Psychology | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Long Live Peter Pan

I left my psychology graduate program a little over a week ago.  It was a decision I’d agonized over for months, mostly because of how much I care about and enjoy my fellow students.

I eventually recognized I had to cross at least one or two items off my agenda.  I’d been working on my show, doing solo law work, going to grad school at night, and organizing events for my men’s organization, and I started to notice I was spending a lot of my non-music-oriented time wishing I were working on music.

At a deeper level, I saw that, if I was going to be honest with myself, I had to admit I didn’t like the notion of choosing a path in life.  I was “keeping my options open” because I loved the exhilarating feeling of contemplating my limitless potential (a/k/a not growing up).

And Now, Ironically, For Some Psychology

On the “psychology tip,” I think Jung would have called the part of me that wanted to simultaneously pursue everything the puer aeternus, which is a fancy Latin term for “eternal boy.”  The eternal boy, like Peter Pan, wants to stay constantly in flight, never settling for too long on any perch.

On the surface, the eternal boy part of me might seem like a liability — after all, if I keep chasing every new idea that strikes my fancy, aren’t I likely to end up regretting, thirty years later, that I didn’t pursue one thing hard enough to really make a go of it?

But if we look deeper, there are amazing things about that Peter Pan energy.  The eternal boy is the source of my creativity — he thrills in flitting around between ideas and finding cool ways to put them together.

This Might Actually Help Me “Not Grow Up”

What I realized, when I thought about it, was that being clearer about my path can actually serve the eternal boy.  After all, the eternal boy doesn’t thrive under lots of structure — he doesn’t like anybody plotting his flight path — and dropping some of my recurring to-dos fed his need for freedom.

The creative part, I think, needs time to forget about time — to let go of the linear and the predictable (the “grown up”), and play around with possibilities.  With a schedule that’s too full, that doesn’t work so well.

The challenge for me now will be to let go, during the time I’ve gifted to myself, and really allow the eternal boy to play, rather than fretting that I should be doing chores or something else more “responsible.”

Seeing how much fun I’ve been having creatively over the past few years, I think I can handle it.

Why I’ve Been Talking About Myself

I recently noticed that, over the years (and it has been years) that I’ve been blogging, I’ve become less interested in giving advice to other people about what they should do, and more interested in just sharing my own experience of living.

I thought it would be interesting to take a moment and ask why I’ve moved in this direction.  I mean, let’s face it — the most popular posts in the blogosphere seem to be lists of the best ways to pitch your business, the best iPhone apps to buy, and so on.  Why would I shy away from this “prescriptive” approach people seem to like and just start talking about myself?

“Prescription” Ignites My Inner Two-Year-Old

The most obvious reason is that I simply don’t like being told what to do.  When someone tells me something like “here’s how you should introduce yourself to people,” my first instinct is to resist and perhaps even do the exact opposite of what I’m being told.

I may be unique in this sense — maybe, for some reason, I never fully grew out of the “Terrible Twos” stage of psychological development.  But my sense is that a lot of other people also instinctively dislike being told what to do, whether by their mothers or some random dude on the internet.

My Rejection of Projection

At a deeper level, though, what I’ve come to realize is that, when I’m writing about what someone else “should do,” I’m usually, in reality, talking to myself.  If I’m telling someone how to organize their living space, for example, my own (physical or emotional) space is probably somewhat of a wreck, and I can likely stand to take my own advice.

Psychologists call what’s happening here “projection.”  Because we don’t want to acknowledge what we’re feeling and what’s going on in our lives, we pretend as if someone else is having the experience we’re having.  If I say “you sound really angry,” it’s likely that I’m projecting my own anger onto you because I don’t want to admit that I feel it.

It feels riskier, but more honest, to drop the façade of telling you what to do, and acknowledge what’s going on for me and what I want to do.  If I tell you that I want to be more organized, I take a risk, because I admit that I’m disorganized and therefore imperfect.  Still, it feels liberating to be able to simply speak my truth, without trying to look good or avoid criticism.

It also feels great to me when someone else tells me what’s going on for them, and what they want and need.  It gives me a sense of permission to let down my own guard, and helps me to feel a connection with the person I’m talking to.

So that, in a nutshell, is why I’ve taken to navel-gazing lately, and why you should do it too (just kidding).

Each Person Is A Prism, Part 2: Valentine’s Day Edition

Well, as advertisers are helpfully reminding us, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.  For me, as for many other people, this can be a time of irritation.

This isn’t because I’m what our culture calls a “single guy.”  I enjoy that, actually.  It’s because this is the time of year when I get to hear people lament how long it’s been since they’ve been “in a relationship,” or since they’ve done whatever other romantic thing they think they should be doing.

One Person’s Romantic Comedy Is Another’s Horror Movie

The most frustrating part, when I listen to these people, is that they don’t seem to be paying attention to what they actually want.  Instead, they’re measuring themselves against what they see as the culture’s expectations, and blaming themselves for falling short.

“My friends are all married,” I hear (and I’m sure you’ve heard) people complain.  When I hear this from someone, I try to respond compassionately.  But I have to admit, sometimes I just want to caustically remark:  “that makes perfect sense — after all, the rule is that you have to do whatever your friends do!”

And, of course, there are people (mostly men, but not exclusively) who will be able to tell me, to the month, day and hour, how long it’s been since they “got laid.”  Hearing this, it’s all I can do to keep my inner Captain Sarcastic from spitting out:  “true, if you don’t ‘get some’ soon, you’ll lose your place at the ‘jock’ table in the high school cafeteria!”

The saddest part of this, in my experience, is that many people stay dissatisfied even if they do find what they say they’re looking for.  Trying to live into somebody else’s vision of how romance or intimacy should be, I think, is a recipe for suffering.

What Do You Really Want?

If someone is griping to me about their “singlehood” (at least, I think that’s the right word), and they’re really willing to explore the issue, what we’ll often discover is that they don’t even want to be married, “in a relationship,” or whatever else, right now.  They are hurting because they’re telling themselves it’s wrong not to want those things, and beating themselves up.

In my experience, when people become willing to admit that lack of desire, often it’s as if a weight lifts from their shoulders, and their bodies feel lighter.  What’s more, amazingly enough, sometimes acknowledging they don’t want intimacy actually opens the way for them to want it again.

Why?  I think it goes back to what I talked about in my post on “finding compassion through selfishness.”  We’re all made up of a bunch of different parts, or, as some put it, “selves” or “energies” — the aggressive part, the solitary part, the outgoing part, and so on.

Calling Out Our Doubts

As I put it earlier, the way I see it, each person is like a prism — something that breaks up a beam of light into the colors of the rainbow.  Sometimes, we don’t like one of the colors — the anger, the hurt, or something else — and so we cover up the prism.  The trouble is, when we do that, no light can get through.

We all, I think, have a part that wants connection with others.  But we also have parts that are cautious, hurt, untrusting, and so on.  When we tell ourselves it’s not okay to feel afraid or unready about intimacy, and we push the hesitant parts of ourselves down, we can cause ourselves a lot of pain.

I’ve found, both in myself and in talking to people, that it can be so liberating when we acknowledge the areas where we’re uncertain, and it can actually help create the connection with others that we’re looking for.

Excerpt From My Fiction Foray

For a change of pace today, I want to share an excerpt from a story/novel I’ve been working on.  I don’t have a title yet, although I’ve jokingly been calling it “The Last Yuga.”

By the way, as the title of this post suggests, this is a work 0f fiction, so please don’t sue me if your name happens to be Dr. Joseph or Nameless Protagonist.  :)

*                          *                         *

It’s hard to believe, but it all started with eye contact.

“I notice you aren’t meeting my eyes,” Dr. Joseph said in almost a whisper.

I don’t know whether he intended it or not, but when he spoke I peeked out from under my brow and into his pink-tinged gaze.  Our eyes locked for several minutes of anxious silence.

No therapist I saw before had noticed my lack of eye contact — at least, not in the first session — because they weren’t looking at me.  They were too busy filling their yellow pads with facts about my background, following rules they learned in school about what information to glean from a patient and how to take it down.  Within ten to twenty minutes, they mentally plugged those facts into tried-and-true diagnostic formulas.  After thirty or forty, they considered themselves able to tell me what was wrong with me — and, if they were psychiatrists, what drugs I ought to take.

But Dr. Joseph never took notes.  There was no paper on his lap, or anywhere else in the room.  In fact, Dr. Joseph kept almost nothing in his office — no books or diplomas to convince me of his credentials, no paintings to fill the blankness of the wall, no Buddha statues or other Eastern baubles to give his work a “spiritual” veneer.  Instead of lying on a couch, I sat in a nondescript office chair.  Nothing about the place suggested it belonged to a therapist.

Nor did Dr. Joseph act like a therapist.  Not a word of psychological jargon passed his lips — not even something as commonplace as depression or anxiety.  I don’t think he ever asked about my Mom and Dad, unless I brought them up.  And, at least in our first session, he didn’t go out of his way to sound kind or understanding.

“Why are you looking at me?” Dr. Joseph said.

I gave a nervous chuckle.  “I thought you wanted me to look at you.”

“You’re doing it because you think I want you to?”

“Yeah.”

“What, you’re just figuring out what I want and doing it?”

“Well, I thought it might be helpful to the therapy—”

“Shut up.”

“What?”  My heart was suddenly pounding.

“You said you’d do whatever I want, and now I want you to shut up.”

“O — okay.”

The pink in his eyes turned scarlet, and he stared me down for what seemed like an hour.  Finally, he said “this is what you do all the time, isn’t it?  Trying to read people’s minds and figure out how to please them.”

I smiled and shrunk a little more inside.  “Yeah, sometimes I guess I do.”

“Oh, and now you’ve got that cute little grin.  What is that supposed to do, calm me down?”

I now felt almost shrunken to the point of nonexistence.  I tried to speak, but my lungs were compressed to the size of a particle.  Somehow, I survived by drawing rapid, microscopic breaths.

He stared me down for another minute, and then his eyes and tone abruptly softened.  “Relax your body.”

With his gentle command, I noticed that my shoulders felt like two heavy rocks, and the rest of my body felt like soft gelatin.  But the force of gravity remained unchanged, and so it seemed as if my shoulders plummeted about three feet downward, until I became a face grotesquely staring out of a stomach.

“We’re done for today.  Get some sleep this week, and pay attention to your dreams.”

I silently shuffled out — or, more accurately, oozed out in my new amoeba-like form.  We never arranged a date for the next appointment, but there was no need — we both knew I’d be back.

*                          *                         *

What do you think? If you’re interested, I’d love to share more (in between more posts about productivity, mindfulness, and stuff of that nature, of course).

The story will follow Nameless Protagonist’s adventures in, among other things, both the waking and dream states, and take us deep into the crucible of his psychological and spiritual transformation.  It’ll be cool.  :)

Guest Post At The Change Blog: Productivity And Owning Our Shadow

I’ve just published a guest post at The Change Blog called “Productivity and Owning Our Shadow.”  It’s about how we’ll often put off working on a project when making progress requires us to tap into part of ourselves we aren’t fully okay with — maybe the part that’s ambitious, sentimental, childlike, or something else.

I sometimes notice this in myself when I’m writing fiction, which I’ve been trying my hand at lately.  For some time, I had trouble making progress on writing a scene where one character is darkly, primally angry — because, of course, writing it brought up the part of me that can feel that way.

But as I wrote the scene, I got this interesting sense that I was making peace with that part, and integrating it more deeply into who I am, instead of treating it as a weird, dangerous outsider.

Anyway, enjoy the piece!

Why I’m Back In Love With My Head

rational-mind

For a few years, I believed that what we often call “the rational mind” was my enemy.  I have a powerful rational mind, and most people would see this as a plus, but to me that was part of the problem.  I thought all the analysis, judgment and criticism my mind did was holding me back in life.

For instance, when I was having a conversation and just trying to listen to the other person, the rational mind would kick in, coming up with counterarguments, different perspectives, advice and so on.  Unconsciously, the other person would sense this, and it would be disconcerting to them.  I often felt helpless in the face of the mind’s constant whirring.

How I Lost My Mind

This was partly, I think, because I had an intense, time-consuming job — being a lawyer — where the rational mind dominated everything.  As a young attorney at a big law firm, I led a cloistered life, spending most of my time in my office drafting legal papers, memoranda and letters.  This was okay with me in the workplace, but it wasn’t easy to silence the mind’s noise in my off hours.

In a sense, leaving that job and starting to coach and write was my rebellion against what I saw as the tyranny of the rational mind.  I knew there were parts of me I hadn’t spent much time cultivating, and I thought leaving my old environment was the only way I could really do that in earnest.

I also immersed myself in ideas and techniques to help me discover “who I was beyond the mind,” as some spiritual teachers put it.  I spent countless hours meditating, releasing emotions, taking workshops, and so on.  Conversation, for me, became about noticing what I felt in my body and trying to give that a voice — “I’m feeling my shoulders relax as I talk to you.”  I wrote a slew of articles, and ultimately a whole book, about listening to instinct and intuition.

I made some progress toward this goal of self-discovery — I experienced moments when my mind was blissfully empty, and all I felt was raw sensation — my pulse, breathing, tingling in my hands, and so forth.  I saw that the rational mind was “just another part of me,” to paraphrase Michael Jackson, and that I was an okay person even when it wasn’t operating.

How I Found It Again

Perhaps the most important thing I noticed, in these “mindless” states, was that the mind no longer seemed so oppressive.  When I began to feel more in control of it, I started to see that it was simply a tool I could use — not an enemy bent on destroying me or making me unhappy.

After seeing this, I started regaining my interest in using the rational mind, and discovering what I could give the world with it.  I got back into reading about philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines I scorned for a while as abstract and “heady.”  I started a new blog addressing some of the criticisms of personal growth, which has a more “pointy-headed intellectual” style, I think, than what you’ll read here.

I’ve noticed, as I’ve been reconciling with my mind, that I’m having a blast.  I’ve been cranking out articles nonstop for the new site, which ideally will turn into another full-length book.  The heightened awareness of my body I developed has actually helped me appreciate this — I’ve noticed how light and free my body feels as I’ve done this writing.

The moral of the story, I think, is that I needed time away from the rational mind to rediscover its value.  Another takeaway is that we don’t serve ourselves by pushing away parts of who we are, and one of the most rewarding things we can do is make peace with the parts we find it hardest to deal with.

How about you?  What part of you have you been pushing away?  What could you do to integrate it back into your life?

Your Inner Productivity Questions Answered

As some of you know, I recently released a book called Inner Productivity: A Mindful Path to Efficiency and Enjoyment in Your Work.  While most productivity books are about techniques for rearranging your outer circumstances, like making to-do lists and organizing your inbox, Inner Productivity is about dealing with obstacles to getting work done that come from inside — the stray thoughts, difficult emotions, discomfort in the body, and so on that make it difficult to stay on task.

Inspired by mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga, Inner Productivity offers forms of visualization, movement, conscious breathing and more to help you find peace and focus in your work.  As Getting Things Done author David Allen puts it, Inner Productivity is “a useful guidebook for turning the daily grind into something much more interesting and engaging.”

Everyone’s mind and body is unique, and no two people seem to face exactly the same productivity challenges.  So, I think the best way to illustrate what the book has to offer is to show you how it applies to real-world problems people are dealing with.

In this post, I’ll open the floor to you to bring me the productivity issues you’ve been facing.  Whether it’s your pattern of procrastination, lack of inspiration in your work, anxiety about whether you’ve “got what it takes” to complete a project, or something else, I’d welcome an opportunity to work with you and illustrate how the techniques and perspectives in Inner Productivity can help you find efficiency and enjoyment in what you do.

So, I’m inviting you, in the comments to this post, to ask questions about the challenges you’ve been having.  Feel free to comment anonymously if you’d feel more comfortable that way.  I’m looking forward to talking with you.

Best,
Chris

Inner Productivity (My New Book) Is Now Available

innerproductivity

I’m excited to announce that my new book, Inner Productivity: A Mindful Path to Efficiency and Enjoyment in Your Work, is now available in both paperback and Kindle format.

The book is a compilation of the techniques and perspectives I’ve successfully used to help people find—you guessed it—efficiency and enjoyment in their work.   The book approaches productivity from a unique angle, using insights from psychology and mindfulness practice to help you stay focused and motivated.

I’ll say more about the book, and give you a taste of what others have said, in this post.  More information about the book, including videos and interviews, is also available on a separate site I’ve created.

About The Book

As I’m sure you know, it’s one thing to bone up on all the productivity “tips and tricks” out there—learning creative ways to make to-do lists, declutter your desk, hold shorter meetings, and so on.  It’s quite another to actually stick with those techniques and make them work for you.

A major reason for this is that productivity techniques usually don’t address the biggest obstacle to getting our work done:  our own minds.  If you find yourself mentally replaying an argument with your spouse, daydreaming about your next vacation, worrying about how big the bonus will be this year, and so on, simply knowing the latest “Top 100 PDA Hacks” won’t do much to keep you on task.

A Deeper Look At Procrastination

What’s really going on in moments when we find ourselves getting “off task”—becoming distracted or putting off your work?  In coaching individuals and groups on overcoming inner obstacles to productivity, what I’ve learned is that we often get off task because some inner experience—some thought or feeling—that we don’t want to be with is coming up.

Here’s a common example.  Suppose your boss assigns you a project, and you accept it but feel resentful that it wasn’t given to somebody else.  Naturally, as you do the project, you feel the resentment, which shows up as a tightness in your shoulders.  Because you don’t like that feeling, you distract yourself from it by checking e-mail, playing Minesweeper, or whatever your favorite procrastination technique happens to be.  Unfortunately, although you take your attention off the unwanted experience, you also get nothing done.

This is the “normal” reaction to uncomfortable inner experiences in our culture—procrastinate, take a drug to numb the feeling, go do something else, and so on.  In other words, we might say, we run away from ourselves.  The trouble is, of course, that we can’t get any work done while we’re fleeing from our inner experience.  And so we find ourselves spending large chunks of time accomplishing little, and feeling frustrated about it.

Accepting Your Inner Experience

Inner Productivity offers a different approach to dealing with these difficult inner experiences—allowing them to be, just as they are, without distracting yourself or pushing the experience away.  To understand what I mean, try this simple exercise.

The next time you’re working, and you start experiencing some uncomfortable thought or feeling, try breathing deeply, relaxing your body, and just letting the sensation move through you.  Where you would have run away from the sensation before, see if you can stay with it and welcome it for a little while.

What I think you’ll find is that the feeling actually passes away pretty quickly when you let it.  For instance, if you’re feeling resentful about working, and you breathe deeply and allow that tense sensation to simply move through you, it’s not like you’ll stay angry forever—the tension in your body will relax, leaving you in a calm and focused state.

The more you do this exercise, the more you’ll come to realize that the thought or sensation isn’t actually dangerous to you, and you don’t have to run away from it.  And when you understand, at a deep level, that you don’t have to flee from your inner experience, you become able to stay on task even in the face of intense sensations.  You become able to calmly respond “yes, I’m feeling angry or sad or afraid, and I’m going to continue with this project.”

The Yoga of Productivity

Yoga, one of the practices that inspired Inner Productivity, offers a good analogy.  People who are starting out doing yoga tend to assume that a pose is difficult because their bodies aren’t flexible enough to get into it.  But interestingly, surgeons have found that, under anesthesia, the human body can bend in all kinds of ways we’d usually see as impossible.

In other words, the problem often isn’t a lack of flexibility at all—it’s that we don’t want to be with the discomfort we feel while we’re doing the yoga pose.  But as we ease ourselves into the pose, and realize that the sensations we feel while doing it aren’t going to harm us, the pose starts to feel natural and even enjoyable.

We could think of the techniques in Inner Productivity like a form of yoga.  As with a difficult yoga pose, when we learn to accept, rather than flee from, the thoughts and sensations that come up as we work, working starts to feel more easy, natural and fun.  That’s what I want for you, and that’s why I wrote the book.

So, if you aren’t getting enough out of conventional productivity techniques, and you’re ready to take a deeper look at what’s really holding you back in your work, I think you’ll find Inner Productivity eye-opening and valuable.

What Others Have Said

I was amazed at the enthusiasm and generosity of the authors I asked to provide advance quotes for the book.  Here’s a sample:

“Chris Edgar has taken an exploratory dive into the procrastination pit and come up with a cogent explanation of this phenomenon as well as an elegant set of techniques to transcend it. It’s a great read and a useful guidebook for turning the daily grind into something much more interesting and engaging.”

David Allen, bestselling author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Inner Productivity will show you how to clear your inner clutter and create a pathway to success!”

Marshall Goldsmith, bestselling author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

“Real productivity doesn’t come from forced behaviors. Inner Productivity can help you connect with the inner state of being that can empower you to act in new ways, choose new perspectives and have a different experience. There is no greater productivity than connecting with your true self.”

Tama J. Kieves, bestselling author of This Time I Dance!: Creating the Work You Love (How One Harvard Lawyer Left It All to Have It All)

Inner Productivity is packed with practical examples of how to achieve greater results and peace of mind at work.”

Laura Stack, bestselling author of Leave the Office Earlier: The Productivity Pro Shows You How to Do More in Less Time . . . and Feel Great About It

“A wonderful guide for organizing both your physical and your head space.”

Peter Walsh, bestselling author of Enough Already!: Clearing Mental Clutter to Become the Best You

Order The Book

You can order the book in either paperback or Kindle format—I’ve posted the links below.  (Note:  If you see an “out of stock” notice on the Amazon page for the paperback, don’t worry, it’s still available — just click on the “2 new” link and order the book from “Cruzado Press.”)

Print Edition

Amazon Paperback

Kindle Edition

Amazon Kindle

I’ve also created a separate site with more information about the book, which you can view here.

Reviewers Wanted

I’m always interested in constructive feedback on my work.  If you’d be interested in reviewing my book on your blog, please let me know, and I can provide you a copy in paperback or electronic form.

The Trouble With Modesty

hidingface

One reason many of us are holding back from doing what we really want, in our work and elsewhere, is our desire to be “modest”—to avoid boasting, taking up too much space, and demanding too much attention.  Modesty is usually seen as a virtue—no one likes a bragger, and blessed are the meek, right?

But there’s an uncomfortable question we don’t often look at:  what really motivates us to be modest?  Is it just because we want to be virtuous people?  For a lot of us, in my experience, this isn’t the real reason.  Many of us, I think, act modestly because we think it will get us approval.  We want others to notice how humble and unassuming we are, and praise us for it.  “Look how quiet and well-behaved he or she is!” we want them to say.

There’s No “Modesty Medal”

Unfortunately, acting modestly doesn’t usually achieve this goal.  Because being modest means shunning the spotlight and downplaying ourselves, it’s actually a surefire way not to get noticed.  Nobody will notice the items we’re too modest to put on our resume, the product we’re too modest to advertise, or the article we’re too modest to publish.

The result, for many of us, is that we carry around a lot of resentment toward others for failing to notice us.  “Why won’t they use my services?” we wonder.  “Why didn’t I get the promotion?”  “Why didn’t she talk to me at the party?”  Often, we don’t even realize it’s actually our own efforts to stay invisible that keep others from seeing us, and the world starts to look like a bleak, neglectful place.

Muddling Through the Modesty Mire

Although we may understand how our modesty keeps us from achieving our goals, many of us still feel drawn to modest behavior because it just feels like “the right thing to do.”  We can start breaking with this conditioning, I think, by seeing that we probably took on our “modest” behaviors in response to much earlier circumstances in our lives.

For instance, some of us grew up in families where children were expected to be “seen but not heard,” and got punished for making noise or expressing an opinion.  Or maybe we were put in charge of caring for an ailing parent or relative, and we were expected to put our attention on them instead of ourselves.  In these situations, it makes perfect sense to avoid “tooting your own horn” if you want to be appreciated and stay safe.

Hiding out like this can become so habitual that we start mistaking it for our identity, as opposed to just a strategy for getting by when we were young.  When this happens, being “humble” no longer feels like a choice, because it seems like just part of who we are.  But the more we get conscious of why we decided to be modest, and recognize that the situations we were reacting to don’t exist anymore, the easier it becomes to let our light shine—to tell others about the projects we’re up to, meet new people, and otherwise go for what we want.

Many of us who are accustomed to acting modestly assume that, if we stopped holding back, the only other option would be to belittle or try to outshine others.  I worried about this myself as I worked on letting go of some of my own “modest” behaviors.

But in fact, stepping into the spotlight more often in my life has helped me let go of a lot of anger.  I stopped feeling so slighted by people who “ignored me” when I recognized I was actually in charge of how much recognition I got.  In other words, I live in a world that will see me if I’m willing to be seen.

How does this resonate with you?  I’m looking forward to hearing.

Link Love:  I thought about Tom Volkar when I was writing this—he often writes about making sure not to sell yourself short in your business life—so it feels natural to link to him here.  Tom coaches entrepreneurs in transitioning into self-employment, and his blog posts will definitely help kick you into gear, no matter where you’re at in your career journey.

You Don’t “Have To” Do Anything

getty_finger_pointing

One thing I’ve learned about blogging is that, whenever I tell myself I “have to” write another blog post, that’s basically a surefire guarantee that I won’t finish one that day.  Or, maybe I’ll end up churning out something that feels second-rate to me.  Whatever happens, I probably won’t be happy with the end result.

I wondered for a while why this seemed to be true.  One day, when I caught myself thinking “it’s about time I wrote something new,” I noticed my neck and shoulders tensing up in response.  It was as if an angry two-year-old inside me was insisting “I won’t!” in response to a parent’s command.  No wonder my writing turned sluggish and frustrating when my body was so uncomfortable.

As it turns out, many psychologists have come to the same conclusion—when you tell yourself you “must,” “should,” or “have to” do something, you’re going to create resistance inside.  Marshall Rosenberg puts this well in Nonviolent Communication:  “human beings, when hearing any kind of demand, tend to resist because it threatens our autonomy—our strong need for choice.  We have this reaction to tyranny even when it’s internal tyranny in the form of a ‘should.’”

Recognizing Your Choice

I do my best work, I’ve found, when I keep in mind that I always have a choice about whether to write or not.  There’s no rule or law that says I have to write.  If I wanted to, I could choose never to write another article.  As important as I sometimes make myself out to be, the universe would probably survive, and I’d find other things to do with my time.  When I come to my work with this no-pressure attitude, I get the most done and have the most fun doing it.

Some people I’ve told about this have been skeptical.  “If I didn’t tell myself I have to go to work, I wouldn’t go,” one of my friends insisted.  This is a common attitude—that if we didn’t punish or threaten ourselves into working, we’d never accomplish anything.  Somewhere along the line—probably when we were kids—many of us learned that we’re basically lazy and we need a firm hand to push us where we’re “supposed” to go.

And I think there’s another fear lurking beneath this habit of ordering ourselves around—the fear of being overwhelmed with options.  For instance, if my friend stopped commanding himself to go into the office every day, and acknowledged he has a choice in every moment about what to do with his time, he might start thinking about all the possible things he can do with his life—from trapeze artist to termite rancher.  It can be dizzying to realize how much freedom we really have.

You “Have To” Try This

Adopting a no-pressure attitude to motivate yourself may be against the conventional wisdom, but if you try it I think you’ll experience how liberating it can be.

A useful exercise you can do to see this for yourself is to watch for a moment in your daily life when you start telling yourself you “have to” do something—whether it’s washing the car, typing that presentation, calling your friend, or whatever else.  Check in with your body, and notice what sensations are coming up—how do you feel inside when you order yourself around like that?

Now, take a moment and acknowledge that you don’t “have to” do it at all, and that it’s actually up to you.  Say to yourself, inside or out loud, “I can choose whether to do this.”  Watch how your body responds to recognizing your freedom.

What I think you’ll notice is that, when you acknowledge your power to choose, your body actually relaxes, and it’s much easier to focus in this calmer state.

Link LoveEvan Hadkins writes insightfully and provocatively about psychology, health, politics, and the proverbial “much, much more.”  You may also want to check out my interview with Evan about his book, Living Authentically.  It’s got real depth and definitely isn’t your average “book promo piece.”