I encourage members of the Thinking Lab to send me their “thinking on paper” so I can help them sort out any problems they are having. It is amazing how easily you can diagnose thinking problems in another person if you see the thinking written out. As with everything, it is much easier to evaluate someone else’s work than your own.
Recently I received a sample of “thinking on paper” that was similar to something I’ve seen many times. The “thinking on paper” was an attempt to figure out priorities. It went in circles, mentioning many tasks, complaining about the situation, and ending with a statement to the effect of “I don’t feel like doing any of this.”
There are many possible explanations for this state of affairs, and likely many constructive ways to address it. I would like to focus on the basic issue: How do you take the initiative to deal with the situation when you are so unmotivated?
Some people would say, “Get a grip,” meaning, forget how you feel. Bring in your logical brain and look at the situation.
If you look at it logically, you can see that going by feeling — sheering off and doing something else — will just get you into trouble. When you go by your feelings, you weaken your determination to solve the problem. You make it extremely unlikely that you put your time where it matters most. Doing anything on the list is better than that, even if your choice is not the top priority.
Therefore, many people recommend you “get a grip,” “forget how you feel,” and “do something.”
I agree with the evaluation of the situation, but not with the recommendation to “get a grip” and “do something,” especially when that includes “forget how you feel.”
The principle here is that your long-term happiness requires that you go by reason. Going by reason on principle does mean that you engage your brain rather than exit the prioritization process with “I don’t feel like it.”
The moral case for going by reason is that man is the animal who survives by the use of his mind — his faculty of reason. If you don’t engage your mind, you give up your means of figuring out what is in your best interest.* The practical case for going by reason is that if you let your feelings be the last word, you feed a vicious cycle. You know that you have not done your best. You will associate prioritization with unpleasantness and guilt. The next time you need to prioritize, your aversion will be even stronger. The vicious cycle may take significant effort to break.
The confusion comes in when “going by reason” is equated with “forgetting how you feel.” When you are in this no-man’s land of conflict, it is more important than usual to pay attention to how you feel. You need to be able to do that, as you go by reason.
Indeed, the one thing you know when you are in conflict is that your top priority is not obvious to you. If it were, you would not be in conflict. The feelings are prima facie evidence that you do not know what matters most at this moment.
So objectively, you desperately need to engage your brain to figure this out. The problem is, that takes effort, and you are not motivated to put in that effort.
When you find yourself in such a situation, I recommend you draw on a particular kind of motivation: a healthy determination to shift your life to doing what matters most.
This assumes that when you sat down to prioritize, you did so for the right reason. You intended to prioritize, not because you were “supposed to” or “it’s the right thing,” but because you genuinely believe that consistently spending your time on what matters to you the most will make you happy. Prioritization is a means to that end.
If this is your meta-reason for prioritizing, you have recourse when you’re stuck. When you hit that “I don’t feel like it,” your contrary feelings are relevant to figuring out what matters most. You now face at least three options:
a. Go ahead and take the step on the alleged priority, with the intention of making it an experiment to see if those feelings go away, clarifying what matters most
b. Pause to introspect the feelings, to see if there is something important there that you missed
c. Take a break to clear your head and remind yourself why you want to prioritize in the first place
There is a world of difference in how you take the step.
If you take a step toward the alleged priority because you are experimenting to see if you really do feel the way you’re predicting, a wave of resistance is helpful rather than evidence of failure.
If you pause to introspect your feelings because you’re determined to figure out what’s important, as opposed to as a diversion from doing what you are “supposed” to do, a deluge of old baggage poses no obstacle. It becomes a surprise that might cause you to change your strategy, but it doesn’t throw you off.
If you take a break to clear your head instead of because you “don’t feel like it,” you make better use of the break time, enjoy it more, and have more energy to figure out what matters when you’re finished.
If you have trouble sticking to your priorities, the key is not to “get a grip.” It is to think about your deep, long-range intention to shift your life in a way that matters to you. This is what underlies a determination to do what matters most. Unlike “getting a grip,” that determination gives you both the strength and the flexibility to deal effectively with “I don’t wanna.”
* The moral case for going by reason is presented by Ayn Rand in “The Objectivist Ethics.“