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

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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.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Breath meditation and visualisation

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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.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Timelessness

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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

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

The eternal present

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“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

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

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.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

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.

 

 

Awareness

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I’ve been doing a fair bit of mindfulness meditation recently. Last week I went for a walk in Tocil Wood and the bluebells were still going strong. I was listening to a guided walking meditation and it reminded me that it was natural and ok for my thoughts to be wandering. I did notice them wandering several times, but each time I simply reminded myself of what I was seeking to focus on, and brought my thoughts back.

It occurred to me that this is very much like life in general. I’ve posted before about the chaos theory of careers, and how we shouldn’t expect to continually be on the path that we may have mapped out for ourselves. On the road we will see things off to the side that catch our eye. There will be holes in the path, and unexpected diversions. The important thing is not dogged faithfulness to the road but the awareness of when we are travelling away, and the ability to stop and correct our direction of travel as required.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Attachment and detachment

IMG_7338In the past couple of weeks I’ve been talking to people about the difference between a goal-oriented mindset and a systems mindset, and the difference between commitment to action and attachment to the outcome of that action.

I recently learnt about two terms in Ancient Greek, telos and skopos. The distinction is that, unlike skopos, telos suggests an end or goal not in the sense of the thing you aim at, but rather your aiming at that end. In other words, telos = doing or getting something, and skopos = the thing done or begotten.

I like this distinction because the way in which we set goals for ourselves can affect our motivation and sense of achievement. To give an easy-to-visualise example – if you were an archer learning to shoot, your skopos might be to hit a bullseye, whereas to shoot well might be your telos. Similarly with the difference between aiming to lose twenty pounds in two months and eating well every day, or making a million pounds vs. building a business that’s true to your values. Your telos is absolutely within your reach, but your skopos is likely to depend on factors not always within your control.

So what’s the lesson? The importance of learning to detach yourself from the results of your actions. Another way you might choose to look at this is learning to appreciate the process, not just the outcomes. Achievement is not always marked by the tangible and the concrete. And life should not be viewed through the lens of success and failure, but rather in terms of all the experiences that make you who you are.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

I choose everything

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What do you think of when you hear the word ‘acceptance’? If we can’t undo or change something, we need to learn how to accept it, rather than living in the ‘what-if’ and the ‘if-only’; all this serves to do is freeze and frustrate us and stop us from taking positive and meaningful action. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation, and it doesn’t signify giving up. It means understanding that this life has a rhythm, a heartbeat; space for both the beautiful and ugly, both pain and joy. I like the way St. Therese of Lisieux puts it: “I choose everything.”

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I choose this life. I choose everything.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd