On blogging and obligation

I’m a bit confused about how I feel about blogging.

I started this blog because I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like to, and I think this is largely perfectionism: I have lots of ideas I want to write about, but high standards for what I post online publicly, and I rarely have the time to write up these ideas to that standard. So I end up not writing at all. I think I’d be better off posting more regularly and posting less well-polished things, but I’m scared: scared that will mean the quality of my ideas and writing will start to deteriorate, and people will think worse of me for it, or something. This is probably an irrational – or at least over the top – fear, but there it is.

I started this blog because I wanted to get in the habit of posting less-than-perfect things, and writing more regularly, in an online venue where anyone could technically read it, but where I was expecting very few people to actually do so (at the time I’m writing, I have shared the link to this page with exactly one person. That may change, but I’m going to be very cautious about it.) I figured that a large part of the benefit of blogging to me is simply that it forces me to articulate thoughts clearly, and think more and in different ways. I do like feedback and recognition from others, and I hope some of the things I write are useful to others, but a lot of that feels more like vanity than anything else. So while the part of me that cares a lot about her self-image keeps feeling an urge to share this with people, I’m trying to restrain that for now (because it’s that same part of me that will stop blogging once she realises people might actually judge her negatively.)

This worked really well at first. But then, towards the end of last week, I realised that blogging had started to feel more like something I should do than something I wanted to do. I’d made a fairly weak commitment to try and blog every other day, ideally every day, and suddenly I was struggling to keep it. The last proper post I wrote felt rushed and forced – written at the end of a long day when my brain just wanted to switch off (ironic that it was about overcommitment.) There’s a subtle difference between writing and posting something you know is imperfect, but which you think still says something interesting or was useful to write – and something that just feels forced and not quite right. And that’s what blogging was beginning to feel like.

So I took the weekend off (despite the fact I just said I was going to post ‘filler’ posts to flag days I wasn’t blogging – even this felt too much.) What was surprising was that, once I’d decided that I didn’t have to blog, it didn’t take very long at all until I started feeling I wanted to start blogging again. While last week I’d felt stuck for anything I really wanted to write about, suddenly I was coming up with all kinds of ideas, almost too many.

I find this kind of pattern happens a lot, actually: I start off genuinely wanting to do something, but somehow that wanting turns into a should in my mind, and the thing starts to feel aversive. I don’t think I yet totally understand why this happens, but it seems like a really unproductive and unhelpful pattern. Part of it is just that I have competing desires, and I might want to do something all things considered – like going to the gym – but in the moment, the most salient considerations (like the warmth of my bed) push in the other direction. This can create a feeling of “should” around going to the gym, even though in some sense I actually do want to go. But in the blogging case, and a few other situations, I think there’s something a bit different going on.

It feels like I start out genuinely wanting to do something, and somehow my brain ends up turning that want into a feeling of obligation – slowly, sneakily, before I can realise what’s going on. It feels almost like I don’t trust I can motivate myself without that “should” – and so once I decide I want to do something, I feel like I need to create a sense of obligation to ensure I actually do the thing I want to do. But what if I just trusted that, if I really want to do something, I’ll do it? I feel like a similar issue arises with a lot of my work – I genuinely want to do a lot of the research and writing for my PhD, find it interesting – but it quickly becomes a feeling of obligation, I quickly start focusing on what I’m not doing and feeling guilty, and so lose sight of that original “want.”

It seems like blogging might be a good way to explore this subtle dynamic between wants and obligations, now I think of it. Even more than my PhD, blogging really isn’t something I need to do or should do in any sense – any blogging I do is totally a bonus. So I’m going to see if I can actually avoid getting into a mindset of obligation here, or at least pay attention to what seems to provoke it – by only blogging when I really feel like I want to. No promises, no expectations, no obligations.

(side note: this post felt a bit unsatisfactory, because I essentially raised a problem – wants turning into obligations – and feel like I didn’t get anywhere near to trying to resolve or figure it out. If this were a post I was being perfectionist about, I wouldn’t have posted anything until I had a much better model of the problem, at least some better hypotheses about what’s going on. But that just feels like too much cognitive energy for how I’m feeling right now, so I’m trying to be ok with just raising an issue and not even beginning to resolve it. It does feel uncomfortable though.)

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