Living in a world of no deadlines and some thoughts on self-sabotage

As a follow-up to the last post about the “Bird by Bird” strategy and fear of deadlines, here are some tips on how to overcome the overwhelming feelings of not having enough time to do the things that make you happy. I am trying to implement them as I write.

How to put yourself in a state of mind where no deadline exists, even though you might have a scary one waiting for you around the corner? This is something I will try to apply to my own situation today.

  • Imagine what your life would be if there were no deadlines whatsoever. What would your day look like? You might want to imagine this being a working day or a vacation day. For writers, (un)fortunately, there is no such thing as vacation days.

Think about the stuff that makes you happy. Is it playing with your children? Is it having a romantic dinner with your loved one? Is it creating something? If no one and nothing were stopping you, what would you do? I, for one, would write a book. The funniest thing is, that instead of doing so, I have spent an unimaginable amount of time doing absolutely nothing, stressing out because of the things I have to do, instead of doing the things I like. One would think that with all the time I spent procrastinating, I could have written two or three books by now. But the fear of the deadline made me unable not only to do the things I had to but didn’t want to, but also to do the things I wanted to do but persuaded myself not having time for. I mean, wtf? Sorry for the outburst.

If I had no deadlines, that is, if I didn’t have to finish my dissertation by the end of September and didn’t have to prepare for my teaching job, my day would look something like this:

  1. I would wake up really early, at 5 am. Because I love early mornings, when everyone is still asleep and you feel like you are the only one in the world.
  2. I would stick to my morning routine. I have found it to be soothing. For the past few months now, I have stuck with it, even if some days the only thing I’m consistent with is doing my thirty push-ups. But this makes me feel anchored. For great ideas about morning routines, I urge you to take a look on this blog.
  3. I would start writing right away. For as long as I can before getting hungry. Writing is what makes me happy. Playing with ideas, trying to put them into words. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter what I write: it can be a blog post, a chapter of my dissertation or the beginning of a novel. A pushing my limits makes me a little scared every time, but also proud of myself. It is still scary for me to write my dissertation consistently, because it seems like it is never ending. Every time I finish a paragraph or a page, I want to do it over. This is one of the things I want to come to terms with. I have to come to terms with the fact that I can make mistakes and learn, and never stop learning.
  4. I would go outside. There are days I don’t go outside. One day is ok, but sometimes it can last for up to three or four days, and I just know it isn’t good for me. Because in a world with no deadlines, I would follow my instincts and go breathe some fresh air every day.
  5. I would exercise. Because I like it. Same as the morning routine, makes me feel anchored.
  6. In a world of no deadlines, I would follow my instincts. I would eat whenever I am hungry and never overeat. I would take a nap if I feel like it and not stay in bed too long because I am trying to escape my problems. I would read the books that I want to read but that make me scared because I fear I might find ideas in them that would make me challenge my perceptions, i. e. books about the subject of my dissertation that I am scared to open even though I know I have to because they might put into questioning every thing I have written so far.

In other words, in a world of no deadlines, I would be free. This is what this is all about, and this is the philosophy I am committing to stick to for the next twelve months. Because this is how long I think it will be until it becomes a habit.

  • If no one were to push you or scare you into doing things, what your priorities would be? Why?

For example, I have to (there is no really a way around it) read five or six books in the next two weeks and prepare a teaching program for at least one semester for my new job that starts in September. I realize now, having not touched a textbook in the last two weeks, that this plan might be unrealistic. I have to set priorities: choose the books I will read thoroughly, map out the semester without going into details and fully prepare only my first lessons.

My desire for perfection made me want to do everything at once and prepare almost my whole year in advance.

The funny thing is, I should know by now, having taught for the past three years, that the effective way to do it is not by being a control freak but by adapting your expectations to your audience. So actually, shifting my priorities, even though the need to do it comes from me not lifting a finger for the past two weeks or so, is a good thing that will turn out to be even more productive. Adopting the “Bird by Bird” strategy is knowing that you can make the best of a situation by accepting it.

Even if you plan out everything, something will always come and ruin your perfect plan. By accepting to take a step by step approach, you actually save yourself much more time. (I know there are people out there who manage to do everything the way they planned. I’m not one of those. When I plan everything in advance, I almost always end by not doing anything: one small set back is enough for me to think that the whole thing is now ruined).

  • Take time to breathe. This is a hard one. Almost as hard as it is to remember taking it one step at a time. This is more of a trick than anything else, but it has worked for me in the past. When you’re slouching in front of the tv instead of doing the things that make you truly happy, there comes a time (even if it lasts for only a second) when you question your choices. When you think “God, I should be doing something, and I’m too scared, stupid, weak, to take my ass off the couch”. Well, at these times, take a deep breath. Then take another one. And another one. By the time you’ve taken five or ten deep breaths, your body will relax, even just a little bit. And the fog will clear out a little bit too. You’ll be faced with the choice you’ve made, but instead of being scared, you’ll be more able to think straight. Look inside yourself and ask yourself the question: are you happy with what you are doing right now? Listen to your instincts. Are you tired? Are you feeling energized? Are you hungry? Or satisfied? Are you stressed? Or numb? I think asking yourself these questions is the biggest step towards answering them. If you really want to keep doing what you are doing, ask yourself why. Is it because it gives you pleasure, or is it because it makes you forget your problems? Is doing what you’re doing will make your problems go away faster? Or at all? Is there something else you think you should be doing but are afraid of? Why? Again? Will doing what you’re doing make you do what you’re supposed to do better? We all need to wind down sometimes. I really believe that even though I objectively find that when I wind down by reading a good book or listening to classical music I become sharper, brighter and more relaxed than when I watch ten episodes of a show I’ve seen a million times before. But then again, sometimes watching the show is just what I want. Of course, it would be healthier to go for a walk. Of course it would be better to just go to bed early, or to take a bath, but there you go. Nobody’s perfect. The only problem is, after I’ve spent a night like this, I feel guilty.
  • Say no to guilt. Guilt is what makes a world with no deadlines practically impossible to imagine. When there is no one else to make us feel bad about ourselves, we are the best to get the job done. And boy are we effective. It is so easy to be passive-agressive towards yourself. So easy to kick yourself in the chin when there is no one else to do it for you. And let’s face it, unless your family and friends are perverts, the shame you feel when a loved one admonishes you about your behavior is all your own doing. We are so good at making ourselves feel bad. We never let ourselves to cut ourselves some slack. Although we can spend a whole day and night reassuring a friend, we are the first ones to behave with ourselves like our worst enemy. We know our weak spots. The behavior that results from this kind of thinking is of the schizophrenic kind: instead of trying to be whole, we try to sabotage our other self, that is oneself, all the time. Here again, I believe the path to integrity lies within following your instincts.
  • What about willpower? This is a scary word. Almost as scary as responsibility and commitment. The funny thing is, for me anyway, is that when I have to do something for someone else than myself, I do it right away, no procrastination involved. When my boyfriend asks me for a favor, like going to an embassy and stand in line for hours to pick up his visa because he can’t do it himself, I do it without frowning. When my thesis supervisor asks me to spend some time reading the work of an undergraduate student, I am happy to do it. When my friend needs help, I drop everything and try my best. In other words, when I do it for someone else than myself, no matter how hard or annoying the task is, I finish the job. Following this train of thoughts, the reason I am unable to get the job done when it comes to writing my dissertation, for example, is because deep inside I think that I am not doing it for others but for myself. And since we’ve already established that being nice to yourself is maybe the hardest thing there is, the conclusion is simple: when it comes to defending my own best interests, I weaken and bury my head in the sand. Somewhere deep down I must believe that I’m not important enough to take the time and to put in the effort to do something for me and only me (or at least mostly me). Do you ever feel that way? So, the solution is pretty obvious, but alas not easy: You have to think of yourself as a friend to whom it is of paramount importance to do the task ahead. This is all the willpower you’ll ever need.

So, next time you have to do something you don’t want to do, mostly because you are scared of doing it and of the consequences it will have on your life, think of it as of a favor you’re doing for your best friend. Of course, things are not this simple and really one has to dig deep to understand why doing things for yourself is so hard and why you feel like you actually don’t deserve to be happy. I’ll try to tackle this subject next time.

What do you think? Do you ever feel like you’re able to go to the moon and back for someone you love, but when it comes to defending your own best interests, you suddenly become lazy as hell? If so, why do you think it is?

Feel free to reply in the comments below!

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