What to Do When You Don’t Want to Work?
I have put my computer aside more than once to cry over an unjust email or to get my fair share in a fight with my partner or another close friend.
I have had bad days. I have sometimes taken off on those hard days. Instead of writing, I went out on a drive and bought tiger prawns or cried and slept or read Charles Darwin while drowning myself in chamomile tea.
These bouts of sulking in my misery or fighting followed by pampering and sometimes spending time with the other fighter of the duel leading to exhilaration and then to that moment of clarity where I justified the time spent crying as just another day lived and felt that life was as clear as a night sky have sometimes lasted for an hour and up to a day or even more.
One young summer of my life, I was living in Himachal, the home of the Himalayas. While learning the flute, practicing yoga, working on my blog, and trying to stick to Vipassana meditation techniques, I didn’t realize that I had buried myself under a lot of pressure to be the perfect Bohemian. Ironically, I was on a laid-back mountain staycation.
One Friday, my abuse of self-expectations pushed me to the abysmal depths of moroseness. I didn’t even want to lift my feet to walk to the bathroom. I spent two to three days lying in bed and weeping and sleeping and avoiding everyone and then hiking to a mountain alone.
In the two days of nothingness, I ignored all work, didn’t practice the flute, and put the yoga and meditation aside for wiser people. And on the third day of the rendezvous, I hung out with my travel friends and chatted away in the sun while eating palak paneer with garlic naan.
I needed that break because I had tired myself while learning new skills and working continuously in a new environment for almost a month. I needed to relax. I needed to just be.
The break from the routine did me good.
But when I am neither overworked nor under any kind of pressure and still spend hours or days brooding about how I don’t want to work today or do anything else, I try to correct myself.
I say, hey, this time will never come back. You should use it well. Don’t be sad. Smile and chirp.
To manifest my ideas about how to get motivated to work and laugh, I have even written an article on how to make the most of the bad days. In the piece, I emphasize why we should get out of bed even when we don’t want to — we should acknowledge our feelings first, and meditate or read or do something else we enjoy and then slowly get back to work if we can.
I may sound like someone who expects life to be as perfect as an abstract Turing Machine.
Or to some of you, I will appear like a mature person trying to channel her emotions and downfalls so that she can pick up herself faster than before.
Well, I don’t want to stay fallen on the floor. Do you?
I love the idea of working even when we don’t feel like working to get our energy back. Working towards our goals irrespective of how we feel doesn’t signify that we are insensitive but shows that we are professionals who deliver what the world is waiting upon us for.
If you don’t go to work, maybe your presentation would get delayed and no one else would be able to step in your shoes. Or you might lose the opportunity of getting the project lead position because you didn’t take leadership initiatives. That conversation thread with a potential client might die for you didn’t follow up with your portfolio. If I don’t do anything for a few days at a stretch, not only would I feel a void, but my blog readers and clients wouldn’t be happy either.
We don’t always have to perform, but a continuous slack in our work attitude will show.
Or, instead of either moping or working, I would rather enjoy my time. Won’t we all? I would go out and buy more tiger prawns and cook them with bottle gourd. Or I will go cycling with a friend and revel in the fresh air.
Roaming around free on one or more bad days sounds better than working, especially when we don’t have the motivation to go to work.
But truth be told, our mind doesn’t let us tame it that easily.
Work Usually Disengages Us from Bad Thoughts And Helps Us Look at Our Problem in a New Light
If I don’t engage in an activity that grips my attention, I keep revisiting the micro-nuisances of my otherwise beautiful life.
I would be putting the scrabble alphabets together but crying intermittently about how the real estate agent was an incorrigible male-chauvinist unable to move on. But when I write, I am able to layout my emotions through my words (or any other work) in a wholesome way rather than mulling over them in my mind.
Though the healing process could be different for everyone, most of us need something more capturing than entertainment to direct our thoughts.
Mark McGuinness, a coach for creative professionals, said in the book Manage Your Day to Day, “Treat your work as a refuge — an oasis of control and creative satisfaction in the midst of the bad stuff. Don’t beat yourself up if you are not on fire creatively every day — give yourself credit if you show up for work and make even a small amount of progress. When you put down your tools for the day you may even see your personal situation with a fresh eye.”
The above lines are true not only for creative people but for most of us. When we divert our attention from personal issues to our profession, we would not only progress on the work front but we may end up understanding our issues better.
How many times has it happened with you that while going through incessant meetings you forgot about that morning quarrel with your partner or an investment gone wrong? And when you do shake up work and drive back home, you realize how stupid the fight was or that one investment is bound to go bad in ten years of financial planning.
By dumping our energy into work we put ourselves into the driver’s seat of our life. We feel in control, at least professionally. Though our day might have started with an unexpected emotional speed breaker, we drive through the valley of work almost smoothly. Even if the drive isn’t that easy, the motion sets us for progress.
We should keep walking to become who we can in spite of the suffering, Nietzsche said. Or in other words, pain doesn’t mean that we should stop.
If you hate going to work or just do it for the money, you might find it harder to use task lists as a distraction. In such cases, I suggest you read these three pieces in which I talk about changing careers, finding passion, and how to build a career we love when we can’t find passion.
But if you enjoy even some aspects of your work, chances are that you will be happier doing it and moving on rather than just sulking. Your service would be your anchor to positivity and growth.
When I immerse myself in editing a piece or scheduling Pinterest, I stay on the top of my work deliverables. Personal thoughts still come and go but rather than becoming the main thread of my brain they spawn on the side randomly. My work doesn’t let these unwanted notions take the full processing power of my brain, the unsettling threads die hungry, and I continue writing and researching about ancient caves and Marketing Analytics methods for dependent clients.
I have also often seen that while I work the things that have been bothering me keep untangling themselves in the background. And I feel a growth, both, personally and professionally.
“Depth of style can only spring from a deepening of our emotional life.” The greatest artist N. C. Wyeth once wrote in a letter to his youngest son Andrew Wyeth (Courtesy the book Posterity).
But if I was playing scrabble, the troublemakers would have overpowered the less-demanding gaming brain threads, and instead of winning with words such as conscientious and concomitant, I would be loosing with lost and found. I would be playing to beat my partner but my chain of thoughts would be, in turn, defeating me.
Work helps us channelize our thoughts, gives us control, and allows us to look at our problem in a new light, all three contributions are helpful when our emotions might otherwise drown us.
Our focus on work shouldn’t be deterred by our mood for another big reason.
Emotions Are Fleeting
How we feel change more often than we think — our emotions are not created just by our inner bodily reactions but also by our surroundings — an idea extensively discussed in the book How Emotions Are Made, by the famous psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett. A sunny morning invokes a gush of positivity but a dark evening brings along the clouds of doubt.
We never feel the same all the days of the week. We don’t even feel the same throughout a twenty-four-hour day.
As we are constantly faced with volatile emotions, we cannot depend on them to guide our mood, our professions, and thus our lives.
Working Hard Implies More Skills = More Fun at Work And Less Hesitation
We can neither resolve our doubts nor our problems by sitting on our hands. But by working even during hard times, we would not only direct our energy but also get better at our job, while feeling more in control. And when we are more skilled we enjoy our work more and are less hesitant to do what we do even when we are not motivated to work.
As Cal Newport writes in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, forcing the skills to come is the hardest phase. And then he shares the story of a bluegrass musician who plays 3-4 hours straight for a month to master a new fast tune.
A study conducted at Yale University proved that the more time we spend at work, the better we get, and the more we enjoy it. (I have written more about what makes for a good career in this article about following our curiosity rather than chasing the passion.)
Self-Determination Theory (SDT) also tells us that we need competence, the feeling that we are good at what we do, and autonomy, control over our day, to feel intrinsically motivated for our work.
To digest the idea of working to feel better, think of the difference between learning to swim and then swimming to relax. While we learn, we almost want to skip the lesson every day. But once you know the strokes, swimming is fun and helps us feel better.
“Life is or should be full of doing things you would prefer not to do,” John O’Hara wrote in a letter to his daughter, Wylie O’Hara. O’Hara was a popular and successful writer and his commitment to writing was at the peak even at the peak of his career. (Courtesy Posterity)
How to Motivate Yourself to Work When You Don’t Feel Like Working?
As I said in a piece on creative rituals, I let my mood expire.
Instead of deciding whether we should go to work or not, we should just work. We can take the day slow, do some self-care, and then head out to work irrespective of our mood. It is like any other day but we would be easier on ourselves. Rather than criticizing ourselves about our emotional turmoil, we should pat ourselves on the back for going through the tough times like a warrior.
The trick is to not think of work as an enemy but to perceive work as a savior. Something that anchors us. That holds our hand when we are falling. When we feel bad about everything or our heart is broken or we are facing a financial problem, we can still pick up that pencil or pen or get on a project that can add value to not only ours but others’ lives too.
Steven Pressfield, the author of The War of Art and Turning Pro, said in the parting away notes of the book Manage Your Day to Day about which I have talked above and which has inspired me to write this article,
“What is a professional, anyway? A professional is someone who can keep working at a high level of effort and ethics, no matter what is going on — for good or ill — around him or inside him. A professional shows up every day. A professional plays hurt. A professional takes neither success nor failure personally.”
He adds, “In the end, for me, it comes down to the work itself. A pro gets younger and more innocent as he or she ascends through the levels. It’s a paradox. We get salty and cynical, but we creep closer, too, to the wonder. You have to or you can’t keep going. Any other motivation will burn you out. You develop a practice, and the practice gets simpler and less self-oriented over time. We rise through the levels of professionalism by a process of surrender. We surrender to our gift, whatever that may be. We give ourselves up to the goddess and to the process.”
And then he ends his thought with a rhetorical question, “Is this a path you want to travel? Did someone say it was easy? Do you have a choice?”
But it is easier said than done.
When I am sad or feeling low, I still spend a couple of hours agonizing here and there but then I also look forward to opening an empty document and writing. Or I do some other admin work. Or something else. Or something else.
Slowly I forget about the problem and the dark clouds and the inconvenient conversations for I have submerged myself in the fictional world of words.
No matter what profession we are in, we all have our fictional worlds. We just have to get inside them.
When you get into the habit of embracing work rather than pushing it away in hard times, you will be able to surrender to it when you need the distraction the most. And if you practice enough, the distraction would have taken its own independent form. It would have become something larger than life. It would become your gift.
Try working when you don’t feel like it. It isn’t as bad as it seems.
Or to say,
“When the fields get sodden, let’s not retreat to our homes. Let us put ourselves in the yoke. Let us pull harder. Let us sow. Come rain or thunder, we tend. Finally, we reap. And we see that the rain doesn’t make us sickly cold and the process doesn’t hurt us. But these are the things that keep us sane.”
If you want to know what really matters, read this: 30 Life Lessons I Grasped From My Twenties