The Motions

August 18th 2016

It sneaks up on you. One day, without warning, you've done it: you've gone through the motions. That feeling that something you once loved has now become mechanical, that you've become a robot – it's a dreadful feeling.

On a few occasions in my life I've found myself going through the motions. And each time it scared the shit out of me. It meant that I was no longer doing the thing for the thing's sake, but rather treating it as a means to an end. It meant I was no longer pushing myself to be critical or to take risks.

Over time I've built a workflow to deal with The Motions. It feels good to articulate it here, in case anyone else finds it useful:

  1. Decide whether the activity is worth continuing at all, based on factors like time investment, reward (financial, or otherwise), value to others, etc. Usually this means being brutally honest with myself about why I do the things I do. This step is probably a whole other post on its own, for another day.
  2. If No, begin planning a how to stop doing the activity. Maybe it means quitting right now. Maybe it means formalizing a plan to gracefully exit, as to not leave anyone else dealing with my shit.
  3. If it's worth continuing, identify core characteristics of the activity that I can influence in order to understand why things have stagnated. A few characteristics come to mind:
    • frequency (how often do I do this activity?)
    • timing (what time of day or week, and how long, is the activity?)
    • content (what constitutes the activity?)
    • people
    • team
  4. Begin testing and iterating. I like to tackle the above list in order, by magnitude of change, starting with timing and frequency.
  5. Timing and frequency can often be trivial to tweak yet have high impact on the overall enjoyment of an activity – for example, I might switch from night workouts to morning workouts. Or I might switch from reading once per week to a few minutes per day. I might adjust the ratio of pre- and post-lunch work hours.
  6. Content feels like the second hardest thing to tweak and is next on my list to test: can I write about different things to revive my interest in writing? Can I take on new projects at work to revive my passion for design and problem solving? Can I read a different book? Or start a different workout routine? Can we talk about different things during a podcast recording?
  7. Finally, if frequency, timing, and content still have me feeling like a robot, I move on to higher magnitude changes like people and team. Can I pair up with a new coworker to solve a problem? Can we interview a new type of person on the podcast to keep things interesting? Is there another team out there doing work tangential to the current activity that I could work with?
  8. If after spending honest time and effort working through this list, testing each step rigorously, I still feel like a robot, it's time to return to step one.

I had to go through this entire flow with a previous blog that I had been managing for 5 years. I tried everything to stay interested and keep posting every day. From building a team of writers, to changing the content of the blog, to changing the posting frequency – at the end of it all, I was still going through the motions.

So I returned to step one, identified that this thing wasn't no long fulfilling in the same ways it had been in the past, and I built myself an exit plan.

Since that time, life has been all the better – it's been a weight lifted from the mind, and now I can move on to things that are rigorous and challenging in new ways.

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