The self-compassionate way to get things done

A parent shaming us by comparing us unflatteringly with a sibling; a boss humiliating us in front of colleagues when a task isn’t up to their expectations; a partner repeatedly complaining about some household task we haven’t done yet: these are all attempts to “light a fire under our ass” in order to get us to achieve more. Most of us have had this ploy used against us so many times over the course of our lives that we’ve internalized this motivational strategy.

Our inner critic punishes us verbally when it thinks we’ve under-performed. It castigates us for being lazy when we haven’t gotten around to starting some task. Yet despite all this internal criticism, most of us still have a hard time motivating ourselves to do things. When self-criticism fails, the answer is usually more self-criticism. “How,” we might wonder, “would I get anything done if I didn’t give myself a hard time?”

Self-Compassion = Less Procrastination

Yet many studies have shown self-compassionate individuals to be more effective than people who are self-critical. They are also less prone to procrastination. Psychologists at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, compared college students who preferred to begin their assignments early to those who tended to leave them to the last minute. By now you may not be surprised to learn that those with high levels of self-compassion had much less of a tendency to procrastinate.

Procrastination is, in fact, not really a problem of time management but a problem of emotional management. Think about what it’s like just to contemplate a challenging task. Often we’ll find that feelings of anxiety, restlessness, or dread arise. When we’re unable to handle those feelings we try to avoid them by avoiding the task itself. Learning to support and encourage ourselves in the face of discomfort allows us to face challenging tasks rather than avoid them.

Developing Self-Compassion for Your Future Self

One fascinating way that self-compassion helps us to be more motivated is when we develop compassion for our future self, treating it as a friend. I stumbled across this practice while trying to motivate myself to deal with household tasks. Often I would be about to head to bed when I would realize that there were still dirty dishes on the kitchen counter. I was simply too tired to deal with them, so I’d shrug and leave them until the morning. But it was very unpleasant to wake up to the mess I’d left myself.

Faced with my resistance to do late-night cleaning, I started thinking about how Morning Bodhi (I gave him a name to make him more real to me) would feel about waking up to this messy kitchen. From past experience I knew he’d find the mess dispiriting. I also knew that Morning Bodhi would feel happy and grateful waking up to a clean kitchen. So I would wash the dishes, feeling good knowing I was helping Morning Bodhi. Morning Bodhi, of course, was grateful to Evening Bodhi. Having empathy for our future self makes self-discipline easier, turning it into an act of self-care.

No Self-Empathy, No Self-Control

This compassionate approach to self-control is supported by neuroscience. When Alexander Soutschek of the University of Zurich in Switzerland used magnetic fields to shut down a part of the brain long known to be involved in empathy—the rear part of the right temporoparietal junction—he found that he’d also disrupted his subjects’ ability to exert self-control. Impulsiveness, or lack of self-discipline, arises when we’re unable to relate compassionately to our future self.

Self-Compassion Looks At What Benefits You Long-Term

Self-compassion involves considering whether or not your actions will contribute to your long-term happiness and well-being.

Short-term thinking leads to us letting ourselves off the hook and giving up easily; this feels unpleasant now, so I’ll stop doing it. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is about what will benefit you in the long term: this feels unpleasant now, but how will I feel later?

It’s a myth that self-compassion reduces our motivation. In fact the opposite is the case. Self-compassion is one of the most effective ways to motivate ourselves.

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How to get out of your own way

Woman peeking out from under the covers of her bed.

I used to write regularly for this blog. Pretty much every month, for years. But then last summer I went through a major house move that totally disrupted my life and brought my writing to a halt.

But that’s really just an excuse. I’ll admit it’s inertia and my inner critic that’s getting in my way now. Despite my wanting to do it, I’ve always found it hard to write. And when I fell off my routine, and weeks and months passed, it just got harder and harder to get restarted.

I’m wondering if this sounds familiar to any of you out there. When it feels like YOU are the main thing getting in your way?

I wish I could say there’s a surefire way out of this, but of course there isn’t. As I slowly nudge myself back, I thought I’d share some of the strategies I’m pursuing.

My main approach is to think in terms of planting small seeds of change. The forces of inertia and my inner critic are too overwhelmingly powerful to confront directly. They’re way bigger than me. It’s futile to struggle against them.

But I can mindfully step back, take a breath – and in each moment of awareness, choose to do one very small thing differently than I have before.

So, when my inner critic tells me that last sentence is awful, I don’t have to delete or rewrite it immediately. A friend of mine says she responds to her critic by saying, “Thank you for sharing!” At the very least, I don’t have to fall hook, line, and sinker for the babble my mind is coming up with. Even if I still think that sentence isn’t very good, I can leave it there and at least allow for the possibility that it’s useful in some way. That’s one step in a new direction.

Another strategy is to respect and work with the natural processes of the brain – specifically, its capacity for productivity and willpower. A recent New York Times article cited research that the brain is productive for about 90 minutes at a time. And to sustain productivity, it’s best to rest – take a nap, take a break, or go meditate. So I’ve stopped making myself sit for hours trying to produce something. I now get up, and at least stretch and walk around every hour and a half.

I think this is the same basic idea that Daniel Goleman writes about in an article about building willpower. He says we each have a fixed budget of willpower. If we keep pushing hard on one thing, we’ll have nothing left to face whatever comes next. And that leaves a perfect opening for my inertia and inner critic to step in and mess me up again.

See also:

On the flip side, Goleman says that being disciplined in small doses on a regular basis does help to strengthen the willpower muscle. It gets easier to do that thing as time goes on. So I take heart in the knowledge that writing in small doses regularly will help me get back into a routine.

I know it will take some time before things feel like I’m back on track. And I suspect there will be a few stumbles and backward steps along the way. Above all else, I’m being careful always to stay kind to myself. No beating myself up, no unrealistic expectations.

I’m just going to point myself forward and know that I’m doing the best I can. And I’ll keep the faith that over time, many small seeds of change can grow into a forest.

What about you? What are your strategies for getting out of your own way? I’d like to hear from you.

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Getting your meditation practice back on track

You committed to yourself that you’ll meditate. And you do, for a few days or weeks. But then something happens. You miss one day. Then another. And before you know it, you’ve stopped entirely. Hmmmm…. What happened?

As a meditation teacher, I’ve been involved in many conversations on this subject. So I thought I’d look at what leads us to choose not to meditate, and how we might work with that choice more skillfully.

Less than ideal conditions

A very common scenario is putting off meditation on a day when we’re just not feeling up to it. Maybe we’re feeling lousy or distracted. Or the rest of the household is too noisy. Or we only have ten minutes – not enough time, we say. We find all kinds of reasons, big or small, why this is not a good time to meditate.

But let’s think a moment. What are the reasons you took up meditation in the first place? Wasn’t one of them that you wanted to be less a victim of your moods, whims, and circumstances? Sure, a perfect 20-minute sit where you can create a lovely inner oasis would be ideal. But isn’t avoiding meditation altogether when conditions aren’t so ideal a way of falling into your same old traps?

So how strong is your resolve to overcome your habitual tendencies? If we’re serious about changing, then here’s a perfect opportunity right in front of us. We can start by examining our own self-talk that convinces us to slink away from our commitments. And those distractions – are they really as insurmountable as we think they are? What happens when we try sitting anyway, just as we are, just as things are, and let go of our childish desire to have things be exactly the way we want?

Resistance to discipline

Does the thought of meditation bring out your rebellious side? Maybe your attempts at discipline bring up associations of growing up in strict family or school. Or feeling forced to attend religious services that had no meaning for you. Or maybe the idea of sitting still just makes you want to do the exact the opposite.

When we meet our own resistance, I think it’s a good idea to listen to it. I don’t mean to give in to it, but to hear out what it’s really saying deep down inside.

I think people with a rebellious nature tend to be questioners – those that want fully to understand something before accepting it. And the Buddha encouraged this kind of questioning as a necessary skill in our spiritual work. So why not take advantage of this valuable skill that you already seem to have in spades? Why not engage the questioning skeptic, and let her find her own way in?

For example, what if you dropped all the formal structures of meditation, and just let the rebellious side of you enjoy herself? What if you sat in your favorite comfortable chair and did nothing for a while? Don’t even think about getting into a meditation posture. Forget about counting breaths. Instead, you could let waves of relaxation flow through your body along with each exhale. Explore bodily sensations and indulge your curiosity like a child with a new toy. Try approaching meditation in the spirit of what it’s meant to be – an open inquiry into the nature of your experience – as opposed to forcing yourself to follow the form.

I’d suggest that you eventually go back to a formal practice, but there’s no hurry. You can wait until your rebellious side is happy and engaged enough to begin working with you rather than against you.

Frustration over lack of “results”

We all take up meditation with an expectation that it will change us for the better. On the other hand, getting frustrated that it’s not happening as we thought isn’t a good place to be. I often hear meditators say they’re not able to get to a calm and peaceful state. And that leads to a lot of discouragement, self-doubt, and reasons to skip out.

But rather than facing down our discouragement head-on, let’s look at why it comes up. What happens when we get caught up in our ideas of what we think meditation is supposed to be? We try to force our experience to match our ideas — like trying to be calm and peaceful when our mind is nothing like that. We end up sitting and thinking ABOUT meditation – what we want or don’t want – and fighting our experience rather than being with what actually IS. And that does nothing but get us more agitated.

Meditation is about being with whatever is going on, whether it’s distraction, discomfort, unhappiness, even frustration. Whatever it is, there’s nothing “wrong” with it. There’s no such thing as a “bad” meditation experience, as long as you’re mindfully present with it. Because it’s the mindful presence that’s important, not whatever else is going on. There’s a feeling of wholeness and integrity that comes with being with myself and my situation as it is. And paradoxically, it’s when we stop fighting with ourselves that the calm and peacefulness arise naturally, without having to strive for it.

See also:

Pushing boundaries more skillfully

There’s a common thread running through all these scenarios, and it’s this: to view our difficulties as the raw material of our practice. They aren’t problems that we need to get rid of. They’re great reasons to get us ON our cushion, not to avoid it. Because they are our path of practice. They’re there to help us learn how to stretch, to grow, to learn to push our boundaries. And isn’t that what we took up meditation for?

There are two key things I always keep in mind when I navigate my way through my practice. One is to be really honest with myself, and take responsibility for my choices. If I choose not to sit one day, that will have consequences. That doesn’t mean that I’m a bad girl, or that I’ve done something wrong. There’s no moral judgment here. I simply mean that not sitting sets in motion a habit of not meditating that will make things a little harder next time. The focus is on my actions and choices, not judgments of my goodness or badness.

At the same time, it’s really important to be compassionate to myself. There are some days when it really IS difficult to get to the cushion. And that’s OK. There’s no blame, no shame. While I stay mindful of the consequences of my choices, I let the whole thing go. Sometimes the best choice is to not meditate on a given day. And I accept that.

When we can see everything we encounter as part of our practice, that’s when our practice starts really to take hold.

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