Climbing Mountains for Fun
Here we are. Almost three weeks into the new year. At this point, I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing a dip in energy when it comes to new years resolutions. Any time we try to make a change or stick to a discipline, the energy is highest at the beginning. Inevitably, that initial energy will fade. Real life sneaks in and disrupts our well-planned resolutions, or we get stuck and can’t make progress. Everything feels harder than it did a few weeks ago when we had the clarity of a new year.
This is when work ethic habits kick in. “Just keep going. Do it even though it’s not fun.” It’s also when guilt and fear kick in. Guilt about the possibility of not following through on the plan, and fear that we won’t get back on track again. The body tells us to rest, but the brain tells us to work through the exhaustion and boredom. Another voice in the head really is trying to sabotage us and tells us to listen to our bodies and stop working in order to stop us from doing the things that matter to us. Meanwhile we’re in the middle trying to decide what to do about it all. It’s madness.
I don’t have a clear answer for the best way to handle this. When it comes to the creative process, two opposite and contradictory approaches are often equally true. But here are a few thoughts I’ve been playing around with to handle these dips in energy.
Everything in the universe goes through cycles. Cycles of high energy and low energy. Cycles of change and stability. Cycles of focus and distraction. We’re no different, but most of the time we are trying to force fit ourselves into a mode that we aren’t in, and that causes trouble.
The purpose of these modes is to offer a selection of alternatives when one strategy isn’t working. Rather than beating my head against the wall because I’m trying to be social when I’d rather just organize my finances, these modes allow me to switch to the circumstances, and be productive within the mode that I’m currently in.
If you’re feeling stuck, switch modes. Try another head.
There are two key ideas here. The first is to recognize that different times have different levels of quality. Not every moment can be a high energy, high focus time. During the low energy, tired times, a common response is to fight it, to deny it and push through the lack of energy. Sometimes this is helpful for pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, but that kind of stubbornness can also lead to burnout and a bigger crash later.
The second key idea is that since you know there will be low quality times, you can plan ahead for them. Have a number of different things you can do during those times that are still related to your interests or healthy for you. Having a variety of options gives you the benefit of making sure you always have something to do that supports the spirit your overall goal or resolution even if it’s not directly related. Drinking water and eating good food when you’re worn out will help you get back into high quality times more easily.
If you’re stuck on a project or a problem, this can also help you get unstuck. Sometimes the best way to make progress on something is to stop doing it for a while. Doing something else can give you new energy and interest and take your mind off of the thing that has now become somewhat dull and tedious. That energy can then be used to renew the original interest.
Last week I was feeling bored and frustrated with writing, so I decided to take a break and draw instead, something that I hadn’t focused on in a couple days. And, oh man, the change in energy level was immediate. My interest levels spiked, I felt much better, and I could return to writing later with a fresh perspective.
Creativity is a cycle of energy, of fallow periods and harvest periods. There’s always work to do at each point of the cycle, but you can’t harvest when the ground is replenishing its nutrients.
Another common myth is that you’ll get more done if you pick one problem and focus on it exclusively. I find this is hardly ever true. Just this moment for example, I’m trying to fix my posture, exercise some muscles, drink some fluids, clean off my desk, IM with my brother, and write this essay. Over the course the day, I’ve worked on this essay, read a book, had some food, answered some email, chatted with friends, done some shopping, worked on a couple other essays, backed up my hard drive, and organized my book list. In the past week I’ve worked on several different software projects, read several different books, studied a couple different programming languages, moved some of my stuff, and so on.
Having a lot of different projects gives you work for different qualities of time. Plus, you’ll have other things to work on if you get stuck or bored (and that can give your mind time to unstick yourself).
Of course, in order to be flexible and switch modes to fit your current time quality and energy levels, you first have to be able to notice what your energy level really is. As I mentioned earlier, we get a lot of conflicting messages from our minds and bodies. We need to have some way to first of all actually notice the different messages, and then to sort them out and decide which one is the right one to listen to.
Aaron Swartz has some advice for us here:
If you’re trying to do something worthwhile and creative, then shutting down your brain is entirely the wrong way to go. The real secret to productivity is the reverse: to listen to your body. To eat when you’re hungry, to sleep when you’re tired, to take a break when you’re bored, to work on projects that seem fun and interesting.
Often I get into this mode where I’m going so fast and trying to get stuff done that I can’t even notice all of my thoughts and emotions. When I get into this mode, the best thing for me to do is to slow down, listen, and just stay in one place for a while.
There are a number of ways to slow down. Drinking a cup of tea and sitting and doing nothing else. Practicing mindfulness and meditation with Headspace or just on your own. Writing down your thoughts for ten minutes or so1.
When I stay still, eventually my thoughts start to slow down as well. Once they do that, the ones that aren’t true or helpful tend to fade away, and it’s easier to know what I really need in that moment. If it’s a moment where I need to rest, I can let go of the unnecessary drive to get more done and the guilt that I’m not being productive. If it’s a moment where I’m just being lazy and actually have the energy to get up and do something, I can let go of my addiction to being comfortable and go start spending quality time with something that I love.
Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow.
—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The thing is, the work we’re doing for our goals and resolutions isn’t like other kinds of work. It’s most likely something we really care about—something that we are internally motivated to do. So it requires discipline to stick with it, but it also isn’t guided by the idea that we have to go against our nature and be miserable in order to work. It fits into this weird space between work and play, discipline and improvisation.
If something becomes boring or uninteresting, sometimes we just need to change part of it to make it fun again. Or do something else that’s catches our curiosity and excitement for a while until we can come back to it with fresh eyes. No one is making us do this except ourselves. Working on it should be enjoyable because it’s something we wanted to do in the first place, and if it’s not, it’s okay to change things up and try a new approach.
Hard work isn’t supposed to be pleasant, we’re told. But in fact it’s probably the most enjoyable thing I do. Not only does a tough problem completely absorb you while you’re trying to solve it, but afterwards you feel wonderful having accomplished something so serious.
So the secret to getting yourself to do something is not to convince yourself you have to do it, but to convince yourself that it’s fun. And if it isn’t, then you need to make it fun.
I think there are about a million ways to respond to the inevitable dip in energy that comes when we’re trying to stick to a resolution, make a new habit, or do our own work. But being flexible with cycles of high and low energy, taking the time to slow down and notice what’s really going on inside and around me, and following my curiosity and excitement when things get dull are some of the best ways I’ve found to keep moving when things get hard. We might be climbing a mountain, but we can at least have fun doing it.