My son has been sick with tonsilitis and just as he was recovering I started to come down with it too. I’m feeling slightly better today, thank goodness and he’s finally well enough to go back to Kindy. So we’ve been in Survival gear for close to a week now and soon it will be time to change gears back to Treading Water.
And I know I still have so many unfinished posts about each of the individual gears (I’ll get there!) but today I wanted to write about something very important about the Treading Water gear.
Treading Water is the STUFF gear where you focus on not letting things get worse. Between Survival (where you do what you absolutely need to to get through the hour, day and week) and Usual (whatever usual looks like for you!)
If your executive functioning is impaired (whether because of a neurological condition like ADHD or Autism or because of chronic stress, illness, pain or fatigue) it seems to makes sense to use rewards and punishments to try and get things done. “If I do this list of things then I can reward myself with…”
And It might work! For an acute episode of “I just don’t wanna” reminding yourself that you can sit down and read your book or watch netflix or play video games just might give you that little spark of motivation. It might? I mean it sounds good in theory. But… honestly? That… has never really worked for me?
And it’s not just that there is no accountability. I could just… sit and watch TV. Nobody is stopping me.
But “If I do all these chores THEN…” doesn’t really work as a sufficient incentive for me to do the chores because the problem isn’t that I don’t want the chores to be done. Or even that I don’t want to do them. It’s that… I can’t do them.
I like having a clean house. I really hate having a sink full of smelly dishes. There is a reward already built in to doing these chores in that I don’t have to live in filth and bad smells. I don’t actually need extra incentives to want those chores to be done. The incentives are kind of… built in. The problem isn’t a lack of incentives. So increasing those incentives has no real effect.
Let’s look at a very frequent scenario for me: I have a lot of dishes that I can’t manage to do. And I want to play The Sims.
So I tell myself:
“Elise. You absolutely cannot play The Sims because you have not done all of the dishes!”
And generally one of two things happens after that:
A. Failure: I play The Sims anyway. I feel guilty for breaking my own rules.
B. Success: I do not play The Sims. I do something unpleasant instead like reading The Bad Internet.
But do you notice something important about the ‘Successful’ scenario B above where I resist playing The Sims? I still didn’t do the dishes.
And when this happens day after day, week after week… well sometimes I do get around to doing the dishes and it’s hard and I force myself to do it (or I am forced to because we don’t have any clean spoons) and it takes SO LONG and then I don’t have time to play The Sims afterwards and I feel frustrated and resentful and sad.
And every time I do something “fun” or “relaxing” I have this little voice in the back of my head telling me that I’m being lazy and bad.
And this usually happens when my responsibilities are genuinely Too Much for me and everything is really hard. Isn’t that funny? I never accuse myself of being “lazy” when things aren’t overwhelmingly difficult.
So what’s absolutely vital about being in the Treading Water gear. When you’re working as hard as you can just to keep things from getting worse… is that Leisure is not a reward.
Leisure is a chore.
It’s a thing I need to do. It’s a task on my to-do list that I need to tick off and say “yes, I did do a fun thing today just for fun.”
Because when it comes right down to it playing The Sims is actually as important as doing the dishes.
If I don’t do the dishes my sink will fill up with dirty dishes and it will smell and I won’t have any clean spoons to eat with.
If I don’t play The Sims (or watch TV or read a book or…) then I will just feel like I am getting wound tighter and tighter and I’ll spend too much time reading The Bad Internet and “relaxing” by only doing things that make me feel bad and therefore somehow sidestep the guilt of having a good time when I really shouldn’t.
And that doesn’t help me in the Treading Water gear. It doesn’t help me prepare for changing gears back down to Survival or up to Usual.
It just makes me feel bad about myself. It makes me feel worse about myself.
So. Leisure is a Chore.
Do a fun thing. Just for fun. Not a project that you also find fun. Just… consume an art. Play a game. Read a novel. Listen to a podcast. Listen to music. Watch a video.
Because that isn’t a bonus that you need to earn. It’s something that you need.
STUFF – an introduction
Getting started with STUFF
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