I had better not be too happy in the present moment if I’m to have any chance of finishing work on this essay, right? I should not be so uniformly blissful as to be free of any negative emotion whatsoever. I must want to finish.

Wanting to finish means that I must be slightly upset with my current situation. I must be bothered by what I don’t have: I don’t have “doneness.” I don’t have completion. I must let that trouble me somewhat. I must believe that my current situation is not as good as the one I’m trying to attain: “I’ll be so happy when I finally have this project behind me.”

If I felt that leaving this essay unfinished would be just as acceptable as finishing it, if I harbored no trace of dissatisfaction with the circumstance of not being done, if there were no greater satisfaction I wanted to reach, then I wouldn’t persist. Then complacency, laziness, and inertia would doom the effort. There are other, easier things I could do for pleasure; writing is hard.

But just like a cook might pay great attention to figuring out how much salt a dish really needs — not too much! — there’s a good reason for me to question how large a helping of dissatisfaction my effort really requires.

If I’m ever going to succeed in attaining completion, how much negative motivation is necessary and how much is too much? How much discomfort should I feel in knowing I haven’t closed the deal? How much impatience is really required to propel me across the finish line?

This question has great significance for my life, well beyond the task of finishing this particular essay.

If large doses of dissatisfaction are essential for accomplishing anything hard, then that would translate into an overwhelming amount of dissatisfaction across the many, many difficult tasks I undertake in my life. At any time, there are dozens of things I’m trying to do, and if each project’s incompleteness must be source of dissatisfaction, that could add up to enough dissatisfaction to bury me alive.

I often assume that the kind of motivation I require depends on the task itself: how hard is it and how much do I enjoy the work? If the task is easy and I love doing it, the momentum will build on its own. There’s no need for negative motivation.

But if the task is difficult and unpleasant, and I don’t think I’ve been moving fast enough, then I assume I should do everything possible to intensify my desire to finish, which means I should stoke my dissatisfaction with not being finished yet. In these cases, I assume dissatisfaction is good for me. I assume it’s good for me to be upset that I still haven’t gotten what I want. It’s good for me to envy what I don’t have.

That logic, which I’ve followed so many times unaware, is startling when I actually write it out, because it stands in direct contradiction to my other views about life and happiness.

If you were to ask me for my best advice on how to lead a fulfilling life, I’d say this:

Always appreciate what you have and don’t waste time feeling jealous of what you don’t have. Always prefer love over hate.

This advice contains three distinct principles: there’s a Gratitude Principle, a No-Envy Principle, and a Love Principle. They can be found in many different faith traditions but here I’ve matched them up with quotations from the Bible:

  • The Gratitude Principle: Always appreciate what you have. See Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.”
  • The No-Envy Principle: Don’t waste time feeling jealous of what you don’t have. See the Tenth Commandment, Exodus 20:17: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”
  • The Love Principle: Always prefer love over hate. See Matthew 22:39: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

How is it possible for me to cherish these principles and yet abandon them so completely when I’m working on a frustrating task and I’m growing impatient?

As soon as I say, “This problem is taking too long. I should have been done by now,” then I’m abandoning the Gratitude Principle. I’m not appreciating what I have. I’m not appreciating the progress I’ve made so far. I’m not appreciating the opportunity that lies ahead. I’m feeling as though my situation is ugly and unfair. I’m feeling as though I’ve been cheated. I’m upset that I haven’t gotten the outcome that I believed I was entitled to expect for all my effort.

As soon as I say, “Why me? Why is this so hard for me?”, then I’m abandoning the No-Envy Principle. I’m coveting completion. I’m coveting the ease with which other people seem to finish what they start. I’m thinking it’s unjust that I work so hard — harder than many other people — but they are getting done and I’m not. I’m envying the success that they attain easily — the success that is being withheld from me.

As soon as I say, “I hate this task!” I’m abandoning the Love Principle. I’m seeing the task as my mortal enemy. I’m allowing my heart to fill with rage against something I’ve grown to dislike.

Perhaps the reason why I abandon the Gratitude Principle, the No-Envy Principle, and the Love Principle when working on a difficult task is that I don’t think they apply to the context of task management or problem solving. I’ve absorbed some common preconceptions about where these principles are supposed to be followed and where they’re not relevant.

Let’s take the Gratitude Principle. When we think of feeling gratitude, we probably assume this advice is pertinent when things are going well. We think should feel gratitude when good luck comes our way, or when we receive kind gestures from others. But when we feel cheated, or when we see ourselves as a victim of bad luck, unfairness, or the flawed behavior of others, that’s not the time when we think we should search for things to be grateful for. To push ourselves to see a rosy picture of a bad situation could breed complacency. Don’t we need to be upset in order to have the motivation to make change?

Let’s take the No-Envy Principle. When the Tenth Commandment gives examples of what not to envy, it’s all about a neighbor’s material wealth. As long as we’re not coveting material wealth, we might assume we’re doing pretty well as far as this commandment is concerned. We might not think that coveting “doneness” is the kind of coveting that’s governed by this commandment. Isn’t it virtuous to want to finish the work we’ve started?

Let’s take the Love Principle. When we think of choosing love over hate, we probably assume this principle should govern our attitude toward other living beings. We know should love our neighbor. We know we should refrain from hating any individual or group. But when we hate an inanimate thing – a problem, a task, or the situation of incompleteness itself – then all the wisdom about non-violence goes out the window. We think hate is totally fine, even good in this context. Hating a task might motivate us to finally get done with it. Trying to love the task would be inauthentic. Love, we might say, is a thing we should feel naturally and spontaneously and it can’t be forced.

Emotions are emotions, though. The experience of being ungrateful for one’s current situation and coveting what one doesn’t have — that’s the same experience whether we’re coveting material wealth or we’re coveting progress in our work. The experience of hatred is just as toxic whether we’re hating another person or we’re hating a problem, a task, or a situation. Of course, hatred is much more dangerous when it is directed at other people, but it is always corrosive for the person feeling the hatred, no matter whether the target is animate or inanimate.

A person might stand out as an exemplar of the Gratitude Principle, the No-Envy Principle, and the Love Principle if they always say thankful and positive things about their friends, they don’t pursue or flaunt material wealth, but instead they attend peace rallies and volunteer at community service events and save their money to give to charitable causes. But such a stereotypically loving, grateful person could still have blind spots and could still suffer from dissatisfaction, envy, and hatred in other aspects of their life. When they work on an exasperating problem that consumes “too much” time or energy, they might feel a kind of dissatisfaction, envy, and hatred that can run rampant because these emotions here seem to be outside the jurisdiction of the principles that would keep them in check.

Here are some questions to consider next time you’re working on a frustrating task:

  • How much do you covet being done?
  • How much dissatisfaction are you feeling with your current situation of not being done?
  • Have you begun to feel that the situation is unfair or unfortunate?
  • Do you feel that after all your effort, you deserve to be done by now and you haven’t gotten what you deserve?
  • Or do you feel you haven’t worked hard enough to deserve to be done, and it’s awkward to want something so badly that you don’t deserve?
  • Have you begun to hate the situation and to imagine that life would be better if you could escape it?
  • Have you begun to hate the task itself, seeing it as an enemy that’s dragging you down?
  • Is this dissatisfaction and hatred helping you move forward in your work, or is it slowing you down?

Here are some questions for shifting your outlook:

  • What are your advantages in this situation? What is working in your favor?
  • What can you appreciate about what you currently have?
  • What can you appreciate about the task and the progress you’ve made on it so far?
  • How can you relinquish your fixation on what you don’t have?
  • How can you relinquish this fixation while still taking steps toward finishing the task?
  • How can you tame the hatred that you feel for the task and the situation of having to work on it?
  • How can you feel any kind of love in this context, even if it’s only the love of being alive and having problems to solve?

As I worked on this essay, sure enough my progress stalled. At one point, I thought I was nearly done, but then I saw a way to reorganize the whole piece, which created some uncertainty, and then more work for me.

“This is taking way too long,” I said. “I should have been done by now. I’ve poured too much time and effort into this piece and there’s no end in sight. Why does this always happen?”

That’s a familiar thought, and it has surfaced countless times in my writing projects and other efforts. I would usually consider it as a necessary and helpful thought that keeps me aware of my time budget.

But today I considered this thought in a different way. I realized that this thought about speeding up and working faster can only slow me down. This thought can only make the work more painful. That’s because once I’ve concluded that I should have been done already, then whenever the project comes to mind, I’m bound to have a negative feeling: “I’m still not done! What is wrong with me?” Every time I so much as remember the task, I’m bound to receive a little dose of dissatisfaction, self-doubt, and anger. And I’ll be receiving those doses again and again until I finish. Whenever I attempt to resume the task, I’ll have to face my dissatisfaction, so I’ll prefer to do other things. I’ll look for distractions. I’ll procrastinate.

All of this anguish follows from the simple act of labeling my work as “behind schedule” or “failing.” That’s a costly label.

If I do manage to finish the task under the crushing weight of all this dissatisfaction, then I’ll look back and think, “That was such a struggle! I’m not sure I want to do that again.”

But today, I realized that instead of mentally labeling this essay as “delayed, lagging,” and then thinking, “Terrible! I’m still not done,” hundreds of times thereafter, I could take a different approach. I could label it as “emerging, growing, gaining focus.” I could think, “Good — there’s more I can do. There are more experiments I can try. There are next steps I can take. And I have the freedom to take them.” I kept thinking that way, and lo and behold, I got what I wanted. I got it without coveting, without hating, without being ungrateful. I got what I wanted by appreciating the progress I had already made, by relinquishing my envy for completion, and by connecting with the love that motivates me to write. That’s not to say I got what I wanted quickly or easily, but I got it, and you’ve just finished reading it. ■

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