The Elusivity of Fulfillment, Part II: Some Practical Steps Towards Purpose

How can we learn to find the path back to meaning and fulfilment?

In the first part of this reflection, I walked you through what I discovered when I asked myself the question, “When was the last time you felt fulfilled?” As I worked through the process of answering it, I thought at first that I didn’t know, and that scared me. But then, as I dug deeper, I remembered a moment when a bunch of disparate threads converged. I remembered when, for the first time in my adult life, I felt I’d stopped being useless. The people who depended on me were provided for and happy. I had overcome significant challenges and found success at a new job. Those things put me in a state of mind where I was able to get physically healthier, which only enhanced the effect. I was finally fulfilling my role as a man, a husband, and a father.

I also talked about how despite some of those things being at least superficially in place in the years since, I’d somehow lost that feeling of fulfillment. Things had gone out of alignment, culminating in a very bad 2020 for me. But this forced me to confront the fact that things were seriously off track, which prompted a renewed focus on self-awareness, and ultimately, the search to put these things back in place (and this time, hopefully, not to take them for granted and let them slide again.)

Caveat emptor: I am not about to offer you time-tested answers from my own experience. I am an explorer in an unknown land, and I’m inviting you to come along with me on this journey. I’m looking for answers to these questions, but I’m not presenting them to you as an expert would. It’s more like, “Hey, check out this interesting thing I found. Do you think it might work?”

If you’re OK with that, let’s proceed. And this time, let’s get practical.

The article by Cortland Dahl that prompted me to write all of this is where I’ll start when it comes to suggestions for rediscovering a sense of purpose. This should, hopefully, lead us on the path towards an encounter with the much-sought after (though often elusive) feeling of fulfillment.

The peak moments of life, Dahl says — the ones when all feels right with the world — are, contrary to popular belief, actually aberrations. They are not normative, and expecting that to be our default mode causes us problems:

We remember them precisely because they are different, often worlds apart from the moments we usually have. Of course, peak moments like these are deeply nourishing. The problem comes when we start to think that feeling a sense of purpose and meaning only happens in these fleeting experiences. It can start to seem like our daily lives, by contrast, are somehow inherently devoid of meaning. That the only way to be fulfilled is to live some fantasy life that we’ll never actually have.

Social media tends to exacerbate this perspective. We see endless images that make it seem like everyone else has the perfect relationship or the perfect job, or all sorts of free time to focus on their passions. Of course, we rarely see these same people doing their laundry or waking up in the morning before their first cup of coffee. We don’t see their moments of self-doubt, or when they fight with their partners or stress over unpaid bills. All this fantasizing about the good life (while living the “hard” life) can create a massive blind spot. We can, if we’re not careful, unconsciously equate purpose and fulfillment with rare and fleeting circumstances, and miss the countless opportunities to find meaning in the small moments of everyday life.

Purpose, writes Dahl, is absolutely central to our physical and psychological well-being:

In a scientific model developed at the Center for Healthy Minds (where I work), we identified purpose as one of four key pillars of well-being. Our sense of purpose shapes how we feel about ourselves and our lives, but it is also linked to memory and cognitive abilities, to a lower risk of major health issues, like heart problems and stroke, and, believe it or not, to having a higher income and net worth.

Over the past few decades, a growing body of scientific research has shown that we may be looking in the wrong places to find meaning and purpose. The picture that is emerging from all this research suggests that having a sense of purpose is not something that we only discover when we are free from our struggles and the mundane details of life. To the contrary, purpose is precisely what helps us deal with adversity. It gives us the strength to persevere when we start to lose hope, and to find meaning in the seemingly meaningless details of our daily routines.

To give just one of many examples, a team of researchers led by Dennis Charney, MD, an expert on the biology of resilience, found that purpose was the key factor in predicting recovery from major life trauma.

Many of us have gone through life traumas in the past year. And the sense of purpose that we once had may have seemingly escaped us. For me, the feeling that purpose has taken flight has only deepened since last summer, which for me was ground zero for my personal crisis. But if lack of purpose actually slows our recovery, we have to work to get it back.

We need purpose. It's not a luxury.

I’ve also noticed, and maybe you have too, that when our sense of purpose goes away, our ability to enjoy leisure pursuits is also affected. As a writer and editor, I spend most of my day looking at or producing text. So in my off time, I tend to do things like play video games or watch a TV show or have some whiskey and a cigar by the fire pit. My preferred off-time activities are things that engage a different part of my brain. Sometimes, they don’t engage my brain at all, because it just needs some time off. But lately, I don’t enjoy any of these things much anymore. I open up a game I used to love and end up quitting out of boredom ten or fifteen minutes later. I try to watch a show or a movie and find myself disinterested half way through. Even my fondness for bourbon and cigars has dulled quite a lot. I used to draw and sculpting years ago, but I have zero interest in doing either now. Even the thought of my life-long love of travel seems to arouse little in my imagination but a lackluster, “meh.”

I described this phenomenon to my wife recently as akin to losing your sense of taste: all the flavor seems to have gone out of life. If you can’t taste your food, there isn’t much point in eating anything that isn’t absolutely essential for nutrition. Eating becomes a chore; something you have to do, not something you want. When leisure — which I still need after working all day — feels like a chore, it’s pretty demoralizing. It means that every day is just a turn on the hamster wheel. You get up just so you can work, spend a few boring hours in the evening wondering what the hell your problem is and trying to pretend you’re ok, and then go back to sleep.

We need things to look forward to, or existence turns into a grind.

But Dahl says that purpose “is not determined by our biology, nor by the circumstances of life. Purpose is a skill. It’s something that we can learn, practice, and apply in the midst of our daily lives.”

He describes a set of studies of high school and college-aged students, “many of whom were the first in their family to attend university.”

The first thing they found was that the students who reported a self-transcendent purpose for learning (meaning they wanted to learn not only for themselves and to have a good career, but also so they could give back to society) had better learning outcomes. They were more persistent and more likely to stay in school.

The researchers then wondered if this sense of purpose could be learned, so they created a simple exercise to get students to think about the bigger picture. Their findings were remarkable. The exercise was brief, and the students only did it once, but it made a huge difference. Compared to a control group, the students who learned to imbue their perspective with a self-transcendent purpose saw an immediate impact on their learning process, including deeper learning behaviors and improved self-regulation, which translated into higher grade point averages (GPAs) a few months later.

The take-home message here is that it is not what we do that determines how much purpose and meaning we feel, but rather how we view our lives and pursuits. As these students learned, purpose is a matter of perspective.

Dahl suggests several tips to begin learning to imbue our daily lives with this sense of purpose.

First, he advocates a practice of “mindfulness.” I know this can have some very new-agey connotations, but Dahl describes it merely as a means of reconnecting ourselves with the present moment — something I know all too well is easy to lose track of. He argues that removing ourselves from our habitual way of seeing things can help us gain much-needed perspective. So how do we do it? Dahl says that stopping to take “a few slow, calming breaths and notice the sensations in your body as you breathe in and out” can be enough to do the trick. “The key,” he writes, “is to bring yourself back to the present moment.”

Think of all the moments that would have previously been filled with opportunities for recollection and awareness — waiting in line at the store, sitting at a stop light, making a visit to the restroom — that are now automatically consumed with a look at your phone. Mindfulness is something we used to do without even thinking about it. But due to neglect, it’s something we’re not going to get back without effort.

Next, he recommends clarifying your motivation. Why are we doing the things we do every day?

For example, when you wake up in the morning, try thinking to yourself, “Today I’ll do my best to leave the world a little better than I found it.” Whether you’re doing the dishes, working out, or going through your to-do list, remind yourself of what you want your life to be about. Friendship, integrity, kindness… It doesn’t really matter. Whatever speaks to your higher sense of self will work. 

Finally, he advocates seeing every moment “as an opportunity to learn and grow.”

If you sit down to write your biography someday, you may very well focus on the big milestones and the major life challenges you faced, but life is actually what happens in between these memorable moments. It happens in the countless small steps we take every day. As we see in the lives of the most inspiring figures of human history, and the students who learned to bring a fresh perspective to their learning journey, every moment is an opportunity.

If you take a few moments to think about it, I think you’ll agree that many of our best moments are the ones that can easily slip by. The joy inspired by a child who says something particularly funny or precocious. The three-minute window where a sunset is so glorious you can’t tear your eyes away. A moment of expressed gratitude and contentment from a loved one. The feeling of connectedness when your spouse slips their hand into yours as you go for a walk or take a drive.

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But What About Burnout?

It’s all well and good to talk about mindfulness and clarifying motivation and seeing every moment of an opportunity, but what if mindfulness only makes you aware of just how off you’re feeling? What if you can’t figure out your motivation because nothing feels like it matters? What if your ability to learn and grow seems absolutely stunted by your malaise?

It’s possible that these things are happening because you’re burned out.

In an article at Harvard Business Review, Yu Tse Heng and Kira Schabram, who both study the effects of the workplace on happiness, discuss the challenges that burnout presents, and where it comes from. They identify several distinct factors:

First, our research confirmed the established finding that burnout is not a monolithic phenomenon, but rather, it can present as any combination of three distinct symptoms: exhaustion (a depletion of mental or physical resources), cynical detachment (a depletion of social connectedness), and a reduced sense of efficacy (a depletion of value for oneself). To recover from burnout, you must identify which of these resources has been depleted and take action to replenish those resources.

The act of replenishment, they say, has to be tailored to the source.

If someone is exhausted, making time for self-care (meditation, cooking a meal, taking a nap, etc.) can be just the ticket. If someone is burned out because of cynicism, self-focus might actually deepen the problem, but acts of charity towards others can help to reset the balance. If a feeling that one has lost their efficacy is the issue, a combination of self-focused efforts (like picking a task and seeing it through to completion) and compassion for others can help to restore a sense of personal worth.

Studies show that external efforts to pull someone out of burnout — no matter how well intentioned — often fail,” the writers say.

The link in the preceding sentence is an interesting one. It points to another article at Harvard Business Review, this time by leadership coach Palena Neale, who examines the problem that leaders often think they’re exempt from the requirements of self-care:

More often than not, when I broach the topic of self-care or even taking a break, my clients respond with some version of, “Are you kidding me?!? I’m already way beyond capacity looking after my team and my family, trying to organize home schooling, emotionally supporting my friends, colleagues, family … I don’t have time for that!”

This feeling of constant stress is sadly all too common among today’s endlessly busy leaders. Unfortunately, when we’re stressed, neuroscience tells us that our amygdala — the area of the brain responsible for our evolutionary fight-or-flight response — kicks in, diverting resources from the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for logical reasoning, problem solving, decision making, and willpower. In other words, it is precisely when we’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed that we would most benefit from slowing down in order to think big, innovate, and solve the problems that are stressing us out.

I’m not going to lie, I feel indicted here. I run my own business, and I’m an absolute disaster when it comes to time management. I have a lot of things on my plate, and my to-do list never grows any shorter.

But that can be part of the problem.

There are days when I feel so burned out, the idea of sitting down and going through emails, handing administrative tasks, looking into some technical issue, or reading article submissions is totally overwhelming. I won’t give myself a day off, so I find just about any distraction possible to keep me from facing what I’m avoiding. And I’m an “eat your vegetables first” kind of guy, so I won’t let myself do anything I really enjoy to take my mind off of the problem. I won’t write my own stuff — the best part of my job, and the reason I got into the publishing business in the first place — but I do stay glued to my desk, feeling as though if I just force myself to be there, I will eventually find the resolve to bend my will to the task. At the end of a day of this, having gotten precious little of what I needed to get done accomplished and having wasted a ton of time trying to force myself, I feel even worse. That feeling of uselessness comes back, and the burnout intensifies. “Why can’t I just make myself do what I need to do?”

I also don’t make time for self-care, and I use this self-imposed lack of time as an excuse. My job is intensely sedentary, and I’m a stress monster. These are the perfect cocktail for mindless eating, weight gain, aches and pains, and high blood pressure. I now deal with effects of all of the above. I also have to combat my longstanding “coffee until cocktails” mentality: drink a bunch of coffee to get my sluggish mind and body going in the morning, ride the caffeine wave through work, and then, when I’m feeling jittery in the afternoon from all of that, start pumping the brakes with the liberal application of adult libations. I often go to bed late, trying to squeeze whatever drops of enjoyment I can get out of my increasingly-unfulfilling leisure time, and my Fitbit keeps telling me I’m averaging less than six hours of sleep.

Unsurprisingly, Neale says I’m doing everything wrong:

Specifically, a healthy diet has been linked to better moods, higher energy levels, and lower levels of depression. Aerobic exercise increases blood flow, boosting both learning and memory. Getting good sleep has been linked to increased focus, improved cognitive function (including creativity and innovation), greater capacity for learning, and improved empathy.

It also seems to be the case that people who get up early get more done. I know I feel more productive when I do it. But going to bed late and getting insufficient (and often poor) sleep means I often get up late, too.

Parul Agrawal, an engineer, author, and business growth strategist, says that one of our worst habits is related to our devices:

In this technology-driven world, the first thing we do as soon as we open our eyes is check our mobile phones for messages, emails, updates, etc. that we might have missed during our resting time. But do you know that it’s an unhealthy habit that negatively impacts the rest of your day?

According to a study from IDC, about 80 percent of smartphone users check their mobile phones within 15 minutes of waking up every morning. Doctors today concur that immediately checking your phone as soon as you wake up can start your day off in a way that is more likely to increase stress and leave you feeling overwhelmed. In other words, you are ruining your day before it even begins.

And she’s not the only one warning against this.

I do this virtually every day. I go to bed looking at my phone. I wake up, my eyes still blurry, and reach for my phone, often with the thought, “What fresh hells await us today…?” (On the days I don’t do this, I’m actively fighting the impulse.)

And when I have a bunch of emails I need to respond to, a half dozen trolls strafing my most recent tweet, or a long, obnoxious comment on my Facebook share of an article, my brain immediately goes into reaction mode. I’m far less likely to get up and go for my morning walk when my brain is already writing replies. I want to grab a coffee and make a bee-line for my keyboard.

Agrawal says that “as simple as it might sound, making your own bed right after you wake up drastically improves the quality of your day.”

“The way we do one thing,” she continues, “is the way we do everything, and discipline in all aspects of life is the key to success.”

(Please don’t let my wife know I’ve read this suggestion!)

Changing Your Perspective

Agrawal also recommends starting your day with gratitude, and although I can’t bring myself to do them (yet), with positive affirmations.

“Be happy for another day in your life amidst the chaos and craziness of the world,” She writes. “Count your blessings and not your troubles. Cherishing what you have helps you value what life has to offer and creates positivity in life.”

I may struggle with affirmations, but I can’t overstate how important gratitude is. I’m sure you hear it a lot, but intentional gratitude actually makes a difference. And it especially makes a difference if you’re miserable.

Though you might not sense it reading this piece, I am, by both nature and nurture, an extremely negative person. I recently took Dr. Jordan Peterson’s personality assessment test, and I scored embarrassingly high on neuroticism, which is defined in the test results as “a measure of general sensitivity to negative emotions such as pain, sadness, irritable or defensive anger, fear and anxiety.”

I have a family history of anxiety and depression. My parents loved us a lot growing up, but it was a very risk-averse home, where negativity was used as a means both to keep me in line (see my essay on shame vs. guilt) and to help me to avoid danger. If I had a big idea about something, both of my parents were experts at finding all of the pitfalls I couldn’t see, and telling me how it would probably end badly for me if I did it. I also grew up in a home with a lot of anger, and many of my worst habits come as a result of the way my personality formed in response to both of these factors. I’ve suspected this for many years, but my Peterson test results describe the effects rather perfectly:

People with exceptionally high levels of neuroticism are more likely to think that things have gone wrong in the past, are going wrong now, and will continue to go wrong into the future. They are also more likely to be unhappy, anxious and irritable when just thinking or remembering, and when they encounter a genuine problem. They have unusually low levels of self-esteem, particularly when they are also low in extraversion. Neuroticism is a risk factor for anxiety disorders and depression.

Exceptionally high levels of neuroticism are likely to interfere with both success and satisfaction in relationships and career, with the strongest effect on relationships. Exceptionally high levels of neuroticism are associated with constant concern about mental and physical health, far more physician and emergency room visits, and very frequent absenteeism at work and at school (particularly if accompanied by below average levels of conscientiousness).

People with exceptionally high levels of neuroticism appear to be extremely risk-averse, which means they will avoid recreational, career, financial and social situations where the possibility of loss is high. Such people appear to be unusually concerned with maintaining their current status, rather than enhancing it. Perhaps this is a good strategy in genuinely dangerous or uncertain times.

Amazingly, despite my high levels of neuroticism, I’ve been pretty successful. It’s true that I’ve battled anxiety and depression for much of my life, am riddled with self-doubt, and have damaged my relationships by acting out on all of this. It’s also true that I am by nature extremely risk averse.

But I have an amazing, unbelievable wife who is, as one uncle of mine approvingly put it, “a pushy broad.” She has helped me to overcome many of these built in obstacles; to stop, as she puts it, “shooting myself in the foot” so often; and to believe more in myself than I ever previously did. She has put up with more from me than anyone ever should have had to, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

And I don’t intend to forget it. It’s one of the the things I express gratitude for.

Gratitude, for me, is not just saying “thank you” to the people like my wife for what they’ve done for me, but also saying it to God, and to myself, as an acknowledgement of a reality I need to recognize and accept.

Sometimes, I wake up at night and need to go re-fill the cup of water I keep at my bedside. As I walk through the dark house and see all that we possess, and look out the back window to the beautiful view of the city lights miles away across the open desert to the south, I say thank you. No matter how groggy I am. When I am made aware of my material blessings, I say thank you. When I look at the beautiful children God gave me, even when they’re wild and crazy and annoying me, I (try to!) say thank you. When I wake up in the morning feeling like a dumpster fire but realize I’m still alive with a chance to make it a better day than yesterday, I say thank you.

And you know what? It helps. A lot. The days I remember to do this are invariably better days. Never stop saying thank you. It is, I’m certain, one of the key stepping stones out of malaise and into an experience of fulfillment.

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Managing Expectations

Maria Popova, who writes at the often-fascinating Brain Pickings, says that “the vast majority of our mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering comes from the violent collision between our expectations and reality.”

If you think about it, that makes a ton of sense.

But as Popova says, we can’t hope to fix it by bending “the reality of an impartial universe to our will.” Instead, we have to adjust our expectations. Popova continues:

Walt Whitman understood this when, felled by a paralytic stroke, he considered what makes life worth living and instructed himself: “Tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.” He spared himself the additional self-inflicted suffering of outrage at how his body failed him — perhaps because, having proclaimed himself the poet of the Body and the poet of the Soul, he understood the two to be one. He squandered no emotional energy on the expectation that his suddenly disabled body perform a counterpossible feat against reality to let him enjoy his beloved tree workouts and daily excursions to the river. He simply edited his expectations to accord with his new reality and sought to find his joy there, within these new parameters of being.

What is true of the poetics of our own body-soul is as true of the poetics of relationship, that beautiful and terrifying interchange between separate body-souls. Little syphons the joy of life more surely than the wasted energy of indignation at how others have failed to behave in accordance with what we expected of them.

Much of the deepening of my own disillusionment over the past year has come from the “violent collision” of my expectations for my fellow man with the reality of where we are as a society. From the endless propagandism over COVID to the shockingly fast acceleration of cancel culture and its associated violence to the absurdity of the entire political spectrum as played out leading up to and following the last election, the world seems to have gone insane. People I already distrusted sunk deeper into “enemy” territory; but worse yet, some people I formerly respected became insufferable as well. In general, a sense that we’ve lost our grip on reality, that we feel entitled to alternate sets of “facts” about the same event, interpreted through our respective ideological lenses, or the popularity of zeitgeist-driven “hot takes” on every new controversy to come down the pike is incredibly demoralizing. So is the concentration of every bizarre, shocking, or indescribably stupid human behavior we are exposed to each day in our social media feeds. We’d never see so many horrifying or cringeworthy examples of human depravity in our daily lives without this strange digital window on the world, gushing its toxic exhibitionism into our timelines like so much raw sewage. But we do see them, and we don’t know how to process it all.

Popova offers something of a salve in the form of a quote from Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher of the second century AD.

“The things of the world,” writes Aurelius, “cannot affect the soul; they lie inert outside it, and only internal beliefs disturb it.”

As for our growing awareness of the boorishness of our fellow man, Aurelius addresses that, too:

Whenever a person’s lack of shame offends you, you should immediately ask yourself, “So is it possible for there to be no shameless people in the world?” It isn’t, and you should therefore stop demanding the impossible. He’s just one of those shameless people who must necessarily exist in the world. You should keep the same thought readily available for when you’re faced with devious and untrustworthy people, and people who are flawed in any way. As soon as you remind yourself that it’s impossible for such people not to exist, you’ll be kinder to each and every one of them. It’s also helpful immediately to consider what virtue nature has granted us human beings to deal with any given offense — gentleness, for instance, to counter discourteous people…

In a separate piece, Popova examines the challenges facing those who struggle with anxiety:

In the 1930s, one pastor itemized anxiety into five categories of worries, four of which [are] imaginary and the fifth, “worries that have a real foundation,” occupying “possibly 8% of the total.”

A twenty-four-hour news cycle that preys on this human propensity has undeniably aggravated the problem and swelled the 8% to appear as 98%, but at the heart of this warping of reality is an ancient tendency of mind so hard-wired into our psyche that it exists independently of external events. 

She cites another Roman philosopher, Seneca, on the anxious mind: “There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

There are many these days who seem obsessed with the downfall of society, or the chasing of dire prophecy, and a general preoccupation with doom and gloom. Last night I received a stern email from someone who told me in no uncertain terms that “we are in the end times” and that the current pope “is the False Prophet, the Beast from the Earth, discussed in the Apocalypse” who will, of course, herald in the coming of the Antichrist and the end of the world.

I wish this kind of thing were more uncommon. Surprisingly, it’s not. Do bad times cause men to reflect on eschatology? Of course. Always have. But we “know not the day nor the hour,” and should not pretend we do. A preoccupation with such things signals nothing good for those who become mired in it.

Seneca again:

What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come.

Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.

[…]

Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.

Look forward to better things. I like that.

As for how we should comport ourselves, Aurelius again offers good advice:

If you carry out every present task by following right reason assiduously, resolutely, and with kindness; if rather than getting distracted by irrelevancies, you keep your guardian spirit unspoiled and steady, as though you had to surrender it at any moment; if you engage with the task not with expectations or evasions, but satisfied if your current performance is in accord with nature and if what you say and express is spoken with true Roman honesty, you’ll be living the good life. And there’s no one who can stop you doing so!

As I look through all these guides that attempt to unpack and offer insight into what so many of us are experiencing, I don’t see a silver bullet. But what I do see are breadcrumbs; lots of small, bite-sized steps that can be taken to begin dragging ourselves out of the pit and back towards a life that feels like it’s worth living.

Scott Adams, the creator of the famous Dilbert comic strip and a hypnotist by training, writes in his book Loserthink about how these micro-steps — something hypnotists use in creating powerful acceptance of suggestion — can help get us out of a feeling of paralysis when we find ourselves trapped there:

We’ve all experienced times when we wanted to get up and do something useful but we couldn’t talk ourselves into it. It can happen when you are tired, unmotivated, shy, anxious, or even depressed. Your body sits there like a bag of potatoes while your helpless brain thinks that getting up and doing something would be a good idea. For some mysterious reason, your brain can’t give the order to your body to make it get off the couch. You might know you need to make a phone call or take a class to further your life ambitions, but for some reason you don’t do it. Maybe you think you know why, and maybe you don’t. But the net result is that your brain can’t force your body to do the simple things you know you need to do to improve your situation. For all practical purposes, you’re locked in a mental prison of your own making.

Even if you don’t have a couch-related problem, you might feel paralyzed in major areas of your life. Are you thinking about changing jobs, applying to graduate school, moving someplace better, learning a new skill, or upgrading your love life? Your first step is figuring out how to cure your own impulse for inaction.

The secret to thwarting couch lock of any sort is to stop imagining everything you need to do, and start imagining the smallest step that you can do without much real effort. If you feel you can’t talk yourself into standing up and doing something that needs to get done, talk yourself into moving your pinky finger. Then move it. As you move your pinky, you will immediately regain the sense of agency over your body that had been temporarily missing. Moving your pinky finger is easy no matter how stoned, tired, depressed, or unmotivated you are. Do what you can do, not what you can’t. Then build on the momentum.

What you will quickly learn is that moving your pinky finger makes it easy to wiggle the other fingers. Then you can easily move your hand, your arm, and the rest of your body. You’ll be off the couch in about ten seconds.

A similar approach works for those big things you need to do in life that you can’t talk yourself into doing. Figure out the smallest step you can take and then do it. Then take the next microstep. Stop thinking about the whole project you have in mind, as that will overwhelm you and stun you into couch lock. Just do what you can easily do, and watch how quickly that action makes it easier to do the next action.

I’ve offered a lot of practical ideas in this piece, and I hope that at least some of them seemed appealing to you.

The only thing to do now is: wiggle your pinky finger.