Personal Development

On Keeping Gratitude

It’s convenient to think of gratitude as an emotion that should come over us naturally, when the time is right, without our forcing it or making a fuss over it. Convenient because this view leaves us nothing to do but wait until the emotion spontaneously transpires. But if you believe that gratitude promotes well-being, that it can make a person kinder and happier, then you might consider gratitude as a thing you’d want to increase in your life even if the increasing takes deliberate effort. 

When you want to have more of a thing, you can create the thing, or you can conserve the thing. This dichotomy is true of money: if you want to be richer you can make more money or save more money. But what if you want to be “richer” in gratitude? Does a similar distinction between creating and conserving apply, or do emotions just not work this way? 

If you browse the literature on mindfulness, personal development, or positive psychology, you will find lots of exercises for creating gratitude. You might be asked to smile more. You might be asked to meditate on the topic of thanks. You might be asked to keep a gratitude journal, writing a list of the good things that happen to you each day. 

But what would it mean to conserve gratitude? Can we become more grateful if we focus on saving or protecting the gratitude we already have? Does this even make sense?

The idea of being stingy with gratitude, hoarding it for special occasions, is antithetical to gratitude’s very meaning – if anything, gratitude is a generous feeling and one that begets more of itself. But there’s another way to unpack the idea of “conserving gratitude” that does make useful sense.

The reality of gratitude is that when we feel it, we might not hold onto the feeling for long. Although gratitude is not something we expend, it is still something that can be lost, drained, or inhibited. So we can become more grateful by turning our attention to what inhibits gratitude – what makes us ungrateful – and learning to avoid those things.

What’s an example of a gratitude inhibitor?

Let’s say you’re having a fine day. You appreciate the gift of being alive – great! Then you spill some milk and start to feel angry and upset. Your perfect day is ruined. From then on, you can’t be happy about anything.

In this example, the spilled milk is not the gratitude inhibitor. The inhibitor is the assumption that you shouldn’t have spilled the milk. It’s the assumption that you shouldn’t have had an accident or made a mistake. It’s the expectation of perfection, the idea that perfection is your right. Once that right is taken away, you feel violated – attacked by reality, so to speak – and closed off to positive interactions with the reality that was so unfair to you.

By saying “I’m not perfect and perfection is not my right,” you can neutralize the inhibitor. Once you’ve accepted imperfection, perhaps you can feel grateful that you had some milk to spill in the first place.

I first started thinking about the idea of a “gratitude inhibitor” after a fight with my partner.

One day, a difference of perspectives led to a misunderstanding which turned into accusations and shouting. After the fight, my feelings were hurt and I couldn’t return to normal. I knew my partner and I would recover from this rough patch like every conflict we’d had in seventeen years, but that didn’t help. Why did I feel unhappy for days on end? How had my sadness become so intense?

I saw that my temporary anger was obscuring my gratitude for the person I had chosen to spend my life with. I couldn’t feel thankful for my partner at the same time I felt so mad. If you had asked me whether I still counted our relationship as a blessing, I would have said yes. But the answer would have been a cerebral one at the time. I wasn’t able to experience the gratitude in my heart in the very same moment I was experiencing the anger. The anger was the inhibitor, a powerful one.

I could see that the fight, with all its shouting and exasperation, wasn’t actually the thing that had made me miserable. The fight was like spilled milk. By itself, it wasn’t so bad and it didn’t have to make me miserable.

What caused the misery was the anger that built up within me in the hours and days after the fight. The anger obscured the gratitude that had been a longstanding source of happiness for me. The anger took that source of happiness away.

If anger inhibits gratitude, then forgiveness is a way to neutralize the inhibitor. In my case, forgiving my partner was a path back to experiencing the gratitude that had always made me feel so good.

Forgiveness is hard. But it can benefit you as much – maybe even more – than the other person, so self-concern is a good enough motivation to try it.

Another inhibitor is comparison. Today’s weather might be decent. But if yesterday’s weather was nicer, we think “Today isn’t as nice as yesterday.” Or “Today’s weather isn’t as nice as I was expecting it to be.” The comparison leads to a feeling of loss. The sizing up of “what is” in relation to “what was” or “what could have been” leaves us feeling cheated. Why do we have to compare in the first place? As soon as we stop comparing, we stop losing. We neutralize the inhibitor. We reclaim our appreciation of “what is,” whatever it happens to be.

In conclusion, there are two ways we can pursue gratitude. We can try to create more of it within ourselves, and we can try to hold onto it longer by noticing and avoiding the things that take it away.

Personal Development

Declutter like an investor

When I look around a cluttered room, I can see it as a physical manifestation of hope. Seriously. Each item that I’m unwilling to part with – it’s there because of hope. I hope I’m going to use it someday. If unconstrained hope can lead to a bloody mess, what’s the lesson? Must we kill our hope if we want to free ourselves from unnecessary stuff?

I don’t want to kill my hope, so I’ll frame the situation a bit differently, and see if a different lesson emerges: Each item that’s cluttering my room – it’s there because I’m avoiding risk. I’m avoiding the risk of regret. I’m avoiding a scenario where I throw the damn thing out and then wish I had it back, only to find it can never be retrieved.

The hat that doesn’t go with any of my clothes? It’s there because of risk avoidance. The folder of old notes? The camera lens I never use? Risk avoidance.

It can help to think of decluttering like investing. You’re investing time and effort in creating a cleaner environment that will serve your future.

What’s the best way to not succeed as an investor? Avoid risk. Be unwilling to lose money, unwilling even to accept the temporary appearance that you’ve lost money.

The same is true of decluttering. Want to fail at decluttering and keep all your unused stuff? Simply refuse to make any decision that exposes you to the risk of regret.

Of course, if you find yourself in tears after a decluttering project, missing everything you gave away, then you were probably too aggressive.  

Moderation works. At the beginning of your decluttering project, aim to miss maybe one or two things when it’s all done. When you experience this moderate dose of regret, take it as a prize, because it shows that you were willing to accept the risk that created the possibility of reward.

If you had taken less risk, you’d still have that old hat – maybe it’s something you loved – but you’d have a pile of other stuff preventing you from finding it.

Personal Development

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is pain avoidance. 

If something makes you feel good, you’ll do more of it. So if you’re struggling to complete a task, then it’s not making you feel good; it can’t be. It’s causing you some kind of pain and you’re avoiding that pain.

What can we learn from this view of procrastination as pain avoidance?

First, we can see that procrastination is natural. Avoiding pain is natural. It’s as natural to avoid pain as it is to seek pleasure. 

But avoiding pain and seeking pleasure are two behaviors that cause trouble if they’re not constrained. Procrastination is what happens when our natural tendency towards pain avoidance continues without a limit that’s firm, immediate, and external to the self.

We procrastinate on a task when nothing forces us to do it right now. There’s no predator darting towards us that makes us jump into action. We know we can get away with sitting idle another moment, so we do.

Often, we’ll try to simulate that predator. We’ll growl at ourselves. “You must do it, now!” We’ll promise ourselves that we’ll be very angry and upset if the thing does not get done by us.

Those words never have much of a chance. They are just words competing against our primal instinct of avoiding pain.

What more can we take away from this view of procrastination as pain avoidance?

We can see that there’s hope for breaking the cycle.

Anytime we find ourselves procrastinating, we can consider it as an opportunity for self-improvement. It’s a chance to improve one of the most important relationships in our life: our relationship with pain. 

Instead of saying “I’m procrastinating,” say “I’m avoiding pain.” What are you going to do next, having admitted that?

Yes, you can work on increasing your pain tolerance, learning to grin and bear it, so to speak. But you can also look closer at the pain itself. Why does it hurt so much, or does it? How does your response to the pain make it worse, or better? How much of the pain are you actually creating for yourself? If you knew you were inflicting that same pain on another person, would you stop?

Let’s take a closer look at the kinds of pain that are often involved in a “case” of procrastination.

Maybe the most common trigger for procrastination is boredom. But what is boredom? It’s the pain we experience when we crave stimulation and don’t receive it.

If we use social media, we’ve cultivated an intense craving for stimulation. We scroll through our feeds, looking for the next item that will excite or enrage us. When we don’t get the titillation we been trained to expect, we keep scrolling. Of course, when we try to turn away from social media to do something like writing an essay, we experience a loss of stimulation. Writing the essay isn’t as exciting. It’s slower. It’s harder. It’s more solitary.

If the essay and the social media feed exist in two competing panels on our screen, of course we’re going to keep returning to the social media feed. We tell ourselves to stop slacking off, and when this barked command doesn’t work, our self-esteem is damaged. We think we should be authoritative enough to tell ourselves what to do and have it get done. We should be virtuous enough to concentrate and keep our word. Breaking our word time and time again makes us feel ashamed.

We begin to fret over how much time we’ve wasted and how delayed we are on a task that could have been quick. We feel guilty about the waste. We compare the way our efforts were supposed to turn out with the way they’re actually turning out and we can’t bear the disappointment.

Observing our ineffectiveness, we begin to fear failure. Ditto if we have a high standard: we fear that we won’t meet it. This fear becomes part of the bundle of pain we must now avoid. 

Some tasks are large and complex. If we feel confused, indecisive, unsure how to proceed, this feeling of confusion becomes part of the pain.

As we try to work on a given task, we know there are other tasks we could or should be doing too. Are we spending too much time on the current one? Would it be better to switch? Could we be more effective working on something else right now, or should we stick it out? Our indecision around time management becomes part of the pain.

And so a mild pain like the pain of boredom can grow, through our avoidance of it, into a big tangled knot of different kinds of pain including the intense pain of self-doubt or even self-hatred. And our avoidance of that pain will intensify along with it.

The key observation is that most of this pain is self-created. The guilt, the fear, the frustration, the doubt, the anxiety – these are all emotions we’re experiencing in response to our own behavior.

We would surely hesitate to inflict this much pain on another person, and yet when we do it to ourselves we somehow have the idea that it’s necessary. We think that by feeling this guilt, by calling ourselves names, scolding ourselves endlessly, our suffering will grow so great that it will be greater than the pain of doing the task. It will serve as the counterbalance that finally snaps us out of our avoidance behavior and forces us to get to work. 

But our self-inflicted pain can’t serve as an effective counterbalance because it is not independent from the task; it’s tangled up with the task. There’s no clear, easy choice between guilt and work because the guilt doesn’t evaporate the moment we get to work; in fact, we feel it more strongly as we try to re-engage with what we’ve been avoiding. The shame that’s supposed to nudge us to confront the task actually repels us from it.

What is the solution?





To start, forgive yourself immediately and absolutely. Realize that self-imposed pain is not helping you. Your likeliest path to getting the task done is to regain self-esteem. It’s to feel better, not worse. If you think that you’ve wasted so much time and slacked off for so long and fallen so far behind that you can’t possibly forgive yourself, think again. You can forgive. If you’re alive, you’re a survivor. Be proud of that. Start there, with the acknowledgment that you had to do a lot of really hard things to get to where you are right now in your life and you got through them and you’re here – amazing. 

Be a cheerleader. Listen for the critical voice in your mind that’s saying “No, this isn’t good and you’re not doing a good job.” As soon as you hear that voice, drown it out with cheerleading. Don’t worry if the cheerleading seems contrived; trust that it’ll work. Say “Yes, this coming along. Great! Keep going!”

Try to summon so much positivity that you look forward to getting to work on the task because of all the nice things you’re going to say.

Think about the pain you’ve been avoiding. Is it the pain of boredom? Try meditating to reduce your craving for stimulation. Is it the fear of failing? The fear of not meeting your standards? Not being good enough? Not being effective? Envision yourself creating a “shitty first draft” and feeling great about it. Be flexible. Consider it a badge of honor that you’re willing to take the risk of reducing your standards to get something done.

When you’ve released yourself from all the pain that’s self-inflicted, when you’ve shedded the baggage, decluttered your mind as much as possible, now look at the pain that’s left, the smaller core of pain that’s intrinsic to the task itself. Is the pain of the task really that bad or is it something you can face? And if you do face it, what good things will be unlocked?

How much could a little more bravery contribute to your life? How much happier would you be if you could learn, through the task at hand, a better way of conceptualizing and responding to pain? Now’s your chance to practice.