Q: How do you know it’s time to level up in your career?
A: It’s always time.
Most people hate updating their resume, applying for jobs, and going on interviews. These are reason alone to avoid thinking about a career change, retraining, or aiming for a promotion. Unfortunately, coasting is not a permanent option. The workplace is always changing, and not just job positions but entire industries can quickly be made obsolete.
I was 19 the first time I became aware of this. It was my first day on a new temp job, at a time when I thought of myself as “a data entry clerk.” My trainer walked me through the forms I would be typing into the system, and offhandedly explained that they were transitioning to a bar code system. “One day all of this will be done by computer.” Huh. I grew up in Oregon, during the recession of the early 1980s, and even as a teenager I was aware that a lot of loggers lost their jobs when the trees went away. Not much left to log! I also knew that a lot of people had new jobs in the tech sector, not that I knew to call it that back then. I just shrugged and accepted that it would be easier to train for a new job than to try to hang on to one that was going away. As a 19-year-old, it felt a bit like a continuation of high school.
Of course, there were other reasons to think about leveling up and doing something other than data entry. One, the poor pay. Two, the chronic pain of repetitive stress injury.
The path upward was confusing and not obvious, not at all. In retrospect, I can say that my biggest hidden obstacles were my wardrobe, grooming, and chronic punctuality problems. It truly didn’t matter how hard I worked, how much I improved my skills, how many operating systems or software applications I mastered, or how many degrees I got, because I didn’t look the part, didn’t know it, and didn’t care. I didn’t understand that for the clock-obsessed, being five minutes late is proof of moral dissolution, and being fifteen minutes late is like setting the building on fire. I felt that my low income trapped me at the level of wearing thrift store clothing and relying on the bus to get to work. It is what it is, right?
The real problem was that I had a subservient support role. Nobody else was ever going to pull me up, create a position for me, or even explain what I needed to do to climb up a rung. I had to figure it out for myself.
As a young woman, I took whatever job I could get and did my best to flail along. I thought I’d be fine if I followed orders, worked hard, and shared my ideas on how to improve anything I could. Then I’d be stymied when I constantly had to answer the question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Um, making more money? All I knew was that I wanted something more, and I’d certainly take it as soon as someone offered it.
What successful people do is to set their sights on something extremely specific, figure out how to get it, and then work on those steps.
This is how my husband did it, and it still boggles my mind. He 1. took a career assessment at school 2. Looked at the results and compared the incomes of ‘history teacher’ and ‘engineer’ 3. Applied to engineering school, figuring he could study history on his own time 4. Got in and crushed the work, even as 80% of his fellow students washed out.
...Doesn’t it seem so... OBVIOUS? So... STRAIGHT-FORWARD???
(I took the same test and it gave me ‘massage therapist’ and ‘cab driver.’)
Where we get into trouble is in trying to form the initial vision. What DO we want? What WOULD we be good at?
Please won’t someone just tell me exactly what to do so I can do it?
What I know now is that my super-skill is ideation. It’s something that most people don’t particularly do well, and I’m quite brilliant at it. My natural state is to wake up in the morning with my brain already churning out ideas. Inventions, song lyrics, ad campaigns, B-corp structures, business plans, articles, book titles, limericks, workshops, recipes, cartoons, futurist predictions, you name it! The problem is more slowing down or stopping the flow than trying to get started.
How would I have figured this out, though? What convergent path could I have followed in school or entry-level service positions that would have indicated: ‘YOU have a rare and valuable talent!’?
I also know that I’m extremely productive, as long as I can work on my own priorities. I published over a thousand pages in 2017, in addition to other writing projects and articles that went into the Ready to Post folder. The week before this post, I had six meetings, gave three speeches and wrote another, formatted and scheduled two weeks’ worth of blog posts, produced a newsletter, worked on our new podcast, deep-cleaned our apartment, worked on my headstand, passed my three-hour Muay Thai belt promotion, and still managed to get my hair cut. On Tuesday, I walked 6 miles, rode my bike 4 miles, and did two back-to-back martial arts classes, followed by walking 7 miles on Wednesday and carrying four loads of laundry up and down a flight of stairs. Nothing can stop me when the plan is my own.
The signs of burnout, stasis, and stalling are feelings of low energy, frustration, sadness, resentment, and dread. Sleep procrastination - staying up late even when you’re chronically exhausted because you feel owed more personal private time. Recreational eating - eating snacks and junk food, especially late at night, because it’s one of the few pleasures in your life. Money worries. Envy of other people, because their success feels unattainable, and why should anyone get anything when your life is so hard? Fixating and perseverating on wretched things that happened at work, because you can’t shake it and even thinking about your boss or your customers makes you want to cry. Just feeling stuck and having no idea what to do.
If any of that feels familiar, hey, it’s okay. It doesn’t have to be that way. Staying at a job you hate, a job that’s beneath your abilities, isn’t doing anyone any favors. You deserve more, your coworkers deserve someone who actually wants to be there, and your customers and clients - well, who knows what they deserve, but surely someone out there deserves your best, not your mediocre most average. What would you do if you had something awesome, a job you loved, a job where every time you finished something, someone was excited? What if that someone were you?
Time to level up!
I have a box and a half of business cards that have my name and the job title: COACH. I ordered them in a fit of enthusiasm and blind optimism two years ago. As far as I know, they have resulted in zero hires and zero pennies of income. They were my first-ever business cards, and I put a huge amount of thought into their design, but now they sort of just annoy me. I’m done.
Let me first say that coaching is obviously a poor fit for me. That’s enough reason right there not to keep doing it. Other people may thrive on their coaching work, and I wish them every success! It’s definitely better for everyone if there are fewer, better, more dedicated and highly skilled coaches reaping a greater concentration of the available pool of clients.
That being said, I have some pretty strong suspicions that there are methods and philosophies of coaching that basically just don’t work for anyone.
I’d love to be proven wrong! There’s very little I enjoy more than watching someone break through a limiting belief, change an unhelpful behavior, open up to a special someone, start a new career, blast into excellent physical transformation, or otherwise fall in love with life all over again. Anything that moves people in that direction is great.
Okay, so my personal issues, in varying order:
This is what I think. I think that ‘coaching’ is like ‘massage therapy’ in that it feels like a very beautiful, fulfilling way to make money and help people. It’s a vision-board kind of thing. (Just like every little kid wants to be a marine biologist). Yet, when it’s among the most obvious choices for anyone who wants to push away from traditional employment, it becomes over-subscribed. Everyone wants to do it, and that drives down the rates. For instance, I can get a massage in my area for $30 an hour, which is ludicrous, because in a foofoo salon it can (AND SHOULD) cost $100. For a coach, that would start to put it in the area of “how can you give me life advice when you would earn more as an office assistant?” (I say that with great respect, and pragmatism, because it’s what I used to do and at least it offers predictably free evenings and weekends).
For someone who has felt a firm, lightning-bolt inner conviction that It’s Time, it’s definitely worth paying for value and hiring a coach in an extremely specific specialty. For instance, working with a personal trainer who focused in recovery got me answers about my persistent ankle pain that an osteopath, two MRIs, and six months of physical therapy never did. Then just a few sessions with a trained shiatsu massage therapist actually resolved it! In future, I would go directly to the shiatsu table. When I started paying 4x more for gym classes instead of a commodity gym membership, I started getting 10x results. Same thing in other areas: I’d hire a certified dietitian, a tax accountant, a fiduciary financial planner, a professional editor, or the most highly rated business coach I could find. I’ll never waste my time shaking the trees for discount bargain cut-rate professional advice in any area again. I’d sooner get a side hustle to pay for a top-level professional opinion, knowing it always pays for itself, saves huge amounts of time, and usually results in my ability to earn more.
Here’s my best advice, free and worth every penny:
What I have learned to do is to ask myself, “What would a coach tell me about this issue right now?” (As I wrote those words, a large flock of chattering wild parrots flew past my window, which I regard as an omen that I am onto something). The answer always seems to pop up immediately, an unattractive and awkward answer, something that is Not Me, something that I feel deeply reluctant to do. The more it feels like I Do Not Want That to Be the Answer, the more likely it is to be. Approach it with curiosity in a sense of adventure.
This won’t be obvious in the future, so I probably shouldn’t even admit it, but I’m posting my blog hours late. For the first time in over two years, I completely forgot about scheduling a post! This is partly because of Vacation Brain, which is a known thing, but it’s also because my husband and I are in full-blown brainchild mode and working on a giant new project.
This is what happened.
We’re at World Domination Summit on Monday, our last day, and our suitcases are already packed to take to the airport. On Sunday, during the break between keynote speeches, there’s a lengthy break, during which anyone who wants to can propose a meetup on basically any topic. We had decided to do one together. This would be the first time we ever did a presentation or taught a class together. We put together an outline one morning at breakfast, worked out how much time each segment should take the next morning, and then divided which topics should belong to each of us. That was it.
The topic: Engineer Your Household.
This is something the two of us have developed organically over the course of our twelve-year relationship. His work as an aerospace engineer and my work as a writer, coach, and organizer merged with our mutual desire to not be, well, twice-divorced. We use the engineering process of relentless root cause analysis and corrective action to figure out points of friction in our relationship. That’s because it feels dumb to let housework and finances determine whether we are friends or not.
Don’t let laundry kill your love!
We arrived at our chosen location about 20 minutes early. That was long enough to work ourselves into a tizzy that nobody would come to our talk. We had so many concerns: that we’d interrupt and talk over each other, that our focus would wander and we’d let a bunch of non sequiturs fill up time, while forgetting our most important points. We’d wind up annoying each other while our audience gradually got up and trickled away.
Then, much to our surprise, almost everyone who showed up arrived in pairs! It had genuinely never occurred to us that married couples and romantic partners would attend together. We looked at each other with our mouths actually hanging open.
Our talk went so, so much better than we expected. We handed my iPad back and forth, going through our outline, while the other person would hold a phone with a stopwatch running. Not so polished or professional, but hey, we were standing in a park with zero staging, and it was also very us. That’s how we solve problems together, working as allies and teammates.
We were able to see that our new friends/audience were connecting with our message, laughing, glancing at each other, with a few nudges and pats of private meaning and connection.
We were also able to see that this core of our marriage - factory-level efficiency and scheduling - came across as genuinely original and surprising. Which I guess it is? This whole idea that we can create a system for dividing labor and negotiating authentically without driving each other up a tree. Acknowledging our frustrations and disappointments as commonplace! Just because laundry and weekday dishwashing are inherently annoying is NOT some kind of sign that you’re incompatible together. It’s a universal hassle that applies to single people, roommates, families with kids, polyamorous collectives, even colleagues in a coworking environment. Let’s treat it like a business matter and do it practically. Then we can actually be friends again and lounge around enjoying maximum leisure time.
At the end, people were asking if we had book recommendations, if we had a blog, if we had a podcast. I realized that this “do you have book recommendations” question comes up ALL THE TIME after I do a talk, and that each time, I pause and realize that, well, no. This is actually my own original material. In fact, it happened again during a meetup when I talked to a musician about mechanically inducing a creative trance state. Oh, wait, is that actually just a me thing?
I spend so much time working alone and talking to myself that I often don’t realize how very much I’m dwelling in an ivory tower of my own construction.
When we buy our tickets for WDS, we do it without scheduling or planning anything afterward. That’s because we know it’s a watershed in our year, that there’s a clear Before and After. We know we’ll learn something new, have a radical paradigm shift, or (AND/or) come up with a completely new approach to something. The stage was set and the structure was in place, waiting for the content, like a leaf waiting for a butterfly.
This year, the insight is that my husband and I should do a podcast together about marriage. Let me just say that that was NOT something that had ever occurred to us before. Look at your mate, if you have one, and ask each other if that would have popped up somehow over cornflakes... See what I mean?
At this point, our main decision is which day of the week we’ll use to record episodes. We already have quite a bit of content, a title, and a framework for how the different segments will line up. We have an idea of a series of guests (random private individuals) we’d like to have. We might spend a bit of time choosing some music (or pass on it) and getting a logo designed. There will be an accompanying website. Each of these pieces feels like a routine task, something that’s quite easy to accomplish.
It’s also felt straightforward and easy to say that I am closing the door on private coaching. I’ll go into it more at a later date, but basically, coaching doesn’t scale. If I spend even just an hour a week on one single client, that’s the hour a week I would have been using on THE ENTIRE PODCAST. The point is that the podcast could reach one or one hundred million listeners; it isn’t for us to guess, but it’s certainly going to be more people than I could coach individually. As soon as this clicked into place, I knew that the decision had been made and that I had no waffling or ambivalence around it. Finishing off one stage of life entirely, that’s what it is, in order to make room for something bigger and more interesting, something that will matter to more people.
I did my second-ever meetup at WDS. Remember how I started forcing myself into public speaking two years ago because I was so petrified by stage fright that I could barely stand up to speak my name? I have to keep reminding myself how far I’ve come in such a short time, because I’m being eaten up by what Michelle Barry Franco so aptly calls a “vulnerability hangover.” This is why I’m sharing, because I suspect it’s a natural part of the emotional arc of learning to inhabit a stage presence.
Our Thursday was all about public speaking and storytelling. Our first academy of the day was “Make Instant Friends and Raving Fans” by the inimitable Marsha Shandur. We had the great luck of getting into her sold-out storytelling academy last year, because we were fast and decisive. Until they manage to generate an AI avatar so there can be two Marshas, or we can get her to bilocate, her raving fans are going to have to be pretty fast on that reservation button! Today’s topic was a matter of serious study for an awkwardly shy person like myself. My “dork goblin” isn’t a separate version of me, it simply IS me, only realizing I bumbled my opportunity for a conversation in retrospect. “Hi, you’re amazing, please allow me to tell you a completely pointless and boring anecdote about myself and then forget why I was telling you.” Hours fly by. I believe Marsha’s claims to have once been shy and awkward, although they do seem tenuous; if true, then maybe there is hope for us all.
We had a lunch break and came back to the same building for our afternoon academy, “Speak So It Matters” by Michelle Barry Franco. She is a highly accomplished speaker and captivating in her own distinct way. While Marsha’s focus is more on forming a personal, emotional connection through storytelling, Michelle’s is more on clarifying a message and using public speaking to get traction on it. She had specific tips on how to find an audience - like physically find them - and create your own public speaking career. We broke into groups, and my hubby and I were very fortunate to click with a pair of podcasters who each already have a clearly defined audience.
I walked out of that academy with half an hour to get to my own meetup, Wishing Permission, feeling excited and focused and empowered. It’s hard to believe for anyone who is physically overpowered by stage fright, but it is indeed possible to get over that stage fright and anticipate a speaking opportunity with excitement. It is! It does take time, because what’s involved is reframing, neurohacking that physical anxiety response, stress inoculation, simple practice, and learning specific, straightforward presentation skills. If you have something you want to say badly enough, and you can push through the first couple of months, you too can be free of stage fright.
I have to keep reminding myself that I’ve improved, it’s easier, it’s easier, it got better, because right now I’m still in that mopey, limp rag of a state that I get in after a presentation. Beforehand I’m so excited about everything I have to say. During, I just talk really fast. I was proud that I started exactly on time and ended on time, from 5:00 to 6:01. Good job, me!
Afterward I felt small, homely, useless, pointless, boring, wrong, confusing, drained, sagging from sleeping only four hours, and that surely any rational person would abandon any idea of ever doing that again.
Same exact thing that happened last year.
It’s like when an elephant seal has her pup, and the pup gains its weight by effectively consuming her accumulated body fat reserves, pound for pound, until it’s grown enough that she can go out to get some fish for herself. The speech comes out of me, depleting my life force, until I’m a pasty imitation sock puppet version of myself. Flopped over with its sock mouth hanging open derrrrrrrrp.
Then the feedback starts coming in. I had people who had attended my Curate Your Stuff meetup last year, who still remembered everything I had to say!
Then I got this: “...I’d love to talk to you more about this wish stuff, I feel like you’re really on to something.” AHA!
What I’m sharing is that when we have an idea, an invention, an innovation, or an artistic creation, it becomes an entity in its own right. It deserves to enter the world of reality. We are not able to judge our own work; we can’t possibly know where it will find its audience, or when. It doesn’t belong to us at that point. It belongs to the world. We can’t let emotional foo interfere with the creation of the work. My feeling that “I am a terrible public speaker, my ideas are ludicrous, I’m funny-looking and nobody wants me” is a direct reaction, a physical letdown from the adrenal buildup of anticipating the event. It’s very much like every marathoner who reaches the finish line and then never runs again. One day, with practice, this will just feel like an ordinary thing that I do, and I’ll be more skilled at recognizing the emotional ebb and flow. Until then, I have to keep reminding myself that if even one person benefits from my work, then I can’t not work.
Hey. HOW DARE YOU not give us your project? Who the heck do you think you are, to keep your ideas for private entertainment and not release them?
What both Marsha Shandur and Michelle Barry Franco had in common was that they both emphasize: they are not naturals at this. They worked at it. It was contrary to whatever they were doing up to that point. “Doing what comes naturally” was not going to lead either of them to a public speaking career; they got there by NOT doing what comes naturally. We can trust by their example that the path is there. We can respect that it takes years of steady effort. We can hold the line when every instinct in our bodies says to run away and quit doing it. We can believe that with dedication and focus, we can learn to captivate and get a message across. We just have to be willing to be dorky the first few tries.
The hardest thing to do is to make decisions. Action is easy. Take action toward something that you know is important and valuable to your life, and you’ll find it satisfying and absorbing. Most likely, you’ll also find that it’s a fairly automatic process. Almost everything we need to do in life is routine once the decisions have been made. I always say that we’ll do anything if we want to and we know how. When we’re stuck, it’s either because we don’t really know what to do next, or we’re not really committed because we haven’t really decided whether we want it. Once we have all that figured out, all that’s left is turning the crank.
Turning the crank is doing a rote task over and over again.
Turning the crank is doing something relatively mindless that needs doing.
Turning the crank is executing on something with a consistent level of quality and output.
Turning the crank is production, rather than design or strategy.
The great thing about turning the crank is that it leaves the mind free to focus on other things. Something is getting done almost without your realizing it. Sometimes it feels like the work does itself.
Everyone knows the feeling of turning the crank. We just don’t always realize that that’s what we’re doing. Driving a familiar route is turning the crank. Playing an addictive game is turning the crank. Binge-watching TV is turning the crank. Eating favored snack foods is turning the crank. Ordering the same drink over and over is turning the crank. We’re absolutely fantastic at turning cranks! We just don’t always turn the cranks that can move life forward. We prefer the cranks that keep us running in place on a treadmill, exhausted, burned out, but doing something predictable that doesn’t use extra decision power.
I turn the crank on my laundry system because I accept that I will want to wear clean clothes most days for the rest of my life.
I turn the crank on my personal hygiene system because the alternative is repugnant to me.
I turn the crank on my meal system because I’ve got it going on. I know what to do to cook stuff I like to eat, that my husband likes to eat, that we can eat every day without weight gain or health problems. (Example: he has a sensitivity to limes, of all things).
I turn the crank on our mail system because it keeps the desk clear, and because it prevents predictable crises. (Example: some of my airline reward points will expire soon if I don’t use them).
About 80% of life is maintenance. This can be unutterably boring and stultifying. It can feel too unfair for words. You mean I have to fold laundry EVERY DAY??? UGHHHHHH! The stuff that makes the maintenance list is the stuff that gets worse when it’s ignored. We do the maintenance because when we abdicate and avoid it, it winds up taking longer. It’s usually also stickier, greasier, smellier, dustier, more depressing and annoying in every way if it gets put off. Future Me, you’d better appreciate this.
The point of turning the crank is to free up mental bandwidth. Automate every possible thing. Anything that can be put on a System 1 basis, where it can be done without conscious thought, frees up focus and awareness for more interesting things. The most important of these is strategy, and after that are creative output and entertainment. It’s also possible to turn the crank in an emotional or spiritual state such as gratitude, satisfaction, awe, compassion meditation, harmony with nature, ecstatic musical appreciation, or all sorts of other mindsets. Just because there’s a toilet brush in my hand / doesn’t mean that this isn’t my jam.
We tend to miss these rarefied states because we’re usually boiling with resentment, steaming with annoyance and frustration, trudging in dejection, or maybe even fuming with rage that we have to waste our precious time doing these horrible tasks. SO UNFAIR! It’s only when we accept that spending 80% of our time on boring, unfulfilling chores is the lot of humanity that we’re able to tune in to other frequencies.
I turned the crank today. I woke up and wrote, formatted, and posted an article for this blog before I had even had breakfast. That’s one of the main cranks that I turn, and I haven’t missed a business day in over three years. Then I read and reviewed a book, which I also formatted and scheduled. Turn the crank. I went to the gym, coached my clients, and caught up on email. Turn the crank. Listened to eight podcast episodes, or another way to put that would be that I changed the sheets, washed three loads of clothes, cleaned the bathroom, ran the dishwasher, vacuumed the bedroom, sorted the mail, cleaned the birdcage, and walked the dog. Turn the crank. Did two tasks for my volunteer position. Turn the crank. Wrote out my strategic plan for the next 13 weeks. That’s the crank that turns all the other cranks.
Turning the crank feels like competence. It’s a game, if you want it to be. When I was a kid, I hated washing dishes because I “had” to do it. Now I just shrug and do it, because it’s my kitchen, my home, and my rules. I hated cleaning my room, quite frankly because I didn’t know how to do it and I had stuff I had no authority to discard. Now I just shrug and do it, or more accurately, there isn’t really anything to clean.
I turn the crank because it’s a major part of how I do what I want, almost all the time. I choose. I choose to have a certain emotional state and a certain energy level. I choose to have a certain amount of mental bandwidth, which I then apply to various interesting projects, also of my choosing. It’s not acceptable to me to live in chaos and entropy, and neither is it acceptable to me to put my attention and precious mental focus on rote tasks. I let my hands do the tasks while my mind is free. It’s because I turn the crank every day that my mind is released from duty.
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 only thing better than a book by one of your favorite bloggers is when the book turns out to be even better than the blog. Eric Barker is in my top ten list, along with probably everyone else’s, and Barking Up the Wrong Tree has just locked that down. This is an incredibly fascinating read that may turn everything you think about pop psychology upside down. It is indeed, as the subtitle says, “the surprising science behind why everything you know about success is (mostly) wrong.”
Why is this book so great? It’s because Barker has been researching and writing in depth about these topics for years. More than that, he has a knack for illustrating concepts with historical examples and storytelling. Where else are you going to find anecdotes about submarines, drug cartels, mixed martial arts, Genghis Khan, Spider-Man, and Batman all in the same book?
The research behind Barking Up the Wrong Tree is bound to stir some inner resistance in most people. There are so many findings that contradict common wisdom, and that will probably also conflict with some closely held values. One is that making your boss happy is more important to your career success than your actual performance. Essentially, if you please your boss, even mediocre performance won’t matter, and if you annoy your boss, excellent performance won’t matter either. I can practically feel the temperature rising as steam comes out of ten thousand pairs of ears.
There’s so much to surprise, delight, challenge, confuse, frustrate, and ultimately impress readers. Optimism and pessimism, introversion and extroversion, grit, creativity, altruism, willpower, networking, success, and even hostage negotiations have their place here. If you’re ready to have your mind changed about a wide array of cultural assumptions, make sure you’re not Barking Up the Wrong Tree and read this book.
“Cognitive biases prevent us from understanding cognitive biases.”
“TO-DO LISTS ARE EVIL.”
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.
This is the companion book to Jon Acuff’s earlier volume, Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, and Do What Matters. Readers and fans kept telling him that they had no problem starting projects, they just need help figuring out how to finish them. I can identify with this. There are at least two projects that I was working on when I read Start that I still have not completed four years later. If those projects were only four years old, that would be one thing, but, well, they’re older than that. I’m ready to Finish and give myself the gift of done!
This book is great both for chronic procrastinators and for multi-potentialites. Some of us may think we are procrastinators, when really our main problem is wanting to do everything at once. Acuff shows that he fits in this group when he describes his garage full of equipment that he’s only used a few times, including a telescope, a fishing rod, and a moped. Just because we’re curious, adventurous spirits does not mean we’re quitters or procrastinators, it just means we need to learn how to say we’re done with something.
One of the main reasons that we as humans struggle to finish projects is the planning fallacy. We’re just not very good at estimating how long it takes to do things. Another issue is perfectionism, the crazy idea that it’s better not to do something at all if we can’t meet our perfectionist standards. An example that Acuff gives is all the people who say they want to run a marathon but refuse to start with a 5k. Familiar as these are, there are loads more, and Finish gives us plenty of laughs as we recognize ourselves over and over.
Of course, knowing the issue is not the same as solving the issue. The real strength of the book, aside from its humor, is that Acuff knows what it takes to get people to finish projects. He tested these ideas with hundreds of real people, and the results were analyzed by a researcher working on a PhD. This is more than a motivational self-help book; it’s a description of what other people have successfully done. That’s important, because as we all know, motivation is like a shower. It works great and makes you feel good, but it only lasts for about a day.
We start by being less strict with ourselves, making our goals more manageable, and choosing what else to put on hold while we finish.
A tool from the book that I have used is strategic incompetence. I didn’t have that name for it, but I did it, all right. When I went back to school at age 24 to finish my degree, I decided that I would put fitness on hold until I was done. This wound up being kind of a bad plan, because it was a false dilemma and I unnecessarily gained 35 pounds. I did, though, get my degree. I had a clear vision in my mind that I would study during almost all my waking hours, and it worked. I used the same strategy when I decided to get fit, picturing myself doing almost nothing but going to work and being at the gym. That worked, too. I chose to just be bad at everything other than my goal for the window of time that it took to finish. Aim low, drop your standards, and win!
This book is a delight to read. Acuff emphasizes having fun and celebrating your successes. I’m dedicating 2018 to finishing, eliminating, or formally scheduling every incomplete project I have, and I certainly plan to celebrate when I’m done. That’s a party I know I won’t put off until later.
[Paraphrasing]: The opposite of perfectionism is not failure, it’s FINISHED.
“Might as well” is never applied to good things. It’s never, “Might as well help all these orphans,” or “Might as well plant something healthy in this community garden.”
Expendable, or expandable? Most people somehow find themselves surrounded by more and more stuff every year. As the amount of stuff expands, it fills up the home. Eventually, either the place is hoarded or the family has to move to a bigger place with more capacity. What, do you think everyone with a three-car garage is filling it with... cars? That’s the difference with minimalism. We focus on our lifestyle. No single item rates above our experience of living in our home. What’s more, nothing we own has more clout than our strategic position.
Clutter means it’s getting in the way.
This is a concept that most people really, really don’t grasp. It doesn’t matter what emotion you feel while you’re holding an object. What the heck does that have to do with anything, unless it’s your engagement ring?
This is how we decide what to keep:
Are we in the optimal job?
If we’re in the optimal job, are we in the optimal home?
If we’re in the optimal home near the optimal job, can we do the things we need to do?
Do we actually use this thing?
See how these questions are radically different than our feelings about an object? Oh, how much did it cost? What color is it? Does it work with my interior design philosophy? Does it make me feel all sparkly inside? Getting emotionally caught up in small-scale objects like a book or a shirt is totally beside the point when we’re making decisions based on career path, financial independence, or domestic contentment.
These are the questions.
If a better job came along in another city, would we or would we not go after it? Our kid is already in college, we don’t own a house, and we can’t live near family due to my husband’s specialized profession. Since it’s just us and our stuff, why not?
Since we’re moving, what are we taking with us? What are the rents like in our new city? We realized several years ago that if we busted down from a full-size, 3BR/2B suburban house with a two-car garage and a yard, we could save a fortune. Was it really worth the extra tens of thousands of dollars in rent and the extra hours of weekend maintenance to keep up that lifestyle? We reconsidered and realized that in many ways, living in an apartment would be a lifestyle upgrade. No more yard work, lower utility bills, less housework, and access to a pool, hot tub, and gym!
At that point, the question becomes how we fit our household into a cute little apartment. Due to where we live, there simply are no larger places in our neighborhood. Even the multi-million dollar houses are really small. Requiring a larger place also requires a longer commute, which is the exact reason most people tolerate a long commute. Where else would we put all our stuff???
Now we crunch the numbers. We have to calculate rental cost per square foot. We have to calculate utility costs per square foot. We have to include incidental costs, like a larger moving van, more gas, and more boxes. We have to include the extra furniture that people buy for their extra stuff, like bookshelves and cabinets and vanities and entertainment centers and desks and armoires and filing cabinets. All of it costs, and much of it has extra carrying costs as well. That’s before you even calculate the cost of buying it on credit.
Due to our income tax bracket and the sales tax in our state, every dollar we spend basically costs us two dollars. It would be more if we carried a balance on our credit cards.
In our complex, a two-bedroom apartment that is barely bigger than our one-bedroom costs $4000 a month. If we’d insisted on keeping all our sparkly cute lovely things, we would definitely have needed that extra bedroom to store them in. But how would we have afforded that rent? It’s not like our stuff is going to go out and get a job and start contributing to earn its keep...
Actually, in rare instances, stuff does pay the rent. We rented a storage unit for about a week and a half during our last move. The manager told us that a few of the tenants used their units to store their work equipment. Landscapers, painters, contractors, people who needed somewhere to store their bulky equipment to earn a living. You can’t exactly keep a lawn mower on the carpet in your second-floor apartment. Or, I guess you can, but you’re probably paying to have that carpet replaced when you move out!
Our first consideration, when we decide what to keep, is what we need to do our jobs. Even if we went full nomad and lived out of hotels, we would keep our electronics. My husband has some active reference textbooks that he would keep. Obviously we would maintain our professional wardrobes, or what would fit in two suitcases, anyway. That’s pretty much it. Virtually nothing else that we own is directly related to our ability to earn money.
In my opening list of strategic questions was a hint about something. Can we do the things we need to do? What I mean by this is that we need to be able to sleep in the bedroom, cook in the kitchen, bathe in the bathroom, eat at the table, work at our desks, and live in the living room. That means that absolutely nothing gets to be in a stack or a pile. We value our space and the use of that space more than any amount of stuff. It doesn’t matter where it came from, how much it’s “worth,” who gave it to us, or how we feel about it. Even if it’s holding its little inanimate arms out and asking for a hug. If it’s in the way, it’s out the door.
Do we actually use our stuff? This question means that we focus on our enjoyment of the things that we do have. We invested in the most comfortable bed we could find when we were newlyweds. It’s kinda romantic that we’ve been together almost long enough to need to replace it! We also comfort-tested our couch. When you buy or keep very few possessions, you can afford to spend more and to put in a little more effort making sure that you really like something before you bring it home.
Here is the math concept behind why we say that our possessions are expendable. We know roughly how much it would cost to replace every single thing we own. If we ever took a job overseas, it would literally cost more to ship our stuff there than it would to give it all away and buy new furniture and appliances. (Plus we wouldn’t have the use of it for the two months of the voyage. If we can go two months without it, do we need it at all?). Renters insurance is mandatory in our apartment complex, and the minimum policy covers $10,000 worth of belongings. That’s WAY more than all of our stuff is worth! If something happened to destroy all our possessions, like the upstairs neighbor leaving the tub on until the ceiling collapsed, or whatever, it would be kind of amusing. Since all our photos are saved to the cloud, there isn’t anything in our home that we’d be devastated to lose. We’d wind up going on the biggest, craziest shopping spree of all time. I don’t even know how we would spend $10k on furniture, clothes, and housewares.
So many people spend more than that on their stuff, though. I have a friend who has spent more than $10,000 on a storage unit. No joke. She would have been financially better off just throwing all that stuff in the trash. Or she could have sold some of it and made a little folding money. The saddest thing in the world to me is that people pay to store stuff that doesn’t even have a resale value. I know because I’ve seen it. Boxes of school papers. Boxes of sentimental but grubby and worn-out dolls and stuffed animals. Garbage bags full of outdated old clothes. Worn-out mattresses and box springs. Boxes of paperback books. Boxes of funky old plastic storage containers with mismatched lids. Why would someone spend thousands of dollars to store stuff they never use?
They do it because they think their stuff is actually worth something. They value their belongings over their quality of life or their financial stability.
Possessions are expendable. As soon as you start to see that, you start to look around at all your stuff with new perspective. Hey, stuff, what have you done for me lately?
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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.