I fell in love with a running trail. It’s shady and cool, even on the most relentlessly sunny days. There’s a creek to cross by jumping across rocks. The trail changes from gravel to sand to stone and back again, and the hills are a good challenge. Chubby California voles scurry around, and on two occasions, I even saw them swimming in the creek. You might be all, “Ew! Rodents!” but they look like tiny teddy bears and watching them swim seemed magical. Every trail run felt like the kind of adventure I dreamed about as a little kid.
Once I found that trail, I never had a problem drumming up the motivation to go running. I had a problem with running too much, putting in miles and miles while the laundry piled up at home, and the grocery situation left me wondering if mustard soup might be good.
Unfortunately, a particularly unnerving encounter with a rattlesnake made me realize that when I’m running solo I need a running route with more people and/or better cell phone coverage.
I abandoned my beloved trail and began running on goose-poop covered pavement at a loud, busy park. Even though I know running makes my brain a nicer place, it stopped feeling like something I wanted to do, and turned into a chore. I was still putting in my miles, but I dragged my feet about getting myself out the door in the morning, and my running procrastination was starting to mess with my schedule. I worried running could quickly turn into something I used to do. I thought the physical and mental health benefits I get from running should be motivation enough, and I was disappointed in myself for losing steam.
I’ve been listening to EMOTIONAL AGILITY: GET UNSTUCK, EMBRACE CHANGE, AND THRIVE IN WORK AND LIFE, by Susan David, PhD, and happened to hit the chapter on motivation right when I needed it most.
David talks about the difference in productivity and motivation in the face of what we want to do vs. what we feel like we should do. She says when we’re “compelled by a wagging finger, instead of a willing heart, we end up in an internal tug of war between good intentions and less than stellar execution, even when the end goals…are supposedly in line with our values.”*
David explains that the tug of war is like an argument between two parts of our brain. But, she says, “We can position our goals in terms of what we want to do, as opposed to what we have to or should. When we tweak our motivation in this way, we don’t have to worry about which part of us prevails – our passion or our intellect – because our whole self is working in harmony.”*
It’s probably not news to anyone that we like to do the things we like to do. But having the struggle of shoulds presented as human nature, not personal failing, triggered a huge shift in perspective for me. We all have a hard time with should! All of us! It’s not just you! It’s not just me! It’s human nature!
When I listened to that chapter, I immediately thought about writing. If you love writing, I’m sure you’ve felt those moments of harmony when the words flow almost effortlessly. But I’m also sure you’ve had times when writing feels like trying to swim in library paste.
I highly suspect that a certain strain of writer’s block is a build up of shoulds. Writing a novel takes a really long time, and in that span we’re walking around like should collectors, highly susceptible to turning our joy of creation into a task we cannot possibly complete fast enough. Well-meaning friends and family ask “Are you done yet?” or say they can’t wait to read the book when it’s finished, and then, when we’re back at our computers, the word count that seemed respectable before looks piddling in the face of done. Or we sink our motivation entirely on our own by pinning expectations and hopes and dreams to the finish line, but we have to get the writing done to get there. It’s easy to do, and it’s a tricky thing to shake.
Earlier this week, I got to put this theory to the test, when I caught myself dragging my feet about sitting down to write. I felt like the project I’m working on should be going faster. I had expectations attached to the finish line. But the day before I’d hit a snag with a scene I couldn’t quite visualize yet. I’d deleted almost as much as I’d written, and gotten antsy from sitting so long without any real progress. Doing that all over again wasn’t appealing, and the more I put off my writing time, the worse the finger-wagging got in my brain. I felt slow and stressed, and the idea of even opening my computer became completely unappealing.
Finally, instead of calling the day a wash like I might have before, I took a step back and thought about how I could tweak my motivation from should to want. There was a super fun scene further down my outline that I was excited to write. I let myself skip ahead, stopped thinking about the finish line, and focused only on that scene. Suddenly, the joy was back. I wrote with an ease similar to the feeling of running on my favorite trail. In the glow of that ease, I re-affirmed my love for the project, and my belief in my ability to write it. When I finished that scene, I wanted to tackle the scene that had been giving me problems. Once I wanted to, it was a much easier task. I only had to manage the problems of the scene, not the problems of myself AND the problems of the scene.
I’ve decided to keep an eye out for should-creep, and wagging fingers, and do the best I can to protect and nurture the want. I’m hoping it will give me more writing time with words that come easy and work that feels joyful.
As for running, I started a search for a new trail. I found one that’s busy enough (but not too busy) with a clear cell signal, and long stretches of shade. It’s paved, but clean. The hills are super fun, and the view is spectacular. I can’t wait to go back.
Do you struggle with writing shoulds? Have you found good ways to tweak your motivation?
*Transcribed from the audio version. Punctuation is based on my interpretation, not the actual text.
About Allie Larkin
Allie Larkin is the internationally bestselling author of the novel Stay (2010), and Why Can't I Be You (2013). She has never ordered a dog off the internet or assumed a new identity to attend a high school reunion. Allie lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, Jeremy, and their German Shepherd, Stella.
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