Listen to your apathy
“I don’t feel like going to the gym but I need to lose weight.”
“I don’t feel like writing but I want to be an author.”
“I don’t feel like going to work in the morning but I have to show up.”
Do these thoughts sound familiar to you? I can surely identify with them.
When we don’t feel like doing something we think we should do, we assume that we are lazy or unmotivated.
To remedy our perceived apathy, we shovel money to the personal development industry in an attempt to fix ourselves. We jump ecstatically during motivational events in hopes to be more energized. We devour book after book in the hunt for the next hack.
We yearn to bring ourselves to do things we dislike to achieve the goals we want. Conventional wisdom prods us to remedy apathy by:
- the sheer power of will
- finding external motivation
- utilizing productivity hacks
- create systems to form habits
It is terribly easy to dismiss apathy as something generically negative. I argue that we should not be so quick to dismiss our apathy.
There have been multiple occasions in my life where listening to apathy has brought unexpected benefits.
Possibility #1: We are in a bad situation and we can do better
In the second year of my first job working as a software developer, I began to feel lethargic and sluggish. I felt like hiding under the duvet in the mornings.
Technically and creatively, I was immensely underwhelmed. The only challenges I faced were time pressure due to hilariously clumsy project management and my nepotistic former boss.
I confided in my friends about my apathy. Most of them told me to be thankful that I had a job. They said that the situation is similar in other jobs, regardless of the employer.
The general consensus was that such challenges are part and parcel of work life. I should just accept the situation and show up every day. Some even told me work is not supposed to be fun.
I sought counsel with the head of my department, sharing with him the reasons I was no longer passionate about my job. He too advised me to accept how things are in the company.
I proposed ideas that could forge an environment of creativity and passion. Instead of taking any action, he recited part of the Serenity Prayer, that is commonly used in 12 step addiction recovery programs, to me.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference
His focus in the prayer was the “accept things I cannot change part”. I was expected to march on in a broken system that I cannot improve.
For months, I trudged it out, day after day. I failed miserably motivate myself. I tried affirmations, watching YouTube motivational videos and reading books. I even hated myself for not being grateful for the job I had. Everything was a depressing blur.
I just didn't give a crap about my job anymore.
Eventually, I was too tired of being cynical, bitter and apathetic. I remembered the Serenity Prayer and smirked. All the time, I was so focused on “accept things I cannot change” section due to my hatred, I did not see the “courage to change the things I can” section.
I started to apply for jobs. I was getting accepted by companies like IBM and Daimler. They offered more exciting assignments and at least 50% more money.
I still remember that one Monday when I printed the resignation letter at the office printer. I slapped it on the desk of my former boss. It was immensely satisfying.
Even after the honeymoon period at the new job was over, I still appreciated the positive work environment that allowed me to unfold. On most mornings, I found myself eager to get into work.
The whole ordeal taught me that we should pay attention when we are apathetic. Maybe the voice of apathy is screaming to tell us that we have to change our current crappy situation.
Pushing ourselves forward with willpower without investigating the cause of apathy is like driving a car through a sequence of brick walls. We could manage to punch through a few walls, but every attempt will damage us. Eventually, willpower runs out, we will still be stuck in the same shitty situation.
Possibility #2: We can reach the same goal using other means
While I was cycling on a forest path a few years ago, I kept crossing paths with mountain bikers. They looked so cool in their gear, riding their full suspension bikes. Most of them appeared muscular and fit. I was smitten with the idea of becoming a lean, mean mountain biker.
I forked out over 3000 bucks for a high tech mountain bike. I also acquired expensive biking apparel and gear to look the part.
I combed the internet forums to find riding companions. I started riding down easy trails at the local hill. I slowly became technically more competent. I was able to ride down flights of stairs or small vertical drops.
For about 2 years, I biked occasionally. I was attached to the idea of mountain biking. It was an interesting way to exercise, or so I thought. I told my friends about my rides. In my mind, I felt that it made me look cool.
But the truth was I was apathetic about mountain biking.
Despite some of the exciting bike tours, I couldn’t bring myself to ride often. I was in love with the romanticized idea of mountain biking, not in the activity itself.
Eventually, I just got tired of trying. I stepped back to reevaluate why I wanted to ride in the first place. I wanted so badly to ride because of 2 reasons:
- I wanted to participate in a sport to be fitter
- I wanted a fun activity that made me feel like a badass
I came to the conclusion that mountain biking is merely just one of many possibilities to achieve both goals. I started to dabble in a bunch of other sports to figure out if any of them spoke to me. Amongst others, I tried badminton, running, martial arts and climbing.
One day, I participated in a beginners’ course in paddleboarding. My legs tensed up and were shaking the whole time. I was the slowest and most awkward in the group.
Despite my initial incompetence, I continued with paddleboarding. As I got better, I found it to be relaxing. It gave me a full-body workout to boot.
I kept going out to a local lake to paddle. Every single time, I drove to the lake because I genuinely wanted to. I did not have to drag myself out there.
I can paddle much better now. I have also gained friends from the activity. I have even made it a point to take paddleboard tours when I go for vacations. I have paddled in the Atlantic Ocean in Gran Canaria and Portugal.
Looking back, having a lukewarm feeling toward mountain biking was a wonderful thing. If I had not given up on biking, I would have not discovered my passion for paddleboarding. Via paddleboarding, I achieved the initial goals that I wanted to reach using mountain biking.
We are constantly bombarded with motivational media that we have to grind it out and be persistent. Applying this cookie-cutter wisdom to everything will make our lives mundane and tiresome.
There are many paths to the same destination. Some of them are more fun than others. We can indeed have the cake and eat it too.
Apathy is not all bad
As you can see, apathy has its place.
Apathy is like the warning indicator light on our car’s dashboard. We can ignore that warning light and step harder on the gas pedal. Maybe we can go a few miles further but sooner or later we have to deal with the source of the problem.
Instead of trying to push apathy aside by drowning it in motivational literature or productivity hacks, we can ask ourselves a series of questions:
- Why are we apathetic about a certain activity?
- Are we really lazy?
- What goal did we want to reach in the first place?
- Can the task at hand be replaced by another more enjoyable task?
Here’s to apathy.