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

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”.

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.

Emotional boundaries

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I can’t stress enough the importance of self-care and establishing good boundaries. There is always an internal cost to expending emotional energy and you need to know when to step back and respect your own boundaries. It isn’t selfish; it allows you to decompress so that later on you can continue to give. It’s a bit like putting on your own oxygen mask first so that you can make sure you’re able to put on someone else’s.

Take care of yourself, ok?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Lessons from a sofa

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On Monday I was once again at Draycote Water, which has become one of my favourite summer coaching venues. While I was surrounded by nature, one of my clients sent me this photo of a sofa at the spa she’s currently at. It looks a bit like a posh hay bale, and comes complete with authentic leaves down the back of the cushions. Apparently there are several of these sofas around the spa, but people weren’t really sitting on them. Because they are prickly.

It struck me that there were a couple of worthwhile lessons to take from this.

1) It is good to take time out for yourself – ensuring that you are paying regular attention to your psychological and physical wellbeing is really important. It’s not selfish unless all you ever think about is yourself.

2) There is sometimes a big difference between what you think will be good for other people and what will actually be good for them. It is useful to ask rather than assume.

3) Things that look nice are not always nice to have. Perception is not the same as reality. This third point was also one of the significant takeaways that my client took away from Monday morning’s session.

There you go, lessons from a ‘quirky’ sofa.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Words to myself, at 10, 15, 18, 21, 32 and 35

IMG_8161I am really proud of how this little girl has turned out.

If I had the chance to say something to her at the age of 10, I’d say things get a lot better. The days won’t always be so dark. You won’t always be bullied and this is making you much, much stronger.

If I had the chance to say something to her at the age of 15, I’d say that you are incredibly beautiful, and strong, and perfectly enough. You have always been perfectly enough. Let those who love you support you.

To her at the age of 18, I’d say this relationship is not good for you. Know that others love you so much and the world isn’t going to end if you break up with him. You will learn to value and love yourself and how to stand up for yourself. You’ll learn how not to be emotionally blackmailed.

To her at 21, I’d say that others don’t love you because of your grades and your achievements. Truth be told, these things matter quite little in the larger scheme of things. People love you just because you are you. No matter what.

To her at 32, I would say that you don’t have to be a perfect mum, wife, daughter, employee. You don’t have to be perfect, full stop.

And to her at 35, I’d say you’ll hit rock bottom, but the only way is up. And what a fabulous journey it’s going to be. I promise. Things won’t always be easy, but you’ll finally have learnt to love yourself. And it’s then that you will truly be able to give, give, give. God had a plan for you after all. And you’ll be filled with gratitude.

Looking forward to whatever’s round the corner. This world is so big and so full of promise.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Rest is not a dirty word

IMG_8143I was talking to a client last week about the importance of proper rest. So many of us are ultra-focused on achievement, reaching our goals and ticking things off on our ever-growing to-do lists, and we forget that rest is not a dirty word.

So we keep going until we’re exhausted and irritable, because we always cope. Don’t we? But then we reach breaking point and we crash, and after recovering we have to take time to put all our pieces back together.

Rest (and not as a last resort) is not only warranted but necessary. Even machines need regular servicing.

Today, why don’t you take time out to do nothing but sit with a cuppa and a book or a drawing pad, calming music in the background, and take a break from the doing to just be?

And massage. Definitely have a good massage.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Beat

It’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week and I’m supporting the #sockittoeatingdisorders campaign by @beat.eating.disorders.

I was anorexic (and briefly bulimic) the year I turned 15, and I still remember the trigger which was a throwaway comment from my gymnastics coach about how I’d put on weight. I lost nearly 20% of my body weight over that year, could no longer sit without pain as I had no fat left, and my hands could encircle my waist. I recovered and avoided hospitalisation through lots of love from family and close friends. I am no longer anorexic, having learnt to actually love food while at University and in the intervening years to finally love myself too. Which is a good thing, because a few years ago someone in the queue behind me at work commented quietly about me, “So she does eat after all.”

Beat provides support, tackles barriers to desperately needed treatment, and challenges the stigmas around eating disorders. Education and understanding is important – a thoughtless comment in itself might not normally have much significance, but when you’re already battling several psychological factors, sometimes the combined heft is enough to push you over the edge.

So everyone, please be aware, be kind, take care with your words and don’t be afraid to be there to support people when they fall.

You can support Beat in this important work too. If you’re in the UK you can easily donate directly from your mobile phone by texting the code UAUA05 followed by your donation amount to 70070 – for example, to donate £10 text: UAUA05 £10

To anyone who’s battling right now: talk to someone. It’s possible to recover and you are worth the fight.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Goodbye 2017, hello 2018

A year ago today, I bid goodbye to my year of crisis. In 2016 depression got the better of me and I spent the rest of the year hauling myself back to a better place. I learnt lots of things, including how to take much better care of myself. Like how not to take things personally, leaving work in the office, knowing when to say no, making micro-resolutions, not sweating the small stuff, and embracing lots of new experiences. I started playing rugby and running regularly, joined a choir and dabbled in acro yoga, and attended my first music festivals and live gigs.

2017 has been kind to me, and I’ve been kind to myself. I’ve been altogether more sanguine about life. I completed my postgraduate qualification in career development and coaching, then took the plunge with a year-long work sabbatical. In just two months since leaving the 9-5 in October, I’ve launched Quiet Space, established a website and social media presence, networked, designed and developed programmes, and learnt so much about business development, branding, sales and marketing. None of this has actually felt like work, because I finally feel like I’m doing what I should be. And above all – I’ve been proud to be part of the transformational journey of my amazing clients.

I have lots of plans for 2018, but for now I’m looking back to appreciate all the things I’ve achieved. I’m proud of myself, and enormously thankful for all the love of my family and friends, who’ve gotten me through it all.

Look back on 2017 and see just how far you’ve come. Notice what skills you’ve learnt. The insights you’ve had. The people you’ve helped. The new experiences you’ve embraced. The challenges you’ve faced head-on. The friendships you’ve made. You are amazing. I guarantee it.I wish you all an amazing 2018. Love is louder than all of it.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd