What Lights Your Fire?

The thing about motivation is that it’s not exactly like learning another skill. It’s not at all like learning to cook or ride a bike or learning to drive — those things stick with you and even when you haven’t done them for a while, they tend to come back to you pretty quickly.

Motivation is not something that we can really gain mastery of — just when we think we’ve got it, it’s gone. It’s fleeting and it changes from one time and place to another. In completing one ambition, we may find our motivation to be consistently strong throughout. Yet in the case of another goal or resolution, we struggle to find the motivation to even begin.

Why is that?

Different circumstances, different expectations, different time and place. Maybe our level of interest is varied or we’re simply lacking passion (you can read more about passion in my post on Grit). Whatever the case, rest assured that you’re not alone. Pretty much everyone struggles to find motivation at least some of the time (myself included) and there are lots of strategies to help you discover and keep your motivation burning which I’m going to outline today.

As always, you shouldn’t feel obligated to do everything included in this post (in fact, I wouldn’t even advise that). What I hope you’ll find here instead are a few practical ideas that resonate with you and help provide the spark you need to set your motivation ablaze. Remember, our entire life journey is a work in progress of sorts, so we shouldn’t expect to attain perfection anytime soon!

My own mantra this week is, “Nothing can stop me today — I can only stop myself.” I share this because I think it fits well with the topic of motivation, particularly because I tend to find (and maybe you do as well) that the thing getting in my way most of the time is me! No one is making me take on the commitments in my life that I’ve made — I chose to make them. When I find that my plate is overwhelmingly full, I can only look to myself because I’m the one that filled it in that manner.

I’m not saying this to beat myself up or to suggest that you should in any way do the same. Conversely, it’s important that we take ownership and find empowerment in knowing that we shape our own goals and experiences. While we can’t control everything that happens in a day, we can own the way that we choose to spend our time and how we react to the occurrences throughout each day.

Not sure where to start? Here’s some ideas to help you discover and keep your motivation – that internal fire inside us all – burning strong:

Share your knowledge with others. In most cases, it’s not that you don’t know what to do or how to reach your goal, but channeling the motivation to actually make progress can be difficult. Many people find themselves stuck in a rut, unable to take meaningful action, even though they know exactly what they need to do. There’s a good chance you know someone who’s been wanting to lose weight for years, but hasn’t been able to actually commit to a particular diet (maybe that someone is even you). Yet, that person probably has more knowledge about nutrition and calorie intake vs. outtake than almost anyone else in your life.

In this case, the key to forward momentum is building self-confidence by telling others how to do it. Yes, literally go tell other people the step-by-step process for how to accomplish the goal that you want to accomplish yourself. (I know this sounds a bit odd, but stay with me.)  A very compelling study by Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach (see Fessler, 2018) demonstrated how simply giving advice to others (on the same issues she/he was struggling to do) could help build one’s self-confidence enough to propel individuals into action. It reminds me of that saying, ‘those who can’t do teach,’ except that in this case it’s like ‘those who teach are more likely to do,’ which aligns perfectly with my next point…

“Do something. Do anything.” According to Mark Manson (bestselling author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck) action can precipitate action simply by helping us build confidence in our ability to do so. It doesn’t have to be something big, but making any sort of action towards reaching our goals often creates the inspiration and motivation we need to continue along a path of progress. If you’re paralyzed by your fear of going to the gym, maybe start with a walk outside or find a YouTube video to follow along with at home. If you want to mend a relationship with someone and you don’t know where to start, try picking up the phone and calling them or writing them a letter (you don’t even have to send it if you don’t want to).

When I’m struggling to start writing (which is basically everyday), I will often say to myself, “Okay, I’ll just create an outline,” or “I can at least write down the thoughts that are in my head,”  or “Fine, I’ll write ONE paragraph.” Oftentimes I’ll find that as a result, moving onto other parts becomes much easier because I’ll have ideas for how to do so (and maybe even a bit of excitement).

Maybe I’ll have an idea for a second paragraph or the introduction or a totally different point I want to make later in the chapter (or blog post…). In any case, once you’ve actually started, it’s so much easier to keep going and I almost always find myself thinking something along the lines of, “That wasn’t so difficult (but I’m definitely not going to admit that I may have even enjoyed myself a bit), I don’t know why I put this off — I’ll just do a bit more.”

When I’m really stumped (or just because), one of my favorite things to do is to create a timeline. It doesn’t have to be very detailed when you begin, it can literally just be an estimated start and end date. Bench marks (tasks that need to be completed along the way) will begin to form in your mind and then you can break down how long each item will take you to complete. After you’ve completed your working or tentative timeline (because it’s always subject to change), you can look to the first task and start working on it immediately.

Be realistic in your expectations. Sometimes we come to a phase in life where we feel compelled to overhaul our entire state of being. If you’re trying to lose weight for instance, you may want to drastically change your diet, workout routine, and sleep habits all at once. While these behaviors likely work together and could potentially reinforce each other, making several drastic life changes at once is almost always a guaranteed recipe for failure.

It’s not at all because we don’t possess the ability to do so, but rather that we’re asking ourselves to do something that is virtually impossible and unsustainable. Meaningful and lasting changes tend to occur through small incremental changes over time. In the example I gave above, you could start with changing just one aspect of your life (like diet) and integrate the others later once you’ve accomplished your initial goal. Another option might be to set two attainable goals to begin (like eating out one day less each week and getting up 10 minutes earlier) which you make more challenging over time (like eating out only once a week and getting up an hour earlier).

As with the above points discussed, this approach tends to work because small, attainable goals help us experience a sense of achievement which in turn, builds self-confidence. Why should you care about self-confidence? Because self-confidence is really about learning to trust ourselves. Imagine if you had someone in your life who you continually told you they would meet you at a certain time tomorrow and then for weeks, they never showed up, day after day. After a few days (or maybe even just the first day), you would stop waiting for them because you wouldn’t trust them.

Every time we break a commitment to ourselves, we break our own trust. We trust ourselves less and less until we come to believe that we won’t follow through with anything and are incapable of accomplishing any goals. We diminish our self-confidence until there is nothing left (just writing this makes me feel so sad!!). Why do we treat ourselves with so little regard? We are important and so worthy of self-love and of keeping our commitments to ourselves (which fits so well with my next point)!

Before we move on, let me just say once more — YOU are important and YOU are worthy of love.

More compassion, less criticism. There’s a lot of research which shows that self-criticism actually works to demotivate us. (Which is probably not so surprising after reading the last few paragraphs.) When we fail, as we inevitably will, it’s important to have some self-compassion. Be gracious with yourself in recognizing that at any moment we can start again and try our best to do better.

More compassion may mean that you go off your diet for a night because it’s important to enjoy a special occasion with your family and not worry about monitoring your food choices. It may mean that you while you didn’t stick to your diet for breakfast (because maybe someone brought donuts to the office this morning), you’re committed to making good food choices for lunch (or dinner if you call it that) and supper instead of throwing the whole day out the window. It may mean that while you missed your deadline for a project or goal, you recognize that you’ve still made a lot of progress and you’re committed to seeing it through, even if it’s a little bit later than you had hoped.

I want to note that there’s a healthy balance between being self-compassionate and not falling into overly-compromising on a commitment to yourself (which can harbor distrust). That balance will be different depending on the individual and the circumstances. I genuinely believe however, you know the difference— you know when you’re showing a little bit of grace, flexibility, and self-compassion (which is sometimes needed) and you know when you’re breaking a commitment or promise to yourself. Be mindful of the difference and do what’s best for you.

Stay in the present moment. When that moment of conflict arises and you find yourself with the desire to compromise your goal, whatever it may be, know that this is only natural. This is an inevitable occurrence within the process of change. Instead of seeking a distraction, stay present in the moment. Try facing these moments with a sense of curiosity (instead of chastising yourself). Consider what it mean to cheat on your goal today or in this moment. Likely, it would mean breaking a promise you’ve made to yourself.

Remind yourself of your goal’s importance and worth (and perhaps also of your importance and worth as well). Why did you commit to this goal in the first place? Why was (is) it important to you? Stay with these feelings and allow them to pass (because they definitely will!). You may be surprised at the emotions connected to these experiences — you may feel anger or sadness or remorse (or something else altogether). Just know that it’s okay to feel; we’re human and that’s what we do.

Recruit an ally. Accountability can be a powerful tool especially if you’re someone who struggles to keep resolutions for yourself. *raises hand slowly* This doesn’t have to come in the form of a person (though it certainly may!), it could be in the form of keeping a reflection journal or logging your progress in an app. There are a lot of great apps out there for tracking fitness goals through logging your food and workout habits, for example. (I use Fitbit and know a lot of people who use MyFitnessPal, but there are many other good apps out there beyond these.)

The most important thing here, is finding whatever works to help hold you accountable and provide some support toward reaching your goals. I recently installed an aerial yoga hammock in my house (it was actually a gift from my parents – thank you!!) which I had been wanting to do for some time. I was initially drawn to it because it looked like fun, – which it totally is – but since practicing with it, I’ve realized it has immense value in its ability to act as a support in learning to do things like inversions or for working on balance in poses like Warrior 3. I’m telling you this because I happened to mention my observation to my doctoral Advisor and she, in her infinite wisdom, remarked how perfectly this demonstrated that with the right supports in place, virtually anything is attainable (it literally gives me goosebumps even now).

Isn’t that the truth? Things that sometimes feel out of reach or even impossible to us, suddenly become realities when we just have the right tools or the right people around us. So spend a bit of time thinking about what might be most helpful to you and recognize that it may take some trial and error to figure it out. Once it’s there, the sky is the limit – literally, anything is possible.

Channel your inner rebel. If you’re the type of person who resists being told what to do and when to do it (as many of us are), you may not love the idea of setting boundaries for yourself. However, the same characteristics that compel us to resist constraints also drive us to fight and fight hard; we love to defy expectations, prove others wrong, and most of all, we LOVE to win!

I have a good friend who’s taking his sibling rivalry to a whole new level by competing with his sister to make his fitness goals. That desire to beat her (or maybe just to not let her win?) is a big part of what’s driving him to make it to the gym every morning before work. Healthy competition can be highly motivational for individuals like this (myself included). It may not be possible (or ideal) in every case, but for something like losing weight, it could be really fun to challenge a friend or family member.

I will add a word of caution on this point, however. Yes, spite can be a powerful motivator, but I’m not sure it’s always a healthy one – especially if it’s the ONLY thing that’s driving you to accomplish a goal. It’s important that our goals be things that we have chosen to pursue because they are meaningful and important to us in some way. If the desire to prove someone wrong or to be better than someone else is the only thing that is driving you to pursue a goal, I urge you to consider whether it’s truly something worth the effort. Is it something that will bring joy or peace to your life in some way? If not, it may be time to drop it.

Do some investigative work. It can be really helpful to do a little research about your goal and to find out what others have done to achieve the same goal. If it’s a particularly broad topic area (like weight loss ), you may find the amount of information online to be overwhelming at first because there are literally thousands of articles available. Consider starting with friends, family members, or colleagues who may have had similar experiences and ask what’s worked well for them. Most people are happy to share their success stories and will probably give you more information than you asked for!  Once you have a good starting point (like maybe the name of a particular diet to research), you can narrow your search online for additional information if needed.

This approach can be particularly helpful if you’re someone who likes to make a clear plan ahead of time or if you have a tendency to want to know the “best” or “right” way to do something. Just be sure to keep in mind that what’s best for you may be different from what’s best or has worked for someone else and that’s completely okay (really, it’s to be expected). You may even need to try some things out to find the best fit before making a decision. Remember, what’s most important is to actually take the first steps toward achieving your goal (back to that point about “Do something. Do Anything.”) – even if it’s not quite right when you first start. Don’t get stuck in the research and planning phase at the cost of delaying your goal any longer.

Make your commitment a big deal. It may be tempting to say you’ll start your diet (or virtually any other goal) on Monday, but it’s really important to set an official start date. Lots of people get stuck in the planning and preparation phase; they continually procrastinate actually acting on their resolution. Look at your calendar and mark the start date. Look at the events you have coming up in the near future – will you be traveling or do you have a big celebration to attend? You may want to plan around these things to help ensure you will be successful (just don’t put it off for too long).

Once you have a start date, commit to working on your goal for a set length of time. It may be 30 days, or 3 months, or 6 months depending on your goal and the amount of time you think you will realistically need to accomplish it. Something you may also want to consider are conditions for breaking your commitment. For instance, what will happen if you break your commitment one day or you don’t reach your goal for a week? Will you start over at Day 1?

It may sound harsh, but having some conditions or even consequences in place can actually help us stay committed on those days when we just want to give up. We’ll think to ourselves, “I don’t want to cheat because I don’t want to start over!” I didn’t invent this idea, it’s been used by many people and it’s one of the principles of the Whole30 diet which I’ve mentioned in previous posts. When you get to day 25 and you just want to eat some bread, you’re much less likely to do so because you only have five days left and you don’t want to start the 30 days all the way from the beginning again!!

Okay, enough of that – here’s the fun part: Find a way to commemorate your first day by doing something special. Celebrate in some way or get something that brings meaning to the day for you. It doesn’t have to cost anything – it could be as simply as writing your goal in a place that you will see it every day. It might be finding a mantra that you will remind yourself of as you work on your goal such as, “I trust in myself and the decisions I make,” or simply, “I am enough.”  Consider also telling friends and family members about your plan as they may want to know and could help cheer you along the way (and celebrate in your success!).

Trust the transformational process. Recognize that change occurs over time and when we are ready to change. If you have the intention to change and put forth the effort, you will absolutely change — but it’s probably not going to happen overnight. Trust that you will reach your goal in your own time — every day is a day of progress along that journey.

Celebrate your small successes along the way to help remind yourself of your progress. Additionally, you may consider journaling so that you can frequently reflect on how far you’ve come. Even if you did everything on this list and mapped your goal out perfectly, life has a tendency to get in the way on occasion. Remember that we can’t control everything. In unexpected moments, have some self-compassion and then trust that we will all be okay. You will be okay.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of ideas mentioned in the paragraphs above to help you channel your own motivational fire. However, there are a few common threads that seem to be focused around:

  • Taking action – even if it’s not quite the right action, just trying something out can be helpful in creating the momentum to move forward
  • Growing our self-confidence (which involves building trust with ourselves) often provides the empowerment required to commit to and achieve our goals
  • Knowing there isn’t a one-size fits all approach; what works best for you will depend on your individual needs and circumstances (so don’t be afraid to try out some different things)
  • Recognizing that meaningful and sustainable change take time to create (so have patience with the process)

I hope you enjoyed today’s post and I encourage you to share any questions or comments below. I would love to hear about your own goals, plans, challenges, successes, etc.!

All my best to you,

Tiff

References

Fessler, L. (2018). Psychologists have surprising advice people who feel unmotivated. Quartz at Work. Retrieved January 6, 2019, from https://qz.com/work/1363911/two-psychologists-have-a-surprising-theory-on-how-to-get-motivated/

Manson, M. (2011). The “do something” principle. MM.net. Retrieved from January 6, 2019, from https://markmanson.net/do-something

Vozza, S. (2018). How these 4 different personality types find motivation. Fast Company. Retrieved January 6, 2019, from https://www.fastcompany.com/40560193/how-these-4-different-personality-types-find-motivation

Wilson, A. (2016). Playing with fire: The power of Tapas to help us fulfill our intentions. Kripalu: Center for Yoga & Health. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from https://kripalu.org/resources/playing-fire-power-tapas-help-us-fulfill-our-intentions

Photo Credits (in order of appearance)

  1. Fire, Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash
  2. Books on bookshelf, Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash
  3. Calendar, Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
  4. Crossed hands, Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash
  5. Ladder to sky, Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
  6. Monarch butterflies, Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

Get Your Grit On

Over the past 2 years, I’ve been working toward achieving a fitness goal of reducing my body fat to 17%. When I started this journey in November of 2016, my body fat was at 29.7%. Last week, I finally achieved my goal and I’ve been thinking a lot about all of the hard work and time I’ve invested in making this goal.

It wasn’t easy. In fact, I had a nasty shoulder injury that prevented me from doing much of any lifting last winter. (Plus, I developed a pretty lousy attitude for a while and gained some weight back as a result.) Today, I’m still learning to cope with my SLAP tear and I continue to make time to get to the gym on a regular basis.

I wanted to dedicate today’s topic to grit because I think it’s a really important ingredient in helping us achieve our goals. While grit isn’t the only factor that determines success, I fully believe it’s a necessary one.

According to Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, grit is even more important than intelligence and skills in predicting individual success. It’s the combination of passion and persistence over time that really sets people apart — those who reach their goals and those who don’t.

Want to find out how gritty you are? You can take the grit scale for your individual score. If your score isn’t what you had hoped today, there’s great news because Duckworth believes (and I agree with her) that everyone has the potential to improve their grittiness if they have the desire to do so.

Why should you care? Because gritty people tend to be more successful and happier with the circumstances of their lives. And couldn’t we all benefit from those things?

Here’s how to grow your grit:

Set a goal and stick to it. Simply setting a goal isn’t enough to work on developing your grit and it won’t work for just any old goal. This goal needs to be something in which you have a genuine interest and it needs to be personally meaningful to you. These components are important because they are what define passion and grit has everything to do with passion that drives us forward over time.

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It could be a goal related to your health (like mine) or it may be a goal for your career or education or any other meaningful goal. It should be something that will take some time (probably several months or even years) and will give you a sense of purpose. Chances are, you already have a goal that you’re working towards, but it’s important to actually articulate that goal and to start thinking about the actions you will need to take in order to reach it.

Avoid getting sidetracked. It can be easy to get deterred by new interests or goals. While we will always have things to balance in our lives (like time with our families, work assignments, hobbies, etc.), it’s important to set our focus on what’s most important and commit to staying on course towards our overarching goal. Some things that can help us do this include:

Setting benchmarks along the way. If your long term goal is Z, then think through the required steps A, B, C, and so on to get you to goal Z. These are short term goals or bench marks that will help keep you on track along the way. Once you have a list of short term goals, you can create a timeline.

For instance, if your goal is to buy a house in 5 years, you need to figure out how much money you will need to save for a down payment. Let’s say you want to put $20,000 down. That means you need to save $4,000 per year and approximately $333 each month. If you get paid biweekly, you will need to designate $167 from each paycheck in order to reach your goal in 5 years.

It’s relatively easy to do this with numbers, but you can actually break down any big goal into smaller measurable goals (if you’re really stumped, feel free to write me a note in the comments section below and I will do my best to offer some suggestions).

Checking your progress regularly. If you’ve created a detailed timeline with bench marks, it will be easy to check your progress. It’s best to make this a regular habit so that it’s at the forefront of our minds. I would recommend checking in on a weekly basis (if possible) to see if you’re making the progress you had hoped.

If not, consider if this is something you can change. For instance, okay- I didn’t do all that well this week, but I will definitely do better next week because I’m going to commit to doing (whatever you need to do to make next week’s goal). Or, it may be that you’ve made your short term goals a bit too difficult and you may need to adjust (extend) your timeline to make these goals more achievable.

Seeing your goal through to the end. Don’t’ despair if you need to make adjustments or changes to your goals along the way. This is a normal part of the process and it does not indicate your success or failure. Sometimes, we will find that our long-term goal has evolved or that it is simply not possible because of new circumstance. In these cases, we can revise our long-term goal as needed. Then, repeat the process of creating benchmarks and a timeline.

Remember, grit is indicated by passion and persistence over time which means your commitment is what really counts – not how quickly you achieve your goal or how few times you adjust your goal or that you envision exactly the same outcome throughout the process. In fact, your goal will almost certainly be impacted by unforeseen circumstances because that’s how real life is – unpredictable.

Don’t be discouraged by setbacks. Resilience is perhaps the most important characteristic of grittiness. Acknowledging that setbacks and challenges are likely to occur can help us be more adaptable and readily able to navigate them when they occur. Instead of viewing setbacks as failures, we can recognize them as learning opportunities. In fact, they are normal and necessary to our personal growth and development – it’s literally how we learn. (e.g., “Well that didn’t work, so now I’m going to try this approach instead.”).

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When we face setbacks, it’s best to take a step back and look at the big picture. Think about what needs to change in order for progress to occur. And sometimes, we may need to actually give up a goal. For instance, if continuing to pursue it would be detrimental as in continuing to pour money into a failed business venture. Or if we’ve decided that this is no longer a goal worth pursuing. This could occur when choosing to make a major career change, for example.

Even in such cases, we can immediately begin recreating a revised long term goal. Just because we abandon one goal, doesn’t mean we’re not still working towards something.

Be diligent and hardworking. Maybe these seem obvious, but actually being dedicated to our goals and putting in the quality of work required to achieve them are just as important as the rest of the process. It isn’t enough to simply set goals and then hope we make them.

We have to set ourselves up for success by committing to do the work. This may mean carving out time to work on our goals each day or each week (like actually putting it on your calendar). It may mean that we need to go talk to others who have already achieved similar goals to find out how they did it. Whatever the case, taking action is absolutely required – and it’s often the hardest step.

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Take some time to consider how you can help ensure you will actually do what you need to do. Having accountability in some way can be particularly meaningful. I did this by working out two times a week with a trainer. Not only did this help me meet my goals, it ensured that at least twice each week I would physically be at the gym to workout.

Find a gritty mentor. Finding a mentor can be extremely worthwhile. According to Duckworth, mentors should provide both challenge and support. Without both of these components, we are likely to become discouraged or complacent. For example, if my trainer always told me I could do better and never praised my progress, I would quickly become frustrated. In the same way, if my trainer never challenged me to try harder and always just told me how awesome I am, I would quickly lose motivation to work harder.

Your mentor can be pretty much anyone – a colleague, a friend, a family member. He or she should be a gritty person as well which is indicated by their passion and persistence to a long-term goal. Generally, highly successful people are gritty, so try to find someone you view as successful and who will provide both challenge and support for you.

Final Thoughts

Grit is something that tends to change over time based on the circumstances of our lives and our focused effort at a given time. Recognize that it’s okay to be a work-in-progress – really, we all are. 🙂 It’s about practicing in order to grow your personal grittiness.

You can read a lot more about grit from leading expert, Angela Duckworth, in her book: Grit

I would love to hear about your own meaningful long-term goals and welcome you to share them (or any other questions or comments) in the comments section below.

References

Belli, G. (2018). How to develop grit. PayScale. Retrieved November 16, 2018, from https://www.payscale.com/career-news/2018/03/how-to-develop-grit

Duckworth, A. (2018). Q&A. Angela Duckworth. https://angeladuckworth.com/qa/

Koehn, N. (2018). Resilience won’t just be there when you need it. You have to train it. Big Think. Retrieved November 16, 2018, from https://bigthink.com/videos/nancy-koehn-resilience-wont-just-be-there-when-you-need-it-you-have-to-train-it

Lebowitz, S. (2016). A UPenn psychologist says ‘grit’ is key to success in life – here’s how to become a grittier person. Business Insider. Retrieved November 16, 2018, from
https://www.businessinsider.com/angela-duckworth-how-to-become-a-grittier-person-2016-5

Photo Credits (in order of appearance)

  1. Top of the Morning, Photo by Francisco Gonzalez on Unsplash
  2. Planner and coffee, Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash
  3. Woman, Photo by Soragrit Wongsa on Unsplash
  4. Climbing, Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash

Productive Procrastination: I’m Doing It Right Now

Recently in a meeting with my advisor, I found myself defending my lack of progress on my dissertation (note that I had made progress, just not on the things we had previously discussed). I admitted that, at times, I am a procrastinator. I quickly added however that despite this, I’m always able to get my work done in the end.

To my surprise (and relief), my advisor made a rather astute observation, “You and I are like closet procrastinators. People tend to think we have everything together, but don’t you dare look in that filing cabinet over there!” I laughed because she was absolutely right!

I always meet deadlines, always complete my work in a way that is the best representation of my abilities (I’m even a bit of a perfectionist), but I frequently procrastinate until the last possible minute. It’s not that I’m not working when I procrastinate. It’s not at all like I’m home binge watching Netflix all week (though the thought of it sounds pretty appealing).

It’s just that I tend to find other things that are more pressing and demand my attention in the moment (or maybe just things that I prefer to do at the time). In fact, when I’m under pressure or feeling stressed, I often feel compelled to start organizing things like a stack of mail, or the filing cabinet, or my closet, or the entire guest room! At this moment, I’m pretty sure there are some people who just read this and thought, “I’ve never felt compelled to organize anything!” and there’s some people who thought, “OMG, I thought I was the only one!” Either way, you are not alone! — Everyone experiences stress in their own way. (And, if you’re feeling particularly stressed and/or exhausted right now, I encourage you to read my previous post on burnout.)

I know that at some subconscious level, my compulsions to organize are probably a way that I can feel a sense of control over the things in my life (and I’m okay with that) – like, even if I don’t feel that I’m making any ‘real’ progress on my dissertation or have much power over when I will actually graduate because there are so many unknown variables, at least I can have a sense of power over this very small corner of my life and find some order within it. I personally find it so rewarding to have something tangible – something that I can actually look at with my own eyes and see the progress I’ve made after putting in a hard day’s work.

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When I start organizing things, I also know it’s at least partly because my brain needs a break from the other work I’m doing. And to be honest, I think the truth is that I also just process things differently. I like to think about things (a lot) conceptually before I actually go about completing a task. I like to visualize the big picture – think about what the end product will be, and then I try to create a plan (essentially work backwards from the end) by filling in the steps that will get me where I want to be. In my research of today’s topic, I discovered that this is a real thing, sometimes called “mind wandering” and it’s a process that some people use to let information percolate before they actually sit down to complete a task. In many cases, it’s beneficial to let information sort of “soak in” and allow us time to form a strategy within our minds before we actually set out to do something.

Back in that same meeting with my advisor, she made this exact point – noting that while I hadn’t completed the work I had hoped to complete (she also frequently reminds me that my deadlines are mostly self-imposed, so I should stop apologizing when I don’t meet them), she knows I’ve been thinking about my work and that when I sit down to actually do it, I will be fully prepared to do so. It’s true, I really do think about my research ALL OF THE TIME – I literally dream about it some nights. It turns out, I’ve totally been embracing some “mind wandering” of my own and I didn’t even know it. (Side note: I think the reason my advisor knows all of this is that we are eerily similar in personality type, but that’s a discussion for a different day.)

Good news, people! Procrastinating can actually be a good thing and I’m going to tell you how to start making the most of your bad good awesome habit today:

Include a variety of tasks. When you create your to-do list each day, avoid putting down one large goal (like writing 20 pages) and instead give yourself multiple tasks that will require different lengths of time to complete. I find this particularly helpful when, for instance, writing is on my list (let’s be honest, it always is) and I just don’t wake up feeling like writing (because sometimes I just don’t). Instead, I might choose to work on doing the laundry, or responding to emails, or working on a presentation, or running to the store, or working out (yep, I totally put that on my to-do list).

Literally, anything you want to accomplish during your day can go on your list (there’s no judgement here, you’re the only one who has to see it!). Some of the articles I read even recommended adding things like “eat breakfast” or “have coffee” or “make my bed” to your to-do list so that by the time you actually sit down to your desk (or whatever your work space looks like), you already have a sense of accomplishment that will help keep your motivation up and your completion rate high. Not a bad idea, but I’ll let you be the one to determine the extent to which you’re going to detail the tasks of your day.

An article in The New York Times, endearingly titled “This Was Supposed to Be My Column for New Year’s Day” (and posted on Jan. 14th – so only a few days late, really), referenced the work of Dr. Steel on the art of procrastinating. My favorite line from this article is a quote from Dr. Steel which was begging to be shared with all of you, “We are willing to pursue any vile task as long as it allows us to avoid something worse.” I’m not sure if I actually agree with Dr. Steel on this because I prefer for my to-list to be compiled of things that are actually attainable (I LOVE checking off tasks), but it seems like it may be worth putting something sort of repulsive on the list to see if it motivates us to (more willingly) do everything else.

Celebrate small victories. One thing I find extremely helpful is to break large goals into smaller, more achievable ones. So, if you need to write 20 pages by the end of the week, or sign up 50 new clients, or grade 100 papers, don’t expect to complete it all in one day (be reasonable!). Instead, make your goal to write 4 pages per day, sign up 10 new customers, or grade 20 papers (I just divided the total by 5 which assumes you’re trying to complete the task in a single [work] week, but you can easily do the same for a month or a year or a decade – why the heck not?!).

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Then when you achieve your goal for the day, freaking celebrate!!! Take a break and reward yourself in whatever way you choose (e.g., take a walk, have a dance party (maybe in your office), hang out with a friend, get ice cream, watch some football, make it rain confetti – I can go all day…). It’s important to remind ourselves of our successes and to celebrate them accordingly. I’ll talk a bit more about this later when I discuss why we need to stop beating ourselves up for procrastinating. Bottom line: Allow yourself to relish the moment when you accomplish a goal, you absolutely deserve it. 🙂

Be intentional. Recognize that while [productive] procrastination can be a good thing, we should consider the reason that we are choosing to procrastinate. If it’s because we actually do need more time to think about a task before we start it or just that we don’t feel like doing that particular task at the moment, those can be good reasons to work on something else for a while. However, if you’re delaying a task because you don’t believe in it (maybe it conflicts with a personal value, for instance) or because you fear it (like, maybe you think you will fail), procrastinating could actually be quite detrimental.

If the reason you’re avoiding a task is because you actually don’t think it’s a good idea or if it’s a project you don’t believe in (and perhaps, don’t want to be associated with), consider handing the task off to someone else, if at all possible. On the other hand, if you fear that you may fail to complete the task in some way and just can’t seem to get started – remember that everyone fails and it’s a normal part of life. In fact, it’s how we learn! Don’t let this fear paralyze you and prevent you from reaching your goals!

There may even be things you can do to help set yourself up for success (and that will actually allow you to get started on the project) like speaking with others in your field to get advice, adding colleagues to the project to help assist with its completion, and/or breaking the project up into more manageable parts over time.

Avoid waiting too long. While I do tend to procrastinate, I always allow myself enough time to actually complete a project by the deadline. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean I’m throwing together shoddy work at the last minute to ensure I have something (or anything) to submit. I’m committed to completing high quality work in whatever I do, so part of the time I designate to complete a project also includes enough time to do things like preliminary research and/or proofreading after my initial draft.

However, I recognize that things sometimes happen which are completely out of our control. The people I work with know that (for me) these are the exception and not the norm. So when a family emergency occurs or I get sick and have to ask for a deadline extension, it’s almost never a problem.

If you’re not already in the practice of doing so, I encourage you to work towards budgeting enough time to fully complete a project with the quality of work it deserves, even when you procrastinate. If this is a struggle, I encourage you to go back to the previous point and consider the root of the reason for your procrastination – it may be that you aren’t committed to the goal or that you don’t actually want to do the task – in which case, you may consider what other options are available to you.

Stop beating yourself up. We often berate ourselves when we procrastinate, but as you now know, [productive] procrastination can actually be a good thing. So why do we beat ourselves up for doing it? We may feel obligated to be in front of the computer screen because that’s what we think we should be doing, even if it means staring at a blank screen or wasting time on Facebook or other sites. Instead, when you know you’re not going to be productive (you know yourself and I’m certain you often know if you’re going to be productive before you even sit down to work), consider doing something that will actually give your mind the break it needs.

Remember, how I mentioned “mind wandering” earlier? There’s kind of an art to it in that when we allow ourselves to gain some objectivity and space from a project, we often find our minds more able to openly and creatively explore ideas. Sometimes, the very best thing we can do is walk away from the computer (or other workspace) and literally get outside. Take a break and allow your mind to rest.

My advisor told me about a former graduate student who actually woke up from a dream and could suddenly understand how her data set fit together. Of course, this doesn’t happen for everyone and you shouldn’t necessarily expect to have some great epiphone, but it’s a great example of how some space to just let things ‘percolate’ can be extremely meaningful and much more productive than staring hopelessly (and frustrated) at a blank computer screen.

Find some accountability. Pretty much all of us are more likely to meet our goals when we have someone to help hold us accountable. While a significant other or friend can be a good option, sometimes people we care about aren’t the best people to hold us accountable. We should be cautious because they may be inclined ‘to let us off the hook’ when we don’t meet our goals which can quickly become a bad habit. It’s also possible that they might be really good at holding us to our goals, but we may begin to feel resentful or frustrated which would likely harm our relationships with them.

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Alternatively, look for a colleague who could also benefit from having someone hold them accountable. In this case, the experience is mutually beneficial. It doesn’t even have to be someone within your office. Another graduate student who I had met during a class agreed to be an accountability partner with me even though we didn’t live in the same town. We sent our daily and weekly goals to each other via email and did weekly video chats to check-in which worked really well for us.

If a colleague isn’t a viable option for you (for whatever reason), a mentor or counselor could also be a great person to help hold you accountable. Just remember that ultimately, you are responsible for your own success — you have the ability to set your own goals and you’re the only person who can choose to achieve them.

Final Thoughts:

As with my previous posts, the common theme here is that it’s all about you. Make productive procrastination work for you in the way that you want it to. And, if you don’t want to procrastinate (because maybe you don’t find it personally beneficial) – don’t!

I encourage you to try some of the above tips out and see what’s most ideal for you.

Let me know what’s helping you be a productive procrastinator in the comments section below – I would love to hear from you!

All my best,

Tiff

___

References

Onderko, P. (2015). 6 tips to be a productive procrastinator. Success. Retrieved October 17, 2018, from https://www.success.com/6-tips-to-be-a-productive-procrastinator/

Tierney, J. (2013). This was supposed to be my column for New Year’s day. The New York Times. Retrieved October 17, 2018 from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/15/science/positive-procrastination-not-an-oxymoron.html

Zhang, M. (2014). How procrastinating can make you more productive. Business Insider. Retrieved October 17, 2018, from https://www.businessinsider.com/use-procrastination-to-get-things-done-2014-6

Photo Credits (in order of appearance)

  1. Girl, Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash
  2. The shelf, Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash
  3. Sparklers, Photo by Jayson Hinrichsen on Unsplash
  4. Sisters are forever, Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash

Learning to Love Your Journey

Mandalas, if you aren’t familiar with them, are these beautiful works of art typically made from sand. They are painstakingly designed and then created with great care grain by grain. They often take weeks to complete. Today, they have been adopted by other cultures, but the practice is attributed to Tibetan monks. The design is symbolic as the mandala itself is circular, a representation of the world. When the mandala is complete, the sand is carefully swept away. The mandala is destroyed and the sand is typically placed into water, as a symbolic gesture of giving it back to the earth.

In the past, I have shared the concept of mandalas with my students as a means of discussing the importance of the process itself; the journey. While that’s not untrue, – there certainly are some lessons in being a part of something bigger than one’s self and becoming part of a community to create and collaborate – there is actually a greater underlying meaning in understanding that everything is impermanent.

Truly, everything we experience, everything that is a part of the construct of our lives, is fleeting. Our emotions; our suffering, our joy, it is all impermanent. I bring this up because I think a big part of learning to love the journeys we are on, at whatever point we are at, is knowing that we won’t be here, in this spot, forever.

Through understanding the impermanence of each day, each experience, we can learn to hold on to those things that bring us joy and happiness. These are the things we should savor! And at the same time, we can take comfort in knowing that when we are in pain, the sorrow will fade with time.

(On the other hand, I want to make a point here that feeling hopeless is very different from feeling sad. Sadness does fade, but a sense of true hopelessness may indicate depression which is a serious condition. If you are experiencing this, I urge you to connect with a healthcare professional immediately to seek help. Please send me a private message if you would like additional information or assistance with starting the process.)

Today, I want to share with you some of my best tips (and those of others) which are likely to help you embrace, and eventually love, the journey on which you find yourself. Remember, you are the only person who determines how you experience your life. While we may encounter occurrences that we don’t expect, we always have the ability to choose how we respond to and move forward from these events.

Learn to be present. Ever tried to practice yoga with cats around? It’s almost impossible to let your mind wander because your cats will keep bringing you back to the present moment whether they’re rubbing their squishy faces on your legs, or batting their paws at your hair, or trying to take a nap underneath you while you’re in downward dog. This example often comes to mind when I think of being present because it’s all about fully participating in the moment and allowing your senses to be fully engaged with your surroundings.

Put the distractions away (yes, even your phone – OMG, don’t hyperventilate, I’m only asking you to do this for a short time each day) and be present in the moment for at least a few minutes each day. This may be while you’re out on a walk or spending time with family or friends. It may be while you’re getting a pedicure or back massage. It may be while you practice an art like playing the piano, or painting, or dancing.

Whatever it is, commit to spending some time in which you allow yourself to fully engage in the moment and the pleasure of the activity. At the same time, recognize that your mind will inevitably drift away and when it does, be gracious and lovingly bring your attention back to the present moment. The more we practice this, the better we will become at truly being present (and the less we will find our minds wandering).

Practice flexibility and adaptability. I find this to be very challenging myself, but honestly, the more flexible and adaptable I become, the better I truly feel. A wonderful teacher and mentor, Carole Westerman, recently reminded me that in whatever we are cultivating through our practice (in this case, the practice of yoga), we should become more flexible, not less.

We may adopt a trend or way of life that improves our well-being, like a diet or form of exercise, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of becoming less flexible. For instance, if you adopt an all-organic lifestyle, that’s awesome for you! However, if it means that you suddenly can’t go to dinner with friends or travel or simply enjoy your life, then maybe we should be asking ourselves why we’re doing it.

This doesn’t mean that a particular practice doesn’t have value or isn’t important, but it’s equally important to develop some flexibility. Maybe this means that you have to do some research in advance and suggest restaurants that would be most ideal for you (from the example above). Or maybe it simply means having some tolerance for ambiguity and understanding that you may not be able to control the circumstances of every situation – and that’s okay.

Most importantly, I don’t think it’s healthy to create lots of restrictions for ourselves which prevent us from fully living and experiencing our lives – why not have both?!

Discover things that bring you joy. Yes, just yes! Try new things or pick up old things that you used to love doing. Spend some time doing the activities that bring you joy and savor them. Smile, laugh, share these events with others, and repeat.

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There is no judgement here. In fact, I would encourage you to connect with your inner child and really ask yourself what you find fun. Go play laser tag with your friends or just a group or strangers – don’t knock it until you try it, it’s seriously a great time. Go to a concert, go paintballing with zombies (this is something I actually just bought tickets for and I am stoked!), sign up for a 5K, take up dance lessons or learn to play an instrument, play video games, take up writing, or just go for walk!! Literally, the sky is the limit. Hey – you could even go skydiving (if that’s your thing – heights are totally not my thing!).

Don’t be afraid to be explorative. See what’s happening nearby you. This doesn’t have to be something costly (in fact, it could absolutely be free!). Consider finding an adventurous friend to try some things with you or go on your own!n Above all, have fun and discover some joy.

Find some gratitude. This sounds so simple, but we often forget to do it. A few months ago, I read The Book of Joy (which I highly recommend) and I believe it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who simply reminded readers to “count your blessings.” We (or at least, I) tend to spend a lot of time complaining about things in our lives – all of the shortcomings and disappointments, but we don’t designate much recognition or time to the things for which we should be grateful.

This may sound silly, but it honestly gets easier the more you do it. I always think of my friend and former colleague, Beth, who posted a blank sheet of paper to our shared office door and labeled it, “Things I am grateful for…” She gently encouraged me and our third office comrade to participate in her activity (which we rather grudgingly did – at first).

Amazingly, it didn’t take long for us to fill that sheet and even others throughout the building stopped to add their thoughts to the list. Tiny little scribbles barely legible appeared in the margins until there was virtually no space left. So many things I hadn’t even thought of (and can’t specifically recall now) appeared on that list and reminded me of how full my life was (and is) – how many things for which to be grateful.

This is an easy task you can do on your own or with friends or colleagues. Take a blank sheet of paper and write down one thing for which you are grateful. Work on adding just one item each day. It won’t take long for you to fill your sheet and chances are, you will often have more than just one.

Leave the past in the past. Forgive yourself and move on. When you lie awake at night, do you agonize over all of the should-ofs and could-ofs from your life? Stop torturing yourself. We cannot change the past (although sometimes we really, really wish we could). All we can do is learn from those experiences and try our very best to avoid making the same mistakes again.

Have some grace and remind yourself that you are human, which means you (and all of the rest of us) are fallible, imperfect beings. Everyone – EVERYONE – makes mistakes. Stop comparing yourself to others. We can’t possibly know all of the experiences of every person, so we should just stop worrying about other people and instead, focus inward.

If you find it difficult to have some self-compassion (like most of us do), try imagining what you would tell a friend in the same situation (and then, give that very loving and compassionate message to yourself).

Look forward to the future. Put simply, plan with intention and make it happen. Did you know people who write down their goals are more likely to achieve them? It’s true and it’s actually supported by science – in fact, one study found that people were 42% more likely to achieve their goals and dreams when they simply wrote them down on a regular basis.

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What does this mean for you? First, you need to spend some time really thinking about your goals and dreams. Don’t limit yourself (at least not a first) — really indulge your wildest dreams and make a list with everything on it. Challenge yourself – it can be exciting and highly motivating to envision yourself reaching new heights. Once you’ve done that, you can start shaping your list into a more realistic set of goals, both long-term and short-term.

Recently, while standing in the entryway of a friend’s apartment, I noticed a whiteboard which hung next to the front door. There, clearly written out and even numbered (I think to indicate the priority of each) was a list of this person’s goals. It occurred to me that this is the level of commitment we need to actually achieve our goals. It’s important for us to see them and remind ourselves of what we’re working towards frequently, because it helps keep us motivated.

I’m not at all saying that you need to hang your goals next to your front door (though it’s not the worst idea), but I challenge you to actually take the time to write down your goals and keep them close. Check those goals frequently and ask yourself if you’re on track to meet them. Are there things that are keeping you from achieving your goals? Do you need to adjust your goals because of recent changes in your life? Whatever the case, commit to revisiting and even rewriting these goals on a regular basis. Seriously, the science supports it.

Fill your mind with the right stuff. Everything we take in is being filtered by our brains in some way and absolutely impacts our mood and behavior. Be selective about the music you listen to, the books or magazines you read, and even the television or movies you watch. I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever indulge in watching a scary movie, but if that’s all you ever watch, you’ll probably find that your anxiety and paranoia are constantly activated.

Opt for music that helps relax you or lifts your mood. I was at the gym the other night and saw this guy who was in his own world, totally blocking out anyone else in the gym, and he was busting out some pretty serious dance moves to whatever was playing in his earbuds. It made me smile because that’s exactly what our music should do for us – it should move our souls and make us want to dance like no one is watching.

Read books and articles that leave you with a sense of wonder, possibility, or inspiration. This doesn’t mean you have to stop reading fiction (because I love a good suspenseful murder mystery) if that’s your thing. Just consider mixing in some material that leaves you with that feel-good buzz. I already mentioned The Book of Joy, and I’m currently reading Girl, Wash Your Face (both of which I highly recommend), but there are literally tons of great books our there! In fact, just google, “great books that leave you feeling good” or “best inspirational books” and you will find many (many) suggestions.

Okay, you get the idea. Just to be clear, I’m definitely not encouraging you to ignore things that may not be pleasing to you (like the news, for instance – this is not an excuse to be ignorant), but I do think there should be a healthy balance of the type of information we’re receiving each day. This is especially true if you find that your mood is being largely impacted by these things. You know yourself better than anyone else, so listen to what your mind and body are telling you and go with what’s best for you.

Love yourself. Give yourself a virtual (or literal, if you prefer) hug. I mentioned both gratitude and self-forgiveness previously, but these aren’t really the same as actually loving yourself. Do you think you are a good person? Do you like yourself? Do you love yourself? You should! And if you don’t, you’re the only person keeping you from doing so.

That may have felt harsh, but it’s the honest truth — if you don’t love yourself, you are the only person on the planet who can change it. Start focusing on the wonderful qualities about yourself that make you awesome — Are you reliable? Always have a friend’s back? Always willing to help? Genuinely care about your friends? Trust me, there are reasons for you to love yourself and that’s where you need to place your focus.

However, if you find that your list of awesome qualities is shorter than you would like it to be, or if there’s qualities about yourself that you don’t admire, then decide if these things are really important to you. And if they are important to you (don’t worry about other people), change them! If you don’t like that you are constantly breaking your word or bailing on friends, figure out what needs to change so that you can stop doing that.

I want you to love yourself today and tomorrow and always, but recognize that we are all works-in-progress and that is completely okay. It doesn’t make us any less lovable, it makes us human.

Have a sense of humor. Practice laughing when things don’t go the way you planned (instead of exploding with anger or simmering on the inside). Our reaction to unexpected events determines how we experience the world around us. It’s definitely not always easy, but it can really help us cope with life when we approach things with a sense of humor or lightness. And I think it actually helps us with becoming more flexible and adaptable as well.

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I will admit I have a tendency to take things a bit too seriously (just ask any of my friends or family members), but I am ‘seriously’ (pun fully intended) working on this and I think I’m making improvements. And to be honest, when it feels like the only options are to laugh or cry, I would just rather laugh (because no one likes to cry).

If you’re blessed with the gift of quick wit, this can be particularly useful in providing comic relief. It’s not always appropriate, but sometimes what people really need is a reprieve from the seriousness of life and some comic relief can often provide that. I don’t really know how to tell you to read the ‘right’ situation, but I trust you to use your best judgement in knowing when and where this could be useful. It’s okay to laugh, people!

Focus on others. This may sound counter-intuitive initially. But truly, if you’re trying to find some joy in your own life, the most effective way to do that is by focusing on others (in fact, that’s almost the entire point of The Book of Joy — I’ve referenced this twice already so I trust that you can navigate your way to one of the above links if you’re interested in reading it!).

You may consider taking up a cause or volunteering at a local community center – both of which would be great ideas and worthy endeavors. However, there’s something you can easily do today that doesn’t take a lot of time or effort  and that’s to simply listen. I mean really listen to the people around you.

Most people in [emotional] pain just want to feel heard and you can offer that. It’s easy (well, maybe it’s not that easy)! Just shut your mouth, stop talking, and pay attention (you can reference my earlier point about learning to be present if you’re not sure how to do this, but I have a feeling you do).

You don’t need to have all of the answers. You don’t need to have access to lots of resources. You don’t need to provide any solutions. All you have to do is listen. Just try it, what do you have to lose?

Final Thoughts

Trust your instincts when it comes to doing things that will help you learn to love your journey. Like I’ve said before (and will definitely say again), you know yourself better than anyone else.

Remember that we only have today – tomorrow is not promised to us. Recognize the impermanence of everything and start embracing your journey today.

 

References

Bluerock, G. (2017). 6 ways to love your life more. Life. Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/6-ways-to-love-your-life-more_b_8295318

Morrissey, M. (2016). The power of writing down your goals and dreams. Huffpost. Retrieved October 11, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/marymorrissey/the-power-of-writing-down_b_12002348.html

Priebe, H. (2018). 33 simple ways to fall back in love with your life. Thought Catalog. Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://thoughtcatalog.com/heidi-priebe/2015/10/33-simple-ways-to-fall-back-in-love-with-your-life/

The Pluralism Project. (2018). Creating a mandala. Harvard University. Retrieved October 10, 2018, from http://pluralism.org/religions/buddhism/the-buddhist-experience/creating-a-mandala/

Photo Credits (in order of appearance)

  1. Mandala, Photo by Bharet Dass on Instagram (@bharatdass108)
  2. Smiling woman, Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
  3. Chasing the light in Yosemite, Photo by Grant Ritchie on Unsplash
  4. Just laugh, Photo by Jenna Anderson on Unsplash