Aug 17, 2010

Life = Energy: a semi-epiphany about energy and motivation

Remember that "safe space and creativity" theme I came up with a few months ago, that I kept promising to come back to? Yeah, it's perverse how not having safe space often means I don't have the creative energy even to write about it. I'm sure you can hear me laughing about how friggin' funny that is. ;P

Anyway, yesterday I was ranting about a specific type of non-motivation — the kind that comes from spending all your energy on one huge problem, so that you don't have any left to solve the everyday problems that come up. You know, like when you spend all your time trying to wrangle personal drama even though you know you should be thinking about how to fix the leaky washing machine and how to pay the bills this month, or deciding whether to use up the next two weeks of your life on a single project (not that I'm avoiding thinking about that right now, or anything...).

Today it clicked that my rant also applies to creativity. Actually, in my head, when I say "motivation," that includes creativity; I do sometimes think of life as one long series of creative problem-solving sessions. Today's now-elusive moment of clarity left me with an idea that goes something like this:

Problem-solving = energy. Creativity (and its requisite safe space) = energy. You only have so much energy to go around.

So when you use up a huge amount of energy on trying to solve a big, important problem, it naturally drains your "reserves" — the energy that you would use on "luxury" stuff that doesn't immediately contribute to your survival, like painting or sewing or writing or even cleaning the kitchen. If you solve the problem, that drain on your energy goes away. As you generate more energy to live, you slowly "fill up" again, and are ready to do more stuff, whether it's tackling big problems or spending time on luxuries, or both.

But when a big problem doesn't actually get solved, you have to keep putting energy into it, so your reserves stay depleted. Then, you stay unmotivated, in proportion to the amount of effort you spend dealing with the problem. Sometimes that means you neglect luxuries but keep chugging along on the necessities ... and sometimes that means you neglect both luxuries AND essentials. (If the latter happens long enough, the structure of your life starts to devolve into a problem of its own, and that, of course, becomes its own drain on your energy...)

Of course, everyone deals with this big-problem energy drain differently: It depends on how much energy they have, how fast their energy returns (which is related not just to personal resilience and emotional metabolism, but also to the efficiency of the support network(s)), and how their priorities are structured.

As far as priorities, what your brain designates as essential might be something my brain designates a luxury. (Heck, an individual person's priorities change over time, too!) Maybe when you're dealing with a gigantic problem, you stop cooking and start ordering take-out for every meal and you completely stop working on renovating the bathroom, but you keep on driving your kids to school and taking the dog for walks and going to knit night.

And me? Right now when I'm dealing with a problem of epic proportions, I stop answering e-mail and working on anything I'm doing for myself, but I keep on working on anything I promised someone else I would do. (Sigh.) Have you seen the Hierarchy of Cleaning? Being creatively inspired is waaaaay up there in the tip of the "hierarchy of energy usage" pyramid, firmly in the "extras" section.

Sunset on Lake Tarpon, August 15
Sunset over Lake Tarpon, August 14, 2010. Going out and enjoying naturey goodness is one of the things that my brain marks as "luxury" ... but I should still do it more.

I've said for years that the only way to get me to stop being bothered by a problem is to solve the problem. Although I define "solve" relatively loosely, in a way that deals more with closure than with actually making a problem literally go away, that still means that if a problem isn't solved, doing "me stuff" can only sometimes put me back on track for inspiration and productivity. It depends on how big the unsolved problem is. I can only regain so much energy by reading, taking walks, eating noodles, and playing pointless video and computer games, and sometimes those things just aren't enough to bring me back to place where I feel inspired to do amazing, creative things.

And oh MAN does it put me behind when a massive problem rears its ugly, persistent head right when I need to be making crucial decisions, laying the foundations for important projects, and doing things that let me pay the bills. I know a priority adjustment would help remedy this by making sure I spend energy where I need to ... but there are some things I can't change without changing my personal ethics and values. I can't put cleaning the house before providing emotional support to loved ones in need, for instance. But I really, really need to clarify the parts of my hierarchy of energy usage that involve creating new products for the shop, promoting the business, and doing creative things just for myself. Really really. I can't keep shunting energy back and forth between dealing with Problems That Won't Go Away and Things I Need to Do To Pay Bills. They need to have equal treatment. And even if I have to go through Energy Boot Camp to expand my personal endurance to do that, well ... I have to do what I have to do.

I can't keep getting behind on life, no matter how demoralized or demotivated I am. I mean, sheesh. Why am I alive if I'm not going to really live?

Yeah. Time to dig in my heels, grit my teeth, and find a way — a healthy way — to create more energy, or to pare down my energy usage.

That's just that.
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