Success comes, when it comes at all, from self-motivation. We can reason this from our armchairs: if you take all your cues from the people around you, you’ll never go anywhere they don’t go. If you want to achieve something that most people don’t, you need to listen to your own drives – or, at the very least, the drives of a smaller, weirder set of peers. Fortunately, the Internet’s made it easier to find small, weird sets of peers, so we live in a blessed age.
The problem with driving yourself relentlessly, though, is that there’s always something else you could be doing. You may be exhausted, stressed, hungry, and confused, but your mind will continue to toss out anxious reminders like scraps to a dog: what about that project at work? When’s the last time you went to the gym? Shouldn’t you be writing more? Aren’t you overdue for a teeth cleaning? Have you done something nice for your spouse recently? Is there time this weekend to get the car looked at? And on, and on.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with hearing these voices, or even listening to them. The problem is giving them too much weight. When every voice you hear in a day is critical – you’re not doing enough; you forgot something; you’re falling behind – it’s easy to believe you’re a failure. And why wouldn’t you believe that? Look at all the things you haven’t done! Your checklist is concrete evidence of your shortcomings.
Thankfully, there’s an easy solution: do way less, live a forgettable life, and dig out your posterior cingulate cortex with a nut pick.
You can recognize that the part of your brain that thinks you need to do more is not the part of your brain that remembers your accomplishments. Literally – they’re entirely different! One’s over here; the other’s, like, way over there. So the “you” that’s telling you you’re not doing enough is not the same “you” that’s telling you hey, nice work. Listening to one part of your brain and ignoring the other is like hanging out with your snarky critical friends at the expense of your best supporters.
You can recognize that wants are infinite and resources are scarce, the one axiom that every economist in the world agrees on. You will always want to do more than you’re currently doing. The mind can imagine limitless things; the world can only supply so much. Even if we reach a Star Trek future where hot Earl Grey is no more than a voice command away, we will never escape the limiting factors of time and decision-making capacity (which is a whole other part of the mind). So take your unfinished To-Do list as an inevitability, not a judgment.
Finally, you can take a break. I don’t mean burying your head in the covers and hiding from the world in depressive panic; those kind of rests aren’t restful. I mean stopping, catching your breath, and recognizing that your worth as a human being doesn’t hinge on completing a checklist that will never stop growing. If the things that you want to do – work, write, exercise, socialize – are of value, then they merit your best effort, and limping through the day in exhaustion ain’t it. Stop. Breathe. Recharge.
I promise you: with the right mix of patience, persistence, rest, and vision, you can get some pretty crazy things done.
(photo c/o Tony Hu, 2014)