Podcast 147: Still not starting

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Hi, everyone. I’m posting one of my early podcasts about dealing with not being able to get started. I’m doing that partly because I feel stressed out and uncreative and have zero ideas for what to write about today. And I’m posting this particular one because I think it’s helpful information for our current situation.

The coronavirus pandemic is causing stress for everyone. Stress induces your prefrontal cortex to shut down. That part of your brain is responsible for impulse regulation, and also for focus and motivation. Not getting much done these days? That’s why.

I chose this podcast to replay because I know many people feel that they should be super productive now when they have all this extra time on their hands. But maybe you should just give yourself a break and realize that your brain doesn’t always know best. I hope this helps.

This is podcast 71 and my topic is starting. I talked about that a few podcasts back, where I gave some ideas on how to get into action when you find yourself continuing NOT to. This time I’ll talk less about technique and more about mindset, or the emotional background to starting. Or not starting.

Sometimes not starting means you’re procrastinating. But whenever you bring up that word, you start talking about what you’re procrastinating about and why you’re procrastinating and then go looking for one of those lists of ways to quit procrastinating. More technique, in other words.

Other times, not starting feels like a deeper issue. It’s not just slacking off, or doing something you’d rather do. It’s about who you are as a person, or it feels that way. I’m having problems with not starting with my artwork so this is on my mind right now.

When I notice I’m not starting to work on art, I’m not inclined to look around for ideas on getting myself to start. No, I’m reflecting inward and observing the void of me not working and making negative judgments about it. I’m grimly remembering how often I have not started in the past. I’m defining myself as a person who doesn’t start.

Needless to say, this does not motivate me to change because I’ve already decided that I can’t start, or at least, I’m pretty terrible at starting. I don’t want to add another black mark to my eternal personal record by not starting again.

This taint spreads to other parts of my life where I eagerly ferret out examples of myself not doing something I should, or need to. By this time, there’s no going back from the downward spiral.

At this point, it’s very hard for me to resist jumping into fix-it mode, for myself and for you. I have a ton of ideas for what might help, what might get things moving and feelings improving. I feel responsible for having the answers and imparting them so I can help people.

I want to stick with this, though, and try to get a better picture of what’s happening. Maybe this happens to you too. How do you feel when you’ve failed once again to declutter your bedside table, which really is not rocket science?

For some reason, we dwell much more on our failures than our successes. Every day, we do a bunch of things pretty well. But if they’re things that “anybody” could do, we don’t value them a lot. We value the hard things, the ones that superior people magically can do. We start painting ourselves into a corner of “can’t do” and the things we actually can do feel very distant and irrelevant.

Although I notice this regularly, I am still always surprised at how black and white my thinking gets. I totally lose sight of the bigger picture. I can only see this awful little corner I’m stuck in, probably forever.

I do find it helpful to observe all this. identifying and expressing how I feel moment by moment somehow allows me a bit of objectivity. Not enough to extricate myself from the corner just yet, but enough to at least entertain the notion that I may in fact not feel this way tomorrow. In this moment, I don’t believe that’s true, but I’m willing to accept that it’s possible.

A further observation is that even if I feel better tomorrow, more motivated, more positive, more energetic, I will feel crappy again in the future. The feelings I have now, feeling bad about not starting, will go away, but then they’ll come back. They’ll go away and then come back. And so on and so on.

This idea is strangely comforting to me. Maybe a part of me stops resisting the negative feelings so much because it seems they’re part of me and I can’t avoid them forever. I don’t have to embrace them or like them. I don’t have to get out my gratitude journal or run out and do a good deed for a stranger. I don’t have to do anything at all. Like ocean tides, these feelings will come and go.

For once, I’m not giving you an action step, except to let yourself, allow yourself, to be aware of what’s happening inside when you don’t start. Whatever you struggle with, whether making art or organizing your life (or both), you’ll be here again. See if you can allow it without judging it.

I want to credit my inspirations for what I’ve presented today. First, a great book called The Creativity Book by Eric Maisel. The author is encouraging and compassionate. Second is the Zen Habits blog written by Leo Babauta. He is great at revealing our human habits and beliefs so we can change them. Third is a book I’ve quoted before, the War of Art by Steven Pressfield, about overcoming resistance.

Decisions Move the World

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Diving board I write a lot about decision making. So much of clutter and other stuff that's in your way is the result of not making decisions about it. The pile of needed decisions keeps growing till you just get overwhelmed by it and then the simplest decision seems strenuous. That naturally induces procrastination.

Why decide? Here's why:

  • When you don't decide, others do it for you. Are they going to pick the choice you want? Uh-uh.
  • The longer you wait to decide, the more likely your desired option(s) will expire or otherwise go away
  • When you avoid deciding to keep your options open, you still don't have that thing you want. You just have the option to have it. Would you rather have the daydream or the real thing?
  • When you boldly make decisions, you stir up positive energy. You take action. You move. You pull it off.

Decision making is a skill you can learn. I'm almost ready to publish my new info program about decision making and habit building, where I teach you both those vital skills. So, stay tuned, or drop me a line in the comments. What can I help you with today?

Diving board from vauvau's photostream.

Rename Your Junk Drawer

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It's time to rehabilitate the much-maligned junk drawer. In the unlikely event that you don't have one, this is a drawer, usually in the kitchen, that acts as a catch-all for small items and pieces of other items that you don't have time to put away or don't know where to put.

People are often embarrassed to admit that they have junk drawers, but I say using a drawer for this purpose is a heck of a lot better than letting those doohickeys clutter up the rest of the house. Also, sometimes it doesn't make sense to figure out where else to put something, such as a screw or foot that came off something recently, you just need to remember what.

Many things in the junk drawer really are just junk, or they become junk after a certain amount of time. So, the idea is to rename this receptacle the "ripening drawer." This gives you a way to think about what's in there as green, ripe or rotten. The green items are still waiting to become useful, the ripe ones are useful now, and the rotten ones have lost their usefulness and need to be tossed.

What else goes in a ripening drawer? Semi used batteries, match books (particularly ones with something written on them), take out menus, coupons, business cards, the aforementioned pieces of things that need to be reunited, etc.

Every time you look in there, rummage around and see if you can find some rotten stuff; expired coupons, leaking batteries and parts of things you now realize you've thrown away. This is a good technique if you have a hard time tossing stuff in the moment. Once a little time passes, it's easier to make that decision.

Beautiful fruit from Gilgongo's photostream

Procrastination Strategies

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“Talk of the Nation” did a show about procrastination recently featuring psychology professor Timothy Pychyl and philosophy professor John Perry. I read Perry’s funny article about structured procrastination several years ago and I still laugh every time I read it. Not only that, it’s a good strategy!

A very interesting point that Pychyl brought up is that there’s no evidence of the “arousal procrastinator,” that is, people who work best under pressure and let things wait until the last minute. Arousal types are characterized by extroversion, sensation-seeking and reducing/augmenting behavior (of desired emotional states).

Lots of people believe that they do their best working right up to the deadline but apparently, that’s just an illusion. It can also be learned behavior, if that’s the only way a person has ever approached deadlines.

Another fascinating finding has to do with procrastination and self-forgiveness. A study to discover whether people would procrastinate less the next time if they forgave themselves for the current instance found that, yes, it did work that way.

The unexpected result was that this was much more true for the women in the study. One theory is that “procrastination is related to self-worth or self-esteem for females but not males.” Who knew?

A third interesting point Pychyl made is that all delay is not procrastination. It’s only procrastination when you set an intention to do something by a particular time. So, there’s your loophole…

[photo by ShereenM]

Why I Procrastinate

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Why do I procrastinate? Yes, I do it too! I distinguish between taking personal time and actual procrastination (which is an essential skill for solopreneurs), but procrastination does happen.

Holding hands When I'm procrastinating it's usually because I think I won't do a good job or I think I'll outright fail at something. So, it's fear, mostly. When I'm trying to think of something to write on this blog, I reject lots of ideas because they seem too obvious or I don't think I have anything interesting to say about them.

I don't like to fail or to be wrong. No one does. I have to take myself by the hand and reassure my scared little self that if I don't do anything, that's another way of failing, so why not "just do it"?

What's the worst that could happen?
That people will think I'm stupid and irrelevant. Actually, what's even worse is that no one will pay attention to me! Again, if I don't give them the opportunity to ignore me, I also don't give them the chance to read something that might interest them.

Being more objective about my task helps me. As a professional organizer, it's part of my job to write posts that help people. I do it because it's my job, not because I want people to like me (okay, I do want that, but I can't focus on it). I can't help all of the people all of the time, but I know that some of my ideas are good and will help some people. That's enough.

Other reasons to procrastinate: you prefer thinking up ideas to doing the actual work, you don't want to be controlled by others ("you can't make me!"), you always put the needs of others before your own, or you can't get going until you're in crisis mode.

How do you procrastinate and what do you do about it? I don't think it's possible to completely avoid doing it; just learn to recognize it and fix it. We all need little tricks up our sleeves to get going again.

Hand holding from dino_olivieri's photostream.

Quick Tips for Beating Procrastination

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Steps Got a project that’s bogged down? Finding it hard to get started at all? Here are some ideas:

  • Break your project down into steps. Now, divide the steps into even smaller pieces. Keep dividing until you get to a piece small enough that it seems easy to do. Then do just that piece.
  • Start your project somewhere in the middle or at the end. It can be easier to fill in backwards once you get going. Think of what you know how to do right now.
  • Begin with the part you like best. When you’re really into the project and making good progress, use that motivation to complete the less appealing parts of it as you go along.
  • Have several projects going at once. Procrastination on one can mean progress on another. If you do switch back and forth, make notes about what you’ve done already and what the next step is. That way you can get up to speed quickly the next time you work on the project.
  • Try “structured procrastination.”  Trick yourself by putting tasks that seem to have deadlines and seem very important at the top of the list.  Then allow yourself to procrastinate by doing the other tasks on the list first

Steps from judepics‘s photostream

Where Does Clutter Come From?

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Clutter comes from many sources; a primary one is what we call delayed decision making.

That’s when things pile up because you haven’t made a decision to move them on to their next stop: being put away, thrown away, taken to the cleaners, returned to their owner, tossed in the Goodwill bag, shredded, mailed back or foisted off on someone else.

Work in progress Clutter can also come from projects in progress.

It’s understandable to want to leave everything out until you finish whatever you’re working on, but if you’re working on more than one thing at once and you’ve got the kitchen table, the dining table, your desk and the living room coffee table covered with projects, there’s no room to eat dinner or set down a tea cup.

Here’s how to combat this problem:

  • Make it easy to put things away
  • Get in the habit of putting things away
  • Embrace the idea of completion

Make it easy to put things away by getting a box or special
case (for jewelry making, for example) to keep your project supplies in. Use a
container if the place you work is different from the place you store
the supplies so you can easily carry them back there. Or set aside some
space on a bookshelf or in a drawer in the room you work in to stash
your project.

Get in the habit of putting things away by remembering and visualizing
how you want the space to look when you’re not working. Think of
putting things away as setting them up for your next session.

These techniques make tidying feel like a positive and beneficial activity, rather than a big drag that you want to avoid.

Completion means that even if your project is unfinished, you still put things away after each session of working on it. Don’t rely on seeing your stuff out on the table to remind you to finish. If you’re busy and have several projects going, that kind of reminder just doesn’t work. It often has the opposite effect; to make you feel guilty that you haven’t finished!

For each session there are three steps: get out your supplies, work on the project, put everything away. Don’t stop after step two!

Conquering Perfectionism

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I wrote about perfectionism back in December, but it’s a topic that comes up a lot, with clients and in everyday conversation, so I’m addressing it again.

This time I’m going to quote from a great book about procrastination called It’s About Time by Dr. Linda Sapadin. Perfectionism is one of six ways that she identifies as procrastination styles. The others are dreaming, worrying, defying, crisis making and overdoing.

I won’t go into what makes a perfectionist procrastinate because you probably already know! Instead, I’ll paraphrase what Dr. Sapadin suggests to get over it.

  • Do some creative visualization. Perfectionists are often tense. Use the visualization to show yourself that everything is fine, including you.
  • Realize that the rest of the world can’t live up to your high standards. Then realize that you can’t either, because they’re impossibly high
  • "Strive for excellence rather than perfection." Focus on excellence and you’ll focus on results. Focus on perfection and you’ll get lost in all the tiny details before you can get to the results.
  • Stay with what’s realistic, not what’s ideal. There are many ways to achieve any result and your choice may be informed by time and resources available. If you’re realistic about that, you can still achieve excellence.
  • Don’t think in terms of "all or nothing." Life is not a pass/fail course. Give up rigid ways of thinking for more creative possibilities.

See if any of these techniques work for you. Try to resist trying each, in the order presented, even if you are a perfectionist!

Does a To-Do List Have to be a List?

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Most of us are way too busy to remember all that we need and want to get done. That means it’s important to use a tool of some kind to keep track of it all. The most common one is a to-do list.

What if you hate lists? What if the prospect of making a list fills you with terror? What if your list is so long that you want to go straight back to bed and forget about it?

The good news is, you can use other tools.

To get your list down to a manageable size, divide and rename it. If you have an aversion to doing that intimidating important thing on your list, use a little structured procrastination. If you just don’t want to write a list, draw it instead.

Alexia Petrakos of the Alternating Current wrote today about how to-do lists suck. She’s tried written lists six ways from Sunday and they just don’t work for her. Her solution is to make maps and pictures instead.

I like how she describes the activity of map making and how moving her hand, hearing the sound of the marker (and sometimes the scent), and looking at them on her wall all help her remember and keep track of what she’s doing.

Appealing to multiple senses and learning styles is super effective.

I get the same result from writing my lists over and over again. I’m visual but I’m also wordy. Once I’ve written something, I have a visual memory of where it is on the page and the words I used to describe the task. Sometimes I don’t even need to look at the list again because the act of writing cemented it in my mind.

I never get that sense when I make lists on my computer, so I don’t do that anymore.

If you hate lists, quit making them. Try drawing as Alexia does. Try mind mapping, a specific type of drawing with words and pictures. If a technique doesn’t work for you, dump it and go for another one.

Do you prefer drawing to writing? Have a to-do list horror story to share? Let me know in the comments!

Tricks to Motivate You

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Magician I answered a question on Linked In today about whether it’s possible to become more disciplined. My answer wasn’t really about discipline though, because that word turns me off. It makes me think of following rules, being punished if I don’t, rigidity and fear. Ick.

So my answer was about motivation instead. And tricks. Fun ways to get yourself to do stuff.


If the end result of your work is something you really, really want, it’s not hard to get motivated. If you don’t want the result, why bother? Whatever project you’re putting off, trace it back and find out what the original motivation was and whether it’s still valid.


If it’s valid and you still don’t want to do it, pay someone else to do it! Or, try some of these tricks.
  • Work on your project for just two minutes. Use a timer. If you get inspired, keep going. If not, you got two minutes worth done, more than you had before.
  • Imagine the day is over and you’re looking back over what you got done. What will make you feel like you got something really worthwhile accomplished? Then, do that thing.
  • Make a “Not To Do” list. Put anything that you’re not getting around to and that can go undone without the planet exploding. Keep the list somewhere safe. This tells your brain that it can forget about those things and relieves you of that mental clutter.

What tricks do you use to get yourself going and stay on task?


Rabbit out of a Hat from laneesque’s photostream.