On Socks and Motivation

I’ve found when faced with doing something I find unpleasant – continuing to exist, say – I talk to myself much as one might talk to a small child.

“Come on, brain, you can do this. I know it seems hard, but don’t think about that part. All you have to do is put on socks. You can do that, right? You like socks. They’re warm and soft and they go on your feet. You don’t have to pay attention to how you feel about getting up and finding them. Focus on how you know they’ll feel once they’re on. Think about that as you stand up and walk to the closet, okay?”

Tolerating the nastier bits of life involves an interesting mix of being present and knowing when to check out. Most people don’t differentiate between processing unpleasant emotions and carrying out unpleasant activities. They tend to use the same set of coping mechanisms – typically distraction and avoidance – to deal with both.

While judicious use of distraction can be quite helpful when processing feelings like grief and anger, there’s a strong tendency to overuse it. It’s effective when used to modulate how much you unpack at one time, but that presumes you are in fact allowing yourself to experience the emotions, albeit at a more manageable, less life-exploding pace.

Examining my feelings directly is actually one of my stronger abilities. It’s a different story when it comes to managing less-than-thrilling tasks.

What it has taken me years to learn is that distracting my brain is exactly what needs to happen in order for me to be effective at adulting. If I let myself think about how hard something is going to be or how much I don’t enjoy doing it, I end up paralyzed. My problem has been being too present with respect to my feelings.

This has been quite the challenge for me to figure out. Believe it or not, I have extraordinarily few examples of activities that are easy or pleasant.

Most things suck for me. Well before my health kamikazed, the non-linear scramble that is my ability to plan tasks managed to turn simple activities into overwhelming logistic nightmares.

Even things I theoretically enjoy, like sitting on the couch reading a book, can become miserable, because there are so many steps involved. Thinking about what books I have. Evaluating which of the fifteen or so currently in progress (not exaggerating; it’s probably more like twenty) I want to read most. Making a selection from two or more books that offer roughly equal levels of enjoyment. Figuring out how to make that choice. Trying to remember where the book I’ve settled on is located. Getting up to look for it. Going to the car if it’s not in my house. Putting on some measure of appropriate clothing to do that. (As a rule, I don’t leave the house in pajamas.)

It seems simple – simpler – written out like this, but this is a conscious, explicit process I have to go through for every single activity I consider doing. Nothing about it is automatic. And all of the intervening thoughts that happen along with it? Those make it exponentially more difficult. “Should I use the bathroom? Am I hungry? Oh hey, I’m out of socks; I should do laundry.”

And on and on. Do I follow any of these deer trails? How do I make that decision? Do I make it based on priority of each possible task? How do I assess that? What if multiple things are of equivalent priority?

You can see why thinking about doing a bit of reading can lead to me scrubbing the toilet wearing underpants and a single sock.

When I think about it, I’m really not surprised it took me this long to learn that checking out is often the best way for me to get things accomplished. Most advice about dealing with yourself centers around remaining present in your body and in your head, but that’s exactly where I am already. It’s so bloody noisy up there that I can’t elevate any one signal long enough for it to stick, never mind the ten or so I need to hear (in proper order, of course) to carry out any one activity to completion.

My solution is to turn it off. All of it. If I’ve determined it’s a thing that needs to happen, it doesn’t matter how I feel about it. It doesn’t matter if something else is of a higher priority. Decision made. Time to execute.

Now, as it’s highly unlikely I’ll remember the existence of this technique when I need it, I write it on Post-Its and stick them around my house. Sometimes those fall off, but I inevitably discover them when I find myself moving my couch to vacuum. (I was headed into the kitchen to make coffee, I swear.)

*For funsies, now add in the persistent pain my genetic disorder causes me and the soul-crushing fatigue that is my almost daily companion. Don’t develop chronic health problems, people, I’m telling you. It’s no fun. The extra experience points you gain in resiliency and perspective on life are not worth the sacrifice.

**If your version of hell involves grocery shopping, trips to the post office, and/or hearing some version of “It’s in that email I sent you,” we’d likely make good friends.

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About Ian

Medically interesting. Disability advocate. Aerialist. Studying physiology with a focus on endocrinology and histology.
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