This is not an inspirational post.
When I was in my teens and twenties, I avoided commitments. “I might make it,” I would say to invitations. “That sounds fun, we could do that sometime,” I said to proposed plans. I didn’t RSVP, I didn’t return calls or emails. I had no projects other than those externally assigned, I had no ambitions of my own devising. I wanted to go along as I always had gone, I wanted to be left to my own devices, and more than any single other thing I did not want to disappoint anyone. I did not want anyone angry or upset with me.
If the price of that was the attrition of relationships, well, okay. Fewer people in my life meant fewer people I would invariably disappoint. Fewer people needing or wanting anything from me meant that I could avoid those conversation in which I was told in detail how I had let the other person down. How I had hurt others.
Far better to have never committed in the first place.
This is not, as I said, an inspirational blog post. I am not going to tell you how I got over my fear of failing people. I am not going to tell some great story about how I learned that failure wasn’t that bad. Quite the contrary. Failure is pretty horrible.
But it’s also unavoidable.
See, that was the part I never understood when I was younger.
The other part I didn’t understand when I was younger, and this is important, is that failure isn’t the end state. It’s a thing you pass through. It’s a thing that happens, and you fail, and there are consequences, and people are hurt or angry or sad or disappointed or scared. Or maybe no-one is those things, but you have merely failed at a task. “Merely.” And there you are, unable to do the thing you set out to do, and you are stupid and weak and cowardly and worthless.
Those things are transitory. They are also frequently untrue.
I have kids. My partner and I, we homeschool our kids. And nearly every day one of our kids says they can’t do a thing. And nearly every day we say to them, “I know you can’t do it yet, that’s why I am teaching you. If you already knew how to do it, you wouldn’t learn anything. That’s what learning IS.”
By about the time the kids were five years old, I started actually listening to what I was saying to them.
To fail does not make a person a failure. It makes a person learn.
To be unable to do a thing is the necessary precondition for becoming better.
I tell people I am a procrastinator. I tell people I am, if left to my own devices, a person who does not follow-through on projects and commitments. That hasn’t been true in … years. But that’s the image I have of myself. It’s the goad that keeps me moving forward.
It’s fear of being the thing I I suspect I fundamentally am that keeps me from being that thing.
I used to avoid letting people down by never committing to anything. But now I have kids. Kids is what did it to me. A house, a job, a partner — none of those were quite enough to push me into changing my avoidant behavior. But kids …
I couldn’t get out of my commitments to them. Not … ever. Ever. For the rest of my life.
… And I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to get out of it. I wanted, I still want, with an intensity that leaves me unable to speak about my feelings because the words get stuck behind my teeth, to be the parent my kids need and deserve. To be good at this. To be reliable, to be safe and strong and secure. To push them forward and hold them up and let them go. To launch forth into the world two competent young adults with a decent shot at living warm, full, contented lives that bring meaning to their hearts and do some small thing to make the world a better place for the people they encounter.
You know. Not much. Just that.
I want that so much that I will never get the words out in person, never say them to you face to face. It’s too big a thing, this want. It matters too much. There are too many feelings involved in this desire for the words to work.
I never want to fail my kids.
Of course, I have. Failed them.
I have not been the parent I want to be. I have lost my temper, I have forgotten things, I have not listened, I have not acted with respect.
Of course I have failed them. The parenting goals I hold in my heart are massively unrealistic. They are impossible. I do what I can, and I try as I might, and sometimes I manage to meet those goals and sometimes I just fall short.
But walking away isn’t an option. I am not leaving this relationship. So that means … I have to go on. Failing my kids isn’t the end point. It’s just … you know, Thursday afternoon, or something like that. It’s a thing we all have to get through.
I apologize. I explain. I ask if there’s a thing I can do to make up for it. I talk about ways to make whatever happened go better in the future. I ask them if they want a hug or if they are still too mad at me. And we move on.
We move on because there’s no other practical option. There’s no way out, but through.
There are a number of excellent blog posts and essays on the Internet about procrastination and failure and fear.
Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half has a great comic, This is Why I’ll Never Be an Adult. This is the source of the “Clean ALL the Things!” meme.
Tim Urban at Wait But Why has two excellent posts. Why Procrastinators Procrastinate introduced me to the delightful term, Dark Playground. And How to Beat Procrastination describes how to get the Instant Gratification Monkey out of the Dark Playground and past The Tipping Point without the Panic Monster attacking.
John Perry wrote Structured Procrastination, on how to get procrastination to work for you.
I encourage you to go read them all. They are all entertaining, thoughtful, and useful.
They all get to more-or-less the same idea, though.
People procrastinate because the things we need to do are hard and scary.
We procrastinate because we don’t know how to start, or we don’t know how to proceed, or we don’t know if we’ll be good enough, or we don’t know whether it will work, or we don’t know if people will like it, or we don’t know if the stakes are too high, or we don’t know what the first or second or third steps are.
We procrastinate because the unknown is scary and exhausting.
We procrastinate because the first step in learning new things is to admit to everyone that we are ignorant and imperfect.
We procrastinate because the last step in the thing we are avoiding is waiting for judgment, waiting to find out if we did it right or good enough.
We procrastinate because we have thought through and imagined all the possible outcomes for the thing we don’t want to do and absolutely no outcome we can envision has the results we want.
Here’s the thing; all of those fears are real and true.
Here’s the other thing; none of those fears are solved by procrastination.
Procrastination is the habit of avoiding a possible unpleasant, scary thing by doing something else. The idea is that by avoiding the thing, we can avoid the unpleasant feelings. But it doesn’t work. The unpleasant feelings stick around. We dwell on those hypothetical bad futures, we play with them in our heads. We wonder if a person might be upset with us, we wonder if the project really was that important. We ponder the unpleasantness of doing the thing and we ponder the unpleasantness of leaving it undone and we don’t actually feel good. See “Dark Playground,” in Tim Urban’s post linked to above.
We live in uncertainty. We procrastinate to avoid the future, and instead we are stuck with ALL the possible outcomes, a field of unpleasant futures, and no way of knowing whether those unpleasant outcomes are real.
Fear stays. It feeds on the uncertainty and the unknown. It stays and it builds and as long as we take no actions, the probability wave does not collapse and we remain afraid of what happens next.
We have to act.
I have to act.
Years ago, I collapsed a major probability wave. I left my long-term relationship, with a partner I had committed to. We owned a house together, we were trying to have kids, we had dogs together. I ended the relationship.
I had been avoiding ending the relationship for a whole host of reasons. One of those reasons was simply that I was afraid of being a person who did that. I was afraid of my partner’s grief and anger, and I was afraid that I would deserve it. I was afraid that everyone would find out I was not nice, not kind, not reliable, that I broke my word, that I was cruel and selfish.
I ended things.
I spent a year coming to terms with the fact that, yes, I was not particularly nice. I could break my word. I could be cruel and selfish.
And then I moved on.
Being all of those things was FAR FAR LESS FRIGHTENING than being worried I might be those things. Once I did it, once it was all done, a year later … well, I was fine. I had (and have) friends. I had (and have) family. I have made other commitments since then, and kept almost all of them. I’ve broken a few. I’ve been an asshole to some people. I’ve been a benefactor and inspiration to others.
Whatever. We move on. We live with the choices we make and accept the consequences and strive to do better next time and we move on.
If we never act, we never move on.
Let me say that again:
If we never act, we never move on.
If you procrastinate and avoid a thing, it never leaves you. You never get around it. It sits there, lurking, building, skulking and growing and it shadows you forever until you turn around and walk right at it.
The only way out is through.
The number of times a day I say to myself, “Sigrid, just fucking DO THE THING already!” is … too many to count.
I say it about my work at Apex. About the dirty dishes. About talking to J about scheduling. About sending emails. About calling for appointments. About checking my bank balance. About driving my kids places. About making lunch. About getting dressed.
Just fucking do the thing already is the refrain of my life.
I said this was not going to be an inspirational blog post, and here’s why.
In an inspirational blog post I would now tell you that I don’t procrastinate any more. Or, I would tell you that I am less fearful of failure. Or that I am less beset by uncertainty and anxiety about my actions.
Nope nope nope nope nope.
I am afraid of failure. Afraid of failing people, afraid of failing commitments, afraid of doing things poorly or wrong.
I procrastinate. I currently play My Singing Monsters, and Echo Bazaar, and I check Tumblr 5543541613 times a day, and I write really long blog posts about procrastination and failure in order to avoid doing whatever else is on my list of uncertain, difficult, tedious, scary, or hard things to do.
I am beset by anxiety about the uncertain future.
None of that has changed.
What HAS changed is that my life has more relief from those things. Temporary, brief, but very satisfying relief.
Relief comes when I get a thing done.
When I get a thing done, the wave collapses. I don’t have to worry about what might happen any longer. The thing is done, and it is either good enough or it’s not, and I can move the fuck on. I can plan and cope with whatever happens next.
“Well, I did what I could.”
“That’s done, at least.”
“Whatever else happens, at least my kitchen is clean.”
“I can’t control what the doctor will say, but I can answer my email.”
“Instead of worrying about my tendonitis, I can call for a PT appointment. That much I can do.”
“I have no idea how to do this, but I can read this book about it. That’s a first step.”
“I can’t possibly answer that email right now, but I can walk the dogs.”
This is my life. This is the inside of my head. This is how I make decisions, take actions, and get through my days. And every time I do a small thing, and think one of those thoughts, I get a little hit of sweet, sweet relief. That particular thing isn’t uncertain anymore. That thing I just did, it can’t loom at me. I turned around, I walked right at it, and now it’s gone. Defeated. The email is answered, the appointment is made, the party is gone to, the bills are paid.
On to the next thing.
And, each day, after some small number of things are done, I take a break.
I read, or watch a tv show, or snuggle with my partner or kids or girlfriend. I go out for dinner. I buy a Kindle book I’ve wanted. I play My Singing Monsters for ten minutes. I go work out. I take a reward that I know in my heart I have earned instead of loitering in the Dark Playground forever.
And then the next thing I am uncertain about and avoiding rears its looming head.
But that’s okay.
I know how to handle this.
And maybe I will avoid it for a little while, and go do something else. But eventually I will turn around and run right at it. Because the only way out is through.
I said this wasn’t an inspirational post.
And yet …
And yet, I really, truly believe in taking action. I believe with all my heart that doing something, doing it flawed or imperfectly or doing a thing with no good outcome, is better than avoiding that thing forever. I believe this because I’ve run my life both ways. I’ve done all the options of avoidance and “clean all the things” and fear and procrastination and overcompensation, and this is the one that works the best. I get more things done. I disappoint fewer people. I have friends and relationships. I am reasonably reliable.
I am not perfect.
But I am not paralyzed, either.
Personally, I find that fact to be pretty damn inspiring.
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