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The Value of Going Through the Motions

I sometimes hear people talking about their process and complain that “I’m just going through the motions. None of this feels meaningful at all!” While I totally understand the desire for all of the work we do to feel meaningful in the moment, I’d like to take a minute or two and defend the value of going through the motions.

I have definitely had the experience of just going through the motions. The two things I can most easily that experience relate to are meditation and exercise. Both of those are things that I’ve been doing regularly and consistently for at least 25 years. Both are things where I understand and deeply value what they bring to my life. Both are things that I can easily fall into the mindset of not wanting to do them. And, both are things where, from time to time, I don’t actually feel the value as I’m doing them (either in the moment, or for days or weeks or months at a time).

When I’m not feeling the value but doing them anyway, I’m just going through the motions. But, that’s a good thing. First, I’ve written before about how the weights don’t care why you lift them. Part of what that means is that the value I’m getting from the activity is independent of what I’m feeling as I do the activity. If I’m lifting the weights, I’m getting the results. Sometimes I’ll notice those results in the moment and sometimes I won’t. Sometimes I’ll feel really good about those results and sometimes I won’t. But, I know that regardless of my feelings in the moment, I do value those results.

The corollary to the above is that the weights also don’t care why you don’t lift them. If you don’t do the work—for whatever reason—you won’t get the results. And, I value the results of both exercise and meditation.

One thing I know, though, is that the results of the work come from doing it consistently over time—usually a long time. But, if the days of not feeling into it are inevitable, and if I want the results of doing the thing for a long time, that means that getting the results requires at least some times of doing the thing when I’m not into it. Or, to put it another way: getting the results that I want requires that I spend at least some time going through the motions.

Now, look. I totally understand the desire for the work to feel meaningful in the moment. But, feelings change. It’s inevitable that some days I’m just not going to feel it, or feel into it, or feel like I’m getting the results that I want.

None of this means that I’m required to just trudge through the motions without doing something about it. Sometimes it can be really valuable to change up my routine. As part of my meditation routine, I read a variety of spiritual or recovery or growth-oriented books. Every few months, I change up what I’m reading, partly as a way to try to keep the routine fresh and avoid the feeling of just going through the motions. It doesn’t completely work, of course. Sometimes I end up going through the motions anyway. But, it keeps things a bit more lively and hopefully staves off that feeling for a bit.

Similarly, I change my workout routine every once in a while. I have a bunch of different exercises that I know because of having done physical therapy and worked with trainers over the years. But, that doesn’t mean I do them all every single day I work out. I’ve done enough exercises over the years that on any given day (or week or month), there are some of them that I’m not even remembering. So, as I remember them, I reintroduce them to my routine, and the feeling of doing something new and fresh comes back, at least for a bit.

Also, achieving any kind of meaningful goal requires that we exercise grit. One of the ways to develop grit is by forcing ourselves to do the thing even though it feels strange and uncomfortable. I found out recently that one of the best exercises for developing grit is to take some activity that you do regularly with your dominant hand, and try doing it every single time with your non-dominant hand.

If you’ve never tried it, trust me: it will feel weird and uncomfortable. You’ll almost certainly feel like you’re not doing it right. You’ll almost certainly forget to do it. And, after you’ve done it for a little while, you’ll almost certainly wonder why you’re doing it and not see any benefit out of continuing to do it. In other words, you’ll spend some time going through the motions. And, this is exactly the point.

By forcing yourself to continue to do it even though it’s uncomfortable and even though you don’t see the benefit of it, you train yourself to continue working through the difficulty, which helps develop grit.

So, the next time you find yourself just going through the motions, or worrying about just going through the motions, don’t panic. It probably won’t feel pleasant, and it’s okay to wish that whatever you’re doing did feel more meaningful in the moment. But, experiment with giving yourself permission to just go through the motions and do the thing anyway. You may find that the results of that are more meaningful than switching up your routine every time it doesn’t feel fulfilling.

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