Slaying Obligation

by Megan M. on March 28, 2007 · View Comments (Blog) |

“It is much worse than that. The constant reminder of “a million things to do and no time to do them” can worry you not only into tension and fatigue, but it can also worry you into high blood pressure, heart trouble, and stomach ulcers.

Dr. John H. Stokes, professor, Graduate School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, read a paper before the National Convention of the American Medical Association—a paper entitled “Functional Neuroses as Complications of Organic Disease.” In that paper, Dr. Stokes listed eleven conditions under the title: “What to Look for in the Patient’s State of Mind.” Here is the first item on that list:

The sense of must or obligation; the unending stretch of things ahead that simply have to be done.

~ Dale Carnegie, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living

Like you needed statistics or hard evidence to convince me!

Have you noticed the running theme? We are presented with a mountain of obligation and instead of spurring us on to deal with its massiveness, we are cowed into inaction. There’s nowhere to start, so we don’t start. But this thing is bigger than just our wont to procrastinate. Banishing this monster may also banish the source of our worry and misery. We want to banish this monster!

The first thing I’ve done is implement a Usual Error technique, to be discussed in-depth in a future post: language reform! If I express obligation in any way, one of several potential helpers (including myself) may say, “Would you like to rephrase that more positively?” And immediately the landscape of my brain is changed, and I do not say “I have to do this thing… I should do this thing…” I instead say, “I want to do this thing! I would like to do this thing!” And then I find out if I really want to do it.

And sometimes I don’t do it.

But most of the time, I do do it. And when that happens, it takes on a completely different feeling, not a feeling of obligation and entrapment and inevitability, but instead this feeling of control, a feeling that I hold power over myself and my destiny and, well, my work day! Even the ickiest responsibility is transformed because I have actively made a decision to do that thing, I have decided that I want to do that thing.

And if ultimately I really, truly didn’t want to do it… it was not important enough to be done.

In the Carnegie book I linked to before I got excited about the Usual Error material, above, he goes on to talk about useful ways of dealing with the mountain. For instance, he presents various evidence and his strong suggestion that our personal environment, at home or at work, contributes dramatically to our feeling of obligation (and therefore our undoing!). A clean desk occupied only by the specific, immediate work at hand is a huge solution. A time of day to plan your strategy is also mentioned over and over. My time of day is the early hours of the morning, I’m beginning to notice. When I work late and sleep late, I seem to muddle through most of my day… but when I go to bed at a reasonable hour I tend to wake up, ping, at a certain early hour, and immediately focus my mind on what needs to be done. This morning I woke up and outlined a project for each hour of this fabulous Wednesday, feeling gleefully clear and concentrated, wanting to do this and that and the other thing. For you, it might be better to plan your day the night before, or a few days in advance. What is your particular rhythm? Doesn’t that sound like it might be worth finding out?

In addition to all that, it may be worth sitting down once a week and looking at the goods and bads. This has never been something I wanted to do all that much until I realized how clear it made my thinking. I made a meme-like post not long ago that feels related now. What did I do well? What did I fuck up? How will I do better? Hell, I might like to do this sort of thing every day! It could have an incredible effect on the way I deal with everything under the sun. That feeling you have when you distinctly recall a past reaction, or something you read, and then you all of a sudden change what you usually do into something new and brave, I could have that feeling all the time if I just paid a bit more attention. It’s worth thinking about. And every time I succeed, I want more to succeed again. And suddenly things I felt obligated to do before, I actually desire to do now.

I know I go all evangelical and rambling on you when I make these posts. But this material makes me so excited. It’s such good stuff! It makes me feel good just thinking about it. Well, obviously—I’ve spent the last half hour telling you about it, ha ha. :P

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