Blog

Procrastination and perfectionism

Earlier this week I read an article on BBC News, which reported on a recent study that had provided physiological evidence of how the emotional centres of the brain can overwhelm a person’s ability for self-regulation (such as when you’re trying to keep on task), and how procrastination is a problem much more to do with managing emotions than it is to do with managing time. (Lots more information on this is available at procrastination.ca.)

I’m no scientist, but here’s a highly-simplified representation of your brain, so if you’re also a non-scientist you can visualise what I (hope I know I) am talking about.

three-brainsOne thing I found particularly interesting about the article was that the study showed that the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system and deals with motivation and emotion, was larger in procrastinators. It also showed that in these individuals, the connections between the amygdala and another part of the brain, the dorsal part of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), weren’t as good as in the non-procrastinators. (The ACC, which sits in between the ’emotional’ limbic system and the ‘cognitive’ prefrontal cortex (part of the neocortex), takes information from the amygdala and uses this to decide what action the body will take as a result. It helps keep us on task and on track by enabling us to filter out emotions and distractions.)

So what does this all mean? If your amygdala’s more active, and your brain isn’t filtering that information out effectively, your decision-making and task-management ability can suffer. In sum, how our brains are wired can determine whether we’re more likely to get on with a task or continually put it off.

All this made me start reflecting on the work I’ve done with clients who have wanted help with time management. Inevitably, the core issue has not in fact been to do with time management. Instead, the difficulty of completing tasks has been interwoven with feelings of overwhelm and not being good enough; avoidance of tasks that trigger feelings of anxiety; and a deep-seated fear of what the client views as failure. A lot of this often has its roots in patterns learnt in childhood – enter the loud inner critic and the continual need to prove oneself through doing everything well.

In job interviews, when asked to talk about one’s weaknesses, one answer that often gets used is “I’m a real perfectionist and have high standards, and this can mean I spend more time than necessary getting things just right.” The idea, of course, is to present a weakness that you don’t actually see as a weakness. The trouble with this (apart from the cliched answer – which I don’t recommend, by the way) is that I don’t think perfectionism really has anything to do with standards and with getting things right. Rather, it’s an inability to be happy with what you have achieved because there is always room for more improvement: “Good, better, best; never let it rest. Till your good is better, and your better best.” It’s not a pursuit of excellence, it’s an endless cycle of nothing you do ever being adequate. It’s the constant, unhappy refrain of “if I don’t do a stellar job then I am not good enough”. Perfectionism and low self-esteem are a great double-act, and have been shown to be associated with anxiety and depression. 

For the perfectionist, working drafts are often anathema – you want things to be just right straightaway. You dislike being a beginner; if you’re going to do something you want to be good at it from the get-go. You get bogged down in the details, crafting and re-crafting something to try and get it just-so. Instead of relaxing into and enjoying the process of learning and growth, you are constantly assessing your performance. You think you’ve failed if you haven’t driven yourself to deliver anything less than perfect.

The constant need to live up to what are actually quite unrealistic and unfair expectations of yourself can be an exhausting struggle. Far easier to avoid doing something, because then you also avoid the negative emotions associated with it. And that is precisely what happens: you put off doing things because they trigger your anxiety about inadequacy in some way. I can’t face that right now. There’s too much to think about. I need to have time to do it properly. Over time, this can lead to complete overwhelm.

How do you break this cycle? Let’s first be clear – like anything else that takes a lifetime to build up, these negative patterns will take time to fix. But the important thing is to recognise that they can be changed. I believe that that change starts with learning self-compassion. In self-compassion, acceptance is key: accepting what is, what was, who you are and how you think and feel, without judgment. I think an important aspect of self-compassion is also self-forgiveness – learning to let go of not just the past and its regrets, but also all the future possible somebodies or somebody elses you may feel you need to become, in order to allow yourself to come fully into the present.

I’ve written several previous posts about mindfulness and meditation and thoroughly recommend this as a valuable partner in the journey towards being kind to yourself. Briefly back to the science – research has shown that mindfulness meditation is related to shrinkage of the amygdala and expansion of the prefrontal cortex. Learning to love yourself, in other words, literally changes your brain.

If this article has struck a chord with you, and you’re looking for support in your journey, coaching can help. Do get in touch. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some short-term practical assistance: there are tools out there that can help you get to grips with tasks when you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. I often use this action-priority matrix with clients:

Copy of Action-priority matrix-2

You may well have seen something similar – a common one is the ‘urgent vs. important’ matrix – but this particular rendition is a PICK chart (Plan-Implement-Consider-Kick Out) and the idea is that you categorise your tasks in terms of their relative impact vs. effort. So:

  • Low effort, high impact: Quick wins, go do them now. A complementary exercise I often use with clients is what I call “What One Thing (are you going to do today)?”   
  • Low effort, low impact: These are ‘time-fillers’ – consider doing them if you want to, but they shouldn’t be your go-to pile all the time.
  • High effort, low impact: (Don’t. Unless you have an actual obligation to do so.)
  • High effort, high impact: This is often where the procrastination comes in and, together with the Implement quadrant, is where clients typically need to focus. These are tasks that you need to do but can’t be done in one sitting. They require planning, and benefit from task breakdowns and micro-resolutions (small, achievable goals).

I hope you’ve found this useful. If you have, why not subscribe to my mailing list so you don’t miss future updates?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Struggles with mindfulness

IMG_8324

On Wednesday night I was struggling to be mindful. I wrote this that night, and wanted to share my experience with you.

Took myself off to rugby training and did the best I could to work around the knee (I’ve injured it again). Was pretty pleased that I was able to engage with everything other than the team runs and a few of the drills. But I’m really quite irritated with one of the coaches at the moment.

As I write this I am stepping back to observe what I’m feeling and thinking. My conclusion is that I’m feeling quite defensive. Rugby has a way of bringing this out in me; I often feel like I’m on the periphery of the team and not good enough.

But you see, this is not actually anything to do with the team or the standard of my playing. What with having been away for so long, the old insecurities are all jostling for room beneath the surface. My passing was totally off and I’d already been feeling discouraged so when I was called ‘a bit kamikaze’ for the first time in my life it was a quick hop from defensive to bristling and protesting.

Rationally, I know he was right; it was a bit all over the place, and I did clear him out much better the next time. But I didn’t want to hear it, because as usual I feel like I should be much better at rugby by now. I feel like an outsider, just like I did in school. So the (legitimate) criticism made all my automatic barriers go up.

So I’m looking at all these thoughts right now. I have an attachment to a conceptualised self that always performs. I’m triggering memories that have no place in the present. I’m making a conscious effort, right now, to let this go.

Breath meditation and visualisation

IMG_9172

I’ve been thinking about breathing. It’s one of those things we do constantly, unconsciously (thankfully), but every so often we can really benefit from giving focus to what literally keeps us alive.

Take a moment to observe your breath. Is it deep and slow, or short and shallow? Stress often shortens the breath, making it more difficult for us to relax and sleep well. What is your breath trying to tell you right now?

I like to visualise walking along a beach. The sand is warm, the salt breeze just brisk enough, the waves folding rhythmically. As I walk, I consciously release the tension from my shoulders and start to follow my breath, observing as it expands my chest and how it deepens as I exhale fully. I try to surrender to the breath, not attempting to control it. As I walk on, I start to give focus to the pause between the in breath and the out breath, closing my eyes to receive the kiss of the salt air. My mind starts to wander away to the things I want to write about, the things I want to say, so I bring it back to the breath. As I try to lengthen the space between the inhale and the exhale, I remember not to hold the breath, but rather trust and receive it. My footsteps on the sand are sure, my heart full, my eyes clear.

Lessons from Prufrock

IMG_9094

This is from one of my favourite poets, T.S. Eliot: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It’s also one of my favourite-ever poems and if you Google it you can read the whole text.

The irony of Prufrock is that he is all let us go! let us go! but really he is his own patient ‘etherised upon a table’. We’re witnessing a consciousness that is destined to be at an eternal crossroads. He’s paralysed by indecisiveness and anxiety – so scared of making mistakes, trapped in eternal hesitation.

In short, he’s going nowhere because his mind is always anxiously dithering about probabilities and possibilities and he never arrives at any decision, never mind any action.

He probably dies in the end, by the way, surrounded by his genteel high society friends, having singularly failed to find any purpose in his life and any answers to his questions.

Well, that ended on a bit of a dour note. I bet you get the moral of the story, though.

Timelessness

IMG_9062

Meister Eckhart, the 13th-century philosopher, theologian and mystic, said this: “Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than time.”

I was talking with a good friend last week about nothing existing outside the Now. If you are forever attached to the past or the future, how will you ever live in the time that is ever truly available to us? Right Here you can access quiet space and silence. Right Now you can have inner peace. In the eternal present your consciousness can be alert and alive. You can always cope with the Now. Let tomorrow take care of itself, and leave the past in the past. Realise that you are strong enough and resourceful enough to get through whatever life situation you are in.

Sit with me for a moment. Close your eyes and feel the breeze on your face. Take a deep breath and feel your chest expanding, and the air entering and leaving your lungs. Release the tension that you are holding in your brow, your jaw, your shoulders, and listen to the sounds of the world around you. Is your mind crowded with thoughts? Are you worried or apprehensive about the future? Witness those thoughts, hold them and accept them, and then let them go. In this moment you are free of time, and you are holding the light.

“Salvation is not elsewhere in place and time. It is now.” – Eckhart Tolle

Endings

Have you ever ended a friendship? Not in the sense of drifting apart, but actively, intentionally. I’ve never had to before, but stepped back from this friendship several weeks ago, telling myself that it was just a break and that in time we would be able to be friends again. Right now, though, I’m thinking that this is more final than I originally envisioned. That makes me quite sad, although I believe it’s the right decision.

I’m reminded of when I broke up with my first love – we’d been together five years but I’d been too afraid to end it when it should have ended (which is to say much, much earlier). Basically I was a bit of a doormat and wanting to be loved; to belong to someone. I didn’t value myself and was too scared of losing him to reject the emotional blackmail. It ended messily, dramatically.

Back in present day I’ve checked out from the drama. Much older, and thankfully wiser, I am no longer willing to invest in relationships where there cannot be genuine trust and mutual support.

Endings are difficult, but sometimes necessary. Cherish the good memories and learn from the unhappy experiences. Always remain respectful and fair, no matter how others choose to act or what they might say about you. I am reminded of the saying “live in such a way that if anyone should speak ill of you, no one would believe it”.

The eternal present

IMG_9029

“The eternal present is the space within which your whole life unfolds, the one factor that remains constant. Life is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be.” – Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

Life is now. It has to be. All we are able to do happens in the now. If you are are forever focused on the past or future, you get locked in time, always reliving a memory or rehearsing what is only an imagined possible future. Either condemn you to never truly living.

If not now, when?

Artwork from @timothygoodman

What’s in the pipeline?

There’s a lot in the pipeline and it’s all really exciting!

I’ve been invited by Leamington Hour to speak at Leamington Hour Live on 17 October 2018, on ‘work-life balance’ (although I prefer not to use the term ‘balance’ as I think it implies things it would be better off not implying); tickets should be on sale in September. A collaboration with The Wheelhouse Coventry is also brewing – 18 October 2018, hold the date!

New workshops are being developed on (a) resilience and (b) strengths, skills and values, and I have a plan for lots of new articles for the blog over the next few months – on how you can change your career path, the ‘problem’ of pain, perfectionism, mindfulness and coaching, and developing a personal philosophy of living.

I’m also starting to work with clients internationally! So if you want to come work with me, geography is now no barrier: drop me a message and we can talk about virtual coaching!

Keep learning, keep growing, stay curious x

Letting go and embracing the present

IMG_9010

There’s a quote from Lao Tzu that goes like this: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” Growing often requires letting go. It’s when we stop clinging on to the past that we are able to harness the opportunities of the present.