I recently wrote that if I had to feel motivated to start a workout I would have done 23 workouts last year, not 230. If I had to feel inspired to start writing, well, there’d be hardly any writing. If you want to stop 20 minutes in, fine. But give yourself a chance.
You often hear platitudes like the above (guilty as charged) in relation to concrete tasks or activities. But, to a large extent, the same theme holds true for all of life. There are highs and lows, periods of energy and periods of exhaustion. Sometimes all you can do is nudge yourself to show up and get started, even, and perhaps especially, when you don’t feel like it.
With years of COVID pandemic under our belt, lots of people are feeling tired, if not physically than mentally and emotionally. Psychologists call this languishing, “a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. Languishing might be the dominant emotion of 2021,” writes Adam Grant.
Sometimes you actually need rest. Your mind and body are truly tired. Shutting it down makes sense. But other times you may just be in a rut, your mind and body basically tricking you into feeling fatigued all the time. The latter calls for nudging yourself in the direction of action, not taking the sensation of exhaustion too seriously but, rather, working your way out. This is easy enough when it comes to working out or writing. But what about when the feeling of blah is hanging over your life more broadly? What about when you’re languishing? How do you “just get started” on an endeavor as broad as life?
Here, the work of the psychologist Steven Hayes, who developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, is instructive. Hayes’s whole program, backed by over a thousand scientific studies, points toward defining your core values, or the stuff that matters most to you, and then showing up in service of those values day in and day out. His approach is simple, but not easy.
My coaching clients and I operationalize core values in the following way: First, we select them—no more than five, no fewer than three. Next, we define each value in a way that is personalized. Then, and this part is the key, we come up with concrete practices for each value. Presence could mean meditation for 15 minutes Monday thru Saturday. Love could mean no digital devices on or nearby during dinner with one’s partner. Health could mean 30 minutes of movement every day. Intellect could mean reading for at least 40 minutes four days a week. And so on. It is a process that takes you from your highest ideals down to how you spend the minutes of your day. From lofty nouns to tangible, if not measurable, verbs.
Doing core values work is powerful because it gets you somewhere close to the equivalent of “just showing up” to workout or write. You don’t have to feel like getting out of bed. You don’t have to want to get dressed or shower. You may not be energized to go to church or temple or sangha or the neighborhood book club. That’s okay. You need only look to your values and then nudge yourself to practice them. It eliminates a good amount of psychic energy and willpower. You need only to show up and get going.
The word character can be traced back to the Greek charassein, which means to sharpen, cut in furrows, or engrave. One way to think of character, then, is that the actions we take every day engrave upon us who we are. If you do something regularly, if it becomes a habit, then it becomes a part of your character. In this way, you can get from a list of core values to your essential being.
The writer Anne Dillard once said: How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. The Zen master Thich Naht Hanh once said: Your actions are the ground upon which you stand.
You can’t think, feel, or will your way into a new way of being. But you can show up and act in accordance with your values. Sometimes you need a period of deep rest first. But inertia is strong, and eventually you’ve got to get going.