When you think of tension, what comes to mind? Maybe an uncomfortable rigidity, a frozen state of quivering nerves, restlessness? We typically do not think of ‘tension’ in positive terms. To most of us, it sounds like a fast-track towards stress. Tension, however, is a two-sided animal. It is incorrect to think of it as uniformly negative — as stress manifest. The tension that we experience in life ought to be thought of as pent-up energy, of neutral affect initially. And that energy can be channeled in vastly different ways with vastly different results.
Negative tension looks like repetitive worrying which drains mental stamina. Positive tension looks like intentional pressure which yields results and increased personal resiliency.
The former is an unproductive use of pent-up energy, the latter a productive use of pent-up energy, you see. Which brings me to my recent preoccupation with “keeping the tension,” which, if I were to draft up a definition, I might call the act of intentionally maintaining pressure in areas of everyday life in order to facilitate goal-accomplishing.
Does this mean you should “keep the tension” all hours of the day? Certainly not. It is, simply put, a strategy for getting things done. And who among us wouldn’t like to get more things over the finish line, and in a work-smarter-not-harder fashion too?
Before I tangle myself up too much with words, allow me to list a few examples of what I mean. Keeping the tension means fighting off the demons of distraction left and right when one is attempting to finish a project. Specifically, it is embracing the discomfort that comes from ploughing forward on a tough task that your mind itches to retreat from. Maybe you are daunted by the mental demands of the task and/or you are craving something less intellectually demanding.
Either way, your brain is trying to break the tension and to seek comfort and a return to familiarity. I do not want to demonize these things, for the importance of rest, for example, is an equally compelling matter which I will not address here. But take special note that the problem lies in the fact that we generally end up frustrated by our procrastination and stew with dislike for ourselves. We may feel that whatever had been spurring us on (the tension) has snapped — a previous tautness has dissolved —leaving us more unmotivated than before.
I would categorize this as an unideal state of affairs purely because it is not energy-efficient on the personal level. Here’s what the general pattern ends up looking like: (a) temporary productivity yields to (b) the seductive pull of a distraction which leads not only to (c) a regression of energy, but also to (d) a resentment towards ourselves, which (e) burns up and wastes far too much energy and (f) produces a negative unintended consequence (that of annoyance with your self).
Here is another example: Say you are out on a run and a voice begins to creep in, telling you that you are too tired and you ought to stop. As any runner knows, the mental battle of endurance training is half the battle (if not more). And so, if you do decide to stop, you may find that your mood has plummeted and that starting back up again feels even harder than if you would have simply trucked through and abandoned stopping altogether.
The decision to stop broke the tension. It disrupted a pattern, unproductively burned off what was originally productive, pent-up energy, and created an unintended consequence (a dimmer mood and a damaged sense of trust in yourself). The tension was instrumental to your success, not an indication of danger. The decision to stop returned you to the warm confines of the comfort-zone and while the short-term version of yourself may be initially grateful for this state of affairs, the long-term version of yourself is likely to feel suffocated and bitter about it.
To further map out this life strategy and provide some much-needed clarity, here are 3 ways to “keep the tension”.
1. Run towards fear
Hear this: you do not always have to do everything you are afraid of. That said, we humans are gifted with an intuitive knack for knowing when we are avoiding a task which we must do. We may stall, seek repeated breaks, or run away altogether from what scares us. Only you alone can know if you are avoiding what you must do and must face. Whenever you stare at something in the path of life that inspires anxiety, fight the urge to break the tension and revert to the stale territory of equilibrium.
You don’t want to be running away from fear, immersing yourself in stale equilibrium, only having to work up the courage (and added energy) to eventually face the task at hand again, each time drawing more energy out of yourself and weakening inner confidence. You want to create a pattern — a habit — of fear-facing. You will be surprised that running towards fear with its initial nauseating sensations will quickly give way to confidence, grit, and an appetite for more.
You may be appalled at how much more energy you expend avoiding your fear compared to actually facing it. (This is partly because energy is gained by the confidence and “life innovation” that facing fear entails.)
In order to get anything done you must make a personal commitment to never abandon your mission. You must open your arms to all the hot/cold ambivalence of fear instead of succumbing to its flee signal. It’s a question of fight vs. flight. It is going through vs. running away. It is breaking the tension vs. keeping it.
2. Delay gratification
Purposefully delaying gratification is a surprisingly useful facilitator of goal-accomplishing. How so? It is an added, aggressive push. Temporary abstinence from something that would break the tension and poke a hole in all your carefully coiled-up energy usually pressures your productivity into higher-gear. Instead of indulging your appetite (whether that’s for food, rest, distraction, pleasure, etc.) you are temporarily denying it, and even frustrating it. The aggravation often causes you to double your efforts and work harder. But the knowledge of your resistance is not so frustrating because the knowledge of self-discipline has a soothing, reassuring effect.
Consider fasting: Many that have experienced extended fasts will remark that their heads feel remarkably clear and that they feel, overall, surprisingly energetic. To that end, many individuals fast for religious reasons, essentially channeling the bodily tension they feel into spiritual meditation which they would have lacked the exquisite focus to do in the far tamer three-meals-and-snacks structure of everyday life which indulges one’s appetite every few hours, snapping productive tension.
Veering into a different example here, consider what happens when you take a social media break. Not only may your anxiety levels drop, you might pick up on the far-subtler uptick in productivity that stems from the simple knowledge of delayed gratification, of urges held at bay by the strength of your own self-discipline.
3. Refocus a thousand times
In a world bursting at the seams with distractions, practicing the art of refocusing is no small exercise. It is a 21st-century essential. It is no secret that our brains are stunningly adept at picking their way down bunny trails, perhaps daunted by the cognitive labor of the task at hand. It is easy to become demoralized by how repetitively we must rein ourselves back in. It may come to the point where the tally of required refocusings is almost embarrassing, so we throw up our hands, admit surrender, and hop off to a mindless Internet jaunt.
And what do you know? When you do that, you’ve snapped the rubber band of tension critical to getting you from where you are to where you want to be and if you start over again, it will be at square one.
In any case, do not be discouraged by the infinite number of times you must refocus. The number of times is little indication of your inner resiliency. What is a strong indication of your resiliency is the strength and persistence of your resistance.
I have long been sympathetic to a life philosophy of energy-conservation and the keeping-the-tension strategy is my latest installment of it. Tension, remember, has a productive, positive side. And it lends itself well to goal accomplishment and, well, just generally getting-things-done. If you know yourself to be especially prone to stagnancy and distraction, recall the merits of running into the battlefield of fear, delaying gratification, and unceasingly refocusing. If in doubt, repeat the refrain: whatever you do, don’t break the tension.