Effort, Productivity, and the Muse

"Let my inspiration flow in token rhyme suggesting rhythm That will not forsake me, 'til my tale is told and done"

Those are the first few lines of the Grateful Dead's "Terrapin Station." I used to love that song when I was in high school. I've since outgrown 12-minute rock opuses, but I still love those lines. Before telling the story, the singer invokes the Muse.

The Muse, if you’re not familiar, was a goddess (or goddesses) who inspired creativity. And like all classical goddesses, she could be supplicated, but never controlled. No matter how badly an artist wanted to create, she was always at the mercy of the Muse.

It's a frustrating idea, right? Not something we want to hear. But it’s actually a useful one. Let me explain.

A common issue for my clients is difficulty getting things done. Some are in "creative" careers, but many are in engineering, law, or other types of knowledge work. Regardless of whether or not they have a clinical diagnosis (such as an anxiety disorder or AD/HD), they often wonder: How do I make myself get to work?

I think this is hard for everyone sometimes, even wildly successful people. As Nora Ephron said, “The hardest thing about writing is writing.”

Now, as a behavioral therapist, the main thing I do is help my clients find and make some easy changes, so that they are more likely to get to work. We'll use tools like time charts, self-monitoring, and alarms to develop work habits that support productivity. And these methods can be extremely helpful, especially if we are starting out with bad habits.

But they don't take us all the way there. Sometimes, we can make all these changes, and still find that we're having trouble. "I just can't get myself to do this."

This place of "I just need to work harder" is a tough spot, and it is where many people are when they come to therapy.

When we find ourselves in this spot, we have a choice. We can take the Hard Approach, and start to tell ourselves stories about how hopeless it is, about how many times we've tried to change, about how all the really successful people are less lazy, or whatever. If we get really practiced at the hard approach, we might find ourselves anxious or depressed.

The other way is the Soft Approach. We can give up, and acknowledge that the last step, the actually doing *good* work, is totally out of our control.

Invoking the Muse is a way of taking a Soft Approach. It is a healthy abdication of personal responsibility. If we really want to be productive, we can't force it. We can only make some choices about what we want to be doing and make the necessary preparations. That's our way of inviting the Muse. Past that, we need to let go and have some faith that she will decide to pay us a visit.

What do you think? Frustrating or freeing? The more frustrating this sounds, the more you need to practice this approach.