When I go for a long run, often I find the latter parts much easier than the beginning. This is strange in a way – you might think as my body gets more tired it becomes more of a struggle. But once 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 I’d still have been for a decent run – which, ironically, makes it easier to continue. Anything I do beyond that point is a bonus. With the feeling of having done enough, a lot of pressure and anxiety that was there previously disappears. I’m no longer worried about whether I might get too tired (I am tired, but it’s ok), or counting the minutes until I feel like I’ve been going for a “reasonable time.” I just run, one stride at a time, and start to really enjoy the rhythm of it. I think literally every time I’ve ended up running longer distances than I have in a while, I hadn’t set out with that goal – I’d just kept running once I hit the goal I normally set myself, freed from the pressure of doing “enough.”
I think this kind of mindset – the anxiety of doing “enough” getting in the way of my more natural motivation to do things – is pervasive in other areas of my life too, especially work. I’m so often worrying about whether I’ve been productive enough – I constantly have a certain goal or number of hours worked I feel I need to meet in order to be satisfied. Until I reach that point, my motivation primarily stems from a feeling of should, from anxiety – that if I don’t reach a certain point I’ll feel a failure, my day wasted. But once I get to that point – if I feel genuinely satisfied that what I’ve achieved meets a certain bar I’ve set for myself – I can let go.
Ironically, it’s often then I do my best work – both in terms of output and my enjoyment of it. 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’m meeting some standard I’ve set for myself is getting in the way of my intrinsic motivation to do things. I’ve been realising recently that often 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, or they’re important – not because I should. I think some people feel like this, but that this anxiety of not being enough is also pretty pervasive.
It’s interesting to ask where this bar for what’s “enough” comes from, and things that can shift it. It’s influenced a lot by societal norms and culture – when I was working an office job, I started to internalise the narrative 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 deemed enough, after all. Doing a PhD, there’s risk that it never feels like you’re doing enough – there’s always something else that needs doing, your incomplete thesis looming in your mind. The more I spend time around super ambitious and hardworking people, the higher my standards for what’s enough get.
My standards also shift as my expectations for myself shift based on my actual output. 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 sense 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 want to live more of my life in a state of ‘enoughness’, so my motivation can feel like it’s coming from what I genuinely care about and want, not feeling like I have to meet some standard or I’m a failure. The anxiety I feel when I’m scared I might not do enough is, ironically, 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 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 use strategies to ensure you meet them as often as possible. For example, I’ve recently been starting work earlier in the day before doing other things, so that I can maximise my chance of 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 sounds idealistic, but I guess I have hopes 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. It’s like I’m waking up every day thinking I need to prove myself, and I don’t want to feel like that. But despite all I’ve said here, part of me is still afraid that if I lose all this, I might just not achieve anything. I’m afraid that if I learn to feel like I’m good enough without achieving anything, then, well – I might not amount to anything. And that wouldn’t be good enough.