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The Little Guide To Beating Procrastination, Perfectionism and Blocks: A Manual for Artists, Activists, Entrepreneurs, Academics and Other Ambitious Dreamers
by Hillary Rettig, http://www.hillaryrettig.co m firstname.lastname@example.org
VERSION INFORMATION Version 1.0 released 12/10/07 AUTHORSHIP This ebook is adapted from my book The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way (Lantern Books, 2006). For more information on The Lifelong Activist please visit http://www.hillaryrettig.com. I do life and career coaching that help activists, artists, entrepreneurs, students and other ambitious dreamers break free of procrastination, perfectionism, fear, negativity and other blocks to success so that they can achieve their life goals. I also help people succeed at their job searches (that’s what the subject of my next book will be). If you like the approach in this ebook, and think my coaching would be helpful to you, please email me at email@example.com. You can also read more about my coaching and workshop services at http://www.hillaryrettig.com. If this ebook has helped you, and/or if you have suggestions for the next edition, I would welcome hearing from you. Thanks, Hillary. firstname.lastname@example.org WARRANTY The information in this ebook is presented without warranty of any kind. It has helped
many people, and it is my sincere wish that it help you, but I can’t accept responsibility for any negative result you feel you may have obtained from using it. If you are suffering from an intractable procrastination problem, or panic attacks, anxiety, depression, addiction or any other psychological or physical condition, please seek professional help before following the advice herein. Hillary LICENSE This ebook is licensed under the Creative Commons AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike 3.0 license, which means you are allowed to copy, alter and distribute it non commercially so long as you include the above Title, Version, Authorship and Warranty statements, as well as this License statement. If you choose to distribute your altered version to others, you must permit them the same freedom to copy, alter and distribute noncommercially under the same terms. For more details click on this link: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/byncsa/3.0/us/. TEXT NOTES *Throughout The Little Guide, I use the term “artist” to refer to creative people of all types, including fine artists, musicians, writers, and performers, as well as craftspeople, designers, and other commercial or “applied” artists. *I often use the word “student” to refer both to students I have taught in classes and workshops, and individuals I have coached. *Please note that although the techniques described in The Little Guide work on their own, you’ll probably achieve better results using them in conjunction with the Mission Management and Time Management techniques described in Parts I and II of The Lifelong Activist. I didn’t include those topics here because I wanted to write a little guide that focused just on the topic that most people seem most urgently interested in, overcoming procrastination. I do, however, occasionally refer to the importance of managing your mission and time in this ebook, and urge you to pick up The Lifelong Activist to read up on those topics.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PART I. THE PROBLEM DEFINED 1. An Early Morning in May (or September, or January…) 2. Things That Bump Us Off Our Path 3. Despair…and Hope 4. The Problem You Think You’re Solving 5. The Problems You Should Be Solving 6. Fear 1. Introduction to Fear and Fear of Change 7. Fear II. Fear of Failure 8. Fear III. Fear of Success 9. No Such Thing as Pure Failure or Success 10. Don’t Compound Fear With Shame 11. Fear Creates Obstacles to Success 12. The Most Important Thing You Need to Know About Your Obstacles 13. Non Obstacles 14. Beware Myths that Promote and Excuse Failure 15. Perfectionism 16. Negativity 17. Negativity II 18. Hypersensitivity 19. Panic: The FearAmplifier PART II. THE SOLUTIONS 20. False Solution I: “Mean Mommy/Mean Daddy” 21. False Solutions II and III: “Selling Out” and “Stalling Out” 22. False Solution IV: Dithering 23. Solution I: The Three Productivity Behaviors 24. Practicing the Three Productivity Behaviors 25. Five Success Tips 26. Solution II: A Process for Overcoming FearBased Procrastination and Panic 27. Tools for Change I: Journaling 28. Tools for Change II: Therapy and SelfCare 29. Tools for Change II: A Created Community
30. Finding and Cultivating Mentors 31. The Ultimate Solution (Solution III) to Managing Your Fears 32. Developing an Empowered Personality 33. What Empowered People Do
PART I. THE PROBLEM DEFINED
Chapter 1. An Early Morning in May (or September, or January…)
So here’s what happens: You have a plan – let’s say, to wake up at 7; be washed and dressed and breakfasted by 8; at your desk, easel or other workspace by 9; work three hours; exercise during your lunch break; eat a healthy salad at your desk; work four more hours; come home; eat dinner with your partner; work a couple more hours in the evening; and then curl up in bed with a good book. But you don’t follow the plan. Maybe you wake up late at 8, or 9, or…noon! The plan is trashed before you even get started. Or, maybe, it takes you not one, but three hours to make it to your desk. And then, once you’re there, you spend an hour or three reading the newspaper, Web surfing, and making personal calls. Or, maybe when lunchtime rolls around you don’t exercise and instead of a salad eat a gigantic submarine sandwich and then spend the rest of the afternoon feeling sluggish and don’t get much done. Etc. Procrastination is when you get bumped off the “path” you set for yourself for the day. Meaning, you start the day with a plan, but somehow, by the time bedtime rolls around, you haven’t accomplished some, or all, of what you had intended. There are other definitions of procrastination, but I like mine because it reflects the notion that, at every moment, you’re making a choice to either stay on your path (or schedule) or leave it. The challenge of beating procrastination is the challenge of resisting the urge to leave your path. This is also the challenge of beating blocks, since a block is really an ongoing procrastination problem that lasts weeks, months, years or decades. This ebook will help you figure out what is causing you to leave your daily path, and what you can do to stay on it. It offers not one, but three proven solutions to procrastination: I’ve used these solutions myself with great success, and so have many of my students and coaching clients. Moreover, these solutions work fast. Students who
employ them often shoot ahead like arrows on their goals, even if they’ve been blocked for years. I’ll explain why that is so later in the book. For now, just relax and read on, and rest assured that, by the time you finish, you will be much more empowered to finally defeat your procrastination problem and live the productive and happy life you’ve always yearned for.
Chapter 2. Things That Bump Us Off Our Path
Let’s say you planned to be at your computer, working on a project, at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning, but you’re not. Why not? The answer could be one or more of the following: *Got up late. *Quarreled with your lover last night, and keep reliving the quarrel in your mind. *Are too tired – the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet. *Are too hyper – drank too much coffee and can’t sit still. *Are distracted by the weather – it’s beautiful out and you’d love to take a walk or bike ride. *Are distracted by the weather – it’s awful and depressing. *Got a call (or email or instant message) from a friend, who is depressed (though not in crisis) and needed to talk. *Got a call from a friend (or email or instant message) who is happy and wanted to share good news. *Are reading the newspaper – every last word of it. *Are Web surfing or Web shopping. *Are playing Solitaire. *Just realized that it is highly important to work on some other project. Or, if you work in a home office: *Turned on the TV for “a minute” and saw that one of your favorite actors was being interviewed, so you decide to watch the interview. *Just realized that the laundry desperately needs to get done! These are typical of the kinds of things that can bump you off your path. It’s only a partial list, of course you can probably add many other entries to it. There are
probably hundreds of potential “bumps” that can knock you off your path. One important thing to notice is that, while some of these bumps seem “good” or “worthwhile” (like commiserating with your unhappy friend or doing the laundry), and some seem “bad” or “frivolous” (like playing Solitaire), they are all equally unacceptable from the standpoint of beating your procrastination habit. You will need to learn to resist the urge to get sucked into activities not on your schedule, no matter how important or virtuous they seem at the moment. The one exception, of course, is emergencies, by which I mean activities that can’t be postponed without significant hurt to yourself or others. But even with an emergency, after you’ve dealt with it, ask yourself whether it could have been prevented by better planning, or whether someone else could have handled it. If you’ve got an ambitious goal, it is very important to learn to minimize the number of preventable emergencies in your life, and to learn to delegate as much as possible. If it sounds like I’m taking a hard line, I am. I need to, because procrastinators are often adept at rationalizing their diversions. Obviously, if someone is sick or otherwise incapacitated, we should help them, but to what extent? It’s not always clear, and many procrastinators misjudge, sacrificing too much of their own time to help others, even when those others aren’t particularly needy or when someone else is available to help. This problem can be hard to identify, much less solve, because the (deservedly) virtuous feeling one gets from helping often offsets the guilt that the procrastination normally engenders. Look at Your Commitments With a Fresh Eye When you start looking at your commitments from the standpoint of someone who is determined to succeed at their ambitious dream – meaning, someone who must use their time optimally fresh solutions to formerly “unsolvable” dilemmas often present themselves. So, for instance: *Your elderly parents could probably find someone else to mow their lawn and pick up the groceries like another family member, or the high school kid down the block who needs a few extra bucks. Or, *Your spouse and kids could probably survive on takeout (or cook their own food!) a few nights a week. Or, *Your friend who needs a lot of support could find others friends or even professionals, such as a therapist to help provide it. If you didn’t have an ambitious dream that you were pursuing on top of life’s ordinary demands, then maybe you could get away with mowing the lawn, cooking all
the meals, and talking for hours each day with your friend. But once you own up to your ambitious dream, you are essentially declaring that you will be very particular and self directed in how you spend your time, because you need to reserve as much time as possible for your dream. This is in direct contrast to most people, who let others including loved ones, friends, neighbors, coworkers and corporations control their time for them. Almost all ambitious dreamers, for instance, need to reduce the time they spend on tedious household chores to as close as possible to zero, so that they can use the reclaimed time and energy to work on their dream. Okay, if you enjoy gardening and it feeds your soul, then don’t give that up. But laundry? Yard work? Mopping floors? Standing in line at the grocery store? To the extent you’re able to, find someone else to do it. Send your laundry out to be done, hire someone to maintain the lawn (or get your spouse or kids to do it), buy a floormopping robot, and have your groceries delivered. If you feel funny doing any of that, get over it: reducing your housework burden is an investment in yourself. Besides, it’s unrealistic to think that you can spend your time the same way nonambitious dreamers do and still accomplish your ambitious dream. None of this should be taken to mean that you abandon your family or friends. It just means you invest your time judiciously. Even though you’re not mowing your parents’ lawn, for instance, you could still be taking them to medical appointments: that’s a much higher value activity that is probably a far better use of your time. And even though you’re not cooking homecooked dinners every night, you could still do it a couple of times a week. And even though you’re not going to be able to talk to your friend for hours every day, you could still be available to her in times of real need. It can be scary to change the terms of our interaction with someone, especially if we’ve been interacting with them a certain way for years. (Doubleespecially if we’ve been taught to subordinate our needs to others, as many women in particular are.) People often react badly when we tell them we can’t do as much for them, or spend as much time with them, as we have been. Often, however, if we take the time to share our situation, dreams and needs, they are surprisingly understanding and eager to help. So don’t just tell people you will be less available tell them why, and ask for their support and help. If, after you share your story, some people still aren’t understanding, or are actively hostile, that’s a sad problem to have, but a common one. That’s why successful people learn to say “no,” and also to distance themselves from unsupportive or toxic people, even if they happen to be related to them. Whatever time you decide to spend helping others you should build into your weekly or monthly schedule. You should also build in time both for your own relaxation and for unplanned events and emergencies. Many people think time management is about
trying to stuff as much as possible into one’s schedule, but it’s not; it’s about clearing as much as possible off your schedule so you can work, at a comfortable, nonstressful pace, on your important goals. To sum up: whatever bumps you off your path that is not an unpreventable emergency is procrastination, no matter how important it may seem at the time.
Chapter 3. Despair…and Hope
Most procrastinators tell themselves things like: “I’m lazy. I’m undisciplined. I’m a failure. I’m hopeless. I’ve got no willpower. I’ll never succeed at anything.” Many artists, activists, and other ambitious dreamers take the selfabuse a step further, framing their procrastination as a moral flaw: “I’m a sellout, uncommitted, shallow.” Many procrastinators lead a double life, pretending to be happy and productive while really feeling besieged. Their boasts about their huge workloads, ability to work under pressure, and constant need to pull allnighters are often just a cover for shame and desperation; and often, when things get really hot when they are about to miss a serious deadline, thereby revealing their true, “shameful” nature they cut and run, abandoning a project, course, job, relationship or other commitment. Often, procrastinators become depressed almost as soon as they wake up because they know they are destined to procrastinate that day. Procrastination can also feel very confusing. At bedtime, you look back on the day and can’t figure out where your time went. You remember reading the headlines, drinking a cup of coffee with your officemates, watching some television, and surfing the Web, but those random activities couldn’t possibly have filled the entire day, could they? But, of course, they did. That’s what Charles Dickens meant, in David Copperfield, when he had Mr. Macawber call procrastination, “the thief of time.” To a procrastinator, it really does feel as if his or her time were somehow stolen. If a procrastination problem is serious enough, and lasts long enough, it is often called a “block,” as in “writer’s block.” Anyone can be blocked, and many people, perhaps most, are. Sometimes, blocks last for weeks or months, but often, tragically, they last for years, decades or even entire lifetimes. Being blocked is one of the worst feelings in the world; it drives some people to absolute despair.
Wait There’s Good News! But wait there’s no need to feel ashamed or despairing! When one of my students confesses to a procrastination problem, I congratulate her. Yes, congratulate. Here’s why: *Procrastination is an affliction of ambitious people. If you don’t believe me, do a Web search on procrastination: you’ll get links to hundreds of pages advising you on how not to procrastinate when writing your novel or thesis, pursuing a fitness program, or looking for a new job. These are all ambitious endeavors, and people who pursue them should be admired even if they do procrastinate. *All procrastinators, no matter how thwarted, can boast at least one achievement: they haven’t given up on their dream. If they had, they wouldn’t be worried about procrastinating on it. To hold onto an ambitious dream despite one’s fears, and also (frequently) despite discouragement and disapproval from those around us and society itself, takes vision, dedication and courage. So, instead of seeing your procrastination problem as a shameful flaw, try seeing it instead as a symbol of something great within you. Yeah, you’ve got some work to do to realize your full potential like who hasn’t? But at least you keep showing up and fighting the good fight. Another reason not to feel bad about your procrastination problem is that pretty much everyone procrastinates. Ever since I became interested in procrastination, a few years back, I’ve made a point of asking many of the people I talk with whether they procrastinate. I’ve asked very successful people and people who were less successful; people with longestablished careers and those just starting out. And guess what? I’ve only met one or two people who said they never procrastinated. So, pretty much everyone has days when they get bumped off their path. Everyone has goals often, the goals nearest and dearest to their hearts that they are not making progress on as fast as they would like. It’s true that successful people tend to procrastinate less than the unsuccessful ones that is, I believe, the very thing that makes them successfulbut sometimes they do it, too. This book is written specifically for artists, activists, entrepreneurs, academics and other ambitious dreamers. Are these groups particularly prone to procrastination? Maybe. As the late, great novelist and teacher John Gardner said in his book On Becoming a Novelist: “Theoretically there’s no reason one should get [writer’s block], if one understands that
writing, after all, is only writing, neither something one ought to feel deeply guilty about nor something one ought to be inordinately proud of. If children can build sand castles without getting sand castle block, and ministers can pray over the sick without getting holiness block, the writer who enjoys his work and takes measured pride in it should never be troubled by writer’s block. But alas, nothing’s simple. The very qualities that make one a writer in the first place contribute to block: hypersensitivity, stubbornness, insatiability, and so on.” Gardner considers those characteristics virtues, and so do I. (What he calls “hypersensitivity,” however, I call “sensitivity.” I define hypersensitivity differently and see it as a problem, as discussed in Chapter 18.) Let’s also not forget that ambitious dreamers choose to pursue exceptionally difficult goals otherwise, they’d be UNambitious dreamers, right? “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff,” says writer Harvey Pekar, but in addition to the complexities of ordinary life, ambitious dreamers can expect to face financial risk if not probable impoverishment; emotional risk and rejection; lack of support from family and/or society; and stressful working conditions. And that doesn’t even count the inherent difficulties of the goal itself i.e., the need of the artist to perfect her craft and sell her work, or of the academic to finish his thesis. Many people flee from these kinds of stresses, and I, for one, can’t blame them. The problem, however, is that in doing so they also flee from their dreams. Whenever I teach, I remind my students who are often deeply ashamed of their procrastination problem of the many people who have given up on their dreams. We all share a moment of sadness for those people, and then I quietly congratulate my students for persevering in their own dreams despite all the difficulties and barriers. I would similarly congratulate you.
Chapter 4. The Problem You Think You’re Solving
Look, you’re a smart person. A creative person. A dedicated person. I’m pretty sure about all of that, or you wouldn’t be an ambitious dreamer, or reading this ebook. So, how come you can’t solve a little procrastination problem? If you’re like many of my students, that question has haunted you for years. One of the most frustrating things about procrastination is that it seems like it would be the
easiest problem in the world to solve “Just work harder, Sally!” when, in reality, it is one of the hardest. Actually, that’s not quite true. Any problem is hard to solve, if you’re not really solving it. Huh? I mean it: the only way to solve a problem is to solve it. If you try to solve a problem using actions designed to solve some other problem, or actions designed to solve no problem at all, but instead to maintain the status quo, then you are bound to fail. (Why would someone who procrastinates, and is made miserable thereby, want to maintain the status quo? See Chapter 5.) You can try from here to the moon, harnessing all the brainpower, creativity and passion you can muster, and you’ll still never solve the problem. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Here’s how it applies to your procrastination problem: You probably think the root problem causing your procrastination is laziness, lack of discipline, lack of willpower, immaturity, lack of commitment, or some similar character flaw. But guess what? It’s likely none of those. First of all, most procrastinators are not I repeat, not lazy, undisciplined, etc. In fact, most tend to be dynamos in areas other than the one they are procrastinating in. One of the peculiar tortures of procrastination is that we are often productive in areas of our lives other than the one closest to our heart. Secondly and you will hear me say this repeatedly because it’s such a vital point applying negative labels such as “lazy” or “undisciplined” to yourself is, from a problemsolving standpoint, worse than useless. Not only do those labels misidentify the problem, they actually make the situation worse by undermining your selfconfidence and predisposing you to failure. As I discuss in Chapter 20, parents, teachers, coaches and mentors all know that criticism, shame and blame do not inspire positive behavioral change. Rather, encouragement and praise for any small step taken are the way to go. And that’s not just true for kids; it’s true for everyone at any age. Moreover, the field of “expectations psychology” has shown us that people often live up or down to the labels others stick on them; so that if someone repeatedly calls you, or you repeatedly call yourself, lazy or uncommitted, you are likely to live “down” to that label. I’ll have a lot more to say about labels in Chapter 17, but in the meantime stop negatively labeling yourself!
The Myth of Laziness
Think of yourself as lazy or uncommitted? In a book entitled The Myth of Laziness, learning disabilities expert Mel Levine, M.D., discusses how many cases of “laziness” can be traced to undiagnosed or untreated learning disabilities, teaching failures, physical problems like bad eyesight or motor control, an inadequate physical environment, or a chaotic family life. Once these causes are diagnosed and addressed, a person’s supposed “laziness” often evaporates. Levine’s approach highlights how just important it is to characterize your procrastination problem properly. ******
Chapter 5. The Problems You Should Be Solving
“More often than not, solving, or resolving, a problem is a rather trivial exercise once we know what the problem is.”Gause and Weinberg, Are Your Lights On? How to Figure Out What the Problem REALLY Is. Treating procrastination as a symptom of laziness or a lack of discipline doesn’t work because those are not the causes of procrastination. Rather, they are symptoms, just like procrastination itself is a symptom, of a deeper problem. That problem is usually either: 1. You were never taught the habits of productive work. Since nature abhors a vacuum, this probably means you’ve instead learned the “default” habits of low productivity or nonproductivity. This results in what I call BehavioralBased Procrastination. Or, 2. Fear: of change, success, failure, etc. This results in what I call FearBased Procrastination. Often, people suffer from both. BehavioralBased Procrastination is a relatively simple problem to define and solve, and I do so starting in Chapter 23. FearBased Procrastination is more complex. Steven Pressfield, in his excellent book The War of Art describes Resistance (his word for procrastination) as: “invisible… internal…insidious…implacable…impersonal…infallible…universal.” He’s absolutely
right. Unlike BehavioralBased Procrastination, which is usually caused by a lack of information or training, FearBased Procrastination is caused by, as its name implies, fear. Fear is unfortunately a major force in many people’s lives: it’s often a rational, if not optimal, response to the difficulties and stresses of life and an ambitious path. The Purpose of FearBased Procrastination FearBased Procrastination (FBP) is not a random bad habit: it has a purpose, which is to keep you stuck at your current level of achievement so that you don’t have to face the frightening consequences of making progress on your goal. *If you’re a writer, artist, or student, FBP helps ensure that you either never start your work, or never finish it. This, in turn, helps you avoid having your work judged and possibly rejected. Or, judged and accepted, which may feel better than rejection initially, but can bring its own problems and stresses, as I discuss in Chapter 8. *If you’re an activist, FBP helps ensure that you either don’t do activism or don’t do it well. For instance, it could lead to your interacting mainly with people who already share your views the infamous “echo chamber” problem. This, in turn, helps you avoid having your viewpoints, and possibly yourself, rejected. Or, it helps you avoid having your viewpoint accepted, in which case you will have a new set of challenges and responsibilities. *If you’re an entrepreneur, FBP helps ensure that you either never start your business, or that you spend your time doing the wrong work, or no work. This, in turn, helps you avoid the scary task of sales, and consequent risk of rejection. Or, FBP helps you avoid the stressful and scary consequences of business success, including a heavier workload and more employees to manage. *If you are in a bad relationship, FBP helps ensure that you never leave it. This, in turn, helps you avoid the risks of loneliness, economic decline (if your partner is helping to support your lifestyle), rejection by potential new lovers, or a future worse relationship. Or, if the relationship is salvageable, FBP helps ensure that you do not go to couples therapy or take other positive steps, thus helping you avoid the vulnerability and risks inherent in true intimacy. *If you’re stuck in a bad job, FBP helps ensure that you either never look for another one, or look ineffectually. This, in turn, helps you avoid having to do a fullbore job search (a highly stressful experience for most people), possible rejection, or the chance that you’ll wind up in an even worse job. Or, it helps you avoid the consequences of success, including finding a job that might be better in many ways, but that also involves more responsibility and stress.
FearBased Procrastination’s Stealthy Nature Remember all those “bumps” we discussed in Chapter 2 personal calls, newspapers, Web surfing, brooding about relationships or the weather, etc.? As you now know, those aren’t the actual cause of your procrastination the cause is fear but they are the activities we turn to when we are afraid, and they serve to distract us from both the fear, and the guilty knowledge that we are procrastinating. Procrastination has, in fact, an amazing ability to disguise itself: that is one of its most powerful weapons. What could be the harm in talking to Jane for ten more minutes, especially as she’s having such a rough day? we tell ourselves. Or: Wow, the living room rug is really filthy! It will only take a few minutes to vacuum it... Or: Oh, there’s my favorite actor on that TV show – it can’t hurt to watch for just a few minutes. Or: No point in even getting started before I’ve had my coffee. It all sounds so plausible which is why procrastination, especially after we’ve practiced it for years or decades, gains such a tough hold on us. At its most insidious, procrastination disguises itself as a slew of productive seeming, but not actually productive, behaviors that suck up a lot of time and give you the illusion of progress, but bring you no closer to achieving your goal. So, you spend a lot of time doing relatively unimportant busywork for your business, but don’t actually go out and do the most important activity of all, sales. Or, you spend a lot of time reading art magazines and visiting galleries, but don’t actually paint. Or, you keep researching your novel or thesis topic, but don’t actually get around to writing it – or you keep rewriting the same chapter over and over again. This kind of fake productivity is often exacerbated by perfectionism, one of the four main habits of procrastination and, hence, one of the four main “obstacles” that procrastinators must overcome to be able to do their work. (The other three are negativity, hypersensitivity and panic.) I discuss these obstacles in depth in this ebook, starting in Chapter 15. And let’s not forget procrastination’s other valuable tool: its ability to “thieve time.” So, you spend the day Web surfing, text messaging, listening to music, playing video games, and hanging out with friends or, alternatively, doing housework, running errands, napping, and watching television and then, all of a sudden, it’s ten p.m. and you haven’t done any of your important work. All of this adds up to the phenomenon Pressfield aptly describes as “invisible… internal…insidious…implacable...” It keeps us stuck unhappily, for sure, but at least safely protected from the possibility of even more unhappiness. It is clear that, to defeat procrastination, we need to understand more about our
fears and our responses to those fears. That’s why the next few chapters are devoted to the topic of fear and its typical causes and manifestations.
Chapter 6. Fear I. Introduction to Fear and Fear of Change
“Our bravest organizers . . . plunged into darkness not because it was stylish or because they were proud possessors of a theory that assured them that they were destined to win, but because they decided to overcome fear, period.”Todd Gitlin, Letters to a Young Activist Fear, in itself, is not a bad thing it can help keep us out of trouble. Just as it was in our remote ancestors’ interest to be scared of terrain likely to harbor predators, it is in our interest to be scared of certain risky situations. The problem is when our fears are excessive, irrational or otherwise an impediment to our growth and success or, when we respond to fear in a suboptimal way such as procrastinating. Fear is one of the strongest emotions: scientists even believe that there is even a kind of early warning system in the amygdala (the part of the brain that governs emotion) that allows us to experience fear before we’ve consciously become aware of the thing we are afraid of. It makes sense: if a leopard is about to eat you, it’s a good idea to feel fear, and react to that fear, as quickly as possible. This early warning system may be the reason fear is such a difficult problem to overcome, and why it can be so disabling. It’s hard to do anything when you’re afraid other than to try to escape the thing that is frightening you. If you have tried repeatedly and without success to break your procrastination habit, then there is a good chance that fear lies at the heart of your failure. Furthermore, you are unlikely to make much progress unless you first deal with your fear. The good news is that, once you do that, progress can happen very quickly! Below, and in the next few chapters, we examine the three most common fears at the heart of procrastination: fear of change, fear of failure and fear of success. Fear of Change A key difference between successful and unsuccessful people is that successful people initiate and control more of the changes in their lives. They decide where they
want to be today, this week, this month, next year, ten years from now, and thirty years from now, and take actions designed to achieve that result. Unsuccessful people tend to be more passive: they take what life, and other people, hand them, and consequently often lead unhappy, embittered lives. Of course, someone who is afraid of change is going to have a harder time initiating and controlling it. That person may be a supercautious or even pessimistic, “devil you know is better than the devil you don’t,” “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke,” “leave well enough alone,” “let sleeping dogs lie” kind of person. Moreover, he may have perfectly good reasons for that mindset: people from troubled or deprived backgrounds, for instance, often learn these kinds of lessons. But it is not a mindset likely to lead to success in any ambitious endeavor. As ambitious dreamers, we must work on our fear of change even more than most people. This is especially true of activists, whose vocation is all about creating change. Quoting Gandhi, we must “become the change we want to see.” Confucius agrees: “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life; and to cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right.” To achieve your goals, you must overcome your fear of change.
Chapter 7. Fear II. Fear of Failure
“You have to have the courage to fail.” Russian political activist, and former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov Garry Kasparov is one of my heroes: a former world chess champion who, after retiring, was not content to rest on his laurels, but has devoted himself to fighting courageously to restore democracy in an increasingly authoritarian Russia. He does not often come to the United States, so it was a treat for me to hear him speak, recently, at a church in Cambridge, MA. The place was packed with more than a thousand people – half, it seemed, from eastern Europe, and the other half nerdy guys clutching chess books they wanted him to autograph. He spoke on the dynamics of success, and the main point he kept coming back to was: “You have to have the courage to fail.” He also mentioned, “I have won hundreds of chess games...and lost thousands.” I went home thinking about how one doesn’t become world chess champion
without being supercompetitive and absolutely hating to lose, and yet here was Kasparov talking about his thousands of losses e.g., failures and how they were essential to his success. If such a failureaverse man can have the courage to fail, so can I and so can you. Especially if you understand what failure really is. If an action we take brings us the result we desired, or an even better one, we call it a “success.” If not, we call it a “failure.” The trouble comes when we overidentify with our projects, conflating their success or failure with our own as human beings. Unfortunately, many people, and especially many procrastinators, do this all the time. So, when our projects succeed, we don’t just tell ourselves, “Wow, I did that so well!” We say, “I’m fabulous, brilliant, queen of the world!” And we frequently do feel like queen of the world, at least for a little while. Now, I don’t have a problem with that. Most people spend way too much time criticizing themselves, not to mention being criticized by others, and could use some extra selfpraise. The more, the merrier, as far as I’m concerned: just keep it to yourself so that you don’t alienate others. No, the problem isn’t when our projects succeed; it’s when they fail. Then the reverse happens, and we don’t just tell ourselves, “Bummer. I guess I’ll have to do better next time,” but, “I’m such a loser. How could I possibly think I could own a business? My folks were right I’m just lazy and stupid.” Such negative thoughts are crippling, and in many cases we are so terrified of the possibility that they are correct that we really are stupid losers – that we don’t even dare to attempt our dream. As Steven Pressfield puts it in The War of Art, “Resistance knows that the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.” Many procrastinators, in fact, have it even worse: they are comfortable taking credit for their failures, but not their successes. So, failure is due to the person’s own limitations or ineptness, while success is due to luck or the supposedly “trivial” nature of the challenge. (If the procrastinator succeeded at it, after all, it must be trivial.) Can you imagine a more disabling attitude? Most young children don’t have this problem. A child whose tower of building blocks falls down will cry, “It fell down!” not “I failed!” If anything, she is likely to blame the blocks themselves, or some other kid who happened to walk too close to her tower, which is why her disappointment is likely to be only temporary and she is able to return happily and confidently to blockbuilding the next day. At some point, we all must learn to take responsibility for our failures and look
objectively at our personal limitations. Children raised with kindness and insight become resilient adults who can do this without judging themselves harshly. Many of us, however, were not treated so kindly by parents or others and, as a result, are unable to refrain from harsh selfcriticism. This makes us terrified of even the possibility of failure and, thus, unable to take appropriate risks. And so we remain frozen: *We don’t leave a bad job in hopes of finding a better one. *We don’t leave a bad relationship in hopes of finding a better one. *We don’t take on ambitious projects, or don’t finish the projects we take on. *We don’t move to a new, more interesting place.
In short, we remain stuck in our ruts. Given procrastination’s stealthy nature, of course, we usually don’t tell ourselves we’re in a rut. On the contrary, we usually tell ourselves that we are trying really, really hard to leave the job, relationship, etc. We just don’t do a very good job of it.
Chapter 8. Fear III. Fear of Success
Fear of failure is an intuitive concept no one likes to fail. But what about fear of success? How could anyone be afraid of success? Consider this: failure, at least, usually has the virtue of leaving us in the same place where we started out. Success, in contrast, takes us to someplace new and unknown. And that is scary. Moreover, the new place is likely to be busier, trickier, more difficult, more confusing and less comfortable than the place we left behind: *Finish your thesis and you will have to experience the judgment of your committee, not to mention the vagaries of the academic job market. *Run a successful activist campaign and you’ll wind up with more work to do. As Saul Alinsky writes in Rules for Radicals, “In the world as it is, the solution of each problem inevitably creates a new one.” *Get a new job and you’ll have to master a whole new set of relationships, information and skills. *Get a new relationship and you put your heart on the line. Success also always comes coupled with a new possibility of failure. There’s no
guarantee, after all, that you’ll prevail at your new challenges; and you could fall flat on your face. Success also puts you in the line of fire. Artists and academics both have to endure their work being judged by experts and, sometimes, the wider community. And an activist who succeeds at a campaign is likely to become a target for the opposition. Finally, and perhaps hardest to take, is that your success may spark resentment and even hostility from family and friends who don’t support your goals, or who remain stuck in their own ruts. Don’t underestimate this: rejection by, and alienation from, loved ones is a common, and often very hurtful, consequence of success. Success, in other words, is stressful, and sometimes greatly so. Children raised with kindness and insight become resilient adults who can manage this stress, but many of us were not treated so kindly by parents or others, and cannot. And so, we don’t even attempt to succeed. If success is so risky and stressful, why even bother going for it? In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner says: “Nothing is harder than being a true novelist, unless that is all one wants to be, in which case, though becoming a true novelist is hard, everything else is harder.” Same for all the other types of ambitious dreamers. On a more prosaic level, success usually brings monetary rewards even for the activist, who may finally have a shot at getting a coveted fulltime job in his movement. Then there are the social and spiritual benefits of success: one of the best situations anyone can find themselves in is as part of a community of successful ambitious dreamers. So, while your new successful life may be busier and more stressful than your old one, it will also be richer (in every sense), more interesting and more fulfilling. Your new friends and colleagues will not only support you through the stressful times, but encourage you along to even greater heights of success and happiness.
Chapter 9. No Such Thing as Pure Failure or Success
A few years ago, during the high tech boom of the late 1990s, I started a high tech business into which, over three years, I sank every penny I had saved. This represented an enormous financial hit for my family. But the business never took off and, looking back, I can see that it never took off because of mistakes that I made. Was the business a failure? At the time it certainly felt that way. When the money ran out and I had to take a
job, I was hugely depressed and who could blame me? After all, a few months earlier I had been visualizing myself as a titan of the new economy. Now, I was scraping by as a business coach at a nonprofit agency. But guess what: I don’t see it as a failure any more. First of all, I learned a vast amount from that business failure – so much so that I refer to the experience, jokingly, as my “MBA.” Second, the coaching job I took out of desperation turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life, and it changed my life for the better in many ways. I turned out to be better at coaching than at most of the other ways I had tried to earn a living; I was helping a lot of people; and also my students and fellow coaches turned out to be some of the most amazing and inspirational people I’ve ever been privileged to know. As a result of helping people work through their problems and blocks on a daily basis, I found myself undergoing a period of rapid personal growth and learning; and I was even able, in a kind of extraordinary coach’s alchemy, to transform my business “failure,” along with prior business “successes,” into useful fodder for my classes and coaching, thus deriving real and ongoing value from an experience that at the time seemed like pure failure. Ultimately, the chain of events set in place by my business “failure” led to the writing and publication of my first book, The Lifelong Activist, and my new, wonderful and sustainable – coaching and speaking business. So, was my business a failure? Only in the narrowest sense. Stephen Pressfield tells a wonderful story about failure in The War of Art. After seventeen years of trying to break into the movie business, he finally wrote a screenplay that got produced, for a movie called King Kong Lives. (If you haven’t heard of it, you can probably guess the rest of the story . . . .) “We were certain it was a blockbuster,” he writes; and he and his colleagues arranged for a fancy party after the premiere. No one came to the party, however, and the next day the reviews were scathing. Pressfield writes: “I was crushed. Here I was, fortytwo years old, divorced, childless, having given up all normal human pursuits to chase the dream of being a writer . . . .I’m a loser, a phony; my life is worthless, and so am I.” However, he was quickly set right by a wise friend, who said, “Be happy. You’re where you wanted to be, aren’t you? So you’re taking a few blows. That’s the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines. Stop complaining and be grateful.” One moral of Pressfield’s story, and my own, is that there is no such thing as pure success or pure failure. Every experience, including my business and King Kong Lives, is a mixed bag. (Now you know why I frequently put the words “failure” and “success” in quotes throughout this ebook.) Of course, success is better than failure, but most
successes contain some element of compromise or failure, and most failures contain some element of success, even if that element may not be immediately apparent. So the line between the two is not nearly as clear as many people think. No Regrets In my coaching, I regularly run into people who feel a deep shame for some, or many, of their past actions. Sometimes, the “sin” is having dropped out of college, while other times it is having remained in an abusive relationship, spent one’s twenties drunk or stoned, or committed a crime (or crimes). Often, the “sin” is something most onlookers would consider relatively minor, or not even a sin at all like my student who had to stop doing volunteer work at her church when her child became ill. (Believe it or not, she was deeply ashamed of this.) Many people are filled with shame for things they did back when they were teenagers or even younger, or for things that other people did to them. And in many cases that I see, people’s shame and regret are keeping them “frozen” and unable to make progress on their goals. Shame, guilt, regret and remorse are toxic, and useless, emotions. The only proper response to your mistakes is to learn from them, work to ensure that you do not repeat them, make whatever amends you can to people you have hurt, and move on. Anything else any shame, guilt, regret or remorse won’t accomplish anything, and can, in fact, lead to a pernicious form of procrastination. Sure, I could choose to dwell on the many mistakes I made in my business, not to mention all the money I lost. But what exactly would that accomplish? (A nonrhetorical question: think about it.) Once the relevant lessons are learned, and you’ve made amends as best as can, it’s time to move on. ****** Exercise: Finding the Success in Failure Reexamine some of your worst, most shameful “failures” and see if you can locate the successes hidden within. Give yourself credit for those successes: you earned them the hard way. And stop dwelling over your failures: you’ve probably done that enough, already, to last a lifetime. ******
Chapter 10. Don’t Compound Fear With Shame
In my experience, many people, and especially many men, are ashamed of their fears. They see them as disgraceful and a sign of weakness. I disagree. As humans, we are subject to death, disease, disappointment, loss, heartbreak, natural disaster and humanmade disaster, among many other afflictions. Fear is, in my view, an entirely reasonable response to this reality. Then there are the many hardships, risks and rejections of the ambitious life, whether it involves art, academics, activism, entrepreneurship or some other goal. These hardships and risks give you even more reason to be afraid. In other words, to paraphrase the old activist quip about outrage, “If you’re not afraid, then you haven’t been paying attention.” So stop blaming yourself for your fears and start asking yourself this question instead: How should I respond to my fears? Steven Pressfield tells how the late actor Henry Fonda suffered from extreme stage fright throughout his long career. In fact, he got so nervous before every stage performance and film shoot that he threw up. That’s forty years of throwing up. And after every episode of throwing up, he proceeded to give his performance. That’s how to respond to fear: not by letting it paralyze you, and not by wasting time blaming yourself for it, but by doing your work and making progress toward your goals. ****** Exercise: Experiencing Fear Without Shame Take two or three tasks you have been procrastinating on and for each write a list of the negative consequences of accomplishing it. If, for example, you’ve been procrastinating on visiting a doctor, your list could include, “It will cost $100,” “She’ll give me a shot,” and “She might discover something seriously wrong.” After doing this exercise, two things might happen: *You might find yourself becoming more understanding about, and forgiving of, your procrastination. (“No wonder I keep putting this off!”) This is a much better
response than criticizing or blaming yourself. *By writing down the negatives, you may defuse them, so that they seem less scary. You may even feel motivated to go ahead and do the task. If that’s the case, go for it! But don’t feel bad if you don’t experience that motivation, or if it quickly goes away and you’re back to feeling stuck again. Whatever you do, do not put yourself down for having fears and anxieties. Everyone has them, including highly successful people who often consciously or unconsciously develop skills and strategies for coping with them. That’s what you’ll learn to do in future chapters of this book. ******
Chapter 11. Fear Creates Obstacles to Success
As mentioned earlier, one of FearBased Procrastination’s favorite tactics is to disguise itself by mimicking productivity. It does this, usually, by generating one of four characteristic antiproductive behaviors: perfectionism, negativity, hypersensitivity and panic. I call these the Big Four Obstacles, as they are very frequently the key roadblocks between procrastinators and their goals. Most procrastinators are prone to at least one of them, and many are prone to all four, so I discuss them at length starting in Chapter 15. Panic merits a special mention. It’s not really an obstacle in and of itself, but acts as an obstacle “amplifier,” blowing your fears out of proportion and increasing the odds that you will retreat into one of the antiproductive behaviors. The task of defeating fearbased procrastination is fundamentally the task of overcoming panic, so that when you experience an instance of fear, doubt or discomfort, you do not get overwhelmed by it and get bumped off your path. There are also two other categories of obstacles that are not in themselves fear based, but that are often present alongside the Big Four: The first are Logistical Obstacles, which are usually caused by simple ignorance. For example: *Lack of a clearly defined mission and/or path to success *Lack of time management *Lack of preparation, skills, resources and/or facilities *Lack of mentors or other support
In other words, you either don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, or lack the skills or resources to do it. A typical person suffering from a logistical obstacle would be a business owner who doesn’t realize she should be spending at least half her time marketing and selling, and thus spends her time on less important tasks. Another would be someone writing his Ph.D. thesis, who tries to tackle that giant project on top of his ordinary schedule, instead of ruthlessly clearing his schedule to create the time and energy he needs to get it done. Common solutions to logistical obstacles include: doing mission management and time management, organizing your office, buying some new equipment, taking a class, and setting up regular consultations with mentors. Once you commit to overcoming a logistical obstacle, it is often not difficult to do so. If you do have trouble overcoming yours if you seem to lack the “willpower” to make the solution work, or can’t even find the time to think about the problem then you probably also suffer from fearbased procrastination. (This will be the case for most people.) You’ll probably have to deal with the fear first, using the techniques described later in this ebook, before you can move on to the more superficial logistical fix. There are also what I call Situational Obstacles, which involve other people or other circumstances outside your full control. A tough day job, heavy family responsibilities, and an unsupportive spouse are situational obstacles. So are a disability and serious health problems. Situational obstacles are often the toughest to overcome. Their solutions often involve major life changes such as switching jobs, leaving relationships, altering lifestyles, compromising on one’s cherished goals, or committing to individual or couple’s therapy. Like logistical obstacles, situational obstacles usually occur alongside fearbased procrastination, and so you’ll first have to deal at least partly with your fears before you can effectively start changing your situation. But even once you work past the fear, you are still left having to deal with some very tough circumstances.
Chapter 12. The Most Important Thing You Need to Know About Your Obstacles
The most important thing you need to know about your obstacles is that all of them can be overcome. It doesn’t matter who you are, how you were raised, what race, religion, nationality or sex you are, or how much money you have. All of your obstacles can be
overcome. Overcoming an obstacle may not be easy. It may not be fun. It may take months, years or even decades. It may take time and money. But it can be done. Your habits of perfectionism, negativity, hypersensitivity and panic can be overcome. Your logistical obstacles lack of preparation, information, support can be overcome. Your situational obstacles bad job, bad relationships, disability or chronic illness can be overcome, at least in part. I’ll say it again: ALL of your obstacles can be overcome. By “overcome,” I mean eliminated, minimized or compensated for. You may have a disability that you must live with, or have experienced a terrible loss from which the hurt will never entirely go away. But you can still work to at least minimize the negative effect of your misfortune on your future success. One of my heroes in this regard is Christopher Reeve, the late actor who was paralyzed from the neck down in a horsebackriding accident. Suicidal immediately after the accident, and afterward unable even to breathe without the help of a respirator, he rallied to become a celebrated activist and author who provided hope, help and inspiration to millions around the globe. True, Reeve was a movie star who had certain advantages. So, let’s look at Victor Frankl, an ordinary, noncelebrity doctor who was imprisoned in Auschwitz and other concentration camps during World War II. He later wrote a bestselling book about his experiences, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he reported that, even in the concentration camps, “It was possible for spiritual life to deepen . . . .The intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation, and spiritual poverty of his existence.” In one incredible scene, Frankl describes how, in the midst of a terrifying nighttime forced march, he called up the memory of his wife, whom he hadn’t seen in years, and how her memory brought him peace. “I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist of enduring his sufferings in the right wayan honorable wayin such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.” (Frankl later learned that his wife had died in BergenBelsen in 1945.) Frankl teaches us that, even in the midst of the most horrific oppression, we can
still maintain a degree of control over our thoughts and move them in a positive direction and that doing so can increase our odds not just for success, but survival itself. Did I say that all of your obstacles can be overcome? What I really meant to say is that all of your obstacles must be overcome. Because what other choice, really, do you have? Failure to overcome your obstacles leads to a life of bitterness and wasted potential. The process of overcoming your obstacles is the very essence of the human journey. If you’ve been procrastinating a long time, you are probably demoralized and have lost sight of your strengths, talents and virtues. Once you stop running from your obstacles and start working to overcome them, you will reclaim those positive qualities and also probably discover some wonderful new ones. This process of reclamation and growth is one of life’s most awesome and joyful experiences. Remember: all of your obstacles must be overcome.
Chapter 13. NonObstacles
Often, my students raise points such as the below to explain their failure to pursue, or make progress on, their ambitious dream: *”I don’t have enough money.” *”I don’t have time.” *”I don’t have transportation / a spare room in my home / a computer / etc.” Not having something you need to succeed, such as money, time or transportation, is not an obstacle: it’s a solvable problem. So start solving it. When pressed, my student “without” money can come up with a plan for lowering her daily living expenses, leaving her more money with which to pursue her dream. With her mentors’ help, she can also think up ways she can achieve her dream more cheaply. If she wants to start a business, for example, she can set up a home office instead of renting an outside one, and furnish it with used, cheap furniture instead of new. If she needs equipment or supplies she can’t afford, she can arrange a barter, or take out a lowinterest business loan. Lowering your living expenses is always a good idea, as it not only leaves you with more money but often creates more time. It could, for instance, allow you to support yourself on a parttime day job that’s the path many ambitious dreamers take when their
dream can’t financially sustain them. Even working four days a week, versus five, can make a big difference! Or, if you must have a fulltime job, lowering your expenses could permit you to take a lowerpaying, but easier, one (say, one with flextime, a short commute, and a lighter workload), instead of a higherpaying but harder one that saps your time and energy. How about my student without time? He can use time management techniques (see The Lifelong Activist) to see if he can reclaim even a few hours of his weekly schedule. (Most people can, by the way.) And he can come up with a plan for breaking his big project down into smaller pieces that his schedule can more easily accommodate. And my student “without” transportation? When pressed, she recalls that there is public transportation that can cover her route, a friend who can lend her a car, or that she can take the occasional taxi without breaking the bank. Two things to note, from these examples: 1) The solutions to the problems were actually quite simple and even, in hindsight, obvious. Solutions usually are, once you stop dithering and actually start looking for them. (See Chapter 22.) Remember: focus on the solution, not the problem. 2) Many of the solutions are, as my technical friends say, “suboptimal.” Few people like having to cut back on their budgets, get used instead of new furniture, or commit to a long, daily bus ride. But what’s the alternative? You can sit around hoping that you’ll win the lottery or that things will otherwise magically change, but hope, as they say, is not a strategy. The above compromises and sacrifices are, in fact, highly characteristic of those that ambitious people make to achieve their goals. All around you, people are making them, and without that much of a fuss, in the hopes of one day living a happier and more fulfilled life. A key difference between successful and unsuccessful people is that the former often view barriers to success as petty inconveniences or exciting challenges, while the latter often view those same barriers as huge and insurmountable. How you view your own barriers will go a long way toward determining how successful you will be. It’s glib, but true: your attitude really does determine your altitude.
Chapter 14. Beware of Myths that Promote and Excuse Failure
Another set of barriers that ambitious dreamers face are the many condescending
and undermining myths that promote and excuse their dysfunction and unhappiness. Artists, for instance, frequently hear messages such as these, both from their “enemies” and “supporters”: “One must suffer to be a great artist: if you’re happy, you must be a shallow or uncommitted person.” “Poverty is a sign of virtue and commitment to one’s art: earning money is selling out.” And, “Art is okay when you’re young, but when are you going to get a real job?” Activists hear similarly destructive messages: “You can’t have a personal life there’s too much work to be done.” “If you’re happy, you must be a shallow, uncommitted person. How you can be happy with so much suffering in the world?” “Poverty is a sign of virtue and commitment to one’s cause: earning money is selling out.” And, “Activists are naïve dreamers. Activism is something you grow out of.” Entrepreneurs have it somewhat easier, since our society at least pretends to celebrate entrepreneurship. What it typically celebrates, however, is a shallow, idealized, glamorized vision of it that has little to do with reality. Often, the media play up the easy or spectacular “overnight successes” or “rags to riches” stories that are far from the norm. The media also tends to downplay struggles or failures except when those can be used to provide glamorous contrast to a spectacular success, and to deemphasize the role of luck in business success. (More on all of this in Chapter 20.) Academics typically don’t suffer from the same sorts of damaging myths as artists, activists and entrepreneurs, in my experience, although they do suffer from a general disdain for academic achievement in this country. It can be hard to persevere in the face of such disdain, particularly when members of your family share it. Beyond that, many academics suffer from inadequate mentoring, especially during the thesiswriting process. Finally, a problem that afflicts all categories of ambitious dreamers is our society’s promotion of the myth of the solitary, usually emotionallytortured, achiever/creator. That can reinforce an unhealthy and antiproductive tendency toward isolation, a topic I at discuss at length in Chapter 18. If you believe in one or more of the above myths, your belief is probably standing
in the way of both your professional success and your ability to lead a happy life. Try writing out your thoughts and feelings around the myth: you will probably discover that it doesn’t survive the light of close scrutiny and objective, dispassionate analysis. Also, see Chapter 22 for more on how these kinds of distortions can foster a procrastination problem. We’ve now finished our discussion of the general role of fear plays in procrastination. Now let’s delve more deeply into fear’s most common manifestations, the Big Four obstacles of Perfectionism, Negativity, Hypersensitivity and Panic. We’ll tackle them one at a time.
Chapter 15. Perfectionism
Perfectionism is the feeling that the things we do or create are never quite good enough. Perfectionists hold themselves to an unreasonably high standard for success, and then, when they perceive themselves as failing to meet that standard, judge themselves harshly. They also often inflict that same behavior on others, holding them to an unreasonably high standard and judging them harshly when they “fail.” More specifically, perfectionists: *Refuse to acknowledge the incremental nature of creation: that it happens in stages and that the early stages are likely to be rough and unsatisfying. In fact, they think their early efforts should be fabulous. They often don’t think this consciously it’s a viewpoint, after all, that doesn’t make sense but unconsciously or semiconsciously, they are thinking, “The first draft of this paper ought to be fantastic.” *Underestimate the difficulty of their projects, e.g., “I’ll just hang up a few fliers, and that should fill the room for my event.” *Set ridiculously high or impossible goals, e.g., “I’m going to write fifty pages of my thesis this weekend” despite the fact that they’ve never written more than eight pages in a day, and also have numerous other obligations. *Tend to see things in “black and white”: total success or total failure. They don’t understand that doing half of a job or even onetenth is way better than doing nothing. After all, if you do just a tiny bit of a job every day, you will eventually finish it. But if you do none of a job every day, you never will. Emotionally, if not intellectually, procrastinators don’t get the difference.
Perfectionists, above all, see work as a kind of epic struggle. They don’t quite trust success when it comes too easily. Because of that, they often do things that make their work harder, such as choosing unreasonably hard projects (meaning, projects they are too inexperienced to handle, or that they don’t have the time, resources or support to complete effectively); framing their projects in monumental terms; and adding unnecessary tasks to projects. Perfectionism is the voice in your head that says that no matter what you’ve done, it’s not enough, or not good enough. It’s the voice that makes unreasonable demands for productivity, and dismisses your reasonable explanations for not having produced more. When you tell perfectionism, for instance, that you couldn’t do your art today because you worked at your day job all day and came home exhausted, perfectionism reminds you of some exceptional achiever who was in exactly your situation or a worse one and still managed to create awardwinning art. Of course, perfectionism conveniently tends to omit key details, such as that that achiever may have held an easier job than you do, or had fewer personal responsibilities, or shirked whatever responsibilities she did have. Perfectionism is shaming, blaming and guiltinducing. It is, according to writer Anne Lamont, “the voice of the oppressor,” and it correlates strongly with what I call the Mean Mommy/Mean Daddy voice, which I discuss at length in Chapter 20. Listening to that voice is always a mistake. The Solution Defeating perfectionism is a fourstep process: (1) choosing the right project; (2) choosing the right goal; (3) choosing the right process; and (4) choosing the right thoughts. Choosing the right project means choosing the easiest and shortest project, especially if you’re doing something for the first time. You do this, first, to counteract your procrastinator’s tendency to make projects harder, and second, so that you have the best possible chance of actually beating your procrastination problem and finishing. It’s a lot easier to finish a slender novel or thesis than a giant tome, for instance, and once you’ve completed your small work, you can then go on to tackle larger ones, if you wish. But if you begin with a giant project, you may never finish it, and your career might be over before it begins. Ditto for business, activism or any other ambitious endeavor: choose small, easy projects until you feel more in control of your procrastination problem. “Easy” will vary depending on your particular circumstances, of course, and you should always consult with your mentors to make sure you’re choosing wisely.
If you choose a properly small project, there will likely be a small voice in your head telling you that it’s too small and trivial; that you should be more ambitious, less cowardly, etc. That’s the voice of perfectionism, a.k.a. the oppressor, a.k.a. the Mean Mommy/Daddy. What that voice won’t tell you is that: (a) you have to walk before you run (i.e., complete a small project before attempting a larger one); and (b) even a “small” novel, thesis, business, gallery show, performance, activist campaign, etc., is plenty big enough project. So ignore the perfectionist voice and stick with the small project. Then, you need to choose the right goal, which should be, simply, “to finish.” Not to write a fabulous book, achieve a spectacular result from your campaign, or make a million dollars from your business. No: your goal should simply be to get done whatever it is that you are trying to do. Don’t worry about quality: just do your best and the quality, which is an engrained part of your psyche, will be there. And very importantly don’t aim for a perfect result: just relax around the inevitability that your work, like all human endeavors, will contain both strengths and weaknesses. (For a more indepth discussion of this point specific to writing, download my essay How to Finish Your Book from http://www.hillaryrettig.com.) Choosing the right process means breaking your alreadysmall project down into even smaller pieces that you can easily handle. It also means getting loads of support from family, friends, mentors, colleagues and others, including not just support with the project itself, but emotional support, and also help with childcare and chores you would normally be responsible for, but that use up time and energy you need to complete your project. Support also means donations of space, equipment, services or supplies your project requires. Support means, in other words, as much help, of all kinds, as possible. Most perfectionists don’t realize the intense level of support needed to succeed at most ambitious endeavors, in part because of those aforementioned myths of easy success, but also in part because of the perfectionist tendency not to look for solutions but to simply to blame oneself. But the more support, the better. Finally, we come to choosing the right thoughts. Perfectionism, you recall, is a antiproductive response to fear, so it is important that you learn to replace your perfectionist thoughts with more functional ones. Here are three examples: Replace this perfectionist thought: “I’m going to get 50 pages of my novel done this weekend.” [Unspoken thought: “If I don’t accomplish that, I’m lazy and a loser.”] With this more functional one: “Given my writing speed and also my other commitments, I’m going to aim to get ten pages done this weekend. Replace this perfectionist thought: “I’ll just send out a few postcards about my
upcoming music performance and that should be enough to fill the room. I’ll bet I sell 30 CDs!” [Unspoken thought: “If I don’t accomplish that, I’m a loser, and the people in this town are stupid and antimusic.”] With this more functional one: “I’ll send out postcards and email announcements to my mailing list of 500 people. Also, I’ll ask the club I’m playing at to send an announcement to their list as well. They told me they’ve got 800 people on their list, so all told that’s 1,300 people we’ll be contacting. In the past I’ve gotten 2 3 people out of every 100 emails I send out to come to performances, so for those 1,300 announcements I should expect about 26 – 39 people. And I usually sell 1 CD per 13 people, so I should count on selling three or four CDs.” Replace this perfectionist thought: “Why is my house such an awful mess? I know my family thinks and I think that I’m lazy and disorganized. And my mom looked at me like she thought I was a bad mom when I told her that we get takeout three nights a week.” [Unspoken thought: “I’m a bad homemaker and parent.”] With this more functional one: “Well, there are only 24 hours in a day, and I’m not willing to spend more than a couple of them cleaning and cooking. It’s crazy to expect someone with kids, a job and a growing business to have a house that’s as clean as the house of someone who doesn’t have a job or business! My house is clean enough, and anyone who thinks otherwise is welcome to come over and clean it themselves!” You change your thoughts simply by consciously interrupting your perfectionist thoughts, and replacing them with their more functional equivalent. At first, this may seem contrived and you may frequently forget to do it but keep trying and eventually you’ll see that replacing perfectionist with nonperfectionist thoughts feels good and doesn’t hurt anyone. You can get started doing this right now. Don’t set yourself the perfectionist goal catching every single perfectionist thought (!), and don’t berate yourself harshly when you miss one or otherwise slip up. Just start out casually by keeping that goal in the back of your mind and whenever you do happen to successfully replace a perfectionist thought with a functional one, congratulate yourself. Soon, the replacements will happen so often, and so automatically, that you won’t even notice them. And, eventually, your thoughts will become less perfectionist, so that you won’t have to do much replacing at all.
Chapter 16. Negativity
****** Exercise: Name Your Strengths Before reading this chapter, take a few minutes and do this preliminary exercise: On a sheet of paper, list the strengths, skills, talents and other positive qualities you bring to your project. These could be anything from the mundaneseeming, but vastly underrated, “I’m punctual,” to the pragmatic, “I’m good with computers,” to the more global, “I’m a social visionary,” or anything in between. Don’t be shy or modest: come up with as long a list as you can. You needn’t show it to anyone. Keep the list near you while reading this chapter; I’ll be discussing it soon. ****** Remember the musician from the previous chapter who overoptimistically thought she could “fill the room” for her performance at a local club simply by sending out a few postcards? Let’s say she followed that plan, with predictable results: only a handful of people showed up to hear her play. There are two basic ways one can react to this kind of disappointing situation. Here is one: “What a disaster. I’m such a dope, a complete loser. I always screw up. I don’t even know why I bother to try. And this town it’s full of jerks. They’re too dumb to appreciate real music, and they’re cheap, too I only sold two CDs. And the club manager must think I’m a jerk, too. I’m sure he’ll never let me perform there again. I feel like crap. I just can’t stand it. I’m going to get a quart of ice cream and rent a bad movie and crawl into bed.” And here’s the other: “Darn! This is so disappointing. I guess I screwed up by not promoting the gig more. Oh, well: I’m kind of embarrassed in front of my friends who did show up, and also the club manager, but no one’s really been hurt. The manager seemed to like my music, so maybe if I promise to do a lot more promotion next time, he’ll let me perform again. In any case, no matter where my next gig is, I now know I need to promote the heck out of it. So it wasn’t a total loss... Oh, and I did sell a couple of CDs, and I also met that really cool guitarist from the next town over...he said he knew some the managers at some other clubs, and could refer
me. So that was a terrific break! Anyhow, I’m still feeling kind of low so I’m going to take a break and have fun. I know! I’ll call my friend Deb and see if she wants to hang out.” For many procrastinators, the first monologue will seem much more familiar than the second, because many procrastinators are “negativists” who tend to see themselves, their accomplishments, and everyone and everything around them as less good, or much worse, than they actually are: *Where the objective person sees success, the negativist sees neutrality. *Where the objective person sees neutrality, the negativist sees failure. *Where the objective person sees failure, the negativist sees extreme failure. Negativity is a serious problem for anyone, but particularly for ambitious dreamers, for three reasons: First, it is undermining. The nature of ambitious dreams are that they are tough to achieve and thus require a lot of perseverance. Anything that discourages you is a problem and negativity is hugely discouraging. Second, negativity impairs your objectivity and causes you to misread people and situations. Therefore, you are bound to make erroneous assumptions for instance, that the club manager will never let you perform again that lead to counterproductive actions. Negativity, in other words, frequently becomes a selffulfilling prophecy. Thirdly, negativity is isolating. Negativists often believe they are being realistic or pragmatic, but people with a healthy world view recognize negativity for what it is a sign of insecurity and a disabling force and flee from it. When that happens, it often deepens the negativist’s insecurities and reinforces her tendency toward negativity and isolation, so that the problem compounds itself. Notice how the negative person in our example retreats to her bed with a quart of ice cream, while the more objective person seeks out the support of a friend? All ambitious dreamers can be afflicted by negativism, but the risk is probably highest for activists, since they have to do battle not just with their own dark side, but the world’s. Famed activist Todd Gitlin warns against this tendency in his book Letters to a Young Activist: “Just because you let the dark side of the world into your nervous system doesn’t mean that you have to surrender to gloom, which in any case is never as justified as it thinks.” I’ve actually heard discussions, among activists, on whether it is ever appropriate to say we’ve “won” on a particular issue or event, given that all victories are temporary or partial. Come on! If you can’t claim your victories, then what are you
working for? And how do you hope to inspire others? Do sports teams not celebrate their victories because they know they could have won by a wider margin, or could lose the next game? Of course not! They know that “owning” one’s successes is crucial. And, of course, many of the same activists who are so reluctant to declare victory seem to have no problem at all declaring defeat, so it’s clear that they’re not being objective so much as negative. Which brings us to the next section... The Opposite of Negativity is NOT Delusional Positiveness Please note that I am not talking about adopting a delusionally positive, Pollyannaish “everything’s just peachy” attitude. I’m also not talking about disabling your critical faculties or setting low expectations for yourself. I’m talking about being an objective observer and evaluator of both the negative and positive elements of yourself and your work, as well as those around you, their work, and society in general. Many negative people have trouble grasping the distinction between objectivity and delusional positiveness: when I tell them to be more objective, they think I’m telling them to ignore all the bad stuff. “Do you expect me to walk around like a giggling idiot?” they ask. “Do you want me to LIE to myself?” Certainly not! But it is not objective or honest to focus on just the negative elements of a situation. This distinction seems pretty obvious, but if a person has a serious negativity problem, I often have to work with them for a while to get them to see it. We typically do an AbbotandCostello type routine that goes something like this: Student: “You’re asking me to ignore all the bad stuff.” Hillary: “No, I’m asking you to pay attention to the bad stuff AND the good stuff.” S (agitatedly): “But if I go too easy on myself [or my employees, or my kids], nothing will get done!” H: “I’m not saying to go easy. I’m saying to pay attention to both the bad stuff and the good stuff, not just the bad.” S: “But people need to be held accountable!” H: “I’m not talking about not holding people accountable. I’m talking about owning the good stuff along with the bad.” And on and on... Eventually, most people get it.
The Negativist’s View of Self Negativists tend to be harshest on themselves. As a coach, I get to witness this phenomenon at close range and it never ceases to amaze me. The most talented and impressive people often see themselves as failures, and drag a heavy burden of shame along with them wherever they go. Many of my students put themselves down in big and small ways as a matter of course. Their conversations are peppered with expressions that undervalue their achievements, such as, “It’s not such a big deal,” or, “I didn’t really do that much,” or “Anyone could have done that.” Even the ubiquitous, “I can’t do math,” usually turns out to be wrong, and is therefore an example of negativity. Some students are so divorced from their strengths, skills, talents and accomplishments that I have to conduct the equivalent of an archaeological dig to help them build a resume or biographical sketch reflecting their true skills and accomplishments. We’ll sit for hours facing each other across a desk, with me interviewing them on their past experiences and writing up all their positives many of which they don’t even initially recognize as such. Often, when we are done, they are surprised to see how much they have really accomplished. A truly adept negativist can even turn even a stellar accomplishment into a failure. One day, I asked a student who had an MBA what school he had gotten it from, and he replied Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. That’s a top school, so I congratulated him. His selfdeprecating, negativist response amazed me: “Oh, it’s only the third or fourth best school.” How big a negativist are YOU? Look at the Name Your Strengths list you created before starting this chapter. (If you didn’t create it, stop and create it now, before you read on.) If you listed twenty to thirty strengths, skills, talents, and other positive qualities, you did pretty well. If you listed ten to twenty strengths, skills and talents, you did OK. If you listed five to ten strengths, skills and talents, you did average. When I do this exercise in classes, most students respond within this range. If you listed zero to five strengths, skills and talents, you did poorly, but you’ve got lots of company. There are always a few people in every class who can think of few or no good things to say about themselves. Computer geeks, engineers, scientists and other technical types seem to disproportionately fall into this group, by the way. I think that’s due to the fact that technical people are often trained to focus on the flaws in their projects so that they can then fix them. That flawfinding tendency comes in handy when
you’re designing a computer program or a bridge, but is less useful in the personal or interpersonal realm. My own Name Your Strengths list, which I keep on my computer and regularly print out, review and add to, currently includes more than eighty items. That is not because I’m some kind of prodigy or egomaniac, but simply because I work hard to recognize all my talents and strengths, and am not embarrassed to admit them to myself. I sometimes share my list with my students, who, by the way, are frequently amused to find “humility” listed among the dozens of other paeans to myself. They also see entries such as “loves animals” and “not a slave to fashion” along with the more standard fare such as “smart” and “good with computers.” We typically define success too narrowly, for reasons I will explain in the next chapter, and that often leads us to ignore some of our more interesting and useful qualities. But why not include them? Who knows when they won’t come in handy? The fact that I love animals seemed irrelevant for years, for instance, until I started doing animal activism. Make no mistake: Name Your Strengths is an important exercise. If you do not recognize and own your strengths, skills and talents, how can you use them to build your success? And if you go around feeling devoid of those qualities, how are you going to have the confidence to follow through on an ambitious plan? Go back now and see what you can add to your list. Then, talk to family, friends and mentors and see what they would add to it. You will probably be amazed at all the good traits others see in you that you never suspected. Once you’ve created the list, keep it handy, review and add to it frequently, and (privately) celebrate your strengths. That small effort will go a long way toward helping you succeed. ****** Exercise: Create Your “Life Resume” Reinforce your sense of your own talents and accomplishments by creating a Life Resume. It resembles a normal, professional resume, but also includes experiences and accomplishments from beyond your work life for example, from your family life, home life, friendships, art, activism, volunteer or civic activities, mental or physical health, or any other area that is important to you. Needless to say, do not write down any of your perceived failures, flaws and weaknesses. You wouldn’t do that on a normal resume, so why would you do it here? In a Life Resume, none of your achievements is devalued or unworthy of note. If
you’ve . . . *created a pleasant and welcoming home *been a wonderful friend/partner/parent/child/guardian *enjoyed a passionate hobby such as cooking or gardening *developed a distinctive personal style *made terrific art or music *worked hard to recover from childhood traumas and/or reconcile with a parent or someone else, or *helped a needy neighbor or stranger . . . . . . you should include it. Also, a project doesn’t have to be finished or “perfect” to be included. For example, if you haven’t yet fully reconciled with your parent, your attempts at reconciliation are still worth honoring and should be listed. A Life Resume usually turns out to be a much bigger project than we anticipate because we’ve usually accomplished more than we realize. Take your time and have fun creating your Life Resume, and when you’re finished, bask in the knowledge of your many strengths, skills, talents and accomplishments! ******
Chapter 17. Negativity II
Here are some of the root causes of negativity: “Don’t toot your own horn.” In many cultures, both here in the U.S. and abroad, people are encouraged to display what I consider an excessive sense of modesty over their accomplishments. They appear to have a horror of boasting or “blowing one’s own horn.” I wouldn’t want anyone to be rudely boastful, but there’s a big middle ground between that and taking proper credit for your achievements, and you’re going to have to find it if you hope to achieve your ambitious dream. If you’re not afflicted by negativity, for instance, but truly just worried about offending other people, then you should have no trouble writing dozens of entries in the Name Your Strengths exercise, because I’m not asking you to shout those entries from the rooftops, only commit them to paper.
It’s true that the line between being properly proud and being boastful can be elusive. To find it, seek out successful people and study how they behave. You will probably see that they are not rude or boastful, but neither are they selfeffacing or falsely modest. They display proper objectivity about, and pride in, their strengths and achievements and although the degree and means of display may differ somewhat from culture to culture, this is generally true of successful people in any culture. After witnessing how an exaggerated sense of humility hobbles some people, I consider it a very fortunate thing that I grew up able to take credit for my strengths and achievements. I was born and raised in New York City, so you can draw your own conclusions . . . . “You’re only as successful as your bank account.” The capitalist system promotes a very narrow, and very dysfunctional, view of success: namely, that if you’ve got a lot of money, you’re a success, and if you don’t, you’re a failure. Capitalism doesn’t care what ethical lapses, if any, someone may have committed to make their fortune; nor does it make any allowances for inequities or misfortunes that may have limited someone’s ability to earn money. Nor does a capitalistic system care about your non commercial achievements – for example, the fact that you take good care of your aged parents, or do a lot of important volunteer work within your community. You probably see the evil behind that narrow definition. However, it’s one thing to get a point intellectually, and another to embrace it on an emotional level. Many people who understand the limitations of the capitalist model of success nevertheless feel like failures because they don’t live up to it. They can’t escape their earlier conditioning or the ongoing pressure to conform. If you suffer from this problem, my advice is to read parts I and II of The Lifelong Activist and do your mission and time management. Then, practice living your mission without shame or regret. It’s vital, in this effort, that you surround yourself with people who understand and support you, and remove yourself from people who don’t. “You’re really _______, you know that?” An entrepreneurship program I used to run typically offered two kinds of classes: one for artists (any kind of creative professional), and another for nonartists (everyone else, including people who wanted to own cleaning services, computer consultancies, coffee shops, or auto detailing shops). I would do the Name Your Strengths exercise from the last chapter in both, and it was interesting to compare the types of lists the two classes generated. Practically all the artists included the word “creative” high up on their lists, and practically none of the other entrepreneurs did. Most entrepreneurs are highly creative, however, so the question
is, why didn’t the nonartists see themselves that way? The answer: labels. From a young age, the artists were probably told they were creative. It was probably drummed into them all the time. They were probably encouraged to paint, sculpt or make music; urged toward art classes and artistic extracurricular activities; and praised for their accomplishments in these areas. No wonder the word “creative” appeared high on their list of strengths. The nonartists, many of whom might have been just as creative as the artists, probably didn’t get the same label attached to them. So, they didn’t grow up thinking they were creative. Labels, as any psychologist will tell you, are powerful. They influence us enormously and shape our selfimages. They are also hard to shake. Many of my students were labeled negatively in their youth, and those labels continue to haunt them as adults. Maybe they were called “oversensitive” or “an “impractical dreamer.” Or, maybe they were called “lazy” or “stupid” or “bad at math.” Or, maybe they were called worse. In many cases, they continue to fight, even as adults, to free themselves from those destructive labels. Try to figure out what labels are holding you back, and to break free of them by seeing yourself and your achievements with fresh eyes. Friends and mentors can really help here: as discussed earlier, they will probably see strengths and talents in you that you never imagined. By the way, although I sometimes use terms such as “perfectionist” and “negativist” in this ebook, I would never use these terms to label someone in real life. I might tell someone they are acting perfectionistically or negatively, or that they have those tendencies never that they are a perfectionist or negativist. The Solution The cure for negativity is to replace dysfunctional (negative) thoughts and behaviors with functional (objective) ones. For example: Replace this negative thought: “I really blew that project!” With this more functional one: “I did half of it well, and the other half not so well.” Replace this negative thought: “I’m a terrible activist – I don’t know why I even try!” With this more functional one: “I seem to be better at thinking up and planning campaigns then managing them. Maybe I can find a good manager to help me run my
next one.” Replace this negative thought: “I was supposed to make five sales for my small business this week and didn’t make any. I’m just a lazy dilettante, and now my business is going to fail...” With this more functional one: “Okay, so I didn’t make any sales this week. That’s not good, but there were extenuating circumstances, including my cold and that blizzard that kept the kids home from school for two days. I obviously need to make more sales and I know I can, since I did have that terrific week where I made eight sales, last month. I need to manage my time so that I’ve got more time and energy for sales. I’ll work on that tomorrow and call my mentor for advice. I’ll also call my neighbor and see if she can watch the kids the next time they have a snow day...But in the meantime, I won’t abuse myself for having gotten sick and being a good parent.” The process you’ll go through is the same as that described for perfectionism: practice, practice, practice. At first, it may be hard to remember to replace a negative thought with a more objective one, but after some practice, it will seem more natural, and after still more practice, it will happen automatically. Eventually, you’ll stop thinking so negatively. As always, never berate yourself when you slip up.
Chapter 18. Hypersensitivity
Hypersensitivity is the tendency to overreact to life’s ordinary stresses. It’s a trait that procrastinators share with addicts and others who have trouble coping. Notice that I’m talking about “hypersensitivity” not “sensitivity.” Sensitivity is a great personality trait. It means we’re deeply and meaningfully aware of ourselves, our environment, and the living beings around us. The world needs as many sensitive people as possible because they are often the ones who notice, and strive to fix, problems. Hypersensitivity, however, goes overboard. If a minor irritation, disappointment or rejection ruins your day (or week or month or year), then you’re hypersensitive. Conversely, if minor good news makes you gleeful or manic to the point where you can’t function, that’s also hypersensitivity. Hypersensitivity is, in essence, a lack of emotional selfcontrol. It’s a particularly serious problem for ambitious dreamers because the daily life of an ambitious dreamer is
often filled with events that, if we overreact to them, can bump us off our path. Hypersensitivity steals not just your time and energy, but your objectivity. As discussed earlier, the primary requisite for doing any kind of ambitious work is an objective world view. Hypersensitivity clouds your objectivity, making you less effective. Often, moreover, the clouding is negative, so that you see a situation as being worse than it actually is. This breeds the kinds of cynicism and hopelessness that causes so many people to burn out or abandon their dream. Hypersensitivity also leads to a tendency toward isolation, a big problem. Many hypersensitive people have trouble tolerating life’s ordinary stresses, and overreact to minor irritants such as a late train, a slow line at the grocery store, or even bad weather. At the workplace, they simply can’t abide cubicles, dress codes, fluorescent lights and nosy coworkers. One “solution” many hypersensitive people employ, either consciously or unconsciously, is to retreat from the world and its stresses. They spend more and more time alone in an environment that is as much under their control as possible. Professionally, they may try to work from home or, if they can’t manage that, take other actions to isolate themselves from their colleagues for example, keeping their office door shut or avoiding the popular lunch hangout. At home, they may retreat into a solitary couch potato or “Internet addict” existence. The problem with isolation is that, while it may feel good in the short term, it is almost always inimical to productivity, success and happiness. For one thing, many people become unhappy if they’re alone too much, and most of us have trouble being productive when we’re unhappy. For another, Lone Rangertype myths aside, success at most ambitious endeavors invariably requires a team effort. (And even the Lone Ranger had Tonto and Silver . . . ) This is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t enjoy periods of solitude. But you will need to know where to draw the line between a healthy enjoyment of solitude and an unhealthy tendency toward isolationism. More generally, if you are hypersensitive, one of your primary challenges will be to learn to experience negative emotions such as rejection, frustration and disappointment, as well as positive ones such as pride and happiness, without being derailed by them. This may not be easy, but it will be an important part of your growth and success. Please note that hypersensitivity can be rooted in trauma, or other psychological, cognitive or even physical conditions. If you think such issues may be present in your own situation, you should seek prompt, professional help. Also be cognizant of compassion fatigue, a “secondary traumatic stress disorder” whose symptoms can include hypersensitivity, fear, dissociation (disconnection from the immediate environment), obtrusive daydreams, and disrupted sleep patterns. Compassion fatigue afflicts activists
and others who regularly work with, or witness, people or animals who have been traumatized either by violence or other frightening circumstances, such as a natural disaster. Compassion fatigue can also afflict family members or friends of those who are traumatized. If you think you may be suffering from compassion fatigue you should seek prompt help from a psychologist who specializes in treating it. Finally, hypersensitivity is also often linked to addiction. If you are “hooked” on extreme emotional highs and lows that you are unable or unwilling to moderate or, that you may be attempting to moderate through addictive drinking, drugs, overeating, oversleeping or compulsive televisionwatching or videogame playing you should make it a priority to deal with that. See a therapist, join a Twelve Step program, or read a wellregarded recovery book such as Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.’s Addictive Thinking: Understanding SelfDeception. The Solution As with perfectionism and negativity, the cure for hypersensitivity is to replace dysfunctional thoughts with functional (objective) ones. Hypersensitivity is a somewhat simpler problem to work on than the other two, however, because the functional thought is always a variation on, “I’m going to calm down and do what I’m supposed to be doing.” For example: Replace this hypersensitive thought: “I hate this project! I was stupid to take it on, and I hate working on it, and now it’s late and my boss just added a whole new part to it! There’s no way I can get all this done! I’m going to tell my boss I can’t do it. It’s the last minute, and she’ll be ticked off, but she’ll find someone else.” With this objective one: “I’m going to calm down and do what I agreed to do. I’ll call Stella and Jim and see if they can provide backup, but I committed to doing this and so even if they can’t, I’ll do my best and see what happens.” Replace this hypersensitive thought: “It’s snowing out; do I really want to leave my warm apartment and attend the meeting? No way! I know I agreed to attend, but I really don’t want to go. I’m just going to stay in.” With this objective one: “I’m going to calm down, dress warmly, grab a cup of hot coffee, and go to the meeting.” Replace this hypersensitive thought: “I can’t believe that that jerk talked to me like that! He has some nerve! I’m so mad I just can’t stand it. My whole afternoon is ruined!” With this objective one: “I’m going to calm down maybe do some yoga
stretches and then try to get back to work. If the stretches don’t work, I’ll try to deal with my anger by writing for a while in my journal.” Replace this hypersensitive thought: “Wow! I can’t believe we landed a meeting with XYZ Foundation. That’s great news! If we do a great presentation they could give us $300,000. With that money, we could move to better offices, hire five new people, start that new campaign, and replace all the office computers. Also, if XYZ Foundation gives us money, so will ABC Foundation. We could probably get $150,000 out of them and could use THAT money for. . . . Wow, this is good stuff! I’d better write it all down . . . and then I have a few people to call and share the good news with . . . and, oh, I need to get Bill’s advice on how to handle this, so I’d better call him, too. . . . ” With this objective one: That was a GREAT call with XYZ. I’m so happy we landed that meeting! It’s not until next month, however, so I’m just going to jot down a few notes and then try to calm down and get back to today’s work. I can start preparing for the XYZ meeting next week.” The process you’ll go through is the same as that for solving Perfectionism and Negativity: practice, practice, practice. At first, it may be hard to remember to replace a hypersensitive thought with a functional one, but after some practice it will seem more natural, and after still more practice it will happen automatically. Eventually, you’ll stop reacting so hypersensitively. As always, never berate yourself when you slip up. ****** Special Topic: Procrastination and the Body Procrastination often begins in the body since even a bit of twitchiness or fatigue is often enough to distract us, especially if we are very sensitive to bodily discomfort. Moreover, if not dealt with, the twitchy or tired feeling almost always intensifies, making it inevitable that, sooner or later, we will abandon our work. Writing and other forms of desk work are more physical than many people realize. The ability to sit still and work for long periods what the Germans call “sitzfleish” may not qualify for an Olympic sport, but it is still surprisingly hard to do, as anyone who practices sitting Buddhist meditation can attest. Most ambitious dreamers need to cultivate lots of sitzfleish. Work, therefore, to become more attuned to your body and its signals; and, in particular, to pick up the very early signs of restlessness and fatigue. Practice working through mild discomfort the key is often to switch to some easier work. But if you can’t
work through, that’s okay: just take a break and deal with the feeling while it’s still small and manageable. Interestingly, both restlessness and fatigue can be alleviated by many of the same activities: meditation, stretches, or even running or dancing in place. Caffeine can help wake you up, of course, and a pleasant meditative break with decaf herbal tea can help calm you down. Be flexible and creative in finding solutions that work for you, resting assured that when you do learn to cope with transient physical discomfort, you’ll probably become much more productive overall. More generally, proper nutrition, sleep, exercise and preventative medicine are all important to keeping your physical “machine” in good shape an important prerequisite to both shortterm and longterm productivity. Ergonomics also matters absolutely. Just as a marathoner wouldn’t dream of running a race in cheap sneakers, you shouldn’t use badly functioning and/or uncomfortable equipment. Not only are carpel tunnel syndrome, eyestrain and muscle cramps real concerns, but bad equipment distracts you and degrades your productivity. Good equipment doesn’t have to be expensive, by the way. Years ago, my then husband kindly built for me a simple writing table whose surface is exactly 25.5 inches high. All it took was some particleboard and dowels for legs, and the whole thing cost $10 and took about an hour to build. With this table, which I still use, I can sit with my feet properly flat on the floor and my keyboard properly at elbow level, and type comfortably for hours. Having a table built exactly to my specifications not only helps my productivity; it also helps me feel more like a serious professional. ******
Chapter 19 PANIC!: The FearAmplifier
“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your reaction to the problem.” Jerry Weinberg Important Note: The “panic” discussed in this chapter is the ordinary panic of everyday life. If you suffer from disabling anxiety or panic attacks, you should see a doctor or psychologist.
Remember the musician’s negativist response in Chapter 16: “What a disaster. I’m such a dope, a complete loser. I always screw up. I don’t even know why I bother to try. And this townit’s full of jerks. They’re too dumb to appreciate real music, and they’re cheap, too – I only sold two CDs. And the club manager must think I’m a jerk, too. I’m sure he’ll never let me perform there again. I feel like crap. I just can’t stand it. I’m going to get a quart of icecream and rent a bad movie and crawl into bed.” What if, she had instead reacted this way: “What a disaster. I’m such a dope . . . oh, well, I could keep on dwelling on this and calling myself names, but what would that accomplish? Nothing, really. Besides, there was no real harm done, and I really did try my best.. . . I’ll spend a few minutes making some notes on the experience, and maybe call a friend for support, but after that I’ll get back to the work I had planned to do.” Notice how, in the second speech, the musician consciously interrupts her negative thoughts and starts a more objective, functional line of thinking and how that action not only helps her mood but helps her get back to work? A key difference between the musician in the first example and the one in the second may be panic. Everyone experiences regular episodes of fear, anger, confusion, disappointment and other negative emotions; ambitious dreamers, given the challenging nature of their goal, may experience such episodes many times a day. Nonprocrastinators can usually experience those emotions briefly and then return to a positive or, at least, neutral mood that allows them to continue to do their work. Procrastinators cannot: they panic, and their panic amplifies their fear and anxiety until they can no longer function. Then they retreat into escapist behaviors such as perfectionism, negativity and hypersensitivity. The other thing panic does, besides amplify negative emotions, is disable your coping mechanisms. This could, in fact, be the definition of panic: the state of being unable to cope. Someone who is able to change a tire during practice runs in her driveway, but forgets how to do it when she has a flat on the side of a highway, is panicked. So is someone who knows a school subject well but bombs the test, or who plans and practices for an important meeting but screws it up. Students regularly come to me with problems that they claim to have no idea how
to solve. I ask them, “What advice would you give someone else with the same problem?” and they invariably rattle off a good solution without even stopping to think about it. They can do that because it’s usually much easier to solve other people’s problems than our own, mainly because we panic over our own. “Stealth Panic” We’re all familiar with the type of highenergy panic where you feel frantic and out of control. But panic often happens much more quietly than that. What I call “stealth panic” may actually be a more common cause of procrastination. Stealth panic is what happens when you sit down to do your work at 9:00 a.m. and then get a sudden, irresistible urge to do something else, like get a cup of coffee. You don’t feel panicked it actually feels like a calm, even trivial decision but wham: you’ve been bumped off your path. Sometimes this happens even before 9:00 a.m., so that you don’t even make it to your desk. Stealth panic often precipitates the trancelike state we discussed earlier that makes it easier for you to keep procrastinating. First you get the cup of coffee, then you read the newspaper, then you make a personal call, and then you do some Internet shopping and then, wham!, suddenly it’s lunchtime. Perhaps you were semiaware that you should have been doing something else, but never quite aware enough, or focused enough, to actually stop what you were doing and get back to work. The Solution We now arrive at the true heart of fearbased procrastination. Underneath the distractibility and antiproductive behaviors such as perfectionism, negativity and hypersensitivity, and just above your fear, is the panic that amplifies that fear until you can’t manage it. Minimize or eliminate that panic and you should be able to manage episodes of fear, thereby avoiding the need to resort to antiproductive behaviors and allowing you to return quickly and easily to your work. As my teacher Jerry Weinberg, says, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your reaction to the problem.” What he means is that the problem just “is,” but your reaction to it will make it easier or harder to solve. That would seem to put a lot of pressure on you, but in reality it takes a lot of the pressure off, because once you eliminate panic, problems are almost always much easier to solve than we imagine. The key to overcoming procrastination is to learn to defeat panic and, eventually,
to not experience it at all.
Now that we’ve characterized the general nature of procrastination, we are ready to start exploring solutions to it. Before we get to the “true” solutions that really solve the problem, though, let’s examine some “false” ones that people commonly try to no avail. Some of these will probably be familiar...
Part II. THE SOLUTIONS
Chapter 20. False Solution I: “Mean Mommy/Mean Daddy”
The most common false solution to procrastination is to try to bully ourselves into working through it via an internal dialog that runs something like this: “Come on, stop being lazy. You know you need to do your writing; there’s no excuse not to. Yeah, I know there’s a lot of stuff going on, but it doesn’t matter. Where’s your willpower and discipline? How can you be so immature? Don’t you realize what’s at stake? You’ve got to get your act together or you’ll fail! And then what will you do?! Oh, yeah, and you’ve got to write twenty pages today, not just ten, since you didn’t write anything over the weekend. That’s what ‘real’ writers do, and if you can’t do it, that means you’re just a faker and a fraud.” It’s a stream of selfabuse, guilt, shame, and blame: I call it the “mean mommy” or “mean daddy” (take your pick) inner dialog and, trust me, it doesn’t work. I talked to myself like that for twenty years, and it only inhibited my success, and many of my students have also spoken to themselves like that for decades and it also didn’t work for them. The truth is that most of us react to the mean mommy/daddy the same way we would to an “external” bully: by becoming resentful and oppositional. So now you’ve added those antiproductive attitudes on top of whatever other factors were inhibiting your productivity. The mean mommy/daddy approach has other problems. It misdiagnoses the root problem, which, as you now know, is not laziness or immaturity but fear. It also undermines you by reinforcing bad ideas about yourself and robbing you of selfesteem. It also tends to lie about the nature of your work and situation for instance, what if the “lot of stuff going on” mentioned in passing above were illness, a family member in trouble, or some other legitimate crisis? Punishing yourself for being sick, or for not meeting your urgent responsibilities, is not only antiproductive, but deeply unfair. The mean mommy/daddy voice is the voice of perfectionism which, repeating Anne Lamott’s apt phrase, is “the voice of the oppressor.” It is also the voice of negativity and hypersensitivity. It sounds as if it’s trying to solve your problem, whereas it’s only making it worse. Don’t listen to it. It also tends to attack most ferociously when you are frightened, anxious, guilty, ashamed or otherwise vulnerable. Be doubly on your guard during those times.
Where Mean Mommy/Mean Daddy Comes From Why, if it doesn’t work, is the mean mommy/daddy approach so prevalent? I think it’s because many of us learned it from bullying parents, teachers, bosses and others. Some of these people may have been wellmeaning, others not, but in all cases their approach was misguided. We also pick up bullying from the media, which likes to portray simple solutions to complex problems. Think of all the sentimental movies in which toughbutcaring teachers, coaches and drill sergeants bully their charges into seemingly miraculous accomplishments; and also of all the ubiquitous bullying advertising slogans such as, “just do it!” and “no pain, no gain.” Our society also promotes the idea that success is easy. The business press is filled with ragstoriches and overnightsuccess stories; and even in cases where it isn’t pitching those exact narratives, it still tends to discount the role of luck and perseverance in success. (To be fair, many successful people also either forget their early struggles or choose to omit them from their official biographies.) So, for instance, we hear all about how Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates was a young genius (which he surely was), but not nearly so much about how he grew up in an affluent family, with a father who was a highly successful business lawyer and a mother who was well connected in Seattle society. We also don’t hear about his incredible luck in having grown up in the early era of the personal computer. These advantages don’t diminish his brilliance, but they did contribute enormously to his success. Mean mommy/daddy buys into the hype and says that if you’re not succeeding easily, there must be something wrong with you. A related myth is that the struggle for success is glamorous. In popular culture, the artist if he isn’t living an improbably affluent life to begin with may “starve” for a while, but is compensated for that inconvenience by living an interesting life surrounded by fascinating people and punctuated by comical situations. Think of Henry Miller’s fictional alterego or Gulley Jimson, the artistprotagonist from Joyce Cary’s great novel The Horse’s Mouth (later made into a great movie starring Alec Guinness). Even the “starving” seems like such fun and the artists in these kinds of works always seem to find someone to cadge a good meal off of, anyway and then, to top it off, the artist frequently later hits the jackpot and achieves professional success. In real life, however, our struggles are often much more protracted often lasting years or decades and terrifyingly offer no guarantee of success. They are often difficult and frightening enough that they derail most people from their ambitious dreams, and so
they are not to be scoffed at. Anyone who persists in their dream in the face of such a struggle should, in fact, be lauded even if they happen not to be working as hard, at any given time, as they feel they ought to. Mean mommy/daddy doesn’t acknowledge this reality and buys into the hype that the struggle is fun and glamorous. In fact, mean mommy/daddy says that if you’re not enjoying your struggle, there must be something is wrong with you. Finally, mean mommy/daddy refuses to acknowledge that success is much harder to accomplish if you are not willing to exploit others or stint on your relationships and responsibilities. Most of us, in fact, aren’t, which I think is a good thing: but a likely consequence of that choice is that your success will come slower, or to a lesser degree, than someone who exploits people or ditches his responsibilities. Mean mommy/daddy doesn’t recognize that truth, however, and tells you that you should hold yourself to the same level of productivity and achievement as someone who either exploits people or neglects responsibilities. Many women, in particular, have trouble with this because they are still primarily responsible for childcare, eldercare and housekeeping. How could they reasonably be expected to be as productive as someone who doesn’t have those huge responsibilities? But mean mommy/daddy doesn’t care about “stuff” like that and just blames you for being unproductive. By the way, even William Faulkner himself – he of the famous quote, “If a writer has to rob his mother he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies” that has been used to guilttrip generations of writers – even he didn’t neglect his mother. He may have been devoted to his art, but he was also devoted to her and supposedly visited her daily. So, do not despair: you can honor your relationships and other commitments, AND also do great work. Bullying Backfires The final reason people bully is that bullying sometimes works but, if you think about it, it usually only works when the person doing the bullying has power, or perceived power, over the one being bullied, and it usually only works temporarily. Over the long term, bullying actually tends to create behavioral change in the opposite direction from that intended. A parent who forces his child to take piano lessons when she doesn’t want to usually creates an adolescent who wants nothing to do with piano. Of course, when you’re bullying yourself via the mean mommy/daddy dialog, the power differential doesn’t exist, and so the bullying doesn’t work at all, except to make you feel bad and your procrastination problem worse.
Enlightened mommies, daddies, coaches, bosses and mentors all know that bullying doesn’t work, and so instead of trying to influence behavior via harsh criticism and negative labeling, they use positive reinforcement and encouragement. If your inner dialog shames or guilts you, or otherwise makes you feel bad, that’s the mean mommy/daddy. Remember: there’s never a reason to talk badly to yourself, and the times when you feel most justified in doing so when you think you’ve screwed up are the times you should doubly work to avoid it. That is not to say that you shouldn’t address your perceived shortcomings and “failures,” but that you should only do so in a objective, compassionate and constructive way.
Chapter 21. False Solutions II and III. “Selling Out” and “Stalling Out”
Selling out is when you sacrifice your ambitious dream for other dreams or activities, e.g., making money, raising a family, or doing volunteer work. You can also, of course, sacrifice your dream for less worthy aims, such as compulsive housekeeping, television watching, Web surfing, video gaming or partying. I don’t really like to use the term “selling out,” because it’s often used to negatively label people who are simply doing their best to make difficult life choices. But we can also apply it nonpejoratively to those who wind up overcompromising and ditching too much of their dream. Many people make that mistake because they fall into the trap of thinking there’s only one path to their goals – often the unrealistic path portrayed in the media – and then, when they are having trouble succeeding via that path, they abandon their dream. In reality, however, there are usually several (at least) paths to success: *An artist who must work at a fulltime day job, for instance, can often arrange flextime (e.g, a 4 day/10 hour workweek) so that she can devote more quality time to her art. Or, she can free some time for herself by either getting her family to do more of the chores, or hiring outside help. Or, she can hire a parttime assistant to help with arts related chores like preparing canvases or cleaning the brushes. (If she’s broke, she can teach in exchange for those services.) *An activist who lacks the money for a big campaign can get people to donate money and services, or use lowcost guerrilla marketingtype techniques. *A businessperson whose dream is opening a restaurant, but who lacks the money to do so, can start a catering or packaged foods business first.
Most people do not like to compromise on their paths, but it’s better to compromise than to ditch your dream entirely. Besides, each of these compromises, and perhaps every compromise you might be called on to make, has a terrific silver lining. The artist who asks her boss for flextime discovers that she has more control over her schedule than she thought she had had. The activist, forced to fundraise, finds out that there are indeed people out there who are willing to fund his cause. The businessperson gains valuable experience in a foodrelated industry while building her capital. There’s always more than one path to success, and even a compromise path offers considerable joy and fulfillment. If you can’t find one that works for you, given your financial, family or other constraints, consult a mentor (see Chapter 30). Stalling out is the opposite of selling out: it’s when you sacrifice everything else in your life for your ambitious dream. Basically, your interests narrow and narrow, and your relationships become more and more limited, until you’re doing little other than your work except that, since this strategy is based on deprivation and denial, you’re probably miserable and not doing much work, either. Naturally, this dysfunctional path is also celebrated in numerous “tortured artist” and “monomaniacal entrepreneur” stories, but it’s no less realistic for all that. Few people can survive, much less thrive and achieve an ambitious goal, in the context of such a deprived and lonely existence. And to the extent that your goal requires fresh ideas and insights, you will probably be lacking those, too. The Cure The “cure” for both selling out and stalling out is, first, not to shame, blame, guilt or otherwise abuse yourself for doing so. (In other words, no mean mommy/daddy!) Often, fear along with misinformation is at the root of these strategies, and you should never respond to fear with punishment. Instead, use the solution for dealing with fear based procrastination that I discuss starting in Chapter 25. Remember that there is no absolute right or wrong answer to the question of how you should live your life. Your ambitious dream could be the central, defining element of your life, or it could play a subordinate role to family or other values. Remember, also, that the foundation of all antiprocrastination efforts is honesty about who you are and what your values and needs are. Trying to live a “false” life even from good motives is simply not going to work, as most of us can’t endure a life lived in denial. If you find yourself clinging to a dream of an idealized path that is impossible for you to follow, instead of selecting a compromise path that you can follow, ask yourself whether fear might be at the heart of your stubbornness.
Chapter 22. False Solution IV. Dithering
Solving a problem means taking specific actions such as observing its symptoms or manifestations; precisely defining it; researching it and its possible solutions; developing a strategy for solving it; testing the strategy; implementing the strategy if it tests well; refining the strategy if it doesn’t; and evaluating success or failure. Dithering includes all the other things you do about your problems, including worrying, feeling guilty, beating yourself up, complaining to family and friends, and feeling sorry for yourself. Dithering is pernicious. It gives you the illusion that you are solving your problem, so that you don’t have to feel guilty for ignoring it, or feel like you’ve given up hope. But dithering doesn’t really solve your problem. The hallmark of dithering is that, no matter how long or seriously you do it, the problem never gets solved. Sadly, this is true even in cases where a person dithers for decades, or his whole life. How do you know when you’re dithering versus solving? Easy: if you’ve been working to solve your problem, but making no progress, you’re probably dithering. Even the toughest problem is solvable, at least to some degree and, as I’ll discuss later, it often takes only a small amount of actual solving to make noticeable progress. If, therefore, you are making no progress, you are almost certainly dithering. Another difference between dithering and solving is that dithering tends to focus on the problem, while solving focuses on the solution. That isn’t an absolute rule, because part of what you do to solve a problem is characterize and analyze it. But if all you are doing is thinking about the problem and how miserable it’s making you, and you’re not devoting any time to designing and implementing a solution, then you are dithering. Another difference is that dithering tends to occur in isolation. You do it yourself, in the privacy of your own room, or at least in the privacy of your own thoughts. When you confide in friends and others, you use those conversations more to vent, or to hear your own ideas and emotions echoed back at you, than to observe, define, etc. Maybe you don’t even listen very closely to what the people you are talking to are saying, or ignore their advice. Solving, on the other hand, usually involves other peopleand not just your
friends, but professionals such as a doctor, therapist, spiritual advisor, twelvestep sponsor, teacher or mentor. And, often, more than one of those. And instead of using these people as an echochamber to reflect your own thoughts and feelings back at you, you listen closely to what they are saying and do your best to follow their advice. Because many procrastinators tend to be ashamed and insecure, they have a natural inclination toward isolation. But most of life’s toughest problems, including procrastination, can best – or only be solved with the help of a community. Why would anyone waste time dithering when they could be solving their problem? In some cases, it may be because they don’t know that they are, in fact, dithering: they think they are solving. But it could also be that, due to their fears, they don’t really want to solve their procrastination problem and make progress on their goals. For them, dithering services the important purpose of keeping them stuck while maintaining the facesaving illusion of progress. Okay! That’s it for the false solutions. Now, onto the “true” ones! They are probably what you’ve been waiting for, and so I’m excited to present them to you. There are three true solutions to productivity, and you can use them all individually or together. The next chapter begins with the simplest one, and then I move in successive chapters onto the other two, in order of complexity.
Chapter 23. Solution I: The Three Habits of Productive Work
All productive work can be broken down into these three behaviors: 1. Showing up to work exactly when you are supposed to. 2. Instantly starting the work you are supposed to be doing. 3. Staying focused on the work for twenty minutes or more. These behaviors are the essence of productive work. They are also the points at which procrastination happens, and, consequently, the points at which it can be attacked. No Cheating! Here are the three behaviors again, this time with some important words
italicized: 1. Showing up to work exactly when you are supposed to. 2. Instantly starting the work you are supposed to be doing. 3. Staying focused on the work for twenty minutes or more. These important words all amount to the same thing: NO CHEATING. Not even a little… In Behavior #1, the word “exactly” means on the dot. 8:00 a.m., not 8:01, 8:05, or even 8:00:10. You need to train yourself to be exactly where you are supposed to benot thinking about it, not en route, not pouring a cup of coffeeat the exact moment you are supposed to be there. In Behavior #2, the word “instantly” means that, about a second after your butt hits the chair, you begin your work. “The work you are supposed to be doing” should be selfexplanatory by now, but let’s be extracareful and remind ourselves that impromptu unscheduled phone calls (even “urgent” ones), coffee sipping, newspaper reading, Web surfing, and other activities are all procrastination, pure and simple. So is doing other work even important, virtuousfeeling work that wasn’t scheduled for this time period. You can spend your whole career immersed in these activities, and make little or no progress on your most important goals. In Behavior #3, the word “focused” means that you are thinking about your work, and only your work. In other words, you are not thinking about other work you could be doing, or your worries regarding your work, or philosophical issues related to your work. (Philosophizing is important, but don’t let it interrupt other work: schedule it in.) And, of course, you’re not thinking about your personal life, last night’s television show, or the birdies cheeping enticingly outside your window. “Twenty minutes or more.” The amount of time one can, or should, stay focused on work differs from person to person. Most people, however, can train themselves to work in a focused manner for at least twenty minutes before having to get up and take a break. After your break and your breaks should be as long as you need them to be, especially when you’re first tackling your procrastination problem you can return to work for another twenty minutes. Initially, however, working for twenty minutes may seem as unrealistic as flying to the moon. So start with ten minutes, or five, or two if you need to. (Use a kitchen or other timer to keep track.) Then, take as long a break as you need, praise yourself for your achievement as discussed in the next chapter, and repeat. As you get more and more comfortable with your work, you can build up to ten
minutes of sustained work, then fifteen, twenty, thirty, etc. The key is to be patient and not push it, since pushing yourself basically invites the mean mommy/daddy to come in and take over.
Chapter 24. Practicing the Three Productivity Behaviors
Now that you understand the Three Productivity Behaviors more fully, you can begin practicing them. There are five keys to success: 1. Start Small, and Aim for Tiny Improvements 2. Lavishly Reward Every Tiny Success 3. Ignore “Failures” Except to Learn From Them 4. Anticipate Plateaus and Backsliding 5. Keep at it! 1. Start Small and Aim for Tiny Improvements “Start small” means practicing the Three Productivity Behaviors (a.k.a., “not procrastinating”) on no more than two or three tasks at a time and the tasks you practice on should be easy ones. Starting with that novel you’ve been blocked on for ten years is probably a bad idea. Household chores are a great thing to initially practice on because we tend to procrastinate on them not out of fear, but simply because they’re tedious. So practice not procrastinating on doing the dishes or laundry (or mowing the lawn, or taking the car in for an oil change, etc.), if those are tasks you habitually procrastinate on. (Practice Behaviors #1 and #2 only, obviously you don’t want to spend a lot of time doing chores.) Simple personal care tasks like flossing and taking vitamins are other good candidates for practice. If the tasks you are practicing on seem embarrassingly small or trivial, you are doing it exactly right! The key is to get used to the feeling of notprocrastinating, and you will only have the opportunity to do so if you initially practice on activities that offer a high probability of success. Also, pay attention to the (probably numerous) areas of your life where you don’t procrastinate, and note the feeling of calm selfcontrol you have when approaching those tasks. It is that same feeling you are aiming to invoke around the tasks you are currently procrastinating on and once you can invoke it, you
are well on your way to solving the problem. (Yes, you are aiming to create certain feelings within yourself. As I’ll discuss in Chapter 32, successful people consciously work to achieve certain moods, as opposed to passively accepting whatever emotions happen to seize them. Many unsuccessful people, in contrast, don’t even know that that’s even possible to do.) Keep practicing the Three Productivity Behaviors on simple stuff, and you will naturally get better at notprocrastinating. You will then become less afraid, ambivalent and conflicted, and start to make the crucial shift from seeing procrastination as an inherent character flaw to seeing it as a behavioral problem you can solve. Meanwhile, getting the dishes done, flossing regularly, etc., will themselves have a beneficent effect on your mood, and also empower you to make more changes. Only after you have gotten good at notprocrastinating on the trivial stuff should you begin practicing it on your art, business, doctoral thesis, activism or other ambitious endeavor. Now, it is doubly important for you to start small. If you’re a writer, don’t set out to write an entire chapter, but only a page or paragraph. If you’re a visual artist, don’t aim to paint a whole new picture, but simply to mix some colors or fix a detail on an existing painting. Or, if you’re an entrepreneur, don’t aim to spend the entire morning doing sales calls, but only ten minutes. In other words, when operating in the scary realm, start really small. And only after you’ve gotten good at notprocrastinating at tiny tasks, do you take on the bigger ones. And only after you’ve gotten good at doing the behaviors for ten minutes (or five, or two, or whatever works for you initially), do you start practicing behavior #3 slowly building your endurance so that you can do your scary work for fifteen, twenty, thirty, etc., minutes at a time. 2. Lavishly Reward Every Tiny Success If you follow my advice to “start small,” you will have many successes, by which I mean instances when you were able to resist procrastinating and get right to work. It’s important, in those instances, to celebrate your achievement! Pat yourself on the back, indulge in a treat, and generally make a fuss over yourself. As mentioned earlier, this kind of positive reinforcement not only boosts your confidence and improves your mood, but helps imprint your achievement in your memory so that you can call on it when needed: so that, when you one day find yourself about to procrastinate, you can think, “I’m feeling tired and anxious and I really want to ditch my work, but wait a minute! I felt exactly the same way last week, and managed to get past it and have a productive afternoon. If I did it then, maybe I can do it now. I’ll set my timer for five minutes and see if working that long gets me back on track.”
It doesn’t matter how small the achievement is. Even if it’s something as simple as taking your vitamins exactly when planned or taking them at all, if you frequently neglect to give yourself at least a mental pat on the back. For bigger achievements i.e., breaking out the notes to your novel for the first time in a year make sure to make a big fuss and give yourself some kind of tangible reward. 3. Ignore “Failures” Except to Learn From Them When a child fails to meet a goal, the mean parent tends to criticize and blame, while the benevolent, effective parent offers compassion and understanding. The benevolent parent also helps the child keep the failure in perspective, reminding him that the “failure” probably isn’t as awful as he thinks it is, and that there are plenty of other things he has succeeded at. With the benevolent parent’s help, the child grows up to be a resilient adult who is not so afraid of failure that he procrastinates. You need to be your own benevolent parent, which means that whenever you fail at notprocrastinating or another goal, you should not criticize or blame yourself, but instead respond with compassionate objectivity. Criticism, as discussed earlier, depletes your selfesteem, undermines your selfconfidence, mischaracterizes the problem, and only makes things worse. Instead, be a compassionate observer and analyst of your situation, keeping in mind that there are often perfectly good reasons behind procrastination, even if the procrastination response itself isn’t optimal. “Gee, I didn’t get much work done, today. What happened? Oh yeah, I was upset after that lunchtime phone call with my girlfriend. Well, it was an upsetting call.” As we discussed in Chapter 9, the proper response to failure is to ponder it just long enough to come up with a solution so that the same thing doesn’t happen again: “Okay, next time I won’t call my girlfriend until after I’ve finished my work.” Then, move on without remorse or regret. 4. Anticipate, and Cope With, Plateaus and Backsliding A plateau is when you remain stuck at a level of achievement despite repeated efforts to move ahead. Backsliding is when you actually lose ground and become less effective. Both are discouraging, and yet both are an inevitable part of any personal growth process. If you have an “off” day, week, month or year, don’t criticize or shame or blame yourself: just accept it for what it is, and hope to do better soon. Plateaus and backsliding often indicate that you are setting tooambitious goals. If that is indeed the case, the solution is to go back to a prior level of accomplishment you’re comfortable with and stay there for a while until you regain your confidence. Then, remember to set more modest and attainable goals in the future.
Plateaus and backsliding can also indicate that you are experiencing personal or other problems that are interfering with your ability to do your work. Most of us can tackle only one major problem at a time and, let’s face it, many problems, including illness or a financial crisis, can take precedence even over making progress on our heartfelt dream. If something does pull you away from your dream, just do what you need to do without shame or remorse or regret. Eventually, you will be able to return to your work quite possibly bringing to it a richer perspective as a result of your “sabbatical.” 5. Keep at it! What can I say? Those who succeed are always those who persevere. Sometimes, they have to temporarily put their ambitious dream aside while they work on other priorities. But they always come back to it. They never give up and neither should you. ****** Case Study: Getting Past a Plateau While writing The Lifelong Activist, I went through a severalweek period where, due to personal issues, I was getting little done. I was frustrated, but knew to keep selfcriticism to a minimum. I kept reminding myself: “This procrastination problem is a problem I need to solve, not a reflection of who I intrinsically am. The situation will improve when I’m ready for it to improve.” The lack of shame, blame and negative selflabeling meant that I was able to maintain my selfconfidence, which aided me in solving the problem sooner rather than later. After a few weeks of struggle, I eventually had the presence of mind to do what I just told you to do in case of backsliding: return to a prior level of productivity. I dug deep into my computer hard drive and resurrected a program I hadn’t needed in a couple of years: my software stopwatch. I set it for fiveminute intervals and, during those intervals, committed to focusing on my work. (In between those intervals, I could take as long a break as I wished.) Having to use the stopwatch again was a little humiliating like putting training wheels back on a bicycle and having to set it at mere fiveminute intervals was more so. But, guess what? The strategy worked, quickly and spectacularly! In fact, it took only a few hours of stopwatchpractice for me to return to my normal level of productivity. The strategy worked primarily because the fiveminute time limit I selected was so small that success was more or less guaranteed and my tiny successes motivated me
enough so that I was able to get past my block and keep going with the process. ******
Chapter 25. Five Success Tips
1. Always Begin Your Day with a Schedule Scheduling is important because vagueness opens the door to the kinds of fears and uncertainties that can lead to procrastination. Ideally, you will have gone through the mission and time management processes discussed in The Lifelong Activist and will know how to create a manageable schedule that reflects your core values. If not, at least come up with a simple schedule that says specifically what you are going to be doing or working on every hour of the day. Try to create your schedule the night before so that the act of scheduling itself does not itself become a form of procrastination. 2. Be Prepared The Boy Scouts got this one right. For the same reason as #1, above to avoid confusion that can bump you off your path you need to begin your day with all the information, tools, and materials needed to accomplish your work right out there in front of you. That means everything: books, paper files, computer files, telephone numbers, writing implements, even paper clips. It should all be available, organized and in perfect working order. (Cell phone charged? Pencils sharpened?) ****** Note: If, despite repeated attempts, you are unable to show up for work scheduled and prepared, that may be a sign that you have a high level of fear that is causing you to procrastinate. Don’t worry I’ll tell you how to deal with it starting in the next chapter. ****** 3. Approach Your Work Without Hesitation Remember how Productivity Behavior #1 is showing up to work on time, and
Productivity Behavior #2 is getting right to work on the right stuff? While practicing those behaviors, try not to hesitate. Hesitation gives your thoughts time to wander, and if you’ve got a procrastination habit, they will often wander directly toward your fears. (Now you understand the meaning of the proverb “he who hesitates is lost.”) Practice gliding over to your desk and starting your work without any hesitation. 4. Stay Calm Strong emotions, as you learned in Chapter 19, bump you off your path. They also make it harder for you to stay focused on the present so that you can practice the Three Productivity Behaviors. Work, therefore, to remain calm as the clock ticks toward your start time. If you catch yourself feeling fear, anxiety or doubt, gently reassure yourself. (E.g., “I’m just going to write for ten minutes – that’s all. Then I can take a break.”) If necessary, put yourself in a little “trance” just long enough for you to glide over to your desk and start working, since our fears are often strongest before we actually start our work and disappear if we just persist for a few minutes. If you can’t eliminate the fear, don’t worry we’ll discuss a technique for doing so in the next chapter. 5. Don’t Make Your Work More Difficult Than It Is Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that procrastination is inevitable. Popular culture likes to portray the act of creation as a kind of epic struggle because it makes good drama, but that’s the wrong model to follow. Instead, you should approach your work with a light touch, and the experience should be like play: easy, safe and fun. If your project seems scarily big or important, try breaking it down into small no, tiny! chunks and working on those one at a time, while ignoring, for the moment, the big picture. This sounds like trivial advice, but it’s crucial, and many successful ambitious dreamers have learned to do this automatically. (And don’t forget to have fun!) Often, however, when our work isn’t fun, it’s because we’re frightened or panicked, either about the work itself or something else in our life. As you now know, trying to work past that fear is often futile, especially if the effort is accompanied by mean mommy/daddy type selfcriticism. Our only real course is to courageously face down and explore our fears, and the circumstances surrounding them. And so, finally, we come to the process for overcoming the disabling fear that lies at the heart of so many procrastination problems.
Chapter 26. Solution II:
A Process for Overcoming FearBased Procrastination and Panic
If you’ve been making good progress toward solving your procrastination problem using the Three Productivity Behaviors, then there probably isn’t much fear or panic underlying your procrastination, and you may not even need to use the Fear Defeating Process described below. If, however, you can’t manage to adopt the Three Productivity Behaviors no matter how hard you try, then you probably do have fears and/or a panic response you need to address via the Process, which consists of these nine steps: 1. Use mission and time management to establish reasonable goals and a reasonable schedule. 2. Start your work: catch yourself procrastinating. 3. Don’t criticize, blame or shame yourself! (No mean mommy/daddy!) 4. Start journaling, and via journaling: 5a. Defuse your panic. (5a, b, and c all happen simultaneously while journaling.) 5b. Characterize your obstacles. 5c. Design a solution for overcoming your obstacles. 6. Start to implement the solution and (optional) return to your path. 7. Celebrate your victory. 8. Repeat when needed. And . . . 9. Watch change happen! I discuss each individually below.
Step #1. Use mission and time management to establish reasonable goals and a reasonable schedule. I know I’ve said it many times. But please don’t neglect mission and time management because they are essential parts of the solution. You can read about them in Parts I and II of The Lifelong Activist, or in many other books as well. Step #2. Start your work: catch yourself procrastinating. As mentioned earlier, many people enter a kind of trance when they procrastinate that trance is the whole point of the procrastination, really, as it allows you to avoid doing your work without experiencing guilt or shame. (Those come later, when you look back at your wasted day.) When you’re in that trance, you’re only dimly aware of what
you are doing, and the hours just seem to melt away. Some people don’t enter too deeply into that trance. They can be in the middle of an unscheduled video game and think, “Oops! I’m procrastinating.” If you can do that relatively quickly, then you’ve completed this step. If, however, you are one of the many people who really zones out, it may take some time and practice for you to reliably catch yourself early on in the act of procrastinating. One thing that may help is to get into the habit of asking yourself, at fifteen or thirtyminute intervals, “Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing, or am I procrastinating?” Keep working at it, and eventually you’ll be able to quickly and reliably catch yourself in the act of procrastinating. Step #3. Don’t criticize, blame or shame yourself! Be careful, in this vulnerable moment, not to NOT lapse into mean mommy/daddytype selfcriticism. You know why you shouldn’t do it, so just be careful that you don’t. Instead of criticizing yourself, be an objective, compassionate observer of your own situation. Tell yourself, “Oh, I’m procrastinating.” Do not even add a mildly negative phrase such as, “Too bad.” Step #4. Start journaling. Now is the time to figure out precisely why you needed to procrastinate at this moment. Your main tool for doing so is journaling, which will help you, (a) defuse your panic, (b) characterize the precise nature of your obstacles, and (c) come up with solutions for overcoming those obstacles. Journaling isn’t hard, but there are a few tricks to it that I’ll share with you in the next chapter. The important thing to note here is that the moment you catch yourself procrastinating, you should stop whatever you are doing and begin journaling. If you don’t like to write, you can dictate an “audio journal” into a tape recorder, or call a friend and have a focused and analytical conversation with him or her. But writing offers important advantages over the other methods, not the least of which is convenience, so please at least try it. There are many ways of journaling, incidentally, but the one I want you I want you to do here is the uninhibited “stream of consciousness” type journaling that is also sometimes called “free writing.” It basically “dumps” your thoughts and feelings, in undiluted, uncensored format, onto the page (or screen). For this kind of journaling, spelling and grammar don’t matter: just get everything down as honestly and as fast as you can. If you are desperate to get some work done, you may be reluctant to stop and
journal, and journaling may even seem like a waste of time. In reality, however, journaling is the very best use of your time, as it is your main tool for solving your procrastination problem. The time you invest in journaling now will be returned to you a hundredfold or more, once you start to overcome your procrastination problem and work more productively. ****** NOTE: Steps 5a, 5b, and 5c all happen simultaneously while you’re journaling. ****** Step #5a. Defuse your panic. As discussed in the Chapter 19, you can’t solve problems while panicked. So your first step, before getting down and dirty with your procrastination problem, is to defuse any panic you may be experiencing. Fortunately, journaling is a “miracle cure” for panic. The simple act of writing down your problem is often all it takes to relieve a lot of the anxiety and panic surrounding it. After a journaling session, you should feel mentally and even physically more relaxed. Journaling is, in fact, powerfully healing. It’s a way of giving yourself the time, attention and respect most of us crave but never get enough of. It also provides a way for you to really focus in on your problems, which empowers you to solve them. It’s no wonder that journaling is an accepted therapeutic tool for working with many types of distressed people, including cancer survivors, victims of violent crime, troubled teens and people in jail. Journaling yourself to a calm, centered, reflective state of mind can take a few minutes, a few hours, or many hours (maybe, spread over a weekend): the important thing is not to rush it. If you are journaling for a long time with fear, confusion or other strong emotions, or long, analytical explorations of your situation, history and needs pouring out of you and onto the page it’s because you need to. Don’t be impatient: trust the process and understand that this intensivejournaling phase is very important and probably won’t last long. If you keep practicing the Fear Defeating Process when you feel afraid, you should quickly become less prone to panic, and more quickly able to recover from it and thus have less and less to journal about. You will then be using journaling mainly for its analytical and problemsolving benefits (5b and 5c), but that typically takes much less time, and eventually won’t be needed much, either.
****** Important Note Journaling sometimes uncovers memories that we can have trouble handling, including memories of childhood abuse. It can also force our attention to issues that we have been in denial over, usually because they are painful. Either event can be traumatic. If journaling isn’t helping to calm you down but, rather, is making you more upset, or if it is raising issues that you are not sure you can handle, see a therapist or other specialist. You may even wish to consult a therapist before you start journaling, if you are concerned about how the process will affect you. ****** Step #5b. Characterize your obstacles. At the same time you’ve been calming down, you’ve also, in your journal, been creating a “snapshot” of your mental state. This snapshot is likely to tell you exactly why you’re procrastinating i.e., the precise nature of your obstacles. It’s important to characterize obstacles precisely because the more precisely you characterize them, the more focused and effective a solution you can come up with. Trying to solve a problem you haven’t fully characterized is an exercise in futility in fact, it’s probably what you’ve been doing all these years when working on your “problems” of laziness, lack of discipline, etc. All of that effort, directed at the wrong targets, didn’t solve your procrastination problem, did it? Use your journal to create a list of the specific obstacles that are preventing you from continuing with your work at this moment. There’s a good chance that the list will include one or more of the Big Four: perfectionism, negativity, hypersensitivity and panic. And also a good chance it will contain one or more Logistical or Situational obstacles. For instance, suppose you should have been writing a school paper, but instead spent the past hour doing other stuff. In the course of your journaling, you discover that the reasons you haven’t been writing are one or more of the following: *You hate to write, and have never been confident of your writing skills. *You are pretty sure you won’t do well on the paper, so the whole project seems futile and a waste of time. *You hate the class and/or teacher, and that demotivates you. *You needed some library books to complete the project, but someone else has checked them out. *Your roommates are all out having fun, and you feel cheated at having to stay in
and work. *You had a serious fight with your girlfriend, yesterday, and haven’t heard from her since. That’s worrying you. *You and your girlfriend are madly in love, which interferes with your ability to focus on this project. *You’re not feeling well. *Your computer keeps crashing. These are all Logistical or Situational Obstacles, although some hint at one or more Big Four underneath. For instance, “hate to write” could easily be grounded in perfectionism. The fact that the solution to many of these logistical or situational obstacles is simple, or even trivial, I’ll discuss below. First, however, I want to be very clear that all of the above obstacles are not just reasonable, but understandable and forgivable. In other words: nothing to be ashamed of. This shouldn’t be used as a license to procrastinate, however. To live a happy, successful life, you must learn to persevere in the face of stress or misfortune. Step 5c. Design a solution for overcoming your obstacles. The solution to the Big Four obstacles is, as discussed in Chapters 15 through 18, to replace dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors with functional ones. Once you do that, and once you defuse your panic, you may be able to easily overcome your Logistical and Situational Obstacles. What’s amazing, actually, is how often even seemingly “unvanquishable” obstacles turn out to be rather easily solved, once they are exposed to the light of day via journaling. It’s like in The Wizard of Oz, when Toto pulls back the curtain and reveals the Almighty Oz to be a flimflam man. Pull back the “curtain” of your panic and antiproductive thinking, and your toughest obstacles are often revealed to be small and easily solved. To repeat Jerry Weinberg’s dictum: “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your reaction to the problem.” So: *You hate to write, and have never been confident of your writing skills, SO ask a friend to edit your writing. *You are pretty sure you won’t do well, SO consult your professor, a technical assistant, librarian, or anyone else who could give you perspective and guidance. *You hate the class or teacher, SO try to see the big picture about what brought you to the class to start with, and why the subject is meaningful to you. In other words, work to reattach yourself to your passion for the subject, and that, in turn, should help remotivate you. Extra points, by the way, if you can come up with some good things to
say about the class and teacher. *You’re upset about the fight with your girlfriend, SO call her briefly and patch things up. Don’t get sucked back in to whatever fight you were having; the purpose of this call is not to argue but to remind both of you about how much you care for her and that you intend to work things out with her. After you’ve both calmed down, explain to her how the fight is interfering with your ability to write your paper, and enlist her caring help. *Etc. Your situational obstacles, as discussed earlier, tend to involve other people or circumstances outside your control. As such, they tend to be harder to overcome than the other obstacles, and the steps you need to take to do so can be painful. If, for instance, the situational obstacle is a health problem, the solution may be to make an appointment with your doctor. (Expensive, timeconsuming and scary.) If it’s a troubled relationship, you might have a frank talk with your partner, or plan to consult a couples counselor. (Ditto.) Go ahead and use your journal to design detailed solutions to your logistical and situational obstacles. At the same time you work to characterize your immediate obstacle, also look for work patterns that help or hinder your productivity. Do you, like many people, have trouble getting started? Are you more focused and less distractable in the mornings, afternoons or evenings? Are some parts of your projects much easier than other parts, and therefore better places to start? Do you have a tendency toward rigidity or stubbornness that causes you to get stuck at certain points in your work? This kind of information about your work habits is extremely valuable, since it enables you to optimize your scheduling and the way you approach your work. Step #6. Start to implement the solution and (optional) return to your path. Your goal here is to implement just enough of the solution you’ve designed so that you can calm down enough to return to your daily schedule (a.k.a., daily path). You don’t want the solution itself to become a form of procrastination, after all. Sometimes, just writing out the problem in detail is enough to get you back on your path . . . Or, writing out the solution . . . Or, making a phone call or two . . . Or, taking some more substantive and timeconsuming steps . . . Again, there’s no wrong way to do this, and you should take as much time as you need, especially early on. Eventually, however, you should be able to return back to your path in less and less time.
Step #7. Celebrate your victory. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve returned fully to your path or not. If you’ve made it this far in the process, you are victorious. You are finally grappling with your procrastination problem in a meaningful way, after years or perhaps decades of fear and dithering. That’s a huge step, and you should give yourself huge amounts of credit for it. If you don’t believe me if you think that only a “clear win” against your procrastination problem is worth celebrating then please go back and reread Chapters 15 (perfectionism) and 20 (mean mommy/daddy). As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, it is important to celebrate every small achievement or victory in every area of your life. Most of us grow up oppressed by too much negativity and criticism, and we continue to be oppressed by those in adulthood. It is up to us to counteract that negativity both for ourselves and those around us. So, congratulate yourself a lot. Call up a good friend and boast of your achievement. Treat yourself to a movie, CD, bubble bath or sinful dessert. Or all three! Make a fuss: if you don’t, who will? This is not merely an exercise in feeling good, although that in and of itself is a worthwhile goal. Celebrating yourself also helps you “own” your victory and the skills that went into achieving it, so that you have that memory and those skills readily available the next time you do battle with your old nemesis, procrastination. Step #8. Repeat as needed. Even if, this time around, you score a spectacular success meaning, you are able to quickly defuse your panic, overcome your obstacle(s), and return to your path you shouldn’t consider your procrastination problem licked. Procrastination is a wily, persistent enemy: it will return. So, be prepared to repeat this process as often as it takes and occasionally throughout your entire life. Rest assured, however, that by persisting you will get to . . . Step #9. Watch change happen! When I teach my students these techniques for defeating their fearbased procrastination, many begin to make amazingly fast progress at their goals. That’s because, in contrast to their negative selfimage of being lazy, undisciplined or uncommitted, they are actually highly energetic, highly disciplined and highly committed. The problem, as discussed earlier, is that they were trying to solve the wrong problem(s). Once they start trying to solve the right one their fears, obstacles and panic many shoot ahead like arrows toward their goals, often making more progress in a few
weeks than they had in years. That’s because beating procrastination is an act of profound selfliberation that helps you redefine yourself and your possibilities. Selfliberation is an exciting journey to make and an inspirational one to witness. I have no doubt that many readers of this ebook are poised to make that journey within a very short time. The trick, paradoxically, is to apply the techniques I discuss in a very patient way, so that there are few or no opportunities for disappointment, fear, and the mean mommy/daddy dialog that fear tends to drag in its wake. Now, onto journaling and other tools for change . . .
Chapter 27. Tools for Change I: Journaling
There are four main tools you can use to help you defeat your fears and spur personal growth: Journaling, Therapy, SelfCare and a Created Community. I discuss these in this and the next two chapters. Journaling would seem like the easiest thing in the worldand it is! Journaling is just the writing down of your thoughts and feelings at any given moment in as much detail, and with as little inhibition or censorship, as possible. The kind of journaling I mean is sometimes called “free writing,” “automatic writing,” or “stream of consciousness” writing. All of these terms are fine by me. What I don’t mean by journaling is keeping a chronological calendar detailing the events in your life. In other words, I don’t care about the events themselves, so much as your thoughts and, especially, your feelings surrounding them. The Journaling Arc You’ll recall how, in the last chapter, I said that journaling calms you mentally and physically. That’s definitely the way it is for me. When I start journaling, especially when I’m upset or angry, I tend to type like a demon, and my sentences are short, almost fragmentary, as in this hypothetical example: “Damn I’m upset! I can’t stand it! I don’t know what to do! I want to kill Frank. I hate him. I can’t believe he stood me up for that meeting. What a jerk. And I guess I’m a jerk, too. . . .”
My sentences are short because my anger is preventing me from holding a thought for very long. (Your journaling really is a window into your emotional state.) By the end of a halfhour, or hour, or three hours, of journaling, however, I’m much more relaxed and in control, and it shows in my sentences: “Well, something obviously happened to Frank. As soon as I finish this, I’ll give him a call to make sure he’s OK. It’s not like he’s always unreliable although, the truth be told, he’s not the most dependable of guys. Still, he’s got other virtues: he really sticks up for me when Liz gets on my case, and he was really terrific during that project we worked on last summer. And I guess he’s going through a difficult time with his girlfriend he told me that. In fact, now that I think about it, he did ask me to cut him some slack. That’s no excuse for being a noshow, of course, but maybe in the future, I’ll take the precaution of calling him beforehand to remind him of meetings. . . . “ Note not just the calmness and longer sentences, but the more contextualized, compassionate, accurate view of Frank and his situation. Note, also, the easy transition to problem solving (calling Frank before meetings). I call the path one travels in one’s journal from fear, anger and blaming, to calmness, control and compassion the “journaling arc.” You will probably notice a similar arc in your own journal entries. Look for it, and use it to track your emotional growth during each journaling session, and throughout your career. Tips for Effective Journaling Here are some tips to help you journal: Speed is key. The faster you write, the better, because fast writing leaves little time for selfcensorship and rationalizations. Just get your feelings and thoughts down, and don’t stop to think or ponder. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar; instead, focus on the soft “heart” voice inside you that is telling the truth, but that you may often overwhelm with rationalization, and get it down on paper. Any medium and format are fine. A computer, a sheet of paper, a dinner napkin they’re all okay. If you don’t like to write, try talking into a tape recorder. Also, paragraphs, lists, or any other format is also fine so long as the format doesn’t interfere with your primary goal of writing freely and honestly. The more the merrier. As discussed in the last chapter, you want to start
journaling at the moment you catch yourself procrastinating, because you then have the best chance of “capturing” and characterizing the precise problem. But you can journal at other times, as well. Some people journal first thing every morning, or last thing every night, as a form of meditation and reflection. Others journal at odd times whenever the mood strikes them, and still others set aside a few hours every week or month. Whatever works for you is fine. Guys can journal, too. In my classes, there are usually plenty of men receptive to the idea of journaling, but also plenty of others who think it’s a sissy way to spend their time. If you are a guy (or gal, for that matter) with that prejudice, I urge you to get over it. Many of history’s most famous male scholars, statesmen, and scientists, among others, saw keeping a journal, or conducting an extensive, selfreflective correspondence, as an essential part of their quest to lead a civilized and accomplished life. You should, too. Don’t show your journal to anyone. To ensure that you tell the whole, unvarnished, often embarrassing and often painful truth, make sure you keep your journal private. Don’t rush it: when you’re done, you’re done. Write until you’re “written out” and can think of nothing further to say. This may take a few minutes, a few hours, or an entire day or weekend. However long it takes, don’t rush it: if you’ve got a lot to write, it means you’ve got a lot to say. That’s it for journaling! Try it out!
Chapter 28 Tools for Change II: Therapy and SelfCare
“Go to therapy!” I tell my classes. The reaction I get is interesting. Most of the time, the students giggle in an embarrassed way. Sometimes, the class goes dead quiet, as if people are too embarrassed even to giggle. Therapy very much remains a taboo subject. Many people are ashamed to admit that they are in therapy. Not me. I have been in therapy, on and off, for two decades, and therapy has been among the best investments I ever made. It has helped me get past the problems in my life much faster than I could have ever done on my own. Not surprisingly, I think therapy is wonderful. I think everyone should be in therapy. Seriously: everyone, at least once in their lives. We all carry around emotional
baggage from our childhood, and even without a lot of baggage, life is often difficult and stressful. Also, I think ambitious dreamers have it tougher than many other people because of the innate difficulty of our missions and the lack of societal and (often) familial support. These are all good reasons to see a therapist. Some people think that seeing a therapist is a sign of weakness, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Seeing a therapist is a sign that you have the strength to admit to, and work on, your problems. That’s why so many successful people see a therapist and are quite unashamed of the fact. They see therapy as simply one more tool they are using to build their success. Some people might prefer to consult a spiritual advisor or some other kind of professional. I have no problem with that, but would urge you to see a therapist in addition to whomever else you see, at least for a while. Another possibility for readers of this ebook is a life/career coach who, like myself, specializes in addressing problems related to procrastination and blocks. But such a person may not be able to help you with relationship problems, addiction and other situational obstacles, unless he or she also happens to be a trained and licensed therapist who specializes in those problems. The Pulitzerprize winning writer Richard Rhodes draws a direct line between his therapy (for posttraumatic stress syndrome resulting from an abusive childhood) and his professional success: “I started therapy for myself, not for writing, but it was through that process that the breakthrough came. . . . Seven years of therapy was no more expensive than graduate school would have been, and I’ve come to think of therapy as graduate school for the emotions (or was it remedial?). When I groaned at the expense, my therapist, a good man trained at the Menninger Clinic, expressed the hope that therapy would pay for itself. Since I’ve made a good living writing now for more than twenty years, it did.” Richard Rhodes, How to Write: Advice and Reflections (Quill, 1995) I don’t know about Rhodes, but one reason therapy worked for me was that I made it one of my top priorities. Nothing except a real emergency would cause me to miss a therapy session, and I always took my therapists’ recommendations very seriously. That’s because I saw that the insights and lessons I was learning in therapy could help me in all of the important areas of my life. So I urge you to try therapy or coaching. This is particularly true if you have been thinking about it, but dithering. Stop dithering, and go out and find someone. Shop carefully, and if the first one (or two or three) professionals you try don’t feel like a good
fit, keep looking. The difference between a good therapist or coach and a great one, in terms of being able to catalyze your success and happiness, is enormous. SelfCare As my therapists have taught me, selfcare should come before everything except emergencies. If your physical or emotional being is not healthy, then you can’t hope to be productive, especially at an ambitious dream. It is also hard to take care of others, or advocate for them, when your own needs are going unmet. So, take care of yourself, and don’t deny your physical, emotional and material needs. The act of discovering and meeting those needs forms the foundation of a happy and productive life. Schedule regular appointments with your doctor, dentist and ophthalmologist. Eat nutritious meals, get plenty of exercise, and get lots of sleep. Make sure your home and workspace are maintained in a way that’s conducive to your happiness, peace and productivity. Deal with your issues. If you’ve got attentiondeficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessivecompulsive disorder (OCD), depression, addiction, or bipolar disorder (formerly called manic depression), be persistent in seeking out the best quality medical or therapeutic help you can find for these conditions. And then do what the professional tells you! Nothing, in my experience, inhibits success more, or leads to more unhappiness, than one of these conditions left untreated. Ask your doctor or therapist specifically what steps you can take so that your condition has as limited as possible an impact on your ability to achieve your ambitious dream. Selfcare doesn’t have to be a major effort or expense: it can be as simple as taking time out for a movie, a meal with friends, or a walk in the park. It can also be buying a colorful new sweater, or taking a taxi instead of a bus once in a while. The key is to generally treat yourself well, and also to give yourself little “treats” as often as possible once a day or more is great without experiencing even the slightest twinge of guilt. Treat yourself well whenever you’ve had a “success,” no matter how minor, and treat yourself especially well whenever you’ve had a “failure” or disappointment. And treat yourself well whenever you feel like it, just for the heck of it. Just treat yourself well, OK?
Tools for Change: A Created Community
As you have heard me say earlier, a key factor separating successful from unsuccessful people is that the former surround themselves with supportive, encouraging people, while the latter are often more likely to tolerate skeptics and naysayers in their lives. Whom we choose to associate with is one of our most crucial life decisions, not just because negative people drag us down, but because we tend to live up, or down, to the expectations of those around us. It’s a wonderful thing when those around us have high (but not too high) expectations for us, especially if they are actively involved in helping us reach our potential. Conversely, it’s almost impossible to maintain a positive view of oneself, or to succeed at anything, when surrounded by people who constantly criticize us or put us down. Getting rid of naysayers is only half of the battle, however. You need to replace them with a supportive community. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this community will magically accrue around you if you just do your own thing. You need to create your community, and manage it. The major categories of people you want in your Created Community include mentors, family, friends, colleagues and helping professionals. Mentors is a very important topic that I discuss separately in the following chapter, but I discuss the other categories briefly below. Family Family is such a delicate topic, since many of us have families who are hostile to our values and life choices. I hear more anguish from students on the subject of families than anything else. We are all familiar with the traditional nucleartype family consisting of a spouse or partner, and perhaps also some kids or companion animals. If this is the kind of family you aspire to, please make sure that your spouse or partner is 100 percent supportive of your mission. An unsupportive spouse is one of the most painful, and hardest to solve, situational obstacles. Many ambitious dreamers create a different kind of family in place of, or in addition to, the nuclear one. That often consists of a group of very special friends whose major values they share, and whom they know will support them in good times and bad, and whom they, in turn, commit to supporting. This can be an informal, or formalized, family relationship. Especially if you are distanced from your birth family, it is very important for you
to create some kind of family for yourself. Although rare individuals are able to thrive without one, most of us cannot, and we suffer if try. Friends People are social to varying degrees, and so you may seek out only a few very close friends or a wider circle. Either is OK, provided your relationships are healthy and don’t interfere with your personal growth and success. Just three reminders: 1. A “party animal” lifestyle is generally incompatible with success at an ambitious endeavor; 2. So is a “doormat”/“goto” person lifestyle in which you cannot or will not say “No” to requests that conflict with your mission, or interfere with your ability to attain it. And, 3. Someone who undermines or harshly criticizes you is not a friend, regardless of what they say their motives are. Friends have a responsibility not just to objectively state the truth including, perhaps, unpleasant truths but to do so in a compassionate, supportive way. They also have a responsibility to praise you and acknowledge your achievements. Wonderful friendships not only bring light and color to our lives, they sustain us through the inevitable dark moments. Don’t settle for less! Colleagues It’s a sad fact that some of the people who treat ambitious dreamers worst are colleagues who, in theory at least, should share their world view and goals. This problem seems particularly prevalent in the arts, activist and academic realms. The rule is simple: don’t let anyone abuse you. This includes other dreamers, and I don’t care how illustrious their achievements or credentials are, or how aweinspiring their intellectual framework. Recognize that it is possible, and all too common, for someone to be highly effective and evolved in some areas of life, and high ineffective and unevolved in others. Many activist, arts and academic organizations are badly run, and also treat their employees and volunteers badly. If you have a position in such an organization, leave it. Don’t worry: another opportunity to work in the field will almost inevitably present itself and if it doesn’t, it’s still the right choice to leave an abusive situation. If a colleague criticizes you harshly for being insufficiently committed or dedicated, or for any other reason, ignore her. Don’t waste time trying to help her
comprehend the roots of her intolerance and hostility: it’s a job for a therapist, anyway. And, needless to say, don’t abuse or attack others. Philosopher Philo of Alexandria’s advice is particularly apt, here: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Recognize that your anger and intolerance probably stem from childhood, and that you may be using your “professional zeal” as a rationalization to support this engrained defensive behavior. As someone who has spent years dealing with her own anger issues, I urge you to deal with yours, not just for your own sake, but that of those around you. Helping Professionals By “helping professionals,” I mean, first of all, a doctor, therapist (or coach), dentist and ophthalmologist. Then, perhaps, a nutritionist, massage therapist, acupuncturist, spiritual advisor or anyone else you feel you should consult about your physical and mental health. I also mean good personal finance and insurance help. You may not like to focus on these issues, but they exist whether you focus on them or not, and ignoring them invariably leads to trouble. You may have to hire someone with these forms of expertise, or maybe you can consult with a knowledgeable family member, coworker or friend for free. Just make sure you’re getting quality advice and getting it as part of your life planning, not only after you find yourself in a jam.
Chapter 30. Finding and Cultivating Mentors
Mentors are people who have already achieved some of the things you want to achieve. They are where you hope to be next year, five years from now, or twenty years from now. And they are available, and willing, to tell you how to get there, and to help you along the way. Mentors typically offer one or more of the following benefits: *Information. Because they’ve done what you are trying to do, they have a lot of knowledge about how to do it. *Wisdom. They don’t just have the information; they know how to apply it. They have a good grasp of the “big picture,” of strategy, and of what can go right and wrong as you pursue your ambitious dream.
*Opportunities. Mentors often know about jobs, grants and other opportunities that can help you. *Contacts. This is a very important, and underrated, contribution of mentors. They often know lots of people, and they often know important, influential people. Your mentors’ contacts can be of enormous help to you as you build your career. Mentors are probably the most powerful “success catalyst” around, meaning that they can help you reach your goals faster than anything else. The right mentor can literally take years or even decades off the time it takes you to succeed, and, without mentors, you are almost certainly doomed to timewasting and frustration. Finding and cultivating mentors should be a primary goal of all ambitious dreamers. You’re never too successful or accomplished to need mentors. Here’s how to find and work with them. Who Are Mentors? Some people may be mentors for you in one area (e.g., art, or your academic field), while others may be mentors in another (e.g., career strategy). Some might be experts in an important allied field, such as high tech or public relations. You should have as many mentors as possible in as many different specialties or fields that are relevant to your career as possible. You should also have mentors for your personal life: for dating, marriage, parenting, home ownership, finances, health and fitness, etc. All of your mentors should not just have specific information and other resources that you need, but also be the kind of people who like to help. In other words, they should understand, and enjoy, the process of mentoring. Anyone and everyone who meets these criteria could be a mentor. Although many teachers, bosses and other authority figures are natural choices, you should cast as wide a net as possible. Some of my most important mentors are people who are younger than I am, but who have knowledge, experience and skills I lack. Others are former students or coaching clients. I am grateful for mentoring from whatever source it comes. How to Establish a Mentor Relationship Below are examples of the wrong and right way to establish a mentor relationship: Wrong Way: Ian is attending a reception at an activist conference when he spots the celebrated activist Jane Smith across the room. He’s always revered her and now, he thinks, is his chance to meet her. So, he barrels across the room and introduces himself to
her and says he’s always admired her and her work. She thanks him, but then he can’t think of anything else to say. The conversation languishes, and after a few moments she excuses herself to talk with someone else. Not very encouraging, but it could have been worse. Had Ian naively said, “Would you be my mentor?” Jane would have probably been surprised, and then given him a polite refusal. You can’t go around asking strangers whom you’ve just met to mentor you, just as you can’t go around asking them to marry you. Both relationships imply a serious longterm commitment, and should be approached with care. Even if the potential mentor is someone who already knows and likes you, the word “mentor” can imply more of a serious, longterm commitment than she may be ready for. Here’s a better way to get someone on board as a mentor: Right Way: Another activist, Pete, studied the attendee list at the conference before coming. Noting that Jane Smith would be there, he decided to introduce himself to her during the reception. Before showing up, he reviewed her most recent writings and found an article of hers that he particularly liked. He gave it some thought and came up with some followup questions or points about it. During his research, he discovered that an activist he knows quite well is actually friends with Jane, and so he got that activist to agree to come to the reception with him and introduce him. When it came time to actually attend the reception, Pete dressed with care, skewing towards a more professional look. At the reception, his friend made the introduction, and Pete told Jane how much he liked her work, and that one article in particular. He spoke in a relaxed voice and didn’t ramble on and on. (He had rehearsed ahead of time.) Then he asked his questions. Jane appreciated his interest, and found his questions insightful, and so was happy to talk with him. The conversation continued for a few minutes. Then Pete said: “This has been a great conversation, but I know you’re busy, and there are lots of people here who want to talk with you. I don’t want to monopolize your time. But I’m working on a fair housing campaign that’s very similar to the one you ran in Cincinnati, and we’re having trouble getting the attention of the local legislators. Would it be okay if I contacted you after the conference to get some advice on this?” Jane gave him her business card and invited him to get in touch. Jane is not yet a mentor for Pete, but she has agreed to give him at least some assistance, which is the first step toward establishing a mentor relationship. Pete did many things right, including: *Planned ahead (studied the conference agenda).
*Didn’t approach Jane “cold” (i.e., arranged an introduction). *Presented himself in a professional manner. *Was prepared he had studied up on Jane’s work, and also rehearsed what he was going to say. Pete knew that every first meeting is an audition. *Expressed a very specific knowledge of Jane and her work. Many famous or important people are constantly being approached by people who want their help, but who know little about them and what they do. It’s a drag, and it turns many of them off from meeting or helping new people. However, by demonstrating that he really, truly knows and values Jane and her work, Pete set himself apart from the crowd. *Was conscious of her situation and respectful of her time. *Made his request only after a friendly dialog was established. *Made an appropriate request i.e., one that was both within her field of expertise and not too timeconsuming. Oh, and by the way, Pete took a similar strategic approach with several other VIPs who were attending the conference, and, as a result, wound up with several potential mentors. Working with Your Mentors You want to stay in regular touch with your mentors. That could mean once a month, once every six months, once every year or even less often, depending on the specific nature of your relationship. Or, you could consult your mentor intensively during a specific project that lasts a week or a month, and not for a while after that. What you don’t want to do is drop out of sight and then, when a crisis emerges, contact your mentor frantically for advice. If your mentor is nice, he will help you out, but he will likely also feel somewhat used. You want your interactions to be meaningful above all, you don’t want the mentor to feel you’ve wasted his time. That means you have a defined goal for each interaction and show up well prepared. Sometimes, if you haven’t spoken with a mentor in a while, it’s good to get in touch just to update him on your situation and progress. You can do this through email or in person, but unless the mentor also happens to be a personal friend, don’t seek an in person meeting unless you have something specific to discuss. And you need to be appreciative. Thank you notes are required after every meaningful exchange or bit of assistance your mentor gives you and not a dashedoff thank you note, but a carefully written one. Note that a handwritten note or card is often more meaningful and valued than an email.
And, finally, you should always seek to reciprocate. Even though you may feel that you have little to offer your mentor, that is probably not the case. Sooner or later, you’ll see a newspaper article, or get some information at a meeting, or make a contact, that your mentor will find useful. Be sure to get that information to him. Or, you may be able to assist the mentor in some difficult project he’s involved with. Even if your contribution is just doing some copying, or picking up the bagels and coffee for a meeting, he will appreciate your willingness to reciprocate. Mentoring Others Mentoring (as opposed to being mentored) is, as I’ll discuss in Chapter 32, a fantastic growth experience, which is why a lot of even very busy people welcome the opportunity to mentor a few select protégés. This is why you should also mentor. Yes, you should mentor! However unaccomplished you may feel, you probably have lots of wisdom to impart, and there are definitely people out there who could use it. So, if someone comes up to you seeking advice or guidance and it will happen sooner or later, especially if you follow the advice in this ebook and you feel comfortable with them and their request, by all means mentor them. If you don’t want to wait until someone approaches you, you can always join a mentor program at a nonprofit organization or charity. Many youth programs and schools have mentor programs, for example. Or, you could start a mentor program within your workplace or another organization you belong to. There is probably no organization that wouldn’t benefit from having a mentor program in place.
Chapter 31. The Ultimate Solution (Solution III) to Managing Your Fears: Develop an Empowered Personality
When you start making progress on your procrastination problem, your personality will change. This sounds scary, but it is actually a good thing, because it will be changing in the direction of greater calm, confidence, happiness and effectiveness. In fact, you’ll be developing what I call an “empowered personality.” An empowered person is someone who has made great strides in conquering her obstacles and, as a result, is making good progress on her ambitious dream and in other areas of her life. There are empowered people in every field, and you should seek them
out and enlist them as role models and mentors. Below, I describe the empowered mindset and compare it with its opposite, the unempowered mindset. Empowered People versus Unempowered People Empowered people tend to be . . . Positive Actionoriented Planningoriented Solutionoriented Optimistic They tend to . . . Feel empowered and in control Take responsibility Not take difficult situations personally Help others Unempowered people, in contrast, tend to be . . . Negative Passive (not actionoriented) Planningaverse Blameoriented (not solutionoriented) Pessimistic They tend to . . . Feel powerless and out of control Evade responsibility Take difficulties personally Not help others Empowered people tend to be selfactualized and, like all selfactualized people, tend to have an expansive world view. They are at home in the universe and in their own skins, and their power, passion, wisdom and tenderness makes them highly attractive to others. Some empowered people may even strike you as too happy and highenergy, if
you yourself are lowenergy or haven’t met that many empowered people. (A sure sign, by the way, that you’re hanging around with the wrong crowd. . . . ) But hang in there and get used to the energetic new vibe. You shouldn’t hesitate to approach empowered people because most of them understand the importance of networking and mentoring. Of course, you always want to time your introduction carefully and be well prepared for the encounter. Remember: every introduction is an audition, and empowered people, because they value their time highly, tend to be very selective about those whom they choose to work with or mentor. Note that while many empowered people are successful people in the conventional sense, not all successful people are empowered. There are plenty of people out there who run large organizations, command great salaries, or have developed awesome intellectual frameworks, and yet have not conquered their internal demons. They remain subject to a fearbased, zerosum mentality that causes them to shut out or, worse, exploit those who are younger or lessexperienced, or whom they perceive to be less powerful. People like that are not truly empowered and should be avoided.
Chapter 32. What Empowered People Do
Working to empower yourself is one of the best things you can do for yourself, others in your life, and the world at large. Becoming empowered is largely a matter of forming certain emotional and behavioral habits. Below is a list to get you started: as always, take it slow, applaud the tiniest bits of progress, and never bash yourself for your perceived shortcomings. Empowered people build infrastructures to support their success. When you take a job in a corporation, you automatically acquire, on your first day of work, and with little or no effort on your part, most or all of the following: a desk, office, computer, computer assistance, electricity, lights, a bathroom, phone, schedule, rule book, records of your predecessor’s work, a salary, benefits, reference books and other materials, colleagues, a boss, a boss’s boss, a human resources department, and a budget for additional purchases. I call all of the money, things and people that make it possible for you to do your job your “success infrastructure.” As you can see, success infrastructures tend to be big, complex and expensive.
Pursuing an ambitious dream is as hard, or harder, than corporate work, which means that you probably need an equivalent, or better, infrastructure for it. If you work independently, however, no one’s going to provide that infrastructure for you: you need to create it for yourself. That is an ongoing process, and it should be one of your top priorities at all times. An unempowered person will sit around bemoaning all the resources he needs but doesn’t have. An empowered person, in contrast, will identify a need and quickly start working the phones to get it met. In doing so, he creates his success infrastructure. Empowered people educate themselves. They are lifelong learners, and constantly reading, attending classes, and consulting experts and others. They are naturally curious about a wide range of topics, and not biased against “soft” subjects such as selfhelp. Empowered people welcome challenges. Many people avoid challenges and the unknown, but empowered people welcome them as growth opportunities. They also know that success often comes from pushing oneself just a little bit beyond one’s “comfort zone.” Here’s what Christopher Reeve, in Nothing Is Impossible: Reflections on a New Life, had to say about comfort zones: “The vast majority of people live within a comfort zone that is relatively small. The comfort zone is defined by fear and our perception of our limitations. We are occasionally willing to take small steps outside it, but few of us dare to expand it. Those who dare sometimes fail and retreat, but many experience the satisfaction of moving into a larger comfort zone and the joyful anticipation of more success. A person living with a disability may find the courage to leave the comfort zone of his own house for the first time. An ablebodied individual might decide to face claustrophobia by taking up scuba diving. Even as our country tries to cope with terrorism, most of us know intuitively that living in fear is not living at all.” Fortunately, the life of an ambitious dreamer provides no shortage of opportunities to be challenged. Even worthwhile challenges can be scary, however, which brings us to . . . Empowered people anticipate, and learn to deal with, fear and anxiety. Recall Steven Pressfield’s story about how Henry Fonda threw up before every performance. For forty years, he threw up; and then, each time, he went out and gave his
performance. Unsuccessful people often assume that successful people find success easy, or are unusually good at coping with stress. That’s often not the case, however. Successful people may get just as scared or anxious as anyone else, but they figure out ways to cope. In fact, they are determined to cope. They understand that the fear and other negative feelings are transient and relatively unimportant in the larger scheme of things. Empowered people seek out not just mentors, but protégés. Empowered people seek out protégés people to mentor not just because they know that the world runs better when everyone gives back, but also because they know that mentoring is one of the best uses of their time. Mentoring helps you identify and reinforce your strengths, and also increases your base of knowledge. And because the goal of mentorship is to help your protégé evolve into an empowered person, mentoring is also one of the best ways to expand what Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People calls your “circle of influence.” Empowered people reprogram their thoughts for success. They make a conscious effort to replace dysfunctional thought patterns with functional ones. For instance, they replace: Negative thinking Selfcriticism Judgmental thinking Perfectionist thinking Hypersensitivity Panic with . . . with . . . with . . . with . . . with . . . with . . . Objective, or positive, thinking Selfacceptance or selfpraise Compassionate observation and analysis Reasonable goal setting and tolerance of error Resilience Calm and perspective
So, if an empowered person screws up and then catches himself thinking negatively, along the lines of, “What a jerk I am . . . ” he immediately stops that line of thought and replaces it with another, more objective and compassionate one. Empowered people deal quickly and decisively with their obstacles. That’s because they know that, not only are obstacles a serious impediment to success, but they tend to get worse over time. Empowered people also know that success, which brings its own stresses, can worsen many situational obstacles. Many people, for example, find that their relationships deteriorate as they become more professionally successful. Don’t let that happen to you start dealing with your obstacles now.
Empowered people understand that success is sometimes a performance. We all have moments when we operate at peak performance and feel on top of the world. The crucial question is: What do you do in between those moments? My suggestion is that, even in moments of nonmotivation, act as if you are highly motivated. This is because of a wonderful thing that behavioral scientists have discovered: that not only do our emotions dictate our actions, but our actions often dictate our emotions. Research has shown, for instance, that we don’t just smile because we’re happy, we actually become happier when we smile. That’s because the smile initiates a sequence of hormonal and other events that relaxes us and makes us feel good. Professional salespeople, who must be “on” close to 100 percent of the time in order to make their quotas, are very familiar with this phenomenon: they are taught that their posture, facial expression and other physical attributes affect not only their mood but their customers’. They are taught to smile even when talking over the telephone, because although the customer on the other end of the line can’t see them do it, the salesperson’s voice sounds much more forceful and dynamic when she smiles. Try it. Many salespeople, performers, athletes and other peak performers develop a personal collection of tricks, rituals, and physical and mental exercises to help themselves get and stay pumped for their workday. You should do the same thing. And here’s the icing on the cake, the amazing secret that empowered people in every field eventually learn: that with enough practice mimicking peak performance, you will actually start experiencing the real thing more often. Experts such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, say that while we can’t operate at peak all the time, we can probably do so much more frequently than we realize. Simply by practicing at performing at peak, you can train yourself to enter into peak much more easily and frequently. And that will be the most amazing reward of all, for all of your hard work. ##
Thank you for reading The Little Guide To Beating Procrastination, Perfectionism and Blocks. I hope you found it useful, and wish you the best as you travel along the path to your dream. I welcome your questions, as well as any comments and suggestions about this ebook, at email@example.com. And you’ll find more information about me, my workshops and coaching services, and The Lifelong Activist and my other books at http://www.hillaryrettig.com. Hillary Rettig
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