Being productive should mean that we work without frustration, right? Every process and every task should be smooth and silky. Write out the project, list the next actions, put those next actions where you’d see them and have the resources, then plug and chug…

But as I work on my next project, I run into frustration, hitting walls with seeming regularity.

It’s not just that the next task isn’t clear. There are many emotions involved including tiredness, confusion, and worry about whether it’s of any use at all. You would think I’d be used to the roller coaster of “This is great!” quickly followed by “This is garbage!” and back again.

I’m only used to recognizing their presence. The feelings remain.

Hard Work?

Sitting through these feelings is what some call “hard work”, usually accompanied by the admonition that “hard work is good for you.”

Meh. I’m not always so sure. Sometimes doing something difficult over and over to the point of exhaustion is quite destructive, leading to feelings of defeat that aren’t so easy to manage as they build.

The Mind Behind the Scenes

Meanwhile, there is importance to sitting with these feelings for at least some time. These feelings are not some artifact of idiocy. Thought is only truly born of frustration, as psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion noted. Thoughts appear because the brain is trying to solve something. Difficult feelings can be fuel for creativity, albeit in limited doses, giving the mind something to chew, grind, build, tear down, and repair.

In this way, feelings of confusion, frustration, and more can even offer guidance as to what to do next. They say where things need shoring up or are doing well.

Particularly when we have been frustrated and step away, the mind continues its work to find those Aha! insights. Or we realize, “Oh wait, what if I did it this way?” and can return to the work the next day with new strength and vitality.

Reasonable Frustration

But the question remains, for how long is it useful to sit with frustration? Certainly, there is a point where it is too much. When weightlifting, we can lift a barbell to the point of gentle soreness, where musc or to the point of tearing. Similarly, we can engage our work and feel happily spent or sorely defeated.

When to step away is matter of personal judgement. We can listen to the mind just as we can to the muscles. Maybe I’m just playing with words, but I like the phrase Reasonable Frustration.

It gives a sense of a personal experience to work to, less than something about the work itself. We don’t have to work until a chapter is done, only until we are done for the moment. We can then set the work aside with the plan to return, perhaps the next day.

  • Kourosh