This post is in answer to a question I received by email: how does one find a way to care about something when you don’t care about anything? And was originally published in The Startup.
Apathy might be my least favourite feeling
Except, it’s not even a feeling. It’s more a lack of feeling. A total ambivalence that sinks into your bones and leaves you disengaged from everything.
We all get days like this. Days when you just don’t care. You’re late to work and don’t care. You snap at people or ignore them or respond in monosyllables. You forget important things and it doesn’t bother you. You neglect your health and well being, maybe find it hard to care for those who depend on you. You can’t engage with anything. The world feels grey and empty.
It’s one thing to be apathetic about certain areas of your life. You can’t care about everything, all the time. But what happens when you really don’t care about anything? When nothing feels important? When you’re endlessly listless with no clue how to break through, or even much desire to do so?
If you’re an otherwise driven and disciplined person, bouts of unconcern are terrifying.
If you’re reading this, you at the very least care that you don’t care, even if it’s just a tiny bit. Even if you’re, right now, thinking yeah but I don’t care that I don’t care, I’m just reading this to confirm that I don’t care. I think you still care. And I care, so there’s that.
Motivation is a strange, possibly mythological creature
You can’t force it or hack it or trick yourself. It’s finite and runs out in little time. Yet when we want to do something enough, we’re amazing at getting it done.
That doesn’t mean all that bullshit about manifestation and anything being possible if you try hard enough is true. It’s not. Not everything is possible and not everyone gets equal chances.
But let’s not underestimate the magical effects of giving a shit.
If you want to do something enough, the motivation carries you through whatever it takes to do it (or at least get as close as possible), overriding fear and shame and embarrassment and confusion.
You just do it. You figure out the steps and follow them and when something goes wrong, you find different steps.
But the urge is strong enough that you don’t doubt the existence of steps that work. You don’t doubt the goal, you just follow it.
What if you don’t feel motivated by anything?
Then you simply pick a something to be your something and you follow through.
The secret, as far as I’ve learned and as far as there is one, lies not in unusual discipline, but in not questioning that decision too much. Doubt, maybe. Fear, of course.
But underlying it all, a simple commitment to pursuing whatever you chose as far as possible. It gets easier the more you practice giving a shit.
With time, you start to realise that maybe you don’t care about whatever you chose, and that forcing yourself to do it for a long time highlighted what you do care about. Casey Neistat once said in an interview that the key to figuring out what you want to do is spending a lot of time doing something you hate.
Where do you begin, though, when you’re devoid of the slightest inclination towards anything?
We pick our battles.
Even if sometimes we don’t pick anything. Our energy is limited. Maybe you think you don’t care about anything, but in reality all your caring energy is being burnt up by worrying about the news and Facebook and whether people like you.
Maybe you’re fighting all the wrong battles, ones that don’t benefit you and can never be won anyway.
You didn’t really pick them. You just defaulted to caring about whoever or whatever shouts the loudest.
In which case, you start small.
Find something to care about that benefits you. Consistently. A binary yes/no tickbox. You don’t need to feel like it or feel like you care about. Just commit to something tiny and make it non negotiable. Mark squares in a spreadsheet green or red for each day (thanks Sebastian Marshall for this idea.)
For instance, one of the most consistent ways for me to break through a stint of apathy is to decide to get up at the same, early time each day.
I decide to care about what time I wake up. Managing it shows me I’m not a passive blob floating through life. Then, indirectly, it also forces me to consider what time I sleep and how I wind down at night and what I do first thing and so on. Then the simple proof that I can pick something and, even if it’s not perfect everyday, follow through, carries over.
I don’t actually want to get up early, nor is it intrinsically useful, and even if it is, that’s not the point. I keep stacking up small things to care about. I set manageable daily and weekly and monthly goals, then raise the bar inch by inch.
Sometimes when you start actively deciding what to care about, instead of letting the world leech your time and energy without permission, your focus shifts. You truly stop caring about things you didn’t know you weren’t indifferent towards.
Each of us has a baseline sense of self-worth — our conception of our own value and competency and abilities.
Envision it as a green or red number floating above your head, produced by an inscrutable algorithm. That’s how I like to think of it, anyway.
Throughout the day, you make decisions that either increase or decrease that number. Get out of bed without snoozing? It goes up. Yell at someone in traffic? Goes down. Etc.
If we fall too far below our baseline, we make choices designed to push us back up to normality. Like how my teenage self used to add dissolvable multivitamins to vodka. If we go too far above it, we self-sabotage to bring ourselves down. No one wants to feel too bad, sure, but feeling too good is also abnormal.
When we maintain a level above or below our baseline for long enough, it starts to shift in that direction. We make bad choices for a while and our self worth goes down. We make good choices for long enough and it goes up. Decisions are evidence for or against whatever we think about ourselves. Confidence is an effect, not a cause.
For me, apathy usually boils down to self-hatred. At that point in time, I don’t care enough about myself, and instead burn up my caring-energy on dumb stuff. But if you prescribe to this unscientific, subjective view of self-worth:
The key to not hating yourself is not doing things that give you justifications for hating yourself, and instead doing things that give you justifications for liking yourself.
As in, trying not to do whatever makes you feel bad. Things that you don’t necessarily want to do, but do because they bring you back to your normality. Things that have negative consequences and make your life worse in the long term, even if they feel good in the short term. You know what they are.
That’s why getting up earlier works. It means that, first of all every day, I get to make a decision that proves that I’m capable of doing what I decide to do. Which makes me feel more competent. Which indirectly, makes me less apathetic.
Yes, I’ve overused the word ‘thing’ in this post. Sorry. I don’t care.