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

Lessons from Prufrock

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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.

Letting go and embracing the present

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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.

Idealist or realist?

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If you’re looking for a new direction in your career or in life more generally, do you (a) weigh in on the side of pragmatism, or (b) always follow your dreams?

The trouble with being relentlessly ‘realistic’ is that you can easily cut off your options too early and never discover what could truly drive you. Could you benefit from giving your ‘ideal’ and your ‘impossible’ a chance to grow?

What does “doing your best” mean to you?

IMG_8618“Good, better, best, never let it rest – till your good is better, and your better best.”

Let’s be clear, striving for improvement is important. Putting in good effort is important. Not allowing yourself to give up as soon as the going gets tough is important. It is however all too possible to go way too far in the opposite direction and work yourself into the ground.

Doing your best does not equate to sacrificing your mental or physical health. It does ask that you try to cultivate a spirit of optimism and an attitude towards ‘failure’ that recognises that if you have tried hard and you have learnt something, then you have already succeeded. It is a journey towards realising that your value does not depend on your achievements.

So by all means keep striving and learning. Just don’t forget that you are already worthy. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.

Healthy and unhealthy negative emotions

IMG_8563Are you carrying unhealthy negative emotions?

Negative emotions aren’t necessarily bad – it is natural to experience concern, sadness, anger, remorse, regret, disappointment, healthy jealousy and healthy envy. Life is, after all, complex and difficult. What matters is how we respond to and channel these emotions into actions that help ourselves and others. Learning to accept these types of negative emotions is part of healthy psychological functioning.

This is not the same for unhealthy negative emotions like anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, shame, hurt, unhealthy jealousy and unhealthy envy. These types of emotions interfere with our ability to take positive and constructive action and can result in destructive (and often self-sabotaging) behaviour.

The first step is awareness. How are you going to choose to respond?

Resilience

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
I bend, I don’t break.
I always bounce back.

Do you use any of these metaphors when you talk or think about resilience? Personally, I like the picture of resilience that’s summed up by this plant.

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It illustrates nicely the definition given by Carole Pemberton (2015) in Coaching for Resilience:

The capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours when faced by a life disruption, or extended periods of pressure, so that we emerge from difficulty stronger, wiser, and more able. 

In other words, resilience is gradual adaptation in the face of adversity.  Being resilient doesn’t mean you have to be somehow invulnerable to life’s hard knocks – it’s all about learning and growth, and the ability to steer your way constructively through difficulty. I think the danger of the popular characterisation of ‘bouncing back’ is that it gives the impression that recovering from setbacks is as effortless and instantaneous as the rebound of a rubber ball. You just pick yourself up and carry on as you were, utterly unchanged by the event. Except you’re not.

Even if you’re of the true grit school of thought, it’s important to recognise that resilience isn’t a you’ve-either-got-it-or-you-don’t thing; it’s a continuum. Life continually tests us, and our ability to respond well to this can vary depending on context and domain. You may be able to cope very well with pressure in your professional life, but feel crushed by the breakdown of a personal relationship. You may historically have had no problems navigating the ups and downs of life, but find yourself unexpectedly and completely derailed after being made redundant. Our resilience can become overwhelmed in all sorts of different ways – and we will all respond differently, too.1,2

I find it useful looking at this from the perspective of the three-factor model that combines the effects of genetics, external protective factors, and learning (diagram below adapted from Pemberton, 2015):

3-factor model of resilience

What this tells us is that although some people may be more naturally resilient than others, resilience isn’t just a product of our personality. Research has also shown the important contributions made by the support networks around us (the availability of ‘secure attachment’) and what we learn from experience. That latter factor is probably most crucial for me. I love the way Ann Masten puts it: resilience, she says, is ‘ordinary magic’: something we develop through the demands of living. I love this because it marks it out as something that can be available to all of us, even if we haven’t had the most fortunate start in life.

So how, then, can we cultivate resilience? It’s worth spending some time thinking about these factors:

  1. Finding meaning
    I’ve written before about purpose as a key factor in what drives us – the desire to connect to a greater and meaningful cause. Purpose gives us direction and a reason to keep going. What purpose can you find in what you may be going through? What can you take from this experience that you can channel positively into something meaningful?
  2. Flexibility
    Fixed patterns of thinking stop us being able to see the larger picture and its possibilities for learning and growth. How can I widen my perspective? What other ways are there to think about this situation? What can I learn from this setback?(For more on this, I recommend Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets.)
  3. Support
    What company am I keeping? Resilience is not developed in social isolation. What positive and mutually supportive relationships can I build?
  4. Mindfulness
    Pain is typically seen as a problem. Mindfulness helps us learn to detach from our negative thoughts and feelings in order to observe and accept them without becoming trapped in them – moving forward despite them, rather than trying to remove them from our lives. As Camus says, the human condition is absurd. But man’s freedom, and the opportunity to give life meaning, lies in the acceptance of absurdity.
  5. Proactivity
    What action are you taking? Sometimes all we need to get ourselves out of a pit is to take back control – by taking one small step at a time.
  6. Perspective and taking responsibility
    Ask yourself these questions: What can you control about this situation? What contribution are you making to it?

What someone needs in order to help them become more resilient will of course vary. In coaching, there are many tools that can be drawn upon, including mindfulness, cognitive-behavioural approaches, narrative coaching, and positive psychology. If you’re interested in how coaching can help you build your resilience, why not get in touch?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd


1I’ve previously written about how it’s not events in life that affect you, it’s the personal meaning that you attach to those events (typically because they’ve destabilised or taken away some core aspect of your sense of identity). It’s a little out of the scope of this article, though.

2It’s important to know that the loss of resilience is something that happens in response to normal life experiences. It is typically temporary. This needs to be distinguished from abnormal physical or psychological trauma, such as childhood abuse or involvement in a major road traffic accident. These kinds of traumatic life events are not part of our normal life experience, and any inability to cope with them is never any reflection on your capability. If this has happened to you, there is help out there. You may wish to read about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) here.

 

 

Life is short

Time’s a-ticking; life is short. NOW is the time to start your journey towards the full life that you were meant to live! If you’re on the cusp of major changes in either your personal or professional life, and need support to realise your full potential, drop me a message and let’s work together.

Video taken in June 2018 of A Million Times At Changi, @humanssince1982, Changi Airport, Singapore.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Turn left?

IMG_8464Turn left? Turn right? Whovians know what happened when Donna turned right instead of left: an alternate reality in which she never met the Doctor, directly leading to his death and eventually a descent into world dystopia.

I think a lot of us feel that way about significant decisions. Right? Left? Pros and cons. What ifs. How do I know what the right decision is? What if I make the wrong decision and live to regret this? Cold feet at the last minute. Second-guessing yourself.

I believe the truth is that we can never know the full implications of any decisions we make. We need to make decisions based on the best knowledge that we have at any given time, and then commit and follow through.

If you’re gripped by decision paralysis, remember this: much of the time there is no right or wrong decision. Whatever choice you make will have its own outcomes – the true impact of a decision is not seen in the moments after making it, but depends on you making that choice the right one for you. Don’t look back to fret about alternate realities that may never have happened even if you had made a different decision.

If you’re having problems making big life and career decisions, coaching can help. Drop me an email or message and let’s get this show on the road.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd