When I go for a long run, often I find the latter parts much easier than the beginning. This seems strange in a way: you'd think that as my body got more tired, it would become more of a struggle. But it's not really about how my body feels at all - my mindset is much more important. When I've been running for half an hour or so, my mindset shifts. I feel like what I've already done is enough, that I could stop right now and still feel I'd done a decent run. Strangely, this makes it much easier to continue, because anything I do beyond this point is a bonus. With the feeling of having done enough, a lot of pressure and anxiety I didn't even acknowledge I was putting on myself is lifted. I'm no longer worrying that I might get too tired: I'm already tired, but it's ok. I'm not counting the minutes until I can say I've reached a reasonable time. I just run, one stride at a time, and start to enjoy the rhythm of it.
I think this tendency is pervasive in other areas of my life too, especially work: a feeling of anxiety about whether I'm doing "enough" gets in the way of my natural motivation to do things. It's common for me to worry about whether I'm being productive enough, working enough hours, getting through enough tasks. I'll often have a specific goal in mind I feel I need to meet in order to be satisfied, and until I reach that point, my motivation is coming primarily from a place of anxiety. Fear that if I don't keep going and reach a certain point I'll feel a failure, my day wasted. But once I get to the point of "enough", I can let go - and ironically, it's often then that I do my best work. It's often then that I really enjoy what I'm doing, and feel better able to identify and focus on what's important.
It’s when I’ve already met all my goals for the day that I feel like I want to get ahead for tomorrow. It’s when I’ve already written a blog post for the day that all these other ideas I want to write about start streaming in. It’s when I’ve already been to the gym in the morning and ticked off my “exercise” goal for the day that I really feel like going for a swim in the evening.
It’s like all of this anxiety about whether I can meet a given standard is getting in the way of my intrinsic motivation to do things. I’ve realised recently how even things I genuinely want to do can end up feeling aversive, like a burden on me – because my brain quickly and naturally develops a feeling of “should” around any goal I set myself. It feels like this stems from a deep, vague, fear that I’m somehow not good enough – not until I’ve worked enough hours, run far enough, achieved enough.
I wonder what it would feel like not to have this – to simply wake up and feel like I’ve already met this standard of ‘enough’, to always feel free to do things because I want to, because they feel important – not because I should.
It’s interesting to ask where this bar for what’s “enough” comes from, and what might shift it. I think it's partly influenced by societal norms and culture. When I was working an office job, for example, I started to internalise the idea that as long as I sat at my desk doing vaguely productive work from 9 til 6ish, I was doing enough. That’s what others around me were doing, and what they thought was enough, after all. Doing a PhD, there’s risk that it never feels like I'm doing enough – there’s always something else that needs doing, my incomplete thesis looming in my mind. And the more I spend time around super ambitious and hardworking people, the higher my standards for what’s 'enough' get. I find myself frequently asking: what do I imagine [absurdly-competent-and-productive-person] would do in this situation, how high would their bar be?
My standards also shift as my expectations for myself change, based on what seems 'good' for me at the moment. Having struggled with motivation a bit recently, I got to the point where even managing a couple of good productive hours a day felt ‘enough’ – because that was the best I’d been achieving recently. But as soon as I had a few good days, my standards started to rise – and suddenly what had been good enough a few days ago no longer was. In a sense, the fact that my concept of what’s enough shifts so easily, and is so relative, should be enough to convince me that it’s not really rooted in anything real – nothing beyond my own self-judgement.
I so badly want to live more of my life in a state of ‘enoughness’, where my motivation comes from things I genuinely care about and want to do, not fear of failing to live up to some standard. The anxiety I feel when I’m scared I might not do enough is what so often gets in the way of achieving more. The anxiety that I might get tired before I’ve run enough is most of what makes the running unpleasant and hard, which is what makes me want to stop. The anxiety that I might not be able to finish a project to a good enough standard, or fast enough, is what makes me procrastinate. I've sometimes said to friends that I know I could achieve so much more if I wasn't doubting myself all the time.
I don’t really know yet how to deal with this, to be honest. The short-term solution is to try and set low standards for what’s ‘enough’, and find ways to make sure I can meet them. For example, I’ve recently been starting work earlier in the day before doing other things, so that I end up feeling like I’ve done ‘enough’ earlier in the day – and sooner get to a place where I’m free from that pressure.
But this really feels like just a bandaid: working effectively within the constraints of feeling not good enough, while continuing to feed the feeling. Maybe it's naive, but I do believe that I could free myself from these constraints entirely: completely lose the anxiety, the self-judgement, the feeling that I’m not good enough until I’ve achieved enough. I don't like waking up every day thinking I need to prove myself. Perhaps the biggest barrier is the fact that part of me is still afraid: afraid that if I let go of the anxiety and pressure, I might just not achieve anything. I'm scared that if I find some way to feel good enough without achieving anything, then, well - I might not amount to anything. And maybe that wouldn't be enough.