Defensive life management
What doesn’t kill you will maybe improve your life management skills.
Life sometimes sucks, and sometimes it’s pretty good, and sometimes it’s really really bad. So bad you don’t know how you’ll cope. Happens to everybody, though the frequency and duration and impact on your life will be specific to you.
So how do you deal when you can’t see the next step, when you can’t even believe there is a next step?
There’s a lot of grand motivational YouTube video speeches out there, and if that’s your kind of thing – great! Personally, those make me break out in hives. They feel phony and off and oily, though that can be a cultural barrier that I’m unable or unwilling to close. Slow heroic music following a movie trailer voice telling you that if you buckle down and do your thing (here turning into grand heroic music) you’ll achieve your dreams … I can see why that can help, but also I really don’t want this kind of help.
The same goes for the counter-movement that will tell you that you don’t need heroic motivation, no, you need discipline! Like the Spartants, or Prussians, whatever the historical simile of your choice, you need to make a plan, have some values, and then stick to them no matter what. This kind of advice targets the same kind of feelings as the lofty motivational speeches, only that you also get to feel superior to the people who like motivational posts. Again, if habits work for you and a reminder that if you do a thing, you’ll have done the thing is helpful for you: good! For me, those kinds of advice feel just as phony and off.¹
“Now…if you trust in yourself…”
“…and believe in your dreams…”
“…and follow your star…” Miss Tick went on.
“…you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Good-bye.”
- Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men
The thing that works best for me is to approach a situation like that as a management challenge. Management here means: Figuring out what my objectives are. Finding the blockers. Looking for ways around them, or ways that can solve or move the blockers with as little effort as possible. Considering that other people could help, and figuring out how they could help best, so that their (and my) energy is not wasted.
Management also means logistics and scheduling. Management means to look at the future, to regulate commitments, to make sure I’m prepared for what can happen. Management also means being grounded in reality, and to accept that preparation will always make trade-offs for threat levels vs energy levels. Management means using motivation and discipline as tools when and if they come easy, but to accept that forcing either of them will probably burn energy that could be better used elsewhere.
My favourite part of this approach is that it forces me to practical. It doesn’t matter which tool or method works to structure matters, I’ll use the one that is effective right now, in the knowledge that I’ll probably use a different one in a couple of months. It forces me to figure out if I need more sleep or food or exercise right now, instead of getting me started on lofty goals of regular exercise or a particularly healthy diet.
More practically, treating life as a management/logistics challenge means that I have by now a deeply ingrained habit to take care of things while I’m feeling good. I’m prone to winter depression, for example, and to occasional swings into moods where I can’t deal with lots of information at the same time. So while I’m feeling better, I’ll try to work ahead. Keep my paperwork in order so that even if I fall behind, I won’t fall behind by much. Do my taxes as early as I can find the energy, because otherwise the danger of postponing them too far feels very uncomfortable. It means having a stash of emergency presents, so that if I have no energy to even think about possible birthday presents, I can fall back on something solid that I have prepared.
I still find myself in situations where I’m overwhelmed, or feel behind all of my todos. Times when I don’t even know where to start and how I will ever etc etc. But even then I know that there are some things that I can ignore for weeks or months because I’ve taken care to put in the work in the past.
It’s an odd self-reinforcing cycle, because it’s very time-delayed. I don’t draw positive conclusions from this while I’m reaping the rewards of my past actions, because I’m too busy just surviving. It’s only in looking back later² that I can appreciate that things have worked out alright, and that tackling the next management task will be worth it, too.
¹ I think the motivational direction is slightly more geared towards women and the discipline one towards men, because hurr-durr masculinity, but they are at most slightly gendered, and appeal to all sorts of people.
² Hindsight 2020, sorry notsorry.