March 10, 2016

Eat Your Vegetables

Some thoughts about work ethic

I’ve developed somewhat of a mantra recently, as trite and embarrassing as that sounds.

“Eat your vegetables.”

This is literal, for me, for one. I’ve been trying to eat better—less carbs, smaller portions. Salads for lunch at the cafeteria at work. I motivate myself by thinking how much money I’ll save, how much better I’ll feel. I’ve committed myself to a series of phases: first, just eat one salad for lunch. Then try to eat salad more days than you don’t. Soon it’ll happen every day. Then you can try having salads for dinner.

I presume it works this way, I haven’t gotten past the second part yet.

It remains hard. I still find myself standing pensive in the cafeteria, the salad bar to my right, mac and cheese to my left. My eyes darting back and forth. Somewhere inside of me it emerges:

“Eat your vegetables.”

I’ve increasingly found it relevant in a non-literal way too. I have moments at work when a mountainous task arrives in front of me and I grumble. At home, I have a lot of side projects, some of them lofty and ambitious. I can be working on 2 or 3 of them any given day. In the past I’ve found it helpful to break up dispiritingly large tasks into discrete, tiny steps. To chip away at things over time. Working on something 30 minutes a day can add up to a staggering amount of progress in the long run. I’ve been learning how to not feel daunted. Any amount of work done is better than nothing.

I knew all this in my head and yet I still found myself procrastinating and letting my fear of things not working out prevent me from moving forward. Lately I’ve been thinking It’s because I was only working with half of it. Step 1 is to separate the small parts, and it’s a very important step. But just as important is step 2, in which you tell yourself to just fucking do it.

To just “Eat your vegetables.”

The vegetables are the hard things that need to get done. They might be independent of the fun stuff, or they might be in the way and need to be tackled first, but either way, they can’t be ignored. Importantly, they aren’t immediately gratifying (at least not the way cookies are). Plus, chopping them up into smaller pieces doesn’t really make them any more appealing. You can do all kinds of things to trick yourself into liking them, but after a certain point you’ve just gotta eat them.

I keep coming back to this quote:

“The question isn’t how to keep yourself motivated. It’s how to train yourself to work without it.”

If you’re not down with the vegetables metaphor, that’s another way to think about it.

I’ve always thought mantras were kind of lame, and then I realized where the word comes from. A mantra is something you say to help yourself meditate. You repeat it over and over again to focus your brain on one thing and help tune out other thoughts. It doesn’t matter what it actually means. You just repeat it for the sake of repeating it. It greases the wheels, so to speak. Somehow thinking about it in that sense makes me feel better about it.