About the fear of deadlines

Sometimes you need to reach the lowest low to be able to give your most powerful push 

This is not exactly how the saying goes, but I idea behind it is very true: sometimes when you hit rockbottom you do exactly this, you hit the ground beneath you and you push yourself up. Not because someone said so or because it’s the normal thing to do. But because you cannot go any further down. You can lay still, of course, but then what’s the fun in that. You’re bound to come up for air sometimes and when you do, you find yourself more motivated and powerful than you’ve ever felt before.

I don’t believe anymore that it is enough to change your behavior to make true and deep changes in your life. Of course, implementing new habits, one at a time, is great. And it works. But then something hits you and you discover that your new, improved, way of living is just as brittle as a house of cards. You have to want to make a commitment every day.

The most powerful thought about going through life when everything seems to be working against you is Anne Lamott’s metaphor for writing that she shares in her book Bird by bird. Some instructions on writing and life:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our  family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

This is what you find on the back cover, and it is one of the most insightful idea there is. “Bird by bird” is what I tell myself when I’m down and the lack of motivation makes me want to drown and forget about everything. It is powerful. Not always powerful enough to make me switch from the tv screen to my laptop and actually start working, but it is the most accurate motivation tool there is.

Why? Well, because I’ve found that my biggest problem is not the work itself. I actually enjoy doing what I do. It is the getting to it part. Because right before I finally sit at my desk and decide to finish a chapter of my dissertation, I feel overwhelmed by all kinds of emotions.

I am scared.

I start to think of the time I have left to finish my dissertation and realize it isn’t enough.

I start to regret all the bad decisions I’ve made so far, like wasting time watching tv-shows and not going to bed early enough.

I start to think that what I’ve written so far isn’t what it’s supposed to look like and that even if I go on writing it isn’t going to be good enough.

I start to think that at this point, anything I’ll do will only be disappointing and it isn’t worth the trouble anyway.

So I don’t do anything. I dive into unconsciousness. I switch the tv (or the Internet) back on and try to escape.

Or I eat and try to escape.

Or I try to think of an excuse.

The result is always the same: I wake up the next day feeling awful and even more scared. And instead of facing the problem head on, I dive a little more into my oblivious behavior an continue with the self-destruction.

But today I’ve decided to listen to my inner Ann Lamott’s voice and go with the “bird by bird” strategy. The trick is to follow it to the letter. It means putting yourself in a state of mind where only today exists. Not like today is the first day of the rest of your life. Not in the motivation sense of those gurus who invite you to live each day like there is no tomorrow. Even though these thoughts may help some of us, to me they are even more overwhelming and scary and make me want to hide in my bed all day. “Bird by bird” means setting the smallest goals possible and achieving them without thinking about the big goal. Once you shift your attention from the small goal to the big goal, the magic is gone and you’re back where you started: scared, overwhelmed, feeling sorry for yourself.

It might sound weird to set small goals without thinking about the big ones. After all, the small goals are just steps towards what you really want. Like finishing the PhD dissertation that is hovering over you for the last three years, or getting muscle into your butt, or learn how to sew, or learn a new language, or write a book. But if you stop and think about the big goal, you might also start thinking about the consequences, which are scary: even though I envision myself with my diploma, I also am scared of not knowing how my life will be without the constant academic pressure. Even though I know I would love to get fit, I am also scared it would mean I will have to change my lifestyle completely, never eating potato chips again, exercising every day, always worrying about the way to keep my figure. Even though I would love to finally be able to sew pants and dresses, I am worried that once I’ve reached my goal, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy myself while sewing, because now that I’m good at it there will be no room for error. Same goes for the writing.

So is it possible to try reaching “perfection” while enjoying yourself? I don’t think so. I think the pleasure lyes even more in the process than in the achieving. Or should, anyway. Because once you’ve achieved something, you have to do it all over again. Because life never stops.

I think maybe one way to look at things and not be scared is to stop wanting to achieve, but instead focusing on your desire to do something. Wanting to achieve a goal is setting yourself a deadline, and we all know how that works (well, the procrastinators among us do anyway): once a deadline is set, the goal becomes to reach it anyway possible, sabotaging yourself in the process more often than not, actually confusing the goal with the deadline. But when there is no deadline, well, you’re free to choose how to spend your time.

What do you think? Leave comments below!

I’ll be sharing some strategies in the next post about how to enter a “no-deadline” state of mind.

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