Getting Stuff Done By Not Being Mean to Yourself

August 20, 2010   |   38 Comments

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I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to force myself to do things. Really good things. Things that are important to me. Things like meditating, journaling, going to the gym, and so on. I set schedules over and over. (I will rise at 5. Meditate, 530-630. Journal 630-730. Breakfast 8-9, and so on.) I fail way more than I succeed, which makes me really, really upset. I get angrier and angrier at myself, curse my lack of discipline, shame myself for watching Battlestar Galactica (again) instead of writing, delve into my psychology hoping to unearth the seeds of self-sabotage. It spirals out of control until I either give in to lying on the couch or somehow manage to squeeze out a day of discipline according to schedule, whereupon I exhale a half-sigh of relief and immediately begin bullying myself to repeat this tomorrow.


Yesterday, I finally realized that this method would never, ever work. I was shocked. But it never, ever has. I’ve been after myself on this score for, what, like ten years? Had it ever worked once in that time, I asked myself. No! I said immediately.

Now what?

I knew I had to give up trying to be disciplined in any conventional sense. And since the definition of suffering is trying the same thing over and over expecting a different result, I had to put myself out of my misery.

Right away, interestingly, fear swept through me. If I’m not vigilant about making myself do stuff, I won’t do anything. And my commitment to meditate is critical on every level. I mean, I’m a meditation teacher who writes books about Buddhism. Shame if I turned out to be a phoney. And every writing book on earth says you must work at the same time every day, or words will never come. “Inspiration is for amateurs,” says painter Chuck Close. “The rest of us just show up and get to work…” I want to be like Chuck! There has to be another path to spiritual and creative discipline…what could it be?

The answer I came up with? Pleasure. Pleasure! The last thing I usually think of when planning my day. Once I get all my work out of the way, maybe I can do something fun or satisfying or just cuz. I never do stuff just to have fun. Never. I am so not built like that. However…among the most pleasurable things in my life are the things I’m committed to doing: spiritual practice and writing. I love those things! I remembered that they make me happy. Maybe I could just jump into them for their own sake, for the joy of doing them rather than the obligation and it’s possible the whole thing would roll out just fine. Once I remembered that my motivation is rooted in genuine curiosity and that my tasks are in complete alignment with who I am and want to be, my office suddenly seemed like a playground rather than a labor camp.

So I didn’t schedule myself at all. Instead, I asked myself: what do I feel like doing? What would be fun for me? Write? OK. What is fun about writing? Oh, it’s so cool when it just starts to flow and plus I really enjoy thinking about things like dharma and love and creativity simply for the sake of doing so. So start there. When you’re done, ask yourself what would be fun to do next.

Which I did. And you know what? I did all the things I yell at myself to do. My day looked pretty much exactly like my days do when I succeed in being “disciplined.” Only this time, it seemed effortless. I had such a light heart.

So, yes, discipline is critical, just like all the teachers say. And there is definitely stuff that needs doing that is just never going to be fun like paying bills and cleaning the cat box. But I suggest that instead of being disciplined about hating on yourself to get things done, try being disciplined about remaining close to what brings you joy. It takes a lot of courage, actually. See what happens. Let me know.

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  • Posted by:  Maribeth

    Susan, you brought tears to my eyes. I struggle with the same thing. I will take your advice and focus my discipline on what brings me joy. Terrifying, but I will surely try! ♥

  • Posted by:  Alane

    susan, i’ve been struggling with the same thing for the longest time too! since the weather has been so great out here in NJ, this summer i’ve taken the opportunity to follow my heart’s desire & let my routines go. yes, i’ve had fun, i’ve been relaxed but it seems like at a price. i will try & follow your lead to enjoy w/o the baggage of guilt!

  • Posted by:  Betsy Jackson

    After spending a day being fairly mean to myself; mowing, weeding, anything to keep my ass in gear…”God forbid, I sit this one out and relax under the trees and listen to the hawks and write and enjoy a kid-free/old Dad-free day”…anyway, I have you bookmarked and thought, let me see what Susan’s been up to…bingo! Thanks for being in the world. I love your writing. And your big heart.

  • Posted by:  Marianne

    This is exactly my approach to my yoga practice and it’s the heart of the 30 days of yoga (which I often think I should subtitle “A Kinder Approach to a Home Practice of Yoga”)

    So happy for you! I always say “follow your enthusiasm, follow your joy”, and it never fails to lead me to the places where I am of most service. And behold, as a wiser one than me once said, service was joy.

    • Posted by:  Ryan

      Marianne, your story is so freakily similar to my own. After struggling with this through my entire 20s and half of my 30s, I finally realized the source of all my angst. I called my problem “Sunday Night Dread” and ended up making a website about it ( Anyway, I had to just post and say, “Good for you!”. It’s amazing what we can get done when we’re kind to ourselves.

  • Posted by:  Jennifer Louden

    I know, I know, I am off line for the month and yet, I saw your blog title when I had to go on line to get this fax number for the mortgage company and reading your post was like YES THAT IS WHAT I TELL everybody else. That is exactly the question that brings the MOST relief and breakthroughs at my retreats… and on my own personal retreats… so glad to see I am use you to help me remember to ask myself what I use for everyone else. Self-trust and wanting what you want, baby! Sing it!

  • Posted by:  Betsy Hanger

    REMARKABLE. I’ve been working with this a great deal, especially since an epic dream presented to me just how much I beat myself up for not being Exactly Right at all times. I found you by going through a link to Stephen Mitchell….such are the yellowbrick roads we can follow. With much metta!

  • Posted by:  Victoria Dzenis

    Thank you so much for this post! I read it at just the right time — when I was pondering the question, “how can I give myself permission to invite what inspires me?” I am seeing now how it’s not about permission or approval, but just about remembering why I LOVE what I do. Thank you!!!

  • Posted by:  Brett Dupree

    That is what I have been working on as well. Working on really enjoying my life and taking pleasure in it. Then acting out of that pleasure of enjoying my life. It is very fun work. 🙂

  • Posted by:  Matthias

    After years of procrastinating and lack of motivation to do the good things in my life that I want and need to do, I have recently had loads of success with a system of rewards. I have labeled some tasks as little milestones, some as big milestones, and some as complete project. Each time I hit something on this list, I get a reward based on how significant an achievement it is. Completing a project earns me a big reward, completing a little milestone means something smaller. It is working great!

  • Posted by:  Sue Mitchell

    Excellent post! I so relate to the rebellion I feel when I’m doing something because I “should,” even if it’s something I want to do. Focusing on the joy rather than the practical benefits of a task changes the whole feeling of it.

    If even the joy of it won’t motivate me, I like the mind trick of saying, “I’m not actually going to do yoga. I’m just going to get out my mat,” or “I’m just going to write a title and then worry about the rest later.” For me, so much of the trouble comes in just getting started.

  • Posted by:  Jessica Rampton

    Wow! I have experienced the same phenomena and been near the same insight, thank you for the post . I am also just throwing up my hands, and out my to do list, and just asking myself “what do you WANT to do right now?”

  • Posted by:  Rob

    I kept beating myself up. The yard was a mess, the driveway full of weeds and my cousin was coming for dinner. I’d been looking at the ever growing tide of green circling the house knowing it needed to be done, but just not doing it.
    Alright, go weed. As i began weeding it became a sort of simple pleasure. Yes, the desire to clean up the yard was still present but watching each green stem come out of the earth became so satisfying. I loved gently pulling and voilà, the root let go of the earth and came away in my hand.
    2 hours later and the place looked grand, my back was sore but ok and I felt so good. The time was ripe for weeding so I weeded!

    Where has it come from, this self-loathing? Even weirder is it seems to effect friends and family who are the most grounded and truly seeking peace and joy in their lives. Thanks for reminding me I’m not alone and how silly it is to continue raging against meself!

  • Posted by:  Susan

    Wow, thanks so much to all of you who came out to take a look at all the ways we beat ourselves up for not being productive or perfect or maxing out every second, or however you term it. Rob, your question about where does self-loathing come from is so, so good. Where indeed?! I bet that you and the others who have commented are seen as accomplished and dedicated people.

    And thanks to everyone who made such good suggestions (like Sue’s just-take-the-first-step method and Matthias’ reward structure) because I know they’ll be helpful to others.

    I also feel quite heartened myself to know that I’m not alone in this. In the days since I wrote this post, I’ve been playing with the “work for the joy of it” model rather than “work to prove you’re not a loser” method. I’ve had some ups and downs, but most what I notice is that to stay with the joy method, I have to remain close to my own heart, to what I love. To stay with the “prove you’re not a loser” system, I have to remain close to how I think I might appear in the eyes of others. I forget my own heart.

    So, a mantra to begin the day and repeat throughout: Joy is to be found by remaining seated within myself. From this point, I can reach out to others with genuineness.

    • Posted by:  Francesca

      I have some observations towards Robs (and all of our) questions of where self-loathing comes from. In the process of raising my tamarind, children, I notice it starts to creep in around the age of 10/11 coming from peers at school, broader family members, any humans who are trapped in the capitalist ‘productivity’ and ‘scarcity’ mindset. It’s so sad to observe, and I also have to hope that the first ten years of pure self-love have sown seeds that will remain forever blooming in them ❤️

      • Posted by:  Geoff

        The problem with me is that when I ask ‘what would bring me joy now?’ the honest answer is to do something useless so I still have to rely on my inner sergeant to persuade me to do something joyful but useful. But he’s a kinder sergeant now, thanks to you.

  • Posted by:  Ceci Miller

    Yes! Self-improvement is only the other side of the self-loathing coin, so it can’t buy us anything better. Weird how we don’t see this, but there it is. Love how you point out that appreciation “works” so much better than criticism. I’ll bet anybody who’s ever gotten a child absorbed in cleaning his/her room by introducing it as a fun sorting game would agree. Joy and genuineness and taking back your time. Now there’s a cool game 🙂

  • Posted by:  Jessica

    Hello Susan,

    I just have to say I have had the exact experience with trying to schedule my activities. This year I made a goal to not do that, and instead of the creative flow being squashed, it has flourished. It’s scary to let go of schedules and I still sometimes grasp to them. But when I manage to let go of them, creativity seems to want to take over. Peace to you!

  • Posted by:  Anna

    I just love this! I think I find myself writing a new “plan” for my days about, oh, every 2 weeks. I always get really excited it–like yes! this time I have a foolproof plan! Turns out only the fool part of it was right.

    Your post was a definitely a light-bulb moment for me. Enjoying my life? Enjoying a job I worked years to finally get and do really love when I’m not totally bogged down? That might just be crazy enough to work.

    Thanks for this!

    • Posted by:  gerry

      Oh Anna those lists and schedules! My notebook is full of them and I never learn. I love writing I’ve been writing for 50+ years but I still act to myself as if it’s something I have to force down my throat and so of course I rebel. Not doing that. You can’t make me.
      So my love Susan for this post and for all the comments. We are hunan. This is what we do. Aren’t we a funny old lot?

  • Posted by:  Breton Caplan

    Hi Susan.This posting is so perfect… I’m at Kripalu for a weeklong retreat. Loving every moment and made a commitment as I walked in the door to only do what I want to do and only timed as I feel compelled. Usually I’d plan back to back during a retreat and make sure I don’t miss a thing. I’m blessed with not having that pressure right now. I’m journaling when I want to, sunbathing and reading (I do have SPF) when others are taking walks or doing group activities and I am not missing a thing. I’ve walked past classes and said “My body doesn’t feel like that right now” and respected it. And I’m fitting in a lot of activity…. Primarily time alone in my own head. Grateful.
    Thank you for the post. And hope you are well.

  • Posted by:  Edward Mirza

    Hi, I have found, in a way, the opposite to be true, but with a difference. Yes, in the past I would try to make schedules, but get depressed, but when I agreed with a friend to send him a report of my time use at the end of the day, I found the schedule life-changing and liberating. I believe this schedule, however, should be a work of art, and ultimately aimed to be something you enjoy.

  • Posted by:  Anne

    I love this post (referenced in a UK newspaper article this weekend). I totally agree. But how does it work for the jobs I loathe and which cause the most angst because they don’t get done ? Eg cleaning the kitchen floor, doing my finances and paperwork, defrosting the freezer – there’s always a reason not to do those and I’ll never WANT to! My hunch is that the answer lies in noticing how I feel if I continue to resist doing them – that sticky, crunchy floor, the continuous background nag of anxiety because I don’t know exactly where I am with my finances, being unable to close the freezer door and having to deal with it immediately – in the end, NOT doing the most-hated jobs causes more stress and unhappiness than getting them out of the way. So it’s mindfulness – noticing when something is bothering me, and happiness will be increased by not avoiding it any longer.

  • Posted by:  Soneye Saheed

    Thanks Susan for this amazing article.

    I have also been beating myself up for not doing the things I want/need to do (And I still am at the time of writing this).

    It is quite easy to make a decision to do certain things, but once the moment is over, everything goes away with it. Inspiration is so overrated.

    I will take your advice and try to focus more on the joy that comes along with doing the tasks. I will also try to reward myself for completing any of them.

    Thanks once again.

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      So glad you found it useful. Wishing you all the luck and skill!!!!

  • Posted by:  Sha

    i just read this post as a link from a Guardian article sept 2020
    Really relate to it and tend to live this way!!!

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Go for it!

  • Posted by:  Fiona Redshaw

    Oh this is so cool! Just read an article that a friend forwarded me recently from the Guardian and there was a mention of you and a link to this post in there 💫. Apart from being super excited to see you mentioned, I loved your post from all those years ago (2010, what?!). What a timely reminder to ease up on my to-do list that still somehow acts as a constant yardstick for my productivity and self worth (or generally lack thereof). This article reminded me why I love you so much! Thanks Susan. Fiona x

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Love you too!! Miss you!! xo S

  • Posted by:  Diana Ruth Nichols

    Same regarding Guardian article, here. Delighted to realize that in retirement and my 74th year, I am happy and relaxed and centered because of this experience of “enjoying happiness”.

  • Posted by:  Susan Williams

    OMG!!! You are me!! And I am you!! And my name is Susan too!! Everything you said in this post describes me TO A T!!! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! for sharing. Now I don’t feel so alone. I can stop scolding myself for not “doing” and enjoy the journey.

  • Posted by:  RationalistFiath

    In a Western led world that has been built on oppression and (fake)wars, it’s not a surprise that it has trickled down to the individuals and how they treat themselves.

    Allah Bless you for snapping out of it and sharing the power of empathy.

  • Posted by:  Anne

    I had exactly this epiphany a few months ago. I got so tired and frustrated with my endless failure to keep to schedules or complete tasks that one day – I just gave up. Now, as you say, I just do what I feel like doing. And it all gets done. Even the housework and life admin. Because there’s always a moment when I find I have the energy for the less appealing tasks. Energy that comes from more time spent on what I love.

  • Posted by:  Barbara Korzeniowska

    I too am a natural procrastinator, but I try to enjoy everything I do – even cleaning the cooker, which is my absolute bete noire. You are so right – things go so much better when you’re having fun. years ago I learnt to love queuing. i would take a book or some embroidery and catch up on one or the other when standing in line. Brilliant

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