The reason there aren’t more chronic procrastinators is that we tend to fall into one of three categories when it comes to projects. Finishers, maintainers, and initiators, we tend to fit in one of these groups the majority of the time. The Finishing Game is aimed at initiators because we’re the fun ones.
Finishers like to get things done. They chase the feeling of accomplishment. Finishers will add an item to a to-do list just to feel the satisfaction of crossing it off, even if the item was extremely minor and inconsequential. Finishers also like to boss other people around, trying to get them to finish their projects, even if those projects are nowhere near the circle of influence of the finisher. A finisher may feel organized and in control - because that’s the central goal, after all - while never really moving forward in life or doing anything cool. Finish alphabetizing your socks, and then what?
Maintainers like to get through the day on autopilot. There’s a comfort in routine. I have a friend who has turned down opportunities for promotions at work (read: tens of thousands of dollars of extra income) because his current position allows him to listen to podcasts while he works. I have also had coworkers who would get marked down every year in their annual review because they had no goals for advancement. One wailed, “I don’t want a promotion! I just want to come in, work, and go home for the day.” It’s pretty common, and smart, for someone to realize that a promotion would result in a lifestyle downgrade. When you’re salaried, you usually don’t qualify for overtime. Is it worth giving up your weekends? That’s a question of overall life philosophy. A maintainer at home is likely to be more interested in the process of a hobby than in the finished product. Not so much “I want a knit cap” as “I love to knit.”
My own knitting languished at the same level for several years, until I forced myself to learn to understand knitting diagrams and teach myself at least one new stitch for every project. Suddenly I vaulted from basic k1 scarves to hats, socks, and pose-able toy animals.
Initiators like three things: planning projects, shopping for materials, and learning new things. As soon as we see a path to completion, we tend to lose interest. The vast scale of our daydreams quickly turns into the harsh realization that we’ll be working on this darn thing for months, maybe years! Actually finishing one of our grand creative edifices also eats into the time we’d set aside for our other 87 projects. Finishing all of them? ALL of them?? Why, that would take up years! Years I fully intend to spend dreaming up yet grander, wilder, fancier projects!
The truth is that we’re not obligated to finish past projects. We’re not obligated to finish every book we’ve started or purchased. We’re not obligated to pick out stitches for hours and re-do our work. We’re not obligated to finish projects, even when we’d earmarked them as gifts, especially when those gifts are ages past the occasion for which we’d planned them.
I bought materials for a dollhouse once. I relocated with those materials SIX TIMES before leaning on my husband to help me build it. The kids who were supposed to get it were near college-age at that point. It went to a child who had not even been born when I first saw the plans. (Fortunately, I never told the other kids, or their parents, that I was planning this awesome gift for them).
As dreamers, we’re most into the process of exploration. We’re planners and designers more than we are artisans or producers. The architect, not the carpenter; the engineer, not the mechanic. We’re never going to stop learning new skills, improving our abilities, refining our aesthetic. Because of this, guess what?
A lot of our earlier project “commitments” aren’t worth finishing.
Just because we once decided that something would be a good idea to make, does not mean that this is still true.
Just because we’ve put hours of work into something, does not mean that it would be worth finishing.
Just because an idea once popped into existence somewhere in the ether, does not mean it’s worth bringing it into physical form.
An example of this would be a wedding sampler I began for a dear old friend. I made a mistake on it and put it aside, planning to pick out those stitches on another day. Years later, it still hadn’t gotten done. But guess what? That marriage didn’t survive. When I was culling my old projects, I realized that that $1 piece of aida cloth had about 50 stitches on it, and the design was seriously dated. I threw it in the trash.
Yep. I really did. I threw an unfinished craft project IN THE GARBAGE.
It was biodegradable. It turns out we can do this. There are no project police. Nobody comes for you and hauls you to a dungeon if you quit working on something. You don’t even have to declare bankruptcy if you trash $5 worth of materials.
Culling old projects that have become irrelevant or have lost their luster is the only way to reclaim the energy to finish the good ones. Beyond this, it turns out that waking up to a clean slate with no unfinished projects unleashes an astonishing wave of creative energy and power. No guilt, no boredom, no nagging reminders, nothing. We don’t owe any of our free time to anyone. To ourselves we owe the ability to live in the present moment, without bits of our attention snagged on obsolete past choices.
At some point in the year 2000, I decided to use up all of my accumulated materials and try to finish my existing projects before starting anything new. I wasn’t perfect in implementing this, but I did stop buying attractive yarn or fabric or kits without a very specific project in mind. I went through my stockpile several times, giving away bags of stuff, throwing away bits and scraps, questioning whether I still wanted to make stuff that had appealed to me years earlier. I chose to finish many of the projects in my burgeoning work basket.
IT TOOK TEN YEARS.
Now I’m still crafty. I still have all the skills I ever had. If I wanted to make a pair of baby booties, I could do it this week. I just don’t have any yarn or knitting stuff in my home anymore, not so much as a pair of straights or a set of DPs. As a writer, I can go through my folder of notes and start on anything in there at any time, in the full knowledge that I already have too many ideas to complete in one lifetime. Inspiration is not obligation. This one lifetime is for me to live and enjoy, not to thrash myself because I am more likely to invent new ideas than to carve them into reality.
The Finishing Game works like this:
What will you do when you’ve finished everything? What will you do when you no longer have a towering pile of incompletion in your life? What I did was to run a marathon and learn enough of a foreign language to travel around, buying train tickets and getting directions. What would be more interesting, more challenging, and more fun than the never-ending to-do list?
You should have done it already. You know you should have. It’s lurking there, like a swamp thing at the bottom of a murky lake. Waiting for you. It will never let you have a moment’s peace until you deal with it, but you just can’t seem to make yourself. You can’t seem to make yourself open that envelope, listen to that voicemail, make that phone call, schedule that appointment, get that thing repaired, fill out that application, have that awkward conversation, turn in that assignment. WHY? Why do you keep doing this to yourself?
You’re not alone. Everyone procrastinates. Sure, some people claim they don’t, but the two most commonly procrastinated tasks are planning for retirement and dealing with health issues. Mention that if anyone tries to grief you about this.
Procrastination is a secret shame. There are a lot of different kinds. Don’t stress out about it. Imagine being a hit and run driver who never told anyone. (If that’s you, well, heck. Tell someone). Procrastination is really pretty mild in the grand scheme of things.
Whenever you have a secret shame, it’s the shame and the secrecy that are the real problems. Everything else is generally a simple matter of routine work.
An unpaid bill is just cash.
Something broken is just a repair.
A stain is just a stain.
An incomplete task is just something that could be finished.
It’s never the thing itself. It’s always the feelings of shame, guilt, incompetence, dread, anxiety, confusion, and What If that are the real problems.
Most of the time, it isn’t too late. Whatever is being procrastinated, the deadline hasn’t passed yet. There’s still time. Even knowing that, it can still feel impossible to just get started. Just start. Just start. Why aren’t you starting?
All it takes is to tell someone. Tell someone you know and trust. Tell someone you don’t know, like a stranger in line behind you at the post office. Tell someone anonymously on the internet. Tell a crow in the parking lot. Tell the Great Pumpkin. Just tell someone.
Give a name to what’s bothering you. Describe it. This helps to put some boundaries around the nameless ick that is destroying your peace of mind.
“I never sent those thank-you notes.”
“I’ve had this overdue library book for eight years.”
“The floor is ruined and I’m afraid to tell my landlord.”
“I’ve been getting calls from collections agents and I’m not even sure how much I owe.”
“The quarterly report is due and I haven’t even started yet.”
“I’m supposed to get a biopsy and it’s been over a year and I still haven’t made the appointment.”
(That last one was me BTW).
If you’ve picked the right person, you’ll probably hear a similar story in return. Everyone but everyone has done something like this. I accidentally melted a chocolate Rollo candy into my roommate’s couch. (So that’s where that went!). People procrastinate and make foolish mistakes and do embarrassing stuff all the time. That’s why it’s so funny and such a huge relief to hear that someone else is doing it, too.
Many people who have trouble working alone will push through for hours without a break if they have someone to sit with them. It’s a well-known phenomenon. The companion is called a “body double” or “shadow.” I think the lack of a buddy is the root cause of procrastination for a lot of people. (Probably most of them are Obligers). This is part of why it helps to tell someone when you feel like you’re in trouble and unable to face a problem by yourself. If all you need is someone to keep you company, that’s really a very minor favor to ask of someone.
Who could you get to sit with you?
A business partner? Your neighbor? Your kid? Your spouse?
A fellow procrastinator?
There are all kinds of book clubs, right? (I used to belong to three at one point). Lots of people play racquetball or tennis together. Bowling leagues. Choirs. You get where I’m going here? Why shouldn’t you have a partner or a club to help you focus and get stuff done? It’s entirely possible that someone among your friends or acquaintances is in just such a situation as you are. That person would probably be thrilled to have some help. You both just sit down together and make a pact that you’ll work on your secret shame until it’s done.
The backlog of unbalanced bank statements (which someone at your bank will do with you). The 30,000 unopened emails. The grocery sack full of unopened envelopes, which I guarantee are almost entirely junk mail. The incomplete expense reports. The blank thank-you notes. Whatever it is, it’s not exactly movie-of-the-week material, now, is it?
The funny thing is, it’s possible that you and your friend have non-overlapping projects, as well as non-overlapping skill sets. For instance, I absolutely hate driving, but I’m really quite good at organizing and I don’t mind disgusting cleaning tasks. I would totally trade someone a job like mending or scrubbing out a gross fridge for driving me around on some errands. Other jobs I hate that might make a good trade are wrapping gifts or giving my dog a bath.
It’s also not morally wrong to just hire someone. Hire a local high school kid. Hire someone through Craigslist or something similar. Calculate a subjective estimate of the cost of this looming dread that’s constantly hanging over your head, and then how much you’d be willing to pay to be rid of it. Is this a $25 stress? A $200 stress? A $20,000,000 stress? For instance, I can wash a pretty vast pile of laundry at the laundromat for about $8, but when it’s piled up that much, it feels like at least a hundred-dollar annoyance. (Would it cost $100 to buy a top-to-toe outfit if I ran out of clean clothes?). For a lot of people, putting a price on something can help to rank it and compare it to other problems. It can also be a motivator for getting it done rather than spending that kind of money.
Dread and procrastination and secret shame will destroy your peace of mind like nothing else. Life is too short to feel that way another day. Tell someone and don’t suffer alone.
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.
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.
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