Both of my daughters row on their high school crew team. This is a particularly tough sport. The athletes endure grueling work-outs on and off the water – they run, they do strength work, they “erg” on the universally hated rowing machine and they row – all with masses of painful blisters and aching bodies. In short, daily these girls do many things they don’t want to do.
Interestingly, these same girls often struggle to get themselves to do many other things that they don’t want to do. For instance, turning off the television to finish a physics lab, cleaning a bedroom, packing a lunch for the next day or going for a run on their off day. The levels of procrastination (remarkably high) that I see in my daughters is mirrored by the levels of lack of motivation (remarkably low) when they’re faced with an unpleasant or simply undesirable task.
Yet, five days a week, without complaint, they row. In the cold and in the heat. In the rain and in the blazing sun. When they’re perky and when they’re exhausted. They’re never late. They don’t whine. They don’t even consider not showing up.
What’s the difference?
I believe it boils down to one key factor: their team is counting on them. All the impossibly hard work that they do benefits their team. All the suffering that they endure is shared with their teammates. They know if they each get better, the team will get better. Even more powerful, they know that if they don’t show up, seven other girls will be “erging” rather than in the boat.
The desire not to let others down is a powerful antidote to procrastination and a lack of motivation. This is true for most of us well past our high school years. When someone else is counting on us, we’re much more reliable than when we’re accountable only to ourselves. For instance, most of us are less likely to even think of skipping a meeting than to leave an errand or chore to another day. Hard work is simply easier for us to embrace when we know it will benefit some greater good.
But there are many times when it is what we want for ourselves that requires us to do things we don’t feel like doing, many times when it is our own hopes and dreams that require hard work. Singers have to practice in order to perform. Chefs have to try hundreds of recipes to find one that is just right. Runners must train in order to win races. Seekers must sit in prayer or meditation over and over again to receive the moments of clarity for which they yearn. You get the picture.
So how do we get ourselves to show up and do the hard work when we’re accountable only to ourselves? Where does our motivation come from when we can’t rely on our commitment to others?
As an answer, I’d like to share the story of my yoga practice. When I first started practicing, I was a “regular” at two yoga classes a week. I had fallen in love with the community of my classmates almost as much as I’d fallen in love with yoga. I was excited to see my classmates and, therefore, loath not to show up. I almost felt like my absence would let down the class. I also felt an obligation to my teacher – to honor all that she’d shared with me by being a reliable and committed student. My commitment to the class community played a significant role in getting me to class on busy, stressed or otherwise challenging days.
When I began to teach, it became increasingly hard for me to get to yoga classes. Logistically, I needed to develop a personal yoga practice. Suddenly, I, who almost never missed class, was finding it challenging to get myself on my mat. I was shocked and confused enough to turn to a teacher. I’ve never forgotten her advice – “You have to commit to your appointments with yourself as fully as you are committed to showing up to appointments with others.”
Slowly but surely, I found a rhythm. Over time, I began to see the time I set aside each day to practice as immutable as the hours I spent teaching group classes and private clients. Just as I’d never schedule lunch with a friend, or a doctor’s appointment, or errands during an hour when I was meant to be teaching (when I was beholden to others), I stopped doing so during my practice time (when I was beholden only to myself).
As the weeks and months and years went by, the challenge of maintaining my commitment has shifted from one logistics to one of priority. Each time I don’t want to practice (and, trust me, there are loads of these times), I shift my focus from what I don’t want to do (90 minutes of moving, sweating and breathing on my mat) to why I do that hard work. After all, after so many years of regular practice, I know I always feel better – more comfortable in my body, stronger, more energized, more focused, more in tune with what really matters – for having practiced. I also know how lousy I feel when I skip it.
Back in September, Rick Warren published an essay on his blog called Daily Hope in which he wrote, “maturity is when you live your life by your commitments, not by your feelings.” While the maturity he’s describing is easier to access as we age, it really is not age-dependent. Rather it’s reliant on the ability to step back from our feelings of “I don’t want to” to refocus on why we’ve committed to do the hard work. Glimpsing the bigger picture – our desire to grow, to learn, to improve, and so on – is often as compelling a motivator as a commitment we’ve made to others. It is this maturity that I exhibit each time I practice even when I don’t feel like it. It is a result of some personal development, a little trial and error, and a whole lot of practice.
The next time you find yourself thinking, “I don’t want to …”, take a deep breath. Then, take a mental step back and shift your focus from your problem – your exhaustion, your boredom, your distraction, your laziness, your whatever – and refocus on why you made the commitment in the first place. When you do so, while it may not be as simple as it is for my daughters to show up for their crew teammates, I suspect it will be easier for you to stop procrastinating and do the work you need to do.