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How to just do it

When I started musing here about growing older boldly, I was skipping along with an untested sense of optimism about what that takes. Now I have a fresh appreciation for how hard it is to stay upbeat, to stay bold, with bodily aches, pain, and especially with a less than hopeful outlook.

I am of course losing brain cells at a predictable pace, forgetting things, getting a mite confused, the older age usual—but while that can be frustrating, it’s not my main concern at the moment. My worry is that post-cancer treatment, my bodily complaints have multiplied or magnified.

I’ve read lots of words about how to manage a positive outlook in the face of this crappy sort of trend. Self-care, acceptance of a slower life, forgiving yourself for things you can’t do or can’t change. Focus on nurturing what’s important: friendships, relationships. Get out into the natural world. I agree with all of that and yes, it helps. Mid-pandemic, I also find that some good old-fashioned escapism is useful too, like an edifying documentary or a trashy mystery series on TV. You don’t usually read this, but I think it makes sense to use a sleep aid if needed to get a good rest too. (My sleep-aid of choice has long been listening to an audiobook—a boring one—to disengage the brain.)

Harder to find are the words of advice on how to begin or maintain these self-help habits, in the face of flagging hopefulness.

I was fortunate to learn a valuable lesson a few decades ago: do the behavior and the feelings will follow. Counter-intuitive, but for many people it works. What that means, if you haven’t tried it, is this: I really don’t feel like going for a walk today; it’s cold out and I don’t want to move from this chair. I really don’t feel like hugging my partner—he made me so mad. Or I really don’t feel like calling anyone, I’ll just complain and they won’t want to hear from me.

Do it anyway, I’ve learned, and I’ll feel better, usually within minutes. I put my shoes on (and my mask), and before I know it my hands are warm in my pockets, the mask keeps my nose out of the wind, and I’m noticing new growth poking out of the ground. Hug my partner and he’ll kiss me back. Call a friend or a sister, and tell them I almost didn’t call because I just feel crabby, and I get warmth in return that way too.

And once I figured out this works, it got so much easier to just do the behavior I didn’t feel like doing.*

Still, I know it takes a little mind over matter to get there. And everyone’s mind works differently. Many in my family have experienced a degree of ADHD—Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, meaning they have a hyperactive nervous system that works differently than that of “neurotypical” people.

I’ve read a lot over the years to help me understand these family members whose brains work in different ways than mine. But I’ve recently come across a piece on a reliably helpful website called ADDitude. Paraphrasing from this article, “Secrets of Your ADHD Brain,” neurotypical folks—people like me—use three factors to decide what to do and how to complete it:

  1. The idea of importance (I think I should do it)

  2. The idea of secondary importance: I’m motivated because my parent, teacher or boss thinks the task is important

  3. The rewards for doing it and the consequences for not doing it

I’ve always operated this way without thinking about it, but someone with an ADHD nervous system hasn’t been able to use the concepts of importance or rewards to begin and complete a task. They understand what’s important, they like rewards and don’t like punishment. But for them, things that motivate the rest of us are just nags.

So, as I’ve contemplated the question of getting motivated in the face of a growing set of physical frustrations or limitations, my mind wandered over to this: what’s helpful for all kinds of people, no matter how our different brains work? The point of the article I’ve just mentioned is that we all have to find out what works for us. I can suggest what works for me (just do the behavior and the feelings will follow), but that won’t work for everyone. Someone else might need to learn from the times when they feel energized and motivated.

The magazine article's author, psychiatrist William Dodson, suggests to his patients that they write their own rules for getting motivated. Often he proposes that they carry a notebook for a month and make a note of situations when they’re especially engaged and productive, and what got them there.

In other words, ask yourself: under what circumstances do I focus or flourish in my current daily life? Is it a specific activity or task that intrigues me? If so, make a note of what’s intriguing about it. Or it might be that I get in the zone for something I feel competitive about. In that case, what is it about a situation or an opponent that stirs my competitive spirit? It makes sense to me that this approach could work for every kind of brain.

Having learned about my individual motivations gives me tools to understand how my unique nervous system works, and what’s in my toolbox that can help me get energized to take on and complete important tasks. Like getting the daily exercise that’s so important for physical and mental energy, and staying engaged with the vocation and avocations, relationships and social lives that we all need to thrive.

The fact is there have been hundreds, probably more like thousands of pieces written on the mental health strategies we need to cope in a time of pandemic fears, lockdowns and isolation. Yet, I'm taking note of the fact that my writing will reach only a very (very!) select handful of friends here, and that doesn’t stop me from going ahead and writing. Because it’s a way I’ve found that’s almost essential for me now in understanding what makes me tick, how to think about things, what’s motivating.

Writing is strange, I’m finding, in the way it brings ideas out on paper that I didn’t know I had. Quite often I sit down first thing in the morning, not knowing what I’m going to write about. Yet starting in (just doing it), ideas appear that were nowhere close to being formed, yet there they are on the page before me. It’s almost magical, like an image materializing in a darkroom tray.

In fact writing is exercise too, of a sort, that can help keep a brain in shape—I was going to say that’s incidental. But the concept that’s emerging here circles back to my thought at the beginning: how can I stay motivated to engage with the activities that improve my health and satisfaction?

Writing how I feel about it turns out to be one very useful way to do just that.

*A related aside: “Just do it,” the Nike shoe and sportswear company’s long-time slogan, is the best slogan ever I think. It was originally developed based on the powerful messages from athletes of all abilities, talking about the positive emotions and sense of accomplishment they feel when they ignore all the excuses not to, and just go exercise.

© 2021 Su Cummings. All rights reserved. Originally published on [How to grow, while growing older] Image: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


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