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Fight the Fear/Procrastination Cycle With Small Tasks

inward spiral
I learned this weekend that, in the northern hemisphere, July 22 is typically the date where temperatures start trending down for the year. In addition to the obvious Game of Thrones joke, it means that there’s more or less no getting around the fact that summer is passing quickly, along with the more grandiose ambitions found in one’s summer project list.

With that in mind, I wanted to link to Jenni Berrett’s post on perfectionism, “You Aren’t Lazy–You’re Just Terrified: On Paralysis and Perfectionism, which does an excellent job unpacking the various ways you can sit there, staring at a perfectly manageable task, and yet find yourself briefly–or for an excruciatingly long time–unable to get it started:

I recede further and further inside of myself.

I spend days at a time in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking of all the things I could be doing but can’t because I know I would do them imperfectly. I lose countless hours to inner monologues filled with self-hatred and all-or-nothing thinking. I don’t read anything, instead preferring to slowly crush myself with the existential weight of knowing that I will never be able to Read All The Things.

For a very long time, I thought that I did this because I was lazy. I figured that if I just worked a little harder, tried a little more, then I would be able to accomplish the things I set out to do. Failing to do them was a failure of my character. It was because I was a bad person, or at least bad at being a person.

Berrett recounts a formative encounter with a writing instructor, who suggested that she was “expecting a product without respecting process,” that, in effect, it was much better to produce a draft, even a bad one, than to punish yourself for not producing ideal work from minute one. Berrett argues that self-punishing procrastination is ultimately more exhausting than actually doing things: “It is ten times harder to write this article out in my head than it is to just sit down and do it. I could wash a whole restaurant’s worth of dishes with the willpower it takes to avoid them and stare at them and think about what my mom would say if she saw them. Why waste time thinking about the books I’ll never read when I can use that time actually reading them?”

I have a print of Wendy MacNaughton’s “To Do” on my wall, so I found Berrett’s post highly relatable.

One of the things I’ve done recently is add a “quick wins” context to Omnifocus, as a way of making sure there’s always a task that can lead out of a more destructive mindset. This is an idea that Natalie wrote about several years back–the idea of delegating small tasks to your future self, tasks that “would help you move forward on your highest-priority project but that don’t require your highest level of energy.”

What about you? What strategies do you have for breaking out of a terror/procrastination cycle? Let us know in comments!

Photo “Inward spiral” by Flickr user Zoltán Vörös / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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