Why Are You Struggling?

seriously not a productivity blog

Why Are You Struggling?

Paul Millerd said something the other day about people who talk about how they "should" be doing more writing.

As someone that enjoys writing and does so consistently, a lot of people tell me about their own relationship with writing. Many people wish they wrote more. They tell me some form of, “I should write more,” or “I need to write more.”

They live in a world I call Shouldlandia. Inhabitants of Shouldlandia talk about what they should do and what they claim to want to do. But they don’t do it. Often for long stretches of time.

I'm pretty sure everyone has felt something like this at some time. You want to do something but for some reason it just keeps not happening—it's become a struggle. It's worth trying to drill down on that a bit and identify what's going on because I think a lot of the stuff people say about discipline or habits or whatever is incomplete because it fails to take into that some struggles are ones that should be leant into, some aren't, and if you can identify which is which you'll probably be better off.

Sometimes you're struggling against circumstance—and while it sounds silly, it can be easy to get disheartened because of a genuine conspiracy of unrelated events. I've been trying to arrange to meet up with a friend to get lunch for a few weeks but every time we've had to push it because something's come up. It starts to feel a bit weird after a few times—does this person actually want to get lunch? Is there some kind of cosmic conspiracy preventing us from getting some bánh mì? Your brain can, in the words of Lytton Strachey, "[invest] the wildest incoherences of conduct or of circumstance with the sanctity of eternal law." You've just got to push through and reschedule and hopefully it'll be fourth time lucky.

(Equally, sometimes things are bad for a bit and you've got to recognise that. The back half of last year was one long mess of bereavements and illnesses and accidents and emergencies and I was just out of it. I was often unable to even write my weeknotes. I would take that as a reverse indicator, almost: if I'm not writing, Something Is Wrong. Writing—and specifically, the kind of writing I do on here—comes naturally to me. and if I'm not doing it, not able to do it, then I've got bigger problems, and I need to address those.)

Sometimes you're struggling against your methods. I almost never have a problem writing. My brain is constantly just giving me things that I might like to write about and I note them down in my "Blog Post Ideas" list. Then, when I have a bit of time and I've put a reminder in my to-dos, I sit down and write. But I don't necessarily write linearly. My old boss once said "you wouldn't start 5 different sentences when writing, would you?" but I've learned over the years that actually, if I'm struggling with articulating one particular thing, I leave enough of a 'first attempt' at the thought so that I'll remember how I wanted to finish whatever thought was there and move on to the next paragraph, then when I've got to the end of what I wanted to say I loop back around and by that time my brain has usually given me an answer. The important thing for me is not to interrupt the momentum—though for others that might be different.

Sometimes you're struggling with the quirks of your psyche. Even though it is one of the things I enjoy doing the most, something that allows me to enter flow state with impossible ease, I sometimes just don't remember to do writing. If something's not in front of me I will forget about it (because, well,) so I have reminders in my to-dos to do it a few times a week. Some people don't have this problem, and good for them, but I need to set reminders for myself to e.g. watch a TV show I want to, because otherwise I will just forget.

Sometimes you're struggling with doing the wrong kind of the thing you're trying to do. If I am truly having a hard time writing, it's usually a sign that either I'm trying to 'grind something out'—I'm pushing at writing something that I'm not interested in or don't believe or just somehow doesn't fit. I tend not to write stuff that's super-long, for instance because it doesn't seem to work with the rhythm of how I work. I'm trying to work around that—I've got a longer project I'm working on where I write a few hundred words a day—but in general I find writing stuff like this easier. Another classic version of this is "I want to do exercise but I don't like running" so have a go at weightlifting or swimming or climbing or something else that's a bit more fun, and you'll be much better able to stick with it.

Sometimes, of course, you don't actually want to do the thing you're trying to do—you're just struggling against yourself. You either earnestly want to do the thing but have some subconscious resistance, or you have an idea in your head about being the kind of person who does this thing rather than actually wanting to do the thing. The first problem requires some reflection and internal inquiry to try and work out what's stopping you; the latter requires honesty with yourself about what you actually want. Dan Shipper talks about this here: "Admitting the obvious is to take a scary leap. It is to make decisions that bring your life into alignment with what you truly want—rather than what you think you should want or what others want from you."

Sometimes, the struggle is with unfamiliarity—and this is probably the kind of struggle I think Paul is talking about with video, and I agree with him there. Most often this is the struggle you have to deal with when you're learning. If something is new and unfamiliar, as most things are when you're learning, you're most likely going to struggle with it, but this is, unlike most most of the others, a productive struggle. Most of those are telling you to move away from whatever it is you're trying to do, that you're not vibing with it and you should try something else. This is something you want to try and move toward.

This isn't a complete map of this stuff, but I think it's useful to think through when you want to be doing the whole "grit, discipline, habit, routine" stuff, and when you want to be... not doing that. I think that you can generally find ways to not do that and achieve comparable results and be happier doing so.

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