“Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia.” ─Alexis Carrel
Part I: The Problem
Are you dissatisfied with the status quo? Do you need a change in your life? Are you repeating the same routine over and over, like a broken record? Are you stuck in a rut and can’t get out? If so, you need to ask how can your life change if you are not willing to change your life?
The only way we can get out of a rut is by doing something different, by changing. Those who don’t learn how to change are not in a rut; they’re in a grave. So, if we don’t want to be counted among the living dead, we’ll have to learn what is preventing us from moving forward. Let’s look at three possible causes and how to overcome them.
What would happen if you were to stop using the muscles of your body? Without use, they begin to waste. Later, you’ll experience muscular atrophy. You’ll become immobilized, unable to move. The same applies to our mental health. Suppose I start to slack off. What if I were to stop practicing self-discipline and neglect my tasks? If I were to stop my activities, wouldn’t I develop intellectual atrophy? Wouldn’t I wind up in a rut? Leonardo da Vinci thought so, for he wrote, “Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigors of the mind.”
In 1687, Isaac Newton described the law of inertia. He explained how a body in motion tends to remain in motion while a body at rest tends to remain at rest. The only way to get a resting body to move again is to apply a force. I am an example of a body at rest when I doze on the couch. My wife kicking me in the behind and telling me to mow the lawn is an example of a force propelling me to action. Kicks in the behind, however, can be self-directed. That is, we can kick ourselves out of a rut. We start by reviewing our situation and recognizing its seriousness. At first we may think we’re just standing still, pausing for a rest. But once we realize the rest of the world is passing us by and we’re falling behind, we’ll see the need for action.
What is the cure for inertia? Simple, action! But trying to start a project after a long spell of inactivity is like trying to start your car on a freezing winter day. It’s difficult. If you want to succeed, the trick is to do something that is easy and will bring you closer to your goal. For example, let’s say I have to write a letter to Aunt Matilda and I hate to write letters. To achieve my goal, I create a plan that is so easy to do, I cannot fail. Here’s an example. Today I will fill out the envelope and put a stamp on it. That’s easy enough, I can do that in one minute. Tomorrow, I will make a list of six subjects to write about in my letter (five minutes). The day after, I will write paragraph one. And so on, until the letter is finished and dropped into the mail. Each small action that I take is grease that unclogs the cogwheels of inertia and gets me back on track.
Although the plan I made to write Aunt Matilda should take a week or longer to complete, I would perform the task in half that time or less. Why? Because, as Isaac Newton explained, once a body is in motion it tends to remain in motion. Another way of putting it is, the small action steps I take generate the energy to take further action steps. Once started, the project almost finishes itself. So, start getting out of the rut today. Pick a goal and divide it into easy action steps. This is a prescription for fun and success and may be all you need to do to turn your life around.
2. The Resistance Syndrome
The Resistance Syndrome is a coping device we develop in childhood. For instance, as a child we may be told to keep our room tidy or mommy will get angry. How can children understand why being organized and tidy is important? They can’t. But what they do understand is that they need mommy and daddy to survive. They can’t survive alone. Fearful of being abandoned and denied love, they are forced to comply with mommy’s wishes. Understandably, children don’t want to yield their wills completely. They want to retain some independence, some identity. They don’t want to be reduced to slaves with broken wills. So, what are they to do? They do what has to be done, but not completely. They resist in order to protect their individuality. They may clean up the room, but deliberately place some items in the wrong places, or perhaps clean up most of the room but leave a corner undone.
Over the years, the Resistance Syndrome becomes an ingrained habit. We take it to school and later to the workplace. What once helped us to retain our identity in childhood now prevents us from doing what we want to do for our own good, such as working out in the gym or making repairs on the house. Understand that your boss, your spouse, and others are entitled to make legitimate requests. Don’t misinterpret everything as an attempt by others to control you. You stopped wearing diapers a long time ago; now it is time to stop carrying around the Resistance Syndrome and accept responsibility for your own happiness. By becoming aware of the problem you will loosen its grip on you, and by taking small, easy action steps you will be able to overcome it.
3. Avoidance of discomfort
Primitive man avoided pain and discomfort and was attracted to pleasure because his survival depended on it. If our ancestors were uncomfortably cold, they could freeze to death. If they were comfortable before a fire, they would survive. The pleasure of eating and discomfort of hunger were powerful forces that enabled them to endure. Today, we no longer have to hunt for our food or make fires to keep warm. Yet, instinctively, we continue to avoid discomfort. This is why we avoid anything that requires effort and take refuge in anything that gives pleasure. But if we merely follow our instincts, we will become trapped in our comfort zone, stuck in a rut.
The cure for this problem is the same as the cure for the Resistance Syndrome: awareness and action. The main part of which is action. For as American folk hero Ben Stein said, “You must take the first step. The first steps will take some effort, maybe pain. But after that, everything that has to be done is real-life movement.” It also helps to change your perspective. The next time you feel uncomfortable, don’t flee from it but embrace it. For discomfort is an indicator that you are going in the right direction, outside your comfort zone. And that is the road of change and the path to a better you, so welcome it and enjoy the journey.
Part II: Move Forward with an Action Plan
STEP 1. Accept and Appreciate Your Present Situation
Sure, life is a school, but how can we learn anything if we don’t attend classes and fail to study? Let’s use Tom as an example. Perhaps you know someone like him. He is unhappy and always changing jobs. He always has an excuse for quitting. “I can’t stand the petty office politics. The boss is too demanding. The people I have to work with refuse to cooperate. I don’t get the recognition I deserve. This job is too boring. There is no opportunity for advancement.”
Tom wants to graduate from the school of life, but he isn’t willing to do the homework. Rather than complaining about people being uncooperative, he could have studied how to get along with others. Rather than whining about having too much to do, he could have studied how to get organized and manage his time. Rather than demanding respect from his company, he could have studied how to earn it. Rather than bellyaching about tedious tasks, he could have developed self-discipline. And rather than grumbling about lack of advancement, he could have busily created his own opportunities.
Step 1 is important because it is only when we are satisfied with were we are that we will be ready to move beyond it.
STEP 2. Listen to Your Inner Voice
Attending school isn’t helpful if you refuse to listen to the teacher, for the first stage of learning is listening. Everyone gets bright ideas and good intentions, but if they are set aside and forgotten, they become worthless. We need to listen to these urgings because it is life’s way of showing us what is possible.
Accepting and appreciating what we have should not be mistaken for passivity. Just because we are happy with our present situation doesn’t mean it cannot improve. Life is synonymous with change and evolution. It is always stretching, reaching out, trying to become more today than it was yesterday. We can either join in the call of life and march forward, or we can sit by the wayside as mere spectators.
STEP 3. Write Down Your Bright Ideas and Good Intentions as They Occur
There is magic in the written word. By jotting down our ideas we transform intangible thoughts into something concrete. Once we write them down, we can refer to them again and again, clarifying and building on them.
STEP 4. Change Your Ideas to an Action Plan
Now that you have some helpful ideas, how will you bring them about? What steps do you need to take? What resources are needed? When will you start and when will you complete your plan?
STEP 5. Start Acting
The most difficult part of a new plan is starting. Don’t allow yourself to get stalled. Choose the simplest step you can take and do it. No matter how small your baby steps may be, each one moves you closer to your goal. Also, you will find that as you repeatedly take baby steps, you will pick up momentum and baby steps will gradually grow into giant steps, until, at last, you sprint to the finish line. The only thing separating us from where we are to where we can be is action. So, act now.
STEP 6. Follow Through
A good plan isn’t good enough. We have to follow it through to completion if we wish to succeed. The original meaning of succeed is to make the next move, or follow through. Here’s what a successful woman has to say about follow through, “Those who are blessed with the most talent don’t necessarily outperform everyone else. It’s the people with follow-through who excel.” ─Mary Kay Ash
STEP 7. Discover Who, What, and Why You Are by the Actions You Take
Who, what, or why we are here has nothing to do with our occupation, which is just one of many ways we express ourselves. It is not what job we have that counts, but what kind of father or mother, son or daughter, wife or husband, friend, relative, neighbor, employer, worker, coworker, or citizen that we are. In a word, it is not what we do but what we are that defines us. Reworded, it is not our position, but our disposition that counts. Are we generous or selfish, caring or cold, helpful or troublesome, encouraging or demeaning, cheerful or grumpy, arrogant or modest, resentful or forgiving, truthful or dishonest, demanding or understanding, patient or hot-headed, courteous or rude, gentle or cruel, moody or even-tempered, aggressive or friendly, thoughtful or thoughtless? In other words, when we die, will others say, “I’m sorry he (she) is gone.” or will they say, “Good riddance!”
Can you see how we discover who and what we are by listening to the promptings of our inner voice and following through? As we awaken to our power, we discover why we are here as well. We are here to add to life, to contribute to it in our unique way. We are here to make a difference; here to change the world by making it a better place. We are also here to celebrate life, share in and spread its joy. The two great personal moments in our lives are the moment we were born and the moment we discovered why (we were born).
Part III: Case Study
A reader asks, “I was wondering if you had any concrete ways to start the process of overcoming laziness and recapturing motivation. I realize that I have been dealing with laziness. There is an underlying anxiety that keeps me from getting going. With time it has transformed into a hazy, non-living lifestyle where I manage to only do the bare minimum and am always late with my work. Talking with a professional probably could help me, but I also know that I have to take responsibility for my own life and decisions. So, if you have some useful tips on getting motivated and REALLY getting started, I would appreciate it.”
Do I have any tips? Yes, I do. For starters, stop talking, thinking, or writing about your problem and start doing something. I’m not trying to be glib, but trying to make a point. Mainly, the only way to get things done is to act.
“Yes, but,” you may be thinking, “how can I act when an underlying anxiety keeps me from starting?” Who said that anxiety, discomfort, or fear has to prevent you from starting? I don’t remember being told that I have to stop whatever I’m doing if it makes me feel uncomfortable. Again, I’m not trying to pick on you, but trying to point out a common misconception. You see, many people are held back or are stuck in their tracks because they believe everything should feel good.
Such an idea shows a basic lack of understanding of how life works. Like it or not, sometimes the weather is too cold, too hot, or too wet to feel comfortable. At other times, our tasks are too difficult or too challenging to be pleasurable. That’s the way life is. Accept it. Once you do so, you can go ahead and do whatever needs to be done, despite how it feels. We don’t have to be ruled by our feelings. We can choose to let our reason guide us.
The heart of the problem is we are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The purpose of our programming is to protect us. Primitive man ran from hungry predators to avoid the pain of being eaten alive. He also avoided the pain of fire and frostbite. Moreover, our ancient ancestors sought the pleasure of eating and sleeping in a warm cave. These are all good things as it protected the species.
But the problem is modern man often interprets the slightest discomfort as pain, thereby avoiding important responsibilities. To compensate for this problem, we have the power of reason. But if we wish to benefit from the power of our mind, we have to stop living on automatic pilot and get into the habit of thinking before we act.
Our reader and those who share her problem are standing at a crossroad. One path leads to pleasure, the other to ‘pain.’ For the sake of illustration, let’s say the boss comes to me and says, “I want this report ready by next Friday.” When I get home, I am standing at the crossroad. I can decide to start working on the report after dinner… Work on the report? Ugh! That takes concentration and work. That’s not much fun. That sounds like pain. And instead of working on the report, I can watch TV, play computer games, go out for ice-cream, or party all night with friends. Wow! That sounds like fun! Which path will I choose? That depends on whether I go with my feelings or follow the voice of reason.
Why do we so readily succumb to our feelings and neglect good judgment? Well, there is a bump or hill in each of the two paths. And it prevents us from seeing what is on the other side. So, as we stand at the crossroad, all we can see is the immediate pleasure or pain that awaits us. In other words, we are shortsighted. But if we were to look from a higher vantage point, we would discover that on the other side of the hill what was previously pleasure now changes to pain, and what was previously pain now changes to pleasure. That is, the pleasure I yield to (watching TV, playing computer games, going out for ice-cream, or partying all night) leads to the pain of regret, shame, and lack of advancement. Yet the pain I choose to push through (working on the report for my boss) leads to the pleasure and pride of accomplishment and the exhilaration of advancement in my company.
When you decide to go ahead and do what needs to be done despite your discomfort, you will experience the following benefits:
- You grow stronger.
- You will make the pleasant discovery that the task at hand wasn’t as hard as you had imagined it would be, nor did it take as long as you thought it would.
- You will experience relief, a reduction of stress, and a rise in energy. Remember, when you neglect your responsibilities, it weighs heavily on your mind and drains your energy.
- You will enjoy the positive results (consequences) of your actions.
- When repeated often enough, you will adopt a powerful habit that will lead you to success and happiness.
- You will discover that the long-term pleasure that comes from doing what is right rather than what is easy is far greater than that received by giving in to the temptation of immediate gratification. Conversely, you will find that the long-term pain caused by neglecting your responsibilities is far greater than the small amount of pain or work necessary to do what is right.
If you wish to learn more about how we get stuck and how to get unstuck, I can recommend a good book. But first a word of warning. Those who do get stuck may turn to a self-help book or a counselor not to improve, but to continue avoiding their responsibilities. By getting a good book or counselor, they get a new excuse to continue postponing their life. “I’ll get back on track after this book or my counselor straightens me out.” they muse to themselves. But the fact is they already have the tools to succeed. And those tools are: “A heart to resolve, a head to contrive, and a hand to execute.” ─Edward Gibbon
Here’s the book I’m recommending, a definitive work on the subject: Why Do I Do That?: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives by Joseph Burgo Ph.D.
Our reader’s request for a tip on how to get motivated enough to break the cycle of laziness is based on the fallacy that motivation precedes action. It is the other way round. That is, it is action that creates motivation. First you act. Then you experience the six benefits mentioned above. And those benefits motivate you to do more. Well, then, it is clear the time to act is now. After all, if you don’t make things happen, things will happen to you. Here’s another point, we become what we do. So, we become a person of action by taking action.
And now a word to our reader. Push yourself. Start on something you should be doing. You don’t have to do a great deal at once, baby steps will do. But as you act, you will be amazed by the incredible power that lies dormant in you. Tap into it. Use it and discover the joy of productive living. By the way, I’m not just saying this for your sake, but for the world’s sake. You see, the world needs us, for “We are life’s way of getting things done.” (Pirkei Avot, 4:2)
How to Get Unstuck: Breaking Free from Barriers to Your Productivity by Matthew Aaron Perman
Unstuck At Last: Using Your Strengths to Get What You Want by Sarah K Robinson
If the Buddha Got Stuck: A Handbook for Change on a Spiritual Path by Charlotte Sophia Kasl
Chuck Gallozzi lived, studied, and worked in Japan for 15 years, immersing himself in the wisdom of the Far East and graduating with B.A. and M.A. degrees in Asian Studies. He is a Certified NLP Practitioner, speaker, seminar leader, and coach. Corporations, church groups, teachers, counselors, and caregivers use his more than 400 articles as a resource to help others. Among his diverse accomplishments, he is also the Grand Prix Winner of a Ricoh International Photo Competition, the Canadian National Champion of a Toastmasters International Humorous Speech Contest, and the Founder and Head of the Positive Thinkers Group that has been meeting at St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto since 1999. His articles are published in books, newsletters, magazines, and newspapers. He was interviewed on CBC’s “Steven and Chris Show,” appearing nationally on Canadian TV. Chuck can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. View his photography at https://500px.com/chuckgallozzi. This article cannot be re-published without permission.