Why I Put Off Doing My Favorite Things
It’s currently 10:18 a.m., and I’m sitting at my computer writing this post. I’ve worked out, watched half of Beyonce’s Lemonade visual masterpiece, cooked breakfast, scheduled an electrician appointment, made coffee, checked the mail, tidied up the house a bit, and washed some dishes. You may be thinking “Wow, she’s accomplished a lot already!” And in a way, yes, that’s true. But my main goal for the last week has been to do more writing, and there weren’t any words on a page until just now.
Which leads us to the dirty word that starts with P. Get your minds out of the gutter, people, I’m talking about procrastination. It’s still procrastination even if you fill your time with other meaningful tasks.
My struggle with procrastination, and ensuing attempts to figure out why it is I put off doing the things I look forward to most, led to a couple lightbulb moments. I imagine lots of creative people out there wrestle with these same demons, so I wanted to share. Maybe this is in some way helpful or relatable to you. Or maybe you’ve got things figured out, and in that case, take pity on a less enlightened soul and TELL ME ALL YOUR SECRETS.
Why I procrastinate
Let’s start out with the most obvious reason to put things off. There are just so many things I want to do! Fitting them all into one lifetime, much less one day, would be a herculean task. Join a rowing team, learn to cross stitch, sew curtains, go on a solo backpacking trip, watch every video on Skillshare, volunteer at a horse farm...I could go on.
Something I’ve learned about myself is that I intake information through experiences, vs. analysis. That’s not to say I don’t spend plenty of time overanalyzing, but I’m always game to give something a go to see how I feel about it. A lot of the time it’s easier for me to start on a fresh challenge and enjoy the lovely rush of newness-fueled excitement than to toil away on an existing priority.
Not to mention, time is a limited resource. Every advice article says “Do this one thing first thing in the morning and your life will be amazing!” Unless you are a magician or have Hermione Granger’s time turner, it is impossible to do everything first thing in the morning. Something has to come first, and something inevitably comes last…or more like 3 p.m. by the time you finally get to it. Or three days go by and you’re still only halfway down the to do list.
Fear of failure
This one’s a biggie for creative people. What if I start work on a new jewelry piece and it sucks? If I haven’t started yet, there’s no way it can suck.
It’s kind of like how in my head I’m an amazing dancer, but when I start to move my body things just don’t come out like planned. The idea of the thing is so lofty, so exciting, that actually executing it in real life is scary. I’m not sure I can do it, so I’d rather think that I could if I wanted to and not test that theory.
Ironically, this feeling begins to compound when you have achieved good results in the past. By setting expectations that you can produce good work, future failures feel outsized in comparison and out of the natural order of things. You’re supposed to fail first and then consistently improve, right?
Of course the answer to that question is no. Life is not that perfect and linear. But knowing that and feeling comfortable with that are two different things.
What if I’m wasting time?
That whole “time is a limited and valuable resource” thing? True, but also anxiety inducing when you want to maximize your time and use it on only the best, most impactful, life-altering projects. A common holdup for me is the thought that if I change my mind about a priority, the time I have spent already working toward it will be wasted. So I should be really sure this thing is the right thing before committing any time to it at all. I might as well ruminate over its value while I check a few must-do’s like laundry off the list.
The problem with that line of thinking is that it’s close to impossible to know if something’s right for you until you’ve dipped a toe in the water. It’s also impossible to predict the future. My life has taken a few turns -- some unexpected and some initiated by me -- that led me to step off the path I was on and begin a new one. I’m trying my hardest not to view that time spent as wasted.
Once I have a plan in place...
The last big procrastination block I have stems from good intentions to better myself, reign in my spontaneous nature, and be more organized.
Big projects, especially self-led creative ones, can feel overwhelming. There’s not a clear starting point, and no one is giving you input on what the end result should look like.
Common advice is to break a big project down into digestible parts, then order those parts in logical succession and start with step one. Many times I’ve jumped into something only to realize later that I started around step five, and I should really go back and do steps one through four before continuing. So I know firsthand that feeling of “If I had just thought about this for a minute before getting started, I would have been way better off.”
Planning is actually one of my favorite things to do. I love writing a meaty, organized plan complete with roman numerals, Gantt charts, and calendared timelines. The trouble is when perfecting the plan becomes an endless task in and of itself, preventing you from actually starting your project. Or when the plan looks pretty good for the next 30 days, but there are gaping holes for what is supposed to happen in month two or a year from now.
The reality is, a semblance of a plan is a good place to start, and the rest will begin to fill itself out as you go along. It’s just hard to feel confident in that process when someone asks “What are you working on?” or “What’s your plan?” and you’re asking yourself those same questions silently inside your head.
The best solutions I’ve come up with so far
So what’s a girl to do (other than make a lemon poppyseed pound cake, do a yoga video, make a return at Target, and watch just one episode of her current Netflix binge addiction)? Here are some solutions I’m practicing. It’s truly a practice, though. Every single day I work at doing these things, and let me tell you, it is a struggle.
The other dirty P word. There’s a reason my list of priorities usually takes up several pages. Because it’s HARD to prioritize. All the things feel important, but you have to pick one or two. That doesn’t mean the other items on your list are not important or valuable, it just means they are getting out-ranked for now. I say *for now* because it is right and normal for you to rearrange those priorities at a later date. Specifically, once you have made progress toward the goal you have set out for yourself. For example, if my goal is to write daily until I have written 50 blog posts, when I reach that goal, maybe writing daily moves down to number seven on the list.
I’ve been working for a long time to overcome the fear of failure and reframe it as a learning experience to be grateful for. As a badge of honor to be worn proudly instead of shoved shamefully into a closet where I hope no one will ever see it.
Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx, said her father would ask “What did you fail at today?” at the dinner table each evening and give high fives to the sibling with the ultimate crash-and-burn story. That’s something I’d like to do with my kids, but I need to be able to authentically have that conversation with myself first.
Giving myself a damn break
The pressure I put on myself to be productive tends to compound and build on itself, making me more stressed and even less able to act. I doubt myself and get sucked back into a planning cycle. For example, one of my goals is to read more books, which the judgy side of my brain tells me looks a lot like sitting on my ass on the couch for four hours while wearing sweatpants and drinking coffee. Judgy me sure knows how to make a girl second guess her priorities.
When that happens, the only thing that really helps is to cut myself some slack. To say to myself: your priorities are right, the choices you make are valid, and you are your only judge. The whole “smile and you’ll feel happier” approach.
As a colleague once told me -- not that it’s new advice, but it really struck a chord in the moment -- done is better than perfect. Because what’s the alternative? It’s very unlikely that you’ll reach perfection, but it’s extremely plausible that you could putz around and accomplish absolutely nothing.
So that’s all I’ve got. Unravelling an issue like procrastination is step one. Sitting with those realizations and learning from them is step two. Finding solutions to push through that procrastination roadblock is steps three to infinity. I’m still working on that last part, but knowing my limitations and barriers to success is a good starting point.