If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s imagining bad outcomes. We get spun up over this all the time. For every conversation, there are probably twelve sad, scary, or alarming versions that never happened. Every job interview really lasts for eighty hours, seventy-nine of them imaginary. Anxiety and pessimism are survival traits. Worry and dread have gotten us through fire, flood, famine, siege, animal attack, and all the rest. This is probably why avoidance goals work slightly better than approach goals.
An avoidance goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a negative outcome. “Don’t forget your glasses.”
An approach goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a positive outcome. “Remember to wear your glasses.”
It’s possible that certain personality types lean more toward one goal type or the other. An optimist will naturally prefer an approach goal. It’s also possible that certain types of goals are better suited for one format or the other. A personal experiment should make this clear. Are we getting the results we want in the areas that are important to us?
I’m an extreme optimist, an enthusiast by nature. I love working on annual, quarterly, monthly, and sometimes even hourly goals. My plans tend to be both broad and specific. I would have thought I made almost entirely approach-oriented goals. Then I read a blog post by a guy who made two goals and then compared his adherence to them based on whether he focused on approach or avoidance. He did better with avoidance. It made me realize that I follow a lot of avoidance-based goals throughout the day, almost automatically. I think of it as “common sense,” although of course “common sense” is never all that common.
Every single time I use a knife, I think, “Okay, now don’t cut yourself.”
Every single time I go down a flight of stairs, I think, with every single step, “Okay, now don’t slip.”
When I pack a suitcase, I bustle around my apartment, talking to myself. “Don’t forget your tickets. Don’t forget your back-up battery. Don’t forget your” endlessly, all the way up to the jetway.
There’s a distinct, gear-shifting feeling between this constant internal nattering and the aerial view, grand strategic plans that I normally think of as goal-setting.
Maybe one of the reasons that avoidance goals work better is that we can only plan them when we actually believe that the negative outcome is a firm possibility. I think that is very much not the case for a lot of common “goals.” Further, I think it’s common to “choose” a mainstream “goal” as a smokescreen, a pretend Potemkin intention, to protect our tendency to do what we want without criticism. Hey, I tried, what more do you want from me??
Research shows that we’re really poor at thinking of future versions of ourselves. We think of Old Me as a total stranger. Hey, Future Me, have fun paying off all this debt and picking up my socks! Ha, Future Me is such a sucker. We can’t really believe in a universe in which “I” am an elderly person. Surely I have better taste than to age and grow old! I’m much too smart for that! If we can’t believe in a frail, elderly, poor, and ill version of ourselves, then we have no intrinsic motivation to save money, eat healthy foods, and be more active. We do, however, believe in such things as cutting a finger or falling down the stairs. “Don’t cut yourself” is a much more believable imperative than “don’t get osteoporosis.”
My major fitness motivation is “Avoid getting Alzheimer’s.” This is a truly terrifying outcome. Why simply sit around and be afraid of something, though? That would be sacrificing all the good years for what may or may not turn out to be the bad years. It’s a logical fallacy. How can undirected anxiety possibly do me any good? That just means I suffer Alzheimer’s PLUS decades of dread. If I’m right, if my thesis is correct that Alzheimer’s is at least a little bit susceptible to lifestyle inputs, then I must do every last single thing in my power to avoid it. If I’m wrong, and I’ve done all of these actions over the years for no reason, if my efforts have been futile, I still benefit in three ways.
I could use an approach-oriented framework and tell myself “Eat healthy food” and “Get plenty of exercise.” Arguably, I do both of these things. They’re extremely vague, though, so vague as to be almost meaningless. That’s another reason that avoidance goals work a little better, because they’re unfailingly very specific.
It’s easier to “stop drinking soda” or “stop eating bagels” or “don’t eat high-fructose corn syrup.” Those are specific and simple to understand, and any of them could result in an easy ten-pound weight loss over a year.
I’m always going to make wildly positive, outlandishly optimistic goals and resolutions. It’s fun and it works much better than pop culture would lead us to believe. Past Me would have had a lot of trouble believing in my future ability to run a marathon, manage an investment portfolio, cook Thanksgiving dinner for two dozen people, buy train tickets in Spain, or lots of other things I’ve done. How would a negative version of those goals even be phrased? “Don’t screw up”? I will, however, continue to use avoidance goals when they seem helpful.
Here are some avoidance goals that I use, by category:
Don’t be in debt
Don’t carry a credit card balance
Don’t pay finance charges
Don’t buy on impulse
Don’t buy anything unless you know where you’ll put it and how you’ll clean it
Don’t outgrow your clothes, they’re expensive
Avoid getting a migraine - (body weight, dehydration, poor sleep quality)
Don’t get Alzheimer’s
Don’t trigger your night terrors - (eating after 8 PM)
Don’t run out of clean underwear
Don’t make extra work for yourself
Don’t leave crusty dishes
That needs to get eaten up before it gets wasted
Don’t criticize unless you’re open to being criticized
Don’t be a caricature
No double standards
Don’t be like his ex
Don’t do his pet peeves
Don’t be a pushover or a victim
Don’t be a flake
Don’t be a freeloader
Don’t associate with gossips
Don’t stand by and let other people be bullied
“Don’t do anything illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid.” - My Dad
“Never go viral for the wrong reasons.” - Anonymous
“Do things that are a good idea, and don’t do things that are a bad idea.” - Me
Cutting off options is one of the worst feelings. This is why so many people hate making decisions; ‘decision’ means “to cut off.” It’s also a major reason why we procrastinate (or feel like we do), and it’s one of the major root causes of clutter. We like to feel surrounded by possibilities and potential. We like it even when maintaining that illusion of options is precisely what’s holding us back.
This is why I recommend choosing and focusing on a primary project.
It came to me just now, while I was brushing my teeth, in fact. I’m writing this at what is technically past my bedtime, because I know otherwise I’ll toss and turn writing it in my head. This is how we like to think of inspiration, as this external, spiritual force that strikes us like a lightning bolt from an ethereal weather system. We like it, even though when it actually happens it’s terribly inconvenient! We like it, even when it tends to result in years stacked upon many years of unproductive dallying and lack of any measurable result.
This is the year I’m dedicating to tying off old cords, closing open loops, and deciding once and for all whether to finish certain projects, schedule them, or jettison them entirely. Supposedly that is my primary project. It’s the middle of the year and I haven’t actually finished anything.
These are the projects that, if asked, I would have to define as “current”:
A novel; a non-fiction book; yet a different novel; the new podcast; a cross stitch that is maybe half done; an attempt to learn to juggle/ride a unicycle/solve a Rubik’s cube/do the splits/this is getting embarrassing, but the gear is everywhere; clearing the data off my old phone so I can sell it; getting an orange belt in Muay Thai; finishing my Advanced Communicator Silver in Toastmasters; putting together a workshop; this blog of course
Of COURSE there are more. It’s so much worse than it looks.
The trouble with being a multi-potentialite is this tendency to have eighty things going at once, making 1% progress on all of them. It means we never finish anything, we never build a reputation (or at least not one we’d want), we have no legacy, we blow people off and we flake out.
All the time I seem to want to prioritize on learning circus tricks is time taken away from a bunch of finite projects, many of which are at the 80-90% mark.
Why wouldn’t I want to finish them? It’s not like I’m in any danger of running out of ideas, foolish, impractical, brilliant, fun, interesting, or silly as they might be.
I’m better than I used to be. That’s the whole and entire point of a growth mindset, right? To be better than we used to be, and to strive for more? I do pride myself on publishing a blog post every business day. I’m also making steady, measurable progress in both public speaking and martial arts. That’s three things! If I continue to do those three things, then eventually I’ll be a sixth-degree black belt, a Distinguished Toastmaster, and author of a blog that just keeps going and going.
This is what we always have to ask ourselves about our projects. Why are we doing them?
Is it just to have something to keep our hands busy? In that case, we’re ever and always going to have some knitting or crochet or embroidery or hand-stitching or beading or sanding or what-have-you. If the goal is to fill the days and evenings, then we might as well finish our projects one after another. We might as well start trying to make a dent in our accumulated supplies and materials (even though, honestly, we have enough for three lifetimes divided between four people). We could even, dare I say it? We could even finish ALL OF IT. We could wake up one fine morning with zero supplies, zero materials, zero patterns, zero plans, and we could simply wander around the craft store and come home with something new.
There’s no risk in finishing anything!
Are we doing projects as proof of concept? Demonstrating that we have a clear intention of mastering a particular art? Writing, painting, dancing, sculpting, carving? In that case, it’s perfectly fine to have more false starts and bits and pieces of something than we do actual finished work. We simply have to accept that we’ll never impress ourselves, we’ll never reach a point of satisfaction with our own work, because true artists pretty much never feel that way. Never being quite as good as your interior vision is the mark, after all. That’s exactly what sets us apart. We have to ask whether anyone is ever going to see our work, which is really asking if we care about making something that matters. To anyone.
What I’ve just distinguished is the difference between an art and a craft, between an artist and an artisan, or perhaps a hobbyist. All of them are fine but they do have different goals and different processes.
I’m also distinguishing between the finite and the infinite. The finite project is the specific book; the infinite project is to write. The finite project is the afghan; the infinite project is, from what I’ve seen, to collect yarn. Wait, um? Have I ever asked myself to identify my infinite project?
Most of my projects are signs of curiosity. I get interested in something and I want to dive in and immerse myself in it. My interests tend to layer themselves; I rarely drop them. That’s why I have a parrot, and a twenty-year-old bicycle that I still ride, and a vast recipe collection, and a tub full of backpacking equipment. I also tend to have a certain amount of random books and objects that signal my intention for future use. I drive myself crazy doing this, yet I do it.
I have all this stuff, but what I don’t have is a published novel. I don’t have a workshop on the calendar. I don’t have a podcast episode recorded. I don’t necessarily have to choose between these distinctly different projects; I do have to make some solid choices about where I’m putting my primary focus most days of the week. Do one until it’s done, and then do the other until it’s done, and then pick something else. Inexperience with this condition is probably why there are six juggling balls on my desk. What’s going to be my primary project for the next month? What will I have to show for the next three months?
Celebrity sighting! Eating dinner with my family outdoors in a quiet part of town, enjoying the long northern summer night, when the sun is still out at 9 PM. Suddenly I see none other than CHRIS GUILLEBEAU himself! He is more or less dashing into the counter-service restaurant where we just ordered our own food. I think we make eye contact, and I’m pretty sure he at least vaguely recognizes that my hubby and I are WDS people.
No worries. Your secret is safe with me.
Say whatever you want about LA. You have to give us credit that we do know how to keep it together during celebrity sightings. Respect that this is an actual human being with actual human needs! A person who is simply trying to eat a meal/use the restroom/go to a hotel room at bedtime/make a personal phone call/breathe in peace for 45 seconds now and then.
We made eye contact again as he left the restaurant. I swear it looked like he had fully retracted his aura and was working on an individual invisibility suit. Literally, though, I doubt he could have found a single person less likely to disturb his evening than myself. I get it. Thoroughly, I get it, especially after today, because I had an epiphany.
Okay, using CG as a model, I knew for a fact that he had been on the move for at least twelve hours. That’s not just on stage and in the spotlight, but also managing a million quadrillion moving parts, being the final arbiter on a gazillion and five last-minute decisions, and using every single particle of mental bandwidth trying to do an impeccable job. In public.
Also, that was just today. He’d have to do the same thing the following day, and might well be waking up at 5 AM.
After running a large event for a week.
After spending most of a year planning and organizing and managing.
I get it.
The only possible way I could show respect to this person whose work matters so much to me was to try to keep my face a mask and studiously pretend he wasn’t there. LA-style. Unless, of course, I saw someone else heading his way, looking for an opportunity to draw his attention. Then I could pop up on some pretext and distract them while he made a clean getaway.
You never really know who’s on your side and working toward your interests, do you?
During the keynote speeches at World Domination Summit, the audience were asked to pause, close our eyes, and think of what we were most afraid of. I’ve done this exercise dozens of times, but today, for whatever reason, it finally clicked. (Actually I know precisely why, but I’m refraining from sharing that story to protect someone’s privacy).
I’m not afraid of a bunch of stuff, like being emotionally vulnerable (hello, I’m a blogger), or reaching out to contact big names, or failure (because failure is usually funny and ripe for great storytelling), or even public humiliation. I had gone around all this time thinking I was afraid of having people disagree with me and want to argue about it, but I realized that there wasn’t really any juice in that for me.
I’m afraid of losing my privacy!
That’s it. That’s all it is.
Fortunately, I’m nowhere near famous. Most likely I never will be. As a writer, I have the advantage that virtually nobody who isn’t a personal friend would recognize me on sight. I can retain my anonymity, forever if I like. Ah, but if it were to happen...
There are a bunch of potential ramifications that I already know I hate, viz.:
I’m not an introvert. I like being in crowds and meeting new people. I love brainstorming. I like to make people laugh and I like to dance and play games and do physical stuff, like hiking and running foot races. It’s not about that.
It’s just that the more famous you are, the more you’re exposed to the lowest common denominator of behavior. Imagine a young couple in love, trying to have a wedding ceremony while a helicopter flies overhead trying to get photos. Ugh, gross. I will never be anywhere near that level of fame, and for the love of all that is holy, let me avoid that sad fate. Still, it bugs me that so many people feel morally entitled to know every private detail of a famous person’s life, get photos, and otherwise feel that this person’s contribution makes them, in some ways, less than fully human. I even feel that way about celebrities if I have no idea who they are or why they are famous!
I’m not really in the public eye. Yeah, I publish a blog five days a week, but so does my niece’s hamster and every other sentient creature in the solar system. It is dimly possible, though, that at some future date my diligent work habits might eventually lead to something cool. It’s really helpful for me to know that the major thing holding me back is my concern for my privacy and my precious alone time. That gives me a decade or four to figure out how to set those sorts of boundaries and preserve what I need to protect my creative energy.
I have to thank Chris Guillebeau for creating WDS, for writing and publishing his blog and his newsletter and all his books, for doing a daily podcast, for generating this entire community and getting this whole thing going. Ah, but, I understand that I don’t need to do it in person and I don’t need to do it at the end of his sixteen-hour day. Go in peace, hero of mine. I gotcha covered.
“Don’t die with your gifts still inside.” Amber Rae’s book starts here, and for me at least, it was like a mallet ringing a huge gong. Whatever else we’re worried about, it should be drowned out by that imperative, that we fulfill our purpose during the time we have in this world. What is it about worry that it always manages to claim our attention? Choose Wonder Over Worry invites us to explore other ways of relating to our anxieties, ways that made me feel like someone had been reading my own personal diary. I couldn’t get enough of it.
First, Rae differentiates between toxic worry and useful worry. Useful worry helps us to figure out how to solve our problems, strategize, and make plans. Obviously keep doing that. Toxic worry, on the other hand, creates resistance and blocks us from living a full life. We tell ourselves stories about events and react based on negative feelings like shame and envy. While this may seem self-evident, it’s here that the book really starts to take off.
Some of the best elements of Choose Wonder Over Worry are the artwork and the journal prompts. There were a couple of these that I could really use in a poster format! For example, page 77 in its entirety. I do quite a lot of journaling, and even with that background, there were several prompts that made me nod, wince, jump up in my seat, or otherwise physically react to their strength and insight.
I didn’t know anything about Amber Rae’s work when I discovered this book. Choose Wonder Over Worry made me into a fan. This is a book to savor, to engage with care and attention. I’m still mulling over questions from these pages, and it’s very much on my mind. This book is on my top ten for the year so far.
“Worry is useful only when it’s within our control and empowers us to act.”
Where in your life do you not feel ready yet? What small step can you take today?
You need to learn how to start saying no to things you DO want.
If criticism and judgment didn’t matter, what would you do? Say? Focus on?
Happy New Year! It has now been exactly one year since May First, 2017. For those who think that December Thirty-First is too arbitrary, hackneyed, or whatever to set annual goals, well, that danger is over. Now it’s springtime. How are you doing?
It’s May. Do you know where your goals are?
Not everyone wants to set goals. That’s fine. Call it something else.
Are you doing stuff you want to do that you like doing? Are you spending as much time as you’d like on things you think are awesome? If so, carry on. If not, how do you add more fabulousness to your day? At some point, it’s good to have a built-in pause to reevaluate.
Now, for those of us who do use the traditional New Year as our annual check-in, we’re down four months. This is just long enough to have made some progress on an annual goal, while also being long enough to forget all about it and lose track. Since January First, we’ve probably had a cold or the flu, been broke, and felt totally uninspired by Northern Hemisphere winter weather. May is close enough to reliably warm weather and light evenings for us to take another shot at our plans.
Ever notice how many resolution-type plans seem to revolve around leaving the house or at least stepping outside? Everything from gardening to walking to cleaning out the garage seems to demand sunny days. Well, here they come, so let’s remind ourselves why we made these plans in the first place.
I’m a big believer in getting obnoxious things out of the way quickly. Almost nothing feels worse than procrastinating over a dreaded task. Most things can be done once and then crossed off the list. Many procrastinated tasks really only take ten minutes, most can be done in a couple of hours, and almost all can be done over a weekend. Hauling a bunch of yard debris to the dump, cleaning out the garage, tearing down a rotten deck, repairing a hole in the wall, painting a room, cleaning the oven, filing back taxes... Sure, these jobs are hard, but they don’t really take that long. In fact, when people have a list of home repair or bureaucratic projects due to deferred maintenance, the entire list can often be wiped out in a day. Ask a busy person.
It’s the stuff that can’t be done in a day that trips us up. We tend to think that our objectives count as goals, not realizing that we’ve done an unskillful job of defining the project. ‘Get out of debt’ and ‘lose weight’ are classics of the genre. ‘Lose weight’ is NOT a goal. How much? By when? How? Same with ‘getting out of debt.’ That’s merely the first stage of financial stability, financial independence, and eventually total financial freedom. Almost everyone I’ve ever talked to about weight loss seems to think it’ll come about through walking, which breaks my heart. The true goal of 90% of people with the objective of “weight loss” is to permanently avoid making any changes to the way they eat. Often a single dietary change can lead to steady weight loss with a fraction of the effort. Why not just do it the easy way?
I do quarterly check-ins for my annual goals, but the first of the month is as good a time as any to remind myself of what I wanted and why. I’ve already completed several of my goals for the year, and they were big ones, so even if I flake out for the rest of the year I can feel successful. I signed up for martial arts classes and got my first stripes on my belts, we moved to a cheaper apartment and found a pet sitter, and I ran the Shamrock Run as planned. We fully funded our IRAs before the deadline and did our taxes on time. I made some milestones in public speaking. Good job, me!
One of my biggest goals for the year is to stop having incomplete projects. It feels like major progress that I’m staying current with my active goals. I’ve gotten really good at clarifying how I spend my time, where I want to make progress, and how I’m going to measure it. Where I’m having a problem is with projects I started in the past. Am I ever going to finish them? If so, when? If not, how do I tell myself I’m done with something and it’s never going to happen? This is probably something that speaks to a lot of people, which is why I’m talking about it, even though it’s embarrassing.
The obvious next step is to round up what I consider to be incomplete projects. I’m laughing at myself right now, because this was my own personal goal and it hasn’t occurred to me until now to do this blindingly obvious task. Make a list!
My ultimate objective is to have the maximum possible mental bandwidth. I want to feel able to do interesting projects without nagging doubts or distractions. I want to know that whatever I’m working on, it is the most valuable thing I could be doing with my time. I want to feel fully entitled to relax and enjoy myself when I’m off duty. I do a pretty solid job maximizing my finances and my fitness and minimizing housework and bureaucracy. Now what kind of cool projects can I bring into being?
It’s the merry, merry month of May. How is your year going? What are you going to do to make this summer a fun one? How much can you do between now and the winter holidays? There is still plenty of time to make this an excellent 2018, and I hope you feel that you have the power to give that to yourself.
I’ll always say that we can get more mileage out of taking a foot off the brake than we can in pressing harder on the gas. Whatever annoys you the most, wherever you find your biggest pain point, work on reducing or eliminating it. That’s how you get to Easy World. For some reason, taxes seem to be high on the list of universal annoyances. It doesn’t have to feel that way.
There are two reasons that taxes seem to bother people: the fact that we have to pay them, and the effort involved in doing the work. I’ll offer some perspective on both.
If it weren’t taxes, it would be something else. In Ancient Rome, people were expected to personally maintain the pavement of the road in front of their house. As far as I’m concerned, paying taxes is a sweat-free, comparatively easy and low-maintenance way to participate in an advanced society.
Oh, you want to argue about that? Big hair, don’t care.
What I’m talking about here is *my* perspective. From where I sit, I simply don’t give a care about taxes. The only times I’ve cared are the two occasions when I was erroneously assessed taxes for income that I didn’t actually earn. I would enjoy writing checks that large if I had the earnings to match! I found that the IRS has terrific customer service, and I wouldn’t necessarily mind if I ever had to talk to them on the phone again.
We pay more in taxes now than I used to earn. A LOT more. If it keeps going at this rate, which I hope it does, then we’ll eventually pay more in taxes than I earned at my highest-grossing day job. I look forward to the day when I have a ten million dollar tax bill. Come at me! C’monnnn, taxes!
Big money equals big money problems. Only, it doesn’t have to be a problem.
I choose to see all my bills, including my tax bill, as manifestations of abundance. My rent would make you cry, but dolphins are my near neighbors. On the other hand, I don’t have a car payment because I don’t have a car, and my utility bills are small because I live in a studio apartment. On yet another hand, my phone bill is atrocious because I have a billionaire phone.
That tickles me. It tickles me that I have the same phone I would buy as a billionaire. It also tickles me that we do our taxes at the beginning of every spring, again just like billionaires.
I could choose to continue to let money bother me and stress me out. I used to. I used to cry myself to sleep at night, thinking there was no way out and it would always be that bad. I cried the first time I did my own taxes. I misread the tax tables and thought I was paying on my gross, rather than taxable income. I called my mom, sobbing because I “owed” thousands of dollars I didn’t have. “That can’t be right,” she said, and because she is an accountant she offered to look over my work. Imagine my surprise and delight when it turned out, forty-five minutes later, that I was actually getting... a refund! That’s the feeling of lightness and joy that we can all feel when we think about money.
Money is nothing more nor less than a convenient way of storing and transferring energy.
I cried when I was in debt. It was dreadful. Then I determined that I would be debt-free before I pass from this world, and if I did nothing else, at least I’d be able to pay for my own funeral. (Shortcut: I am a whole-body donor and those expenses are included). I put my head down and hustled. I checked my accounts every day, I focused, I earned side income every chance I got, I read library books and worked on domestic contentment, and I got free. I sawed the shackle of consumer debt off my ankle. Now the other side, the student loan side, is nearly free as well. Soon I’ll walk tall, walking the walk of perfect financial freedom. That’s something we all can have, with a little focus.
Part of why taxes are easy for us is that our lives are unencumbered. We don’t owe back taxes; neither my husband nor I ever have. We don’t own a house. The complications mostly come from me and my weird ways of earning money, from royalties and dividends rather than a salary. We take the standard deduction because we don’t have enough reasons to itemize. We just get the software, and my hubby spends not quite an hour clicking through. We have our refunds direct-deposited and we’ve usually already put them in our IRAs before our friends have even bothered filing.
If you need and want to Get Organized with your taxes, set it up now so that you can make it easier for yourself for next year.
How would it feel if you loved money and you found that every financial process in your life was hilarious and simple? What if doing taxes made you want to do a happy dance? What if doing your taxes made you want to rush down the sidewalk, skipping, flinging flower petals in the air and hugging the mail carrier?
Or what if, you know, what if it just wasn’t all that hard?
Today is the day. Today is the day that you can transform your feelings about taxes. If you so choose, you can dial up a different emotional reaction. What is it going to be? Easy, I hope.
Relief is the best feeling you could have right now. Am I right? If you’re like most people, you have a secret shame, something you’ve been putting off. You dread facing it. Even thinking about it makes you cringe. You’ve been procrastinating and delaying and foot-dragging, and the longer you wait, the worse it feels. Let today be the day that you free yourself from that horrible, yucky feeling. Start with a stuck list.
Let’s make a list of everything that’s bothering you. Category by category, we’ll figure out your aversive tasks and why they feel so sticky and hard to do.
An aversive task is something that makes you want to run away. You just don’t want to do it. The funny thing is, that type of odious chore is different for everyone. Some people hate making phone calls, others don’t mind. Some people hate filing, others think it’s fun. Pick a chore and someone hates it, someone doesn’t think twice about doing it, and someone else actually enjoys it. Tell yourself that the thing itself isn’t really that bad, it’s just the emotions that it brings up for you.
What is on your stuck list?
Chances are, most stuff on your list can be done in under five minutes. Isn’t that great?
Also, just thinking about it makes you a little nauseated. Wouldn’t it be better to put it all behind you? Take a deep breath and imagine your victory.
Look at your list. Categorize each item by how it gets done. Is it:
A phone call?
A physical task?
Something waiting on someone else?
A conversation you need to have face to face with someone?
Secretly a major project that you don’t know how to do?
Now write down the thoughts and feelings you have when you think about doing each of these things.
A blank space of not knowing what to do or how to do it
Now write down why you aren’t doing each item.
Don’t know how
Don’t like So-and-So
Hate doing this
Need more information
Believe it will take HOURS AND HOURS
Need to make a decision
Overwhelmed and overcommitted
Do you notice any patterns?
Overcommitting, never saying ‘no,’ feeling indecisive, or avoiding confrontations are the types of patterns that affect everything, all the time. Looking at the root emotional cause and figuring out some strategies can eventually help you to free yourself from the icky, heavy feeling of procrastination.
I tend to procrastinate business calls until I absolutely can’t avoid them because I hate talking on the phone. I always put housework and exercise first. That’s my task pattern. I’m quick to research things when I don’t know much about them, because it makes me feel curious, but I’m slow to open an email if I think it will trigger a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense. The things I procrastinate the most are clothes shopping and getting my hair cut. Another person might procrastinate sorting mail or cleaning out the car, and maybe always put personal phone calls first. It all depends on what you think is fun versus what you think is dreadful, boring, annoying, or loaded with emotion.
Here’s my stuck list.
An email to my screenwriting mentor - guilt, don’t know what to do
Redesign of a product that can’t be manufactured according to current specs - frustration, don’t know what to do
Jeans shopping - annoyance, hate doing this, believe it will take hours and hours
Finding a new avian vet since apparently there isn’t one within ten miles - need more information, need to make a decision
The first two items could trigger weeks or months of demanding work. Since I don’t have a clear image of what that looks like, I feel stuck. Jeans shopping will probably take two hours. Finding a new bird vet might be impossible; I might have to take half a day to bring her to her old vet. I don’t really “feel like” doing any of these things right now, so I’ll fake myself out. I’ll pick one, which will immediately make one of the other items on the list feel less difficult in comparison. I’ll feel like I’m getting away with something.
Trick yourself, if that’ll work for you. Ask someone for help or advice, because admitting your secret shame and exposing it to daylight helps to rebuild your dignity and pride. Set a timer and race against it. Play music and keep working until the playlist is up. Set aside one weekend day as a Get Stuff Done Day.
Keep your list somewhere you can look at it. Try to complete one item every day until the list is gone. Every time you look at, think about, or handle the list, remind yourself of how amazing it will feel when all that stuff is done. Soon you’ll never have to think about it again. You can be free of the dread and frustration and guilt and shame that comes from procrastinating. You can start today. Just get started.
The biggest problem with both procrastination and getting organized is knowing where to start. This is because knowing there’s a system is not the same as understanding and using a system. People who think of themselves as procrastinators or as disorganized have a strong suspicion that life is easier for other people. They’re right, too. One of the main reasons is the awareness of a system, and another is a bias toward action. Just get started! Getting started when you don’t feel like you really even know how to get started can happen when you learn to spot the no-brainer.
What is one thing you can do right now?
What’s a tiny piece that’s so small, you’re sure you can do it in just a minute or two?
What’s so obvious that it doesn’t even feel like you actually did anything?
What is so simple that you don’t even need to explain it or describe it?
A no-brainer is simple, obvious, and easy. Sometimes there are a bunch of no-brainers, and sometimes maybe there’s only one. It doesn’t matter. The secret is that finishing one step makes other steps more obvious.
What is simple and obvious to one person is not necessarily simple or obvious to someone else. For instance, it’s easy for me to know how to eat a burrito because I grew up eating burritos. It’s not so simple or easy for me to WRAP a burrito, though! There’s a trick to it. I always wind up putting in too much stuff, and then it starts to unwrap and everything starts to drip out of the bottom. I know I could learn to do this if I wanted to. I could watch a YouTube video and practice it a bunch of times.
Everything is on YouTube. I’ve used YouTube videos to help me figure out how to wrap my headphone cords, clean a shower door track, open a pomegranate, and fold fitted sheets.
“Getting organized” and “procrastinating” are different, though. That’s for two reasons. One, neither of them has a specific, objective definition and each person’s organization or procrastination problem is different. Two, almost everything written about these topics was developed by people who are very well organized or highly productive. What works for them may not work at the novice, disorganized level.
Where videos or tutorials come in is when there’s a specific task or skill to be learned. Maybe I can’t learn how to “be organized,” but I can look at a bunch of pictures of organized refrigerators or read an article on how to set up a filing system. I take it one piece at a time. Each part of my life and my personal environment that I “organize” makes it easier to figure out the next part.
I believe that procrastination comes from not knowing how to go about doing something, not liking it, feeling pressured by external expectations, and not knowing about mood management. It doesn’t matter if I know how to do something if I hate doing it and I’m rebelling against it. It doesn’t matter if I know how to do it, if I don’t know how to make myself do it. If I know how to fight my procrastinating types of moods, though, I can push through and learn how to do the specific small tasks involved.
How do I write an outline? How do I make a mind map? How do I create and name files? How do I write an effective email header? What format should this report be in? How do smart, competent people effectively admit that they’re still learning how to do something?
Start by writing out a list of everything you don’t know, everything you don’t know how to do. Why are you stuck? Give it a name. This is how you figure out where to start. Which question seems the hardest or the most embarrassing? Okay, tackle that one last.
Procrastination and disorganization usually tend to go together. What’s funny about this is that the feeling of procrastinating on a deadline is sometimes the only thing that can motivate someone to tackle minor cleaning and organizing tasks. I didn’t want to do my ironing until it was time to clean the oven. I didn’t want to clean the oven until it was time to do my taxes. I didn’t want to do my taxes until it was time to work on my book proposal.
What happens in the case of the procrastination bustle is that we realize we are surrounded by no-brainer tasks and chores. We feel intuitively that once we’ve cleared the slate, we can retrieve some of our mental bandwidth. Once something is done, we get to stop thinking about it. It’s a puzzle that we’ve solved. We can look around and see that it’s done. This is done, that is done, this is done, that other thing is done. The more we get into the habit of doing the obvious, the more types of things eventually become no-brainers. Sort the mail. Put away the groceries. Hang up the coats. File the papers. Write the outlines. Submit the proposals.
Every day, we do obvious no-brainer activities that were once too hard for us. Eating with a fork! Putting our shoes on the correct feet! Memorizing our phone number! Finding a parking spot! Buying groceries! Paying bills! We build skills as we grow older and more experienced. We get more done as we realize that it’s faster and easier to do it right away, rather than stewing over it.
Spotting the no-brainer is a way to get moving. It’s a way to feel smarter and more accomplished. It’s a way to get ready and build momentum. Spotting the no-brainer is a way to get started and, eventually, a way to be finished.
Procrastinating is due for a disruption. I think it’s much more complicated than it appears, and that a lot of the time, we bash ourselves with those feelings quite unfairly. What if what we’re doing isn’t really procrastinating?
Over a quarter of Americans are chronic procrastinators, which is way more common than being a smoker or a diabetic. The prevalence has also gone up nearly 40% in the past quarter century. This increase can probably be blamed almost entirely on the advent of cable television, followed by the internet, streaming video, online gaming, social media, et cetera. We certainly know how to entertain ourselves!
Procrastinating means “putting forward to tomorrow.” The interesting thing about it is that we define it for ourselves. Everyone procrastinates on different stuff, and what’s difficult for one person is easy or fun for someone else. We may feel like we are procrastinating on doing stuff even when we don’t have an external deadline or standard that we need to meet. Even when we are being our own boss, choosing our own projects, and doing stuff based completely on our own initiative, we can still judge ourselves for being “lazy” or for procrastinating. Isn’t that a little weird?
Putting something off until tomorrow isn’t always procrastinating. Let’s think about this. Usually, it’s a sign of good planning! We can’t do every single thing the minute the thought crosses our minds. At least, that’s what the receptionist at my dentist’s office tells me. Sometimes, choosing to do something later has no impact at all, like if I delay watching a TV episode or decide not to have a PBJ sandwich for lunch until later this week. It’s only the stuff we believe we really, really should be doing right now that counts as procrastinating. We’ve chosen something that, rationally, we think is the most important, best, and most urgent use of our time. Then we’ve made a decision to do something else instead. That’s extremely fascinating from an existential standpoint!
Even more interesting, rather than find a way to take action, we fill the time either trying to distract ourselves with mindless activity, mentally flogging ourselves, or wallowing in self-criticism, anxiety, dread, and other helplessly negative emotions. Procrastinating usually feels terrible.
On top of the horrid feelings that go with stalling, delaying, foot-dragging, indecision, mental paralysis, and looming deadlines, and am I stressing you out just describing them? Along with all of that come the ramifications. Missed opportunities! Missed deadlines! Regret! Shame! Failure! Disappointment!
Nobody would choose this.
Nobody would rationally choose procrastination. It borders on logical fallacy. If you can only procrastinate by putting off something urgent and important, then procrastinating is deliberately sabotaging your own circumstances. I happen to think that there’s actually something else going on.
Let’s get a little deeper into it.
I work with people who are chronically disorganized. Some of my people have issues with hoarding or squalor, but while those three conditions tend to overlap, some people only deal with one. That’s because the root emotions are different for each person, sometimes astonishingly so. The big difference for the chronically disorganized is that they just do not know what to do. They don’t have any systems, or, rather, the systems they have are far more convoluted and time-consuming than necessary. While my people struggle mightily with following a schedule and being on time, they aren’t choosing to do it. They just lack planning skills, and their inner sense of time passing is set differently. I say “they” when I really mean “I.” People like my clients and I feel a minute as more like 90 seconds. It’s fair to say that chronically disorganized people suffer the same results as chronic procrastinators, even though they may never have made conscious decisions to procrastinate.
It’s not that we put something off until later, it’s that we never technically planned it in the first place!
Procrastinating is often little more than not knowing how long something was going to take, not realizing how many steps were involved, not being aware that it’s already too late to get something done.
Another way to get the same results as a procrastinator without really procrastinating is to be a people pleaser. A lot of people are almost totally lacking in boundaries, and will thus say “yes” to everything in a sincere attempt to be helpful. It’s like having a leaky boat. A pleaser will always “overpromise and under-deliver” because the promises aren’t even really promises, and they’re made so quickly that it would be impossible to even remember them all, much less follow through. This warm, friendly sort of person will not meet deadlines because the point of the commitment was to demonstrate caring and connection, not to actually DO a THING or to show up to an event. The desire to make someone else happy was real. The over-accommodating person who continually promises too much is not procrastinating, but really more turning an emotional dial to ‘please love me.’ Action, production, and execution aren’t even part of the image. This person does not know just how much frustration, disappointment, confusion, and sometimes pure rage is being inflicted on anyone who believed the over-commitment would be kept.
Work projects tend to be procrastinated when the procrastinator doesn’t really know how to approach the project. Most people can do even the most boring or annoying work tasks, grumbling and muttering but cranking them out. The stuff we procrastinate at work tends to be either administrivia, which we rationally judge is not relevant to our work goals, or large-scale projects with longer deadlines. We just don’t know how to break these projects into manageable chunks. We don’t know how to create longer, uninterrupted blocks of time. We don’t know how to delegate or negotiate. We don’t know how to communicate with our supervisors and admit that we don’t know exactly what we’re doing. We don’t know how to shift gears into System II thinking and get into the zone of focus on demand.
We often think we’re procrastinating on personal projects like “getting organized” or “losing weight” or other loosely-defined objectives. If we knew what to do, I think we’d be doing it! We have the internal sense that our lives would be easier if we did these things, that we’re missing out on something that works nicely for other people. It’s not that we’re procrastinating, it’s that we have no idea where to start.
We don’t know Future Self. Future Me feels like a total stranger, an annoying old person who is constantly asking me for more money. Thinking about the needs of me, myself at some later point in the timeline just feels like such an unfair burden. Why should Future Me get everything? What has Future Me ever done for me? We don’t know how we’re going to feel later on. If we’re well acquainted with the helpless, horrible feelings of chronic procrastination, we may simply feel that going into a shame spiral is a fitting punishment for being a useless, procrastinating loser failure. As though negative self-talk or self-punishment ever actually helped to accomplish anything or meet deadlines?
Isn’t the point to get something done? A specific thing? Add “insult myself” to the list for later, because doing it now is actively interfering with the stated goal.
The main reason we procrastinate is that we don’t know what done feels like. We can dimly imagine the relief of getting out of this rut, this hell of our own making, this trap that we’ve thrown ourselves into. What we can’t imagine is the thought process or the course of action that actually led to the doing of the thing.
One thing that helps is to write out a list of everything you don’t know. Every question you have about the project, every place where you’re stuck, every piece of the job that frustrates or confuses you. Sometimes there is an answer. Sometimes, in the most interesting work, the answer is something you create on your own! Usually, clarifying the questions helps to make at least tentative steps toward a course of action.
Another thing that helps is to just get started. Tinker around the edges of the project in some way. Open a file folder. Write an outline. Draw a mind map. Try to figure out any two-minute steps that could be done without thinking too hard. Go through the motions and the stuck feeling can start to dissolve.
Fighting procrastination is a skill that can be learned. It is possible to get rid of this tendency. It is possible to learn enough skills in project planning and time management so that it quits being a problem. The dread of putting off something important always feels so much worse than actually doing the work. Just get started.
Nostalgia is a mystery to me. What’s so great about the past? I say this while waving my history degree over my head. There is no past era that I’d prefer to live in. There is no time, not even the 2000s, that I’d prefer to today. Throwback Thursday is wasted on me; I liked the music of the 1980s but not much else. From my perspective, every year that I’ve lived has involved more innovation, more books and music and movies, and better-quality food. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve benefited from getting my head straight and being less susceptible to emotional drama. I have more skills and I’m a better cook. These things are also true about my family and friends. Life is harder in most ways when you’re young. The future seems like an extremely exciting place to me and I can’t wait to see it unfold. This is a basic optimism that is the key to a happier life.
Optimism is a learned trait.
What is there to look forward to? Don’t you read the news? Oh, it’s awful, it’s awful.
I agree, there is all sorts of truly terrible stuff in the news every day. There always has been, because it’s much simpler to tell stories about terrible events day by day. The photographs are much more dramatic. How do you tell a story about the decline in extreme poverty with a photo? Take a picture of an ordinary, well-fed child who is studying in a classroom? How do you tell a story about the incredible decline in casualties from war? Take a picture of an ordinary town where people are working at their jobs?
That’s the thing about having a degree in history. I know too much. Our chances of dying from almost everything were much higher at any point in the past. Most people, statistically, would have died as infants. Epidemic disease, lack of sanitation, malnutrition, constant warfare, sieges, an extremely high murder rate, brigands, even attacks by various wild animals. We can only possibly feel glum about the present day if we try to compare our conditions with some imagined glory days from the twentieth century.
I grew up in a tenement apartment and I still had a lot of things that the Emperor Charlemagne did not have, that he could not buy at any price. Central heat. Ice cubes on demand. Legible penmanship. A public library and a fire department. Paved sidewalks. Electricity, including lightbulbs, a stove, and a refrigerator. Potable water flowing out of the faucet. A telephone and a television. My mattress and pillow undoubtedly kicked butt over his. Granted, I didn’t feel anywhere near as grateful for these modern comforts as Charlemagne would have. That’s because historical progress is driven by envy and dissatisfaction.
I say this is great. There’s no reason to envy someone if you can study what they’re doing and imitate it. This is obvious if you have a growth mindset! Assume that the envied person had to acquire that trait somehow. Also, you have to envy the complete package, not one thing in isolation. That means you can’t envy a celebrity without including the paparazzi and the haters. You can’t envy any individual person without including their entire personal history, their relationships, and their behaviors. Maybe their fitness level, financial success, or emotional intelligence would come easier to you than it did for them. Observing someone else means you can skip anything they tried that didn’t work. Let envy make you a better person.
We seem to be allergic to thinking about the future. Research shows that we think of our own future selves in the same way we think about total strangers. I think a lot of us are mean to Future Us. We set ourselves up in ways we wouldn’t treat our worst enemies. Hey, Future Me! Have fun trying to survive on the tiny fixed income I’m sending you. I hope you enjoy paying off our debts. Oh, and good luck burning off this slab of cake I’m eating. Maybe you can get rid of some of those calories while you clean out this garage I’m piling with stuff. And by the way, wash my dishes.
The most commonly procrastinated goals are planning for the future and dealing with health issues. In both cases, it would be easy for us if we realized that Future Me is the same person as Today Me.
Unfortunately, most of us are captivated by Past Self. We just see ourselves as cuter when we were younger. We think we had more fun and that life was better. We don’t like looking forward, because it seems depressing, but when we do, we’re oppressed by the idea that we “should” be planning, saving money, eating better, and being more active. Walking backward, facing the past, we’re going to bump into the future and feel it as a frustrating obstacle.
This is part of why people hang on to clutter. We haven’t spent any time thinking about what we’ll want or need just a few years into the future. We have this anxious sense of What If, while never spending any time gaming it out. Get specific about those What Ifs and plan around them! What If I turn into a bag lady? Well, what would need to happen to avoid that sad destiny? (Build relationships, build career skills, learn about financial planning, save money). What If my house burns down? (Get insurance, test your smoke detectors, make an emergency response plan). What If I need this later? Well, that decision is up to you. You’re creating your response to your stuff and your home. You’re creating your response to your money. You’re creating your response to food and to how it feels to live in your body. You’re creating your friendships and conversations. What your personal future looks like depends almost entirely on how you think and what you do about it, today.
The future is an opportunity. Even an hour from now: later today is the future! There’s always still time to call someone and say the things you haven’t said, like “I miss you” and “I’m sorry” and “I love you.” There’s always still time to learn new things, to travel, to try new foods and dance to new music. There’s always still time to try to be a better person, a better listener, more patient and forgiving. There’s even time to clean out the garage. Pick any single goal or any single square foot in your personal space, and do something today that will make it more awesome for Tomorrow You. The future can be whatever you wish it to be.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.