How to Stay Motivated in Gardening and Life | Almanac.com

How to Stay Motivated in Gardening and Life

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When the Novelty Wears Off

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For whatever reasons, you've decided to adopt a so-called “natural” way of life. You went for it, whole-hog. It's not always easy—and certainly not glamorous—but it's exciting and new. But after a while, the shine wears off.  Sound familiar?

If the novelty is wearing off, then maybe you've experienced one or more of the below:

  • As the second (or 10th, or 25th) growing season progresses, you’re sick of the endless weeding, watering, digging, mulching, the sudden pest attacks. 
  • You’re sick of eating asparagus (raspberries, green beans, cantaloupe, summer squash) day after day after day, as each new crop comes into bearing. But you yearned for a year-round garden, so you have to eat it, give it away, or preserve it, or it will rot in the garden. 
  • You start comparing your collection of old, durable clothing with the sleek new fashions on the covers of supermarket magazines.
  • Your go-to-town pants are in the laundry basket. (No clothes dryer.) You’d planned on wearing them today, but you can’t get them washed, hung out (or in), and dried in time.  

The Hedonic Treadmill

We romanticize. We chase alluring novelties. When we get what we want, it soon loses the excitement of its original appeal. Psychologists have a fancy name for this process: hedonic adaptation, and for the perpetual chase for fresh, new experiences that we hope will bring true happiness: the hedonic treadmill

Pleasure is fleeting. Boredom drags us down. Pain (discouragement, dismay, disillusionment, depression) seems endless. Marketers of every stripe take advantage of these human realities, tempting us with shiny new objects, exciting adventures, a younger/more attractive appearance, promises of a pain-free future.

So, what Do you do?

Here are a few suggestions that work for me:

Drop your expectations
Face the fact that things rarely turn out the way you imagine they will, and not only with regard to living naturally.

Most people have struggled with feelings of being let down (bored, deceived) after a dream vacation, a new job, a marriage, the birth of a child, moving into a new home, getting a fancy new car.

Discover a way to make the repeated task or the same-old-same-old seem new and interesting, then deeply immerse yourself in this “new” experience. In an unusual sequence of experiments, science confirms this. But note that the research also confirms that novelty won’t work without full immersion. 

Here’s a personal example:

When my daughter was 11 or 12, she whined a lot about not being able to shop for trendy new clothes. 

One Saturday when she was visiting friends, I pulled everything from her drawers and closets. She had quite a collection of (sometimes second-hand) stuff. 

I had a lot of fun pulling unlikely outfits together the way they often do in fashion boutiques and magazine spreads: plaids with stripes or paisley, short t-shirts over long sweaters, summer shorts over winter leggings, skirts paired with hiking boots and knee-high, striped socks, scarves for belts, jewelry imagined from the chains, nuts, and O-rings from household hardware collections. I hung the outfits all over the house, and made a colorful sign for the front door: Ms. M’s Fashion Boutique.

My daughter squealed with delight and spent a few hours trying on the new outfits and experimenting with some of her own, but it did nothing to dampen her desire for new stuff from stores. For me, however, the exercise proved an epiphany.

During that hour or two of trying to solve an admittedly small, but vexing, challenge, I fell into a state of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”  

Flow states are characterized by intense concentration on the immediate job at hand, a feeling of effortlessness, a sense of confidence, and a sense of deep satisfaction in the process itself, regardless of the outcome. 

To me, the results were amazing. Nothing was new, but I experienced myself in a new way.

Flow states can make boring tasks seem meaningful and appealing. 

Give it a new name; make it a game
I’ve long taken to thinking of essential physical labor in the gardens, shoveling snow, mowing lawns, and splitting and stacking wood as exercise. It’s easy to incorporate any or all of the four components of an exercise program—strength, flexibility, endurance, and balance—into just about any physical task around here.

Sometimes I make a game of competing with myself to see if I can beat my time, say, for stacking wheelbarrow-loads of firewood. If someone else is working with me, I might compete with them weeding onions, shoveling snow from the path to the woodshed, breaking hay bales and spreading mulch (even if they don’t realize what I’m doing). When I’m mowing the rough, hilly patches of lawn around the house and up to the garden, I’ll try the backwards haul (pulling the heavy lawn mower behind me) or the one-armed push.

Stay curious
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I’ve learned that it can pep up the boring parts of my life. I’ve built a small library of field guides (birds, mammals, weeds, medicinal wild plants, fungi, minerals) to help me identify things that I don’t recognize in my natural surroundings. I often begin my day with a challenge to discover and identify two new things.

I usually carry a hand lens (small magnifying glass) in my pocket to get up close to the small things, counting the number of fungal species sprouting in my woodpile or the eggs of the insect pest destroying a crop.

Work on a new skill
Other times I occupy myself with trying to braid onion tops more artistically (dealing with 600 onions and lack of space to spread them all out to dry), seeing if I can invent an inexpensive and better way to tie up or cage tomatoes,

Step into somebody else’s mind
Often recommended as a way to build or increase empathy, imagining how someone else would experience the activity at hand can make drudge work interesting: a scientist, a pioneer woman, an indigenous farmer, an Olympic athlete. I don’t dress up for the roles or use any props; it’s a mind activity for me.

Ask for help; help out
Reaching out to friends and neighbors, either asking for or offering help, is a time-honored way to banish your blahs and lessen your burdens. Ask an old-timer or expert for advice and information, and share what you've learned with a beginner or a group of local children. Borrow a power tool. Join the local conservation commission and participate in a water-testing program intended to help maintain the quality of your local river.

Organize a Saturday potluck. Someone no doubt will rave about your huge platter of melon slices, while you'll enjoy a gazpacho and wonder why you've never thought to make it yourself.

Enjoy Your way of life

This fall, after a couple of hard frosts but before the snow really falls, I’ll take a stroll around that gigantic garden, now bereft of all greenery but some small patches of winter rye and the bare bones of purple raspberry and blueberry bushes. 

I’ll step into the now-dead debris of buckwheat/oat/field pea cover crop, and plant stakes into where next summer’s crops will rise. And I’ll imagine that new variety of blue potatoes here, more roasting peppers over there, a larger planting of 'Sugar Cube' cantaloupes and 'Little Baby Flower' watermelons in this corner.

Oh, and many more flowers and herbs... I can see it now!

About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

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