Doing the thing that feels good
On joyful detours
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it.”
— Mary Oliver
Sometimes I’ll start doing the thing, only to feel overcome with drowsiness.
It happened yesterday. I opened a document on my computer and went to write the thing I needed to write, and it was as if something was tugging on my eyelids like curtains.
I decided to close the document and instead move to another task—one that was still on my to-do list, but that I hadn’t deemed urgent. I started reading, and then typing, and then suddenly an hour had elapsed.
My eyes opened. The task felt awake, I felt awake. I was able to carry a joyfulness into the rest of the day, eventually making myself better primed to think about the other thing.
A friend was telling me when she has this experience of attempting to start something only to have a wave of fatigue, she has come to see that it’s a sign there is no waking energy there—the task needs more time in the unconscious.
Perhaps I found it difficult to begin writing yesterday morning because the thing wasn’t ready yet—it required more passive thinking. By moving onto something that felt good and ready, the other thing could continue percolating without all the pressure.
It feels like I’ve learned this lesson many times over. I’ve literally written the book on the subject! Yet no matter the promises of some new productivity system or hack, what works best—for me at least—is simply following what feels good. In this instance, what felt good was tackling another task, but on another day it might be tidying up or even taking a nap.
Following what feels good isn’t a flippant act—it’s an intuitive one, where we are called to recognise what is ready within us.
It is also an act of trust. We need to trust that we are capable—we are someone who will get things done, and we can trust that by doing what feels alive right now, things can unfold in their natural order.
Say, for example, you need to be working on a particular project, but instead find yourself with a sudden urge to clear out that unruly cupboard. You begin to do so with gusto, but then a voice inside your head labels it as procrastination and you start doubting yourself, or spiralling into productivity guilt.
What’s the point of such judgement? Instead of diminishing our newfound energy, we can embrace it.
As you declutter, shuffle and wipe, you are gently thinking, gently allowing the other thing to come to life.
This not doing the work is actually very important work. As Joseph Lee discussed in an episode of This Jungian Life podcast, he will often task his students with going into the cupboard or closet they avoid, taking everything out, and purging it so they can bring it into their version of perfect order.
He says, “That process of confronting this secret cordoned-off place of chaos in their house is an incredible metaphor for the places of disorder in our own psyche that we avoid and let fall into disorder in decay.”
We are doing more than getting that cupboard in order—we are bringing a sense of order into our internal life and into our days.
Of course, clearing the chaos is very different to creating more. We know we have gone too far when that vital, joyful energy becomes lost during the detour.
This is why I think it’s important to select small tasks that feel alive, as they’re the key to momentum—and maybe even our own sanity. As Haruki Murakami said, “Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.”
We want to make the path unobstructed, after all. We want to remove obstacles. We want to do what feels good, so it leads to another thing that feels good, and another, and we follow that feeling through until it brings us to what’s important in our lives, and thereby the lives of others.
Of course, there is a time for doing the urgent, important, or dreaded things. As I talk about in my book, productivity methods like eat that frog can be great if they work for you, but they often don’t respect the natural ebb and flow of the creative process, or our energy, attention and desire.
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The great Stephen Sondheim was known for writing lying down because it was better for a quick nap when things weren’t going well. He knew that when we pass a problem into our unconscious by grabbing some shut-eye, then more often than not, we wake to find an answer.
Such strategic napping isn’t just a problem-solving remedy for creative work—it can be applied to conversations we aren’t yet ready to have; moves we need to make out of jobs, towns or relationships; parenting challenges; or simply some pesky life admin.
I’m fond of a nap because of the space it gives the unconscious, but also for how it can break the negative spiral of guilt or shame. A nap is a perfect stop for our chattering conscious, and a start for our unconscious.
Of course, not everyone has the luxury of taking a nap when things aren’t going well. But there are instances where each of us can learn to pause and redirect our attention to something that feels even just incrementally better than berating or struggling against ourselves.
There’s often a resistance to this redirection. It’s as if we fear that we’ll somehow fail if we don’t do the thing this very instant so we convince ourselves it’s better to keep struggling with it. What this flawed logic overlooks is that we’re running just to stand still.
We may not have a choice or influence on the chaos of the world, but we have a choice about how we make space for the small good-feeling things in our days.
We can choose to take a joyful detour away from forced or even empty tasks towards what feels right and alive in the moment. It may very well be the thing that gets us back on track, or at least reminds us that there is possibility left. After all, as Mary Oliver said, “joy is not made to be a crumb.”
Thanks for reading!
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