got interested in doing speaking engagements, I faced what I saw as a dilemma. On one hand, I thought, I was unlikely to get many engagements unless I had a book to promote. But on the other, if I sent a book idea to a publisher, they probably wouldn’t take it seriously unless I’d done a bunch of speaking engagements and built up a “platform.”
There’s a similar example from my teenage years. When I started high school, I hadn’t gone to middle school with the other kids in my class, and so I didn’t have friends coming in. However, that wasn’t the painful part. What created suffering was my belief that no one would want to hang out with me unless I had other friends. But of course, I couldn’t have “other friends” unless I made some in the first place. (I’m noticing I feel a little embarrassed talking about my high school experiences, but I’ll leave it in here to expand my comfort zone. )
In both examples, it took me a while to free myself from the mental rut I’d fallen into. But in the end, I did, and I want to share some of the ideas I explored that helped me pursue what I wanted.
1. Realize That Others Have Been There. On the speaking issue, one realization that shifted my perspective was that every well-known author and speaker must have faced exactly the same problem. There was a time when every aspiring writer confronted the stark reality of having no book, speaking engagements, or “platform” of any kind. Yet somehow, they made do.
One example that immediately came to mind for me was Dr. Wayne Dyer, author of countless books offering what I’d call “self-help from a spiritual perspective,” and a role model of mine. Dyer was a college professor when he wrote his first book, Your Erroneous Zones. He offered the book to some publishers, but they rejected it.
I suspect many in Dyer’s situation would have either given up and slunk back into academia, or spent years publishing magazine articles to build up credentials that would impress a publisher. But not Dyer—he self-published his book, quit his job, and toured the country in his station wagon selling his work to bookstores. The book sold so well that a major publisher picked it up and it became a bestseller.
With Dyer’s inspiring example in mind, I decided to self-publish my audio program, and I’ll do the same shortly with my full-length book. Obviously, they’ll soon be bestsellers too, right?
2. What Would Happen If You Did? Like I said, one assumption behind the “chicken or egg” mindset is that we “can’t” do A unless we do B first. When we’re stuck in this mentality, one question we don’t often think to ask is: what do we really mean by “can’t”?
My isolated, unhappy first year of high school drove me to seriously consider this question. What I realized was that my belief that I “couldn’t” make friends without already having them was wildly exaggerated. After all, it’s not like it was physically impossible to ask someone to be my friend without already having a big social group—I wouldn’t need to defy gravity or travel back in time.
So I asked myself: what am I actually afraid of? The answer that came up was that what I really feared was others’ disapproval. I was worried that, if I tried to be friends with someone, they might call me a “loser” or otherwise ridicule me for not having “enough” of a social life. And when I understood this, I saw there was actually very little to be afraid of. Getting put down might sting a little, but I strongly doubted it would kill me.
This simple shift in my way of thinking expanded my sense of freedom to meet people, and I started coming out of my shell (a process that’s still ongoing today ).
3. Focus On The Gifts You’re Giving. Somehow, this whole “chicken or egg problem” seems to magically disappear when we take our attention off all the suffering we’ll supposedly cause ourselves and others by doing what we want, and focus on what we’ll contribute to the world with our efforts.
Take my experience with giving talks. When I took a close look at what I was really afraid of when it came to booking speaking engagements, what I discovered was that I was worried I’d be “bothering” the event planners I wanted to call. My attention was entirely focused on the inconvenience I’d supposedly cause people by asking them to have me as a speaker, and none of it was on the gifts people would receive from my talk.
When I took a moment to remember the service I wanted to offer others with my workshops, suddenly the whole dilemma of “I need a book to be a speaker, but I need to be a speaker to have a book” disappeared, and booking engagements seemed like the obvious and natural thing to do. It’s funny how our concerns can seem so “logical” in one moment, and then become trivial when we get into a better mood.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” – C.G. Jung
There’s a lot of personal development writing about how it’s important to avoid “toxic people” and “energy vampires”—people who criticize us, make fun of us, tell us we can’t achieve our goals, and so on. I actually have the opposite view: that the “difficult people” in our lives offer us wonderful opportunities to grow as human beings.
My sense is that, whenever you find yourself getting annoyed, disturbed, or uncomfortable around someone, you’re always learning something about yourself. In a nutshell, what you’re becoming aware of is a part of yourself you aren’t fully comfortable with. When someone acts in a way you see as greedy, fearful, obnoxious, or something else, the discomfort you experience is actually your distaste for your own greed, fear or obnoxiousness. The other person’s behavior is simply reminding you of this unwanted part.
What’s more, simply having this awareness can do much to help you reconcile with parts of yourself you shunned before—and free up all the energy you were using to repress those parts, so it can fuel you as you pursue what you want.
My Own Example
I’ll tell you a story that illustrates this idea well. When I first started my own business, I had a friend who basically told me I was wasting my life, and that I had been brainwashed by self-help books I’d read about being an entrepreneur. When he said these things, I felt angry, and initially I reacted the way I think most of us would. I decided I was “justified” and “right” in feeling upset, and distanced myself from him to make sure he wouldn’t hold me back from reaching my goals.
However, around that time, I began reading Embracing Our Selves, by Hal and Sidra Stone. One of the many valuable observations the Stones make is that, when we feel distressed by someone in our lives, that’s probably because they embody a part of us we tend to “disown” or push away. On reading this, I realized the reason I felt so upset when my friend spoke pessimistically about my business was that there was actually part of me that felt the same way.
In starting my new venture, I’d been making a concerted effort to stay positive and directed, and never let doubt creep into my mind. Labeling my friend as “toxic” and pushing him out of my life was a natural outgrowth of this mindset. But by forcing myself to be perpetually upbeat and motivated, I was shoving aside a younger, less self-assured part of myself—a part that was scared that I would fail and that I was, in fact, wasting my life. And by pushing that part away, I was doing violence to who I really was.
Making Peace With Our Fearful Parts
For a moment, instead of keeping this scared child part at bay, I tried allowing it to voice its concerns. I acknowledged that, on some level, I was feeling fearful and pessimistic about my path, just like my friend. When I admitted to myself how I really felt, some tense areas in my body suddenly relaxed, and I felt refreshed. All the energy I’d been using to plaster a smile on my face and force away negativity was now freed up to help me achieve what I wanted, and I actually started feeling more excited and directed about my goals.
So, in an important sense, my friend’s pessimism was helpful to me. By voicing his doubts about my course in life, he alerted me to a place where I wasn’t completely okay with myself. I was repressing a childlike part of me that felt timid and unready, and straining against that part was actually physically tiring. But when I fully accepted that part and listened to what it had to say, I felt more powerful than ever before.
What I learned from this experience was that the greatest power to pursue our goals and succeed comes from wholeness—from our acceptance of every aspect of who we are. This may sound counterintuitive, because a lot of self-help literature advises us to simply tell our fearful inner voices to shut up, and avoid people who remind us of them. But if you try on the accepting mindset I’m talking about, and simply let those voices be without judgment, I think you’ll find it worthwhile.
I’m excited to share with you my recent interview with life coach, author and speaker Tess Marshall. Tess is the author of Flying By The Seat Of My Soul and the inspiring blog The Bold Life.
In this interview, you’ll learn:
* The amazing story of Tess’s journey from being a teenage mother selling dried flowers to working as an author, coach and speaker
* How Tess created a popular, high-traffic blog in just six months
* How to create routines to help you make regular progress toward your goals
* A powerful technique for deciding between all the options available to you in work and life, and overcoming “choice overload”
* How to enjoy the journey toward achieving your goals, even when things feel frustratingly slow
* And much more . . .