Noodling: The “Why Am I Doing This” Demon

MeSmallChange is hard under the best of circumstances, not surprising given how relentless we are in sabotaging ourselves (or is that just me?). In my wrap-up post for my last set of goals, I mentioned the old “why am I doing this” Demon, and a friend said she’d like to hear more about what I meant with this term. Her question made me realize that I intuitively know what it means, but haven’t ever said it out loud, or bothered to explain it.

I think this is an important chunk of self-knowledge for you to have in your toolkit so  that’s just what I’ll do! The “Why Am I Doing This” Demon is the feeling you get when you’re engaged in some positive (new) activity and you’re gripped by the feeling you’d rather be doing something (anything) else – it’s a “what’s the point” feeling. Think “kid sitting inside practicing violin on a summer afternoon seeing his friends playing outside”.

I’m going break it down thusly:

  • The simple, but ultimately true answer to this question.
  • An example of how I’ve seen it work in my life.
  • The more complicate reasons why the simple answer is true.

Why are you asking “why am I doing this?”

Thanksgiving_FailureBecause you’d rather be doing something else. Strip away all the deep and wacky psychology and that’s the answer. Why aren’t you working on that dissertation that will make you a PhD? Because you’d rather watch TV, or golf, or read, or whatever it is your mind gravitates toward instead of the dissertation.

Simple doesn’t mean easy-to-change, it just means it’s simple. We do what we want to do – that’s why we overeat, stay in abusive relationships, stay addicted to drugs – we may say we “want” to quit heroin, but look at what you “do” and you’ll see what (at that very moment of decision) you “really” want. It’s not conscious, and we can tell ourselves all kinds of stories about how it’s not what we want, but the proof’s in the pudding.

So the basic things you need to tackle (if you find yourself haunted by this demon) is motivation and self-honesty. Motivation if what you’re feeling ambivalent about is truly important to you, self-honesty if you’re just being a poser and you don’t have the intention to do what it takes to accomplish what you “want”. Nothing’s more freeing than admitting that dream you have of being a world-famous bassist (when you practice four hours a month) is just a fantasy.

But more seriously, this demon attacks working parents who are also doing night school to better their prospects, obese people who need to lose weight, people in profoundly negative relationships – where change can be truly transformative – and not changing can be deadly.

The Demon In Action

Just want to give a quick example of how the demon pops up for me. To be clear, for everything I’ve ever made a formal goal for (i.e. a provable outcome with a deadline) I’ve experienced the demon at some point or another. I’ll use weight loss for my example, because it continues to be problematic for me.

  1. I decide that for my overall health, both internal organ-wise and my joints, that I will lose 50 pounds. Simple enough, it will take some time but it’s not nuclear physics either. In this moment of decision, I am focused, and my purpose is clear in my head.
  2. The further away from the decision point, my rationale (in my noggin, as I think in real-time) starts to feel fuzzy – future decrepitude seems impossibly far away and improbable. “I feel fine” my brain says, “what harm is there in a burger?” This is the Demon in full flower, not screaming, whispering. This is when I say “why am I doing this” and forget my original intention.
  3. What did I do poorly? My intention, while laudable is abstract. I feel great right now, future illness and preventing it seems fuzzy, while I KNOW exactly how that burger is going to taste.
  4. What do I need to improve? My motivation and intention for losing weight needs to be just as real, just as clear as my lizard-brain knowledge of the sensual pleasures of high-calorie foods.

If I want to change, how do I beat the Demon?

SolidAsRockThe answer is in the question, you have to want change more than you don’t want change. You have to be brutally honest with yourself, we all tell ourselves lies about how awesome we want to be, but few of us put equal thought into the hard work, sacrifice and relentlessness that’s required – even for something as simple as weight loss.

I just saw the documentary “Hot Girls Wanted” on Netflix detailing the travails of teenage girls entering the lowest rung of the porn industry. Whatever forces got them there, they all seemed to share a vision of “being a star” or “being famous” while having no discernible talent or drive to get it. They aren’t the exception. Everybody want’s something for nothing, it’s the perfect fantasy, I’m sure cavemen thought how awesome it would be to get food without having to hunt.

I’m just putting that out there for context, because there are only two foolproof ways to slay the “why am I doing this” Demon:

  1. Give up. Admit that the fact that you aren’t doing what it takes to get what you want means you really don’t want it. That’s okay. Not everyone can be a writer, or chef, or millionaire, or movie star – or anything else for that matter. If you’re a win/win person, have no karmic debt and experience happiness you’re okay. Don’t torment yourself with a bunch of “should’s” you have no real intention of doing.
  2. Fully commit. With all honesty say “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish X”. Not “maybe I’ll do whatever it takes”. And the simple proof is whether you do it or not. Failing isn’t bad, it’s kind of awesome really, because you have to truly try in order to fail. Genuine failure holds all the information you need to accomplish success.

My hope for you, and everyone, is that you’re able to both kill the ghosts of ambitions you’ll never act on (often times these are implanted by others, so good riddance to bad rubbish I say) AND find positive change that’s meaningful to you to pursue. Change you want. Want bad enough to do whatever it takes to get it.

I’ve been on both sides of this, I’ve cut loose childhood dreams, and I’ve chosen to execute large-scale multi-year projects (books) that have required serious sacrifice – both were powerful and liberating. It’s living in the “in-between” that’ll kill your soul and make life a living hell (I’m being dramatic for effect, maybe just anxious/boring) – when your energy is sapped by constantly thinking about what you “should” be doing – instead of doing what you want to be doing.