Human beings are strange creatures, often waiting until we are forced to change rather than choosing to change before we "hit the wall." We see signs--irregular sleep, discord with others, regular illness, excessive drama, acting outside of our values--but we ignore them. We don’t act or we don't act consistently. Each time we ignore a sign we place a brick in the wall we eventually hit when all those signs add up to crisis. Sine qua non is Latin for indispensable element or condition. I call it "readiness." This blog seeks to connect those who are searching for or have found the sine qua non of change. What makes you or keeps you from taking off? What keeps you from flying or helps you soar? What do you know about change that can help others?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Procrastination fuels inaction and stymies change

Even when you are clear about your mission, it’s not always easy to figure out how to live it. In my own case I have been waiting for my muse to dictate a book for years, as I sat in confusion about what to write. So I've tried to be patient, continue digging, hone my skills and work on short works all the time knowing there was something bigger I was supposed to be writing. The composting time finally paid off and like a tricky puzzle falling together I am now focused on the book. I’ve done some leg work, am ready with the process and yet another snag. I am procrastinating.
Procrastination is when we put things off intentionally and habitually. We replace high-priority or important actions with tasks of lower priority or something easy and more fun. The psychological causes of procrastination are in debate. But once I admitted to myself I am procrastinating I could at least research why. The views of Dr. Kevin Austin, Director of Student Counseling at Caltech, make sense to me and so I offer them to you if you find yourself dragging your feet.
Dr. Austin believes we procrastinate because we experience emotions we don’t want to feel when we attempt to do certain things. Those emotions can be of helplessness, powerlessness, being overwhelmed, being controlled, sad or resentful. The reasons a person has these feelings are not addressed by procrastinating but the feelings themselves are avoided for awhile. I suspect the emotion I am experiencing is fear—fear of rejection of my work and this big idea I have been waiting on for so long.
But there’s more. Another parameter of procrastination is related to will (desire) and will power (energetic determination). It’s easy to label oneself lazy and without enough will power to move forward. Dr. Austin believes procrastination can be the result not of lack of will power but of uncertain will; that is not coming to terms with or avoiding the difficult question of whether or not I really desire the demanding work it will take to write a book.
Another obstacle is time. In the short term I may be willing to sacrifice other parts of my life to dedicate to a book, but over the long haul will I be able to shoulder the commitment it will take to compile the research, write, edit, figure out how to market, and on and on. There is likely a part of me foreseeing a compromise of my value for time freedom that I am secretly protesting through my inaction.
And there’s the old perfectionism theme that comes from being an overachieving only child. Perfectionism creates high expectations that feel difficult to meet and makes the process of writing too difficult—easy to avoid.
Those of us who are perfectionist tend to think more about how something should turn out, perfectly, and how hard it will be do it. Perfectionism makes a task seem bigger than it is making me feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of starting. In addition the perfectionist tends to scrutinize and critique every word for perfection, making the task tedious and easily avoidable.
So what to do to push through this craziness? I started by admitting I am procrastinating, again. Next, Dr. Austin recommends getting clear on what I really want; and I am pretty sure I have superseded the important message the book will deliver with the publication of the book itself. Refocusing on the former can only help put the work into perspective. Next, I need to understand the role of the emotions I bring to this procrastination as formidable and reversible. It’s not all logistics and will. Some of it has to do with how I feel and it’s an important acknowledgement. Next, of course is setting some goals and breaking them down into manageable pieces. Overcoming procrastination may also involve learning to say no to others. It is likely to require me to adjust my thinking about progress over perfection and the enjoyment of the journey over the destination. It’s guaranteed to make me appreciate and use small bits of time instead of the big blocks I perceive I need. It’s a new way for me to view myself and my work. And I’m glad I unstuck myself long enough to get informed. It motivates me to move forward.
The full text of Dr. Austin’s speech can be found at:

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The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I mourn for you

I cry because someone important once degraded you, carved a mark on your soul that colors your lens, distorts your thinking. I ache because your head has built a wall around your heart that protects you from people you long to know. I grieve because you serve others, settle for less than you want, sit with that lump in your throat and ache in your heart that leaks tears when you speak. I mourn for the signs you saw and ignored, parasites sucking you dry of money and emotions, of goodwill and compassion until you cannot put a sentence together any more than you can repair your life because you are clueless about where to start.

Awareness before change

Awareness November 2008

“I was hoping to come back and join you in bed,” my sweetie said clearly disappointed as he walked past me on his way to the bedroom after spending the night in the guest room where his back finds respite. “Too late,” I retorted, fully clothed, brewing a cup of coffee and unfolding my buttermilk pancake recipe. He continued to our bed, surely hoping I would change my mind. Standing my ground meant we missed out on the irreplaceable morning “spoon”—a defiance way beyond the occasion and very much out of character.

I had nothing to say on this Pancake Sunday--a ritual we started to bring the family back to the fold once a week, even after Mom arrived; even when my sweetie tried to get me to leave my post at the grill to come see the critters converged on the deck enjoying the morning’s banquet of seeds and suet. I ignored him. “I’ve got pancakes to turn,” I growled under my breath.

I could feel myself slipping over the edge as Mom poured syrup and detailed the lives of her neighbors and their little girl whom she cannot forgive for going without underpants, and the impending birth of twins, and the small house they live in, and the Mom’s favorite coffee and their latest conversation encased in a “Then I said,” and “Then she said,” recalling every word. “I don’t care,” I thought, through my blank stare.

That was the first time I realized my heart hurt. Not the “I’m-having-a-heart-attack” kind of hurt, but an ache in the anterior. I breathed deep into the pain and sighed.

Luckily only Mom had joined us on this Sunday after Thanksgiving. Instead of the usual group of friends and optimistic chit-chat, we ate with an uncomfortable quiet. It didn’t take long for her to pack up and go home after breakfast, leaving me alone to dwell on the status of my relationship, the recent and untimely death of a friend, my floundering career. My heart hurt. I breathed deep and sighed and relieved it for a moment more.

Awareness October 2009

Darkness had not yet dissolved on the Saturday morning I awoke anxious and sad and inconsolable. The contrast was stark to the usual song in my head. The frenzy prevented me from turning and breathing and willing myself back to sleep. What? I wondered.

The channels flipped on my internal tube, exposing trailers of unfinished business, the chasm I feared growing between me and my daughter, the class the previous day that produced two negative evaluations, conversation with the neighbors at dinner the night before where we talked about elders and our turn, Thanksgiving plans upended again in a phone call.

I paused and hit replay. Decades of chaotic Thanksgiving scenes montaged through; my Dad’s death on the holiday when I was 5, yelling and swats with the hair brush over dresses and curls, a major riff in the family where half split off to celebrate elsewhere, Mom insisting on celebrating one place or another creating the necessity to “pick sides,” my daughter throwing up to avoid choosing, the ache in my heart the year before. Years of chaos and drama created by ancient sadness and suffering disguised itself as current reality and visited me there in my bed to me to remind me to move on.