Establishing Household Habits: Inertia

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reposted from January 2011

Establishing Household Habits: Inertia

Finding the Motivation to Do the Right Thing When Energy Ebbs

In the whole GTD set-up, one of the issues that crops up for me is saying that energy is a criterion for choosing tasks. I have to be careful not to let that become an excuse for slipping into sloth. For me, it is sloth that is a key chaos-generator and system-wrecker. What is sloth, really? Well, the best definitions I could find came from Catholic catechisms — it is, after all, a deadly sin:

Sloth is the desire for ease, even at the expense of doing the known will of God. Whatever we do in life requires effort. Everything we do is to be a means of salvation. The slothful person is unwilling to do what God wants because of the effort it takes to do it. Sloth becomes a sin when it slows down and even brings to a halt the energy we must expend in using the means to salvation.

Now, let’s just substitute “sanctification” for “salvation” in that definition, and that hits us square between the eyes, doesn’t it? Well, it does me, anyway. So, how can we overcome this tendency and “work out our own salvation” — even if it’s just washing the dishes or changing a diaper or correcting a math sheet?

What if we know we have no legitimate excuse for lazing about aimlessly? How can we help ourselves do what we know we should be doing when we can’t get over ourselves well enough to get moving and get it done? After all, we already know in that moment, that getting over ourselves would solve the supposed “energy” problem.

Establishing Household Habits: Inertia

Once sloth is set aside — repented of — and we decide to just do it, suddenly, we realize halfway through that it wasn’t so bad and we aren’t so tired after all. Yet, in that moment that requires the choice to be made, I seem to do my darndest to suppress that knowledge. I have been trying to keep in mind the Charlotte Mason quote:

The effort of decision, we have seen, is the greatest effort of life; not the doing of the thing, but the making up of one’s mind as to which thing to do first. It is commonly this sort of mental indolence, born of indecision, which leads to dawdling habits. […] This inveterate dawdling is a habit to be supplanted only by the contrary habit, and the mother must devote herself for a few weeks to this cure as steadily and untiringly as she would to the nursing of her child through the measles.

That makes me feel comforted: overcoming indolence is legitimately difficult. It encourages me that the more consistently I work at overcoming it, the easier it will be to do so. Also, I think of the poem by Goethe and its introduction by Joseph Morris:

Anything is hard to begin, whether it be taking a cold bath, writing a letter, clearing up a misunderstanding, or falling to on the day’s work. Yet a thing begun is half done. No matter how unpleasant a thing is to do, begin it and immediately it becomes less unpleasant. Form the excellent habit of making a start.

Lose the day loitering, ‘twill be the same story
Tomorrow, and the next one dilatory,
For indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting o’er lost days.
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute!
What you can do, or think you can, begin it!
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated;
Begin it, and the work will be completed.

Another quote that might help get us moving is this one that I first encountered posted in front of Elly’s kitchen sink several years ago:

We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action. -Frank Tibott

And, of course, C.S. Lewis has something to add to the discussion, as well:

Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.

So, even if I feel like it’s “not the real me” while making my bed or actually hanging up my clothes at night, I will just go along with pretending I am a different me — the me I want to be. That is the only way to effect the change in reality. I have started to ask myself, “Is quitting halfway through this job just because I can the right thing to do?” No? Well, then, why not finish it?

David Allen reminds us that disorder breeds more disorder and your lack of motivation will only spiral downwards:

If you’re in a low-energy mode and your reading material is disorganized, your receipts are all over the place, your filing system is chaotic, and your in-basket is dysfunctional, it just seems like too much work to do to find and organize the tasks at hand; so you simply avoid doing anything at all and then you feel even worse. One of the best ways to increase your energy is to close some of your loops.

It takes self-examination, but we need to be able to recognize the difference between legitimate lack of energy (sleepless nights, potty training, intensive training times, lack of quiet time for introverts or lack of interaction for extroverts, etc.). Truly there are times in a mother’s life where tiredness and lack of energy is very real, physical, and no version of “trying harder” will effect a change. So, for those times when we are legitimately low on energy, Allen has this suggestion:

I recommend that you always keep an inventory of things that need to be done that require very little mental or creative energy horsepower. When you’re in one of those low-energy states, do them.

And one of those things should probably be “take a nap.”

The bottom line is to practice, becoming better and better at evaluating our options, making a good decision, and just doing it — whether it’s wiping down the toilets or taking a nap.

Establishing Household Habits series

Establishing Household Habits: Inertia

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