Why I Can’t Relate to Most Motivational/Organizational Writing

This is a bit of a companion piece to my previous post on akrasia and anxiety. To start, I want to say that I’ve done a lot of reading about how to motivate yourself and how to organize your life. I’ve read Getting Things Done, I’ve read Leo Babauta’s blogs, I skim Lifehacker and the like pretty regularly, and a number of other things off and on over the years. I read a lot about this topic because learning how to organize myself and establish good habits is one of the three reasons, along with therapy and the pills I take twice a day, why I’m even as functional as I am.

The problem I sometimes have, though, when reading about changing habits and organization is the underlying current of “you have to fight your own laziness” or “you naturally don’t want to do hard things” or “you need to push past your comfort zone” and I can never relate to that. An example would be Babauta’s most recent post, and I want to be clear that I’m not taking a swing at him or anyone else who does this kind of writing because my point is merely that I often don’t relate to what’s described. I don’t have a comfort zone. If anything, being in my comfort zone would mean dreamless cryogenic sleep on a space-station far away from humanity.

This isn’t an attempt to whinge, but rather articulate what I’m sure a lot of severely mentally ill people can relate to: I don’t know what it’s like to take it easy, or to be comfortable, or to not struggle hard every day. Part of the reason why I’ve been posting what I have about my own attempts to stay organized and motivated is that I just haven’t seen a lot of ink spilled on what it’s like to do these things while having to work with your own mental health.

I almost said “fight against your own mental health”, but that’s really the problem I have with a lot of writing in the life-management genre: it sets an adversarial relationship between your goals and your brain’s tendencies. It reminds me a lot of my experiences with Christian culture, where the spirit is pitted against the flesh. I don’t see it that way, though, I think for those of us who are very mentally ill we have to learn to work with how our brains function. My panic attacks, anxieties, even periods of suicidality are, in a sense, rational responses to what are irrational perceptions and circumstances. My problem isn’t that I don’t know how to push myself, but that I don’t know how to take care of myself. I’ve gotten so used to pushing myself every day that I can’t tell the difference between when it’s healthy to do so and when it’s not.

Ultimately, my brain isn’t going to magically become neurotypical any day in the near future. I also don’t, as cheesy as it may sound, give up on all my dreams and ambitions. That means I have to find ways to cope with the way my brain is, rather than simply pretend that these disabilities aren’t there. That’s what I want to read more of: people discussing how they cope, not how they fight themselves.

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5 thoughts on “Why I Can’t Relate to Most Motivational/Organizational Writing

  1. One: “I don’t have a comfort zone.” —::nods::

    Two: “My problem isn’t that I don’t know how to push myself, but that I don’t know how to take care of myself.” —This.

    Three: I’m one of those people —at least, I assume there’re others like me— who enjoys pushing herself. I naturally want to do hard things. I am constantly pushing my limits and overstepping the bounds of my competence. A lot of motivational types talk about this with terms like “intentional practice” and present it as the grail of badassitude. But for me, it’s just who I am. Perhaps I am badass. (People tell me so; e.g., a friend once described “what I do” as the superset of her and her husband’s fields.) Certainly I am someone who gets bored. Sticking within the confines of what I know I am capable of, like being locked in a featureless white room, makes me want to scream. This, in turn, is pretty damn demotivating. Certainly I am someone who gets tired. Pushing one’s limits is exhausting, and pushing them constantly… for some reason means you’ll be called “lazy”… —no doubt, for the same reason spoonies are called “lazy”: an unwillingness or incapacity for recognizing the struggles of lives other than one’s own; also that damnable protestant “work” ethic.

    Soo… yeah. Most motivational/organizational stuff doesn’t work for me, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. At the very least, the bit about getting tired will be shared by other spoonies— be be their troubles because of psychological concerns, chronic health issues, or just plain being marginalized. I’ve always gotten the distinct feeling that motiv/org speakers are only interested in helping sane white middle-class men, with a handful of “specialty” speakers who target upper/middle-class baby-boomer white women. I would love to find some decent motiv/org for folks with severe MI. Now that would be badass.

    Four: “That’s what I want to read more of: people discussing how they cope, not how they fight themselves.” —yes, please.

    • about your point three: yeah, my main problem is learning when to not push myself. I tend to run on all cylinders juggling dozens of ideas and ambitions at once until I crash, have a psychotic break, and then lose a lot of the pieces.

  2. I like this post. =) I’ve been moving away from the adversarial relationships that productivity/time management literature tends to set up: the elephant and the driver, the id and the superego. Instead of whipping myself onward with invented deadlines and challenges, I’d rather observe and embrace the way my mind works. Yes, it flits about from topic to topic. Yes, I drop and pick up interests. I don’t like committing to things in advance, and I don’t like working on the same thing for a long time. I’ve learned that means I need to take lots of notes, and I need to keep those notes somewhere publicly searchable (so that even if I totally forget, other people can remember and get value from it). I’ve learned that I’m a tiny-steps sort of person rather than a giant-leaps-of-willpower sort of person, and that I do better when I mentally hug myself after I mess up and focus on how to do things a teensy bit better than if I try to shame myself into doing better. Along the way, I end up accumulating thse totally idiosyncratic way of doing things.

    I still read productivity books, but mostly to peek into the brains of other people who have thought about and developed their own elaborate systems for keeping track of stuff. Sometimes I pick up ideas that I can try out and maybe incorporate into the way I do things. =)

    I’m privileged in that I have a comfort zone and the space and time to work outwards from it, so I’m not sure if sharing this experience helps as much–but it was useful to me to figure out how to read those self-help books more as “This is how these authors hacked together something that works for their brains/lives” rather than “This is how you should do things, and if you do things this way, it will be better”.

  3. Pingback: Weekly review: Week ending August 29, 2014 - sacha chua :: living an awesome life

  4. Hi! I found your blog via the Open Source Bridge talk, and wanted to say that I really respect your openness and the perseverance you demonstrate here, as well as the online privacy stuff I first saw.

    When I saw you writing about organization stuff, I wanted to read that, because I need that too. For a compassionate approach to productivity, I highly recommend Hillary Rettig’s 7 Secrets of the Prolific: http://www.hillaryrettig.com/shop/ I also got some over-the-phone writing coaching from her while finishing my dissertation, and it was extremely helpful.

    Good luck as you move forward, and thanks for sharing what works for you!

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