As I think many people do, I can get into a mindset of constantly forcing myself to work, and never giving myself a moment of “free time.” If I carefully look at the reason I’m doing that, it’s usually because I’m afraid that, if I stopped working for a moment, I’d somehow never be able to start again. Instead, I would revert to my “true nature” of being lazy, and my lollygagging would continue until the end of my days.
Often, if I honestly ask myself why I’m compulsively working, I also notice that I’m worried about other people’s opinions. After all, I don’t want to be seen as shiftless, selfish or apathetic, and in our culture it often seems like constant activity is valued for its own sake.
But Aren’t We Supposed To Just “Shut Up And Do It”?
The ability to force myself to work even when I don’t feel like it, on the surface, may look like a good thing. I mean, isn’t that what all the “productivity” advice out there tells us — just shut off the internet, grit your teeth and slog your way through what you’re trying to accomplish? Isn’t life all about constantly battling our laziness?
Unfortunately, when I buy into this mentality of pushing myself to work, I usually don’t end up producing much that’s worthwhile. Instead, I normally find myself churning out mediocre work that I probably won’t end up using, or constantly bouncing around between ideas, unsatisfied with everything I come up with.
Listening To Our Laziness
What I’ve found is that I can restore my focus and energy by simply admitting to myself that I don’t feel like working, if that’s the truth in the moment. At times, the truth is even “uglier” than that — sometimes, I can’t even bring myself to care about the work I’m doing or the people I plan to serve with it. If that’s the case, I simply admit it too.
When I acknowledge what’s true for me right now in my relationship with my work, it’s as if muscles I didn’t know I had suddenly relax. Often, the sense of relief I experience is so palpable that I start laughing. And then, a moment later, my vitality and sense of purpose come back, and pretty soon I’m able to get back to work again without so much struggle and frustration.
Why does this happen? My sense is that we diminish our vitality whenever we reject what we’re actually thinking and feeling. If some part of me feels frustrated and unmotivated, and I basically try to beat that part into submission or pretend it doesn’t exist, the war I’m fighting against myself drains my energy. It’s much easier if I make peace with the part that doesn’t want to work right now, and let it know I’m willing to hear it out.
So if you ever hear me say “I hate writing” or something along those lines, rest assured, it’s just because I’m motivating myself.
At some point in your life, I’ll bet you felt like you weren’t getting enough done. You wished you could keep your attention on your work, and stop “procrastinating” by doing frivolous or unimportant things, but it just didn’t seem possible. I used to have this problem myself, until I had a realization one day that transformed my understanding of what procrastination is and how to deal with it.
At work, I would sometimes have trouble staying on task. After working on a project for a little while, I’d find myself losing focus and finding ways to avoid being productive. I would deal with low-priority work issues, read the news, or get antsy and pace around the room. I’d try to get back to my project, but I’d feel like every cell in my body was resisting my will.
My normal reaction to this experience was one I think most of us identify with—I shamed myself. “Come on, get a work ethic,” I’d tell myself. My belief was that I procrastinated because I was fundamentally a lazy and selfish person, and that I only cared about doing what I wanted to do instead of helping others achieve their goals. The only way to change this mindset, I figured, was to punish myself until I became willing to change my evil ways. Unfortunately, beating myself up only seemed to strengthen my body’s resistance to getting work done.
One day, however, I made an interesting observation while I was having trouble focusing. I noticed that, while I was reading the news, checking e-mail, or doing some other unproductive activity to avoid work, I wasn’t actually enjoying myself. Even as I procrastinated, I was thinking to myself “this is boring. I want to do something else.”
This observation didn’t support my theory that I procrastinated because I was lazy and only cared about having fun. If that were true, you’d think I would have enjoyed my frivolous diversions. But in fact, while I was in “procrastination mode,” I didn’t like doing anything. Procrastination, I recognized, was just a symptom of an overall attitude that sometimes overtook me—an attitude of refusing to accept the situation I was in, regardless of what it was.
For whatever reason, I had moments when my mind basically decided it wasn’t okay with any aspect of reality, and became determined to reject anything the world gave it as inadequate and “boring.” I call this mindset one of non-acceptance. Some spiritual teachers call it “saying ‘no’ to the present moment.” I procrastinated when I was in this state.
Happily, simply recognizing that I was in a place of non-acceptance had the effect of liberating me from that place. If I just admitted to myself that I was saying “no” to my situation, without punishing myself for it, I’d find my refusal to accept reality dissolving, and a peace and alertness pervading my body. Once in this state, I could concentrate on my work again.
If you find yourself procrastinating at times, and you want to improve your ability to focus, I have two suggestions for you that build on the realization I described.
First, be aware of, and acknowledge, when you’re in a state of non-acceptance. To start doing this, notice that, when you find yourself procrastinating, nothing seems to satisfy you. You can try doing a few different activities to prove this—you can read the news, play solitaire, call a friend or loved one, and so forth. You’ll start to see that, when you’re in a state of non-acceptance, everything you do seems to be inadequate, boring or unfulfilling for one reason or another.
The central lesson here is that, when you are in this state, looking for something better to do won’t help, but recognizing that you have this attitude will get you back on track. Once you see that your mind is generally rejecting reality in that moment, admit it to yourself. Saying it out loud, for me, is the quickest way to dissolve my state of non-acceptance. “I don’t like anything right now,” I’ll say to myself. “Nothing is good enough.” Normally, when I say this, I find myself laughing, and the boredom and discomfort I had been feeling disappear.
Second, start noticing what events tend to put you into a state of non-acceptance. In other words, what usually happens right before you lapse into that state? Maybe it’s a communication with a certain person at work; a particular type of document you have to prepare; a certain hour of the day; or something else. For example, I would start “saying no” to the world whenever I’d get an e-mail from a colleague checking on my progress on a project. I’d feel like they didn’t appreciate the quality of my work or how much effort I put into it, and I’d start getting resentful. For at least a few minutes after I got that e-mail—and perhaps a few hours—nothing I would do would seem enjoyable or meaningful.
When I figured out that I’d start rejecting reality whenever I would receive this type of e-mail, I became mentally prepared for, and able to stay productive in, that situation. Whenever I’d get an e-mail checking on my progress, I would simply acknowledge to myself that I was about to enter a state of non-acceptance, and that, once I was in that state, nothing would be able to satisfy me. Admitting to myself I was about to say “no” to the world would dissipate my resistance to reality and help me regain my focus.
Why do certain situations cause us to reject reality? In my view, we say “no” to the world when we feel that the world doesn’t love or appreciate us. Saying “no” is our way of telling the world “you don’t care about me, so I’m not going to enjoy you or do anything for you.”
Often, the situations where we react this way resemble moments from our childhoods when we felt rejected or neglected by our parents. For instance, after some reflection, I recognized that, when a colleague would ask how my project was going, I would feel the same way I did when, as a kid, one of my parents asked whether I was done with my chores yet. In those moments, I felt like I was only appreciated for the quality of my work—as though I were a machine, or something less than human—and I’d feel the vindictive urge to shut out the world.
Overcoming procrastination is about becoming aware of those situations where you tend to reject reality. Simply gaining that awareness, and acknowledging—without beating yourself up—when you’ve said “no” to your circumstances, is an effective method for dissolving that “no” and getting your productivity back. Just accepting the fact that you’re in a rut, without blame or judgment, is often the fastest way to pull yourself out of it.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Engaged Spirituality, located at http://virtualteahouse.com/blogs/beth/archive/2008/05/05/2nd-carnival-on-engaged-spirituality-engaging-resistance.aspx.)
I have a friend who would like to start her own business as an interior designer, and leave her current 9-to-5 job as a computer programmer. She’s convinced that she has the skills, the startup capital, the contacts and so forth to make it happen. But she’s still too scared to make the change. Why? Because, she says, if she leaves her current job she’ll be “unemployed.”
At first glance, my friend’s belief seems strange. If she makes the transition she wants, she’ll be the owner and CEO of her own company, with total control over the operation of her business. She’s saved up enough money to pay her expenses while she builds up a client base. And she’ll have made a career out of doing what she loves. Why would she think of that situation as “unemployment”?
The answer is that my friend simply can’t accept the idea that it’s possible to have a career that doesn’t involve going into an office every weekday, remaining there between at least 9 and 5 o’clock, being gradually promoted through a large corporate hierarchy and drawing a steady salary. All the jobs she’s held during her working life have had those features. Anything else, to her, is “unemployment,” and her family and friends—having had the same type of work background—are likely to feel the same way.
When I told people in my life I was leaving the legal profession to be an author and success coach, I learned that some of them shared this attitude. “How’s unemployment treating you?” one asked. “So when do the unemployment checks start rolling in?” another teased. I explained to them that I was not “unemployed”—I was simply going into business for myself. They smiled and nodded, but it was clear what they were thinking—“yeah, make all the excuses you want—you’re still unemployed in my book.”
“Unemployment” has nasty connotations for most of us. We often associate it with being lazy, not being good enough to “make the cut” at work, being on the government “dole,” displeasing our families and friends, being unattractive to potential mates, and so on. Thus, for many of us, the fear that we will be perceived as “unemployed” is enough to keep us in conventional 9-to-5 jobs and prevent us from doing anything entrepreneurial, even if the latter is what we truly desire.
If you’re thinking of leaving your current job and starting your own business, I don’t want the fear of “unemployment” to stop you. If you’re struggling with this fear, take a look at the observations I make below and see if they do anything to change your perspective.
First off, if going into business for yourself makes you “unemployed,” the “unemployed” of this world are quite a distinguished bunch. The founders of Apple, Google and Microsoft—who, as most of us know, are now some of the wealthiest people in the world—were also “unemployed” by this definition during the startup phases of their companies. If they’d worked conventional 9-to-5 jobs instead of striking out on their own, their ultra-successful businesses wouldn’t be around today.
My larger point is that no conventional 9-to-5 jobs would even exist if no one had been willing to start a business in the first place. If no one had taken that initiative, there would be no companies to employ the massive legions of salaried office workers in our society. Someone’s got to take the financial risks associated with entrepreneurship for our economy to operate at all.
I think that, on some level, most people who fear entrepreneurship because they view it as equivalent to “unemployment” are aware of this. It’s not that they think going into business for oneself is inherently bad or impossible—they simply think it would be “arrogant” or “unrealistic” to believe they could do it successfully. They predict that, if they started a business, they would end up in the circumstances we typically associate with unemployment—i.e., broke, “on the dole,” having nothing in particular to do, and so on. “Bill Gates may have done it,” they think, “but I’m not Bill Gates.”
In other words, people who suggest that they’d be “unemployed” if they started a business are really just expressing feelings of inadequacy about themselves. And if someone says the same about your entrepreneurial aspirations, they’re probably motivated—at least in part—by envy or resentment. Because they don’t think they have what it takes to strike out on their own, they feel that you’re acting like you’re superior to them by doing what they couldn’t bring themselves to do.
But what if you recognize this feeling of inadequacy in yourself, and it’s preventing you from pursuing your business idea? I recommend that you start by contemplating what would happen if you started your own business venture and it failed. Suppose your company consistently failed to generate enough revenue to cover its costs. What would be true about you, and what would happen in your life, if that worst-case scenario came to pass?
I’ve asked this question in the past to clients who were considering career transitions. Interestingly, their fears surrounding failure don’t usually concern their survival or their financial circumstances. They’re not afraid that they’ll starve to death, be unable to support their children, lose their homes, and so forth. Whatever happens from a financial perspective, they’ll probably find ways to get by. Instead, they’re afraid of others labeling them in hurtful ways. They envision their loved ones, friends, acquaintances and others saying or thinking things like “I always knew he’d never amount to anything,” “see, she’s nothing but a bum,” “he’s like a daydreaming child with no common sense,” and so on.
However, people usually don’t examine why they are trying so hard—even to the point of stifling their career aspirations—to avoid the possibility of others’ disapproval. When I ask them what would happen if their business failed and someone else attacked or ridiculed them for it, they typically give one of two answers. Sometimes, they can’t quite pinpoint what bad things would happen if someone disapproved of them—they just have the gut feeling that they need everybody to like them. At other times, they find themselves coming up with an answer that is irrational or ridiculous on its face—for instance, that they’d die if someone else disliked them.
Either way, when people seriously consider this question, they usually start to doubt that their fears of “unemployment” are a sufficient reason to avoid going off on their own. Understanding what they’re truly afraid of gives them a feeling of freedom to explore career possibilities they hadn’t thought were open to them before.
I invite you to try this exercise. Ask yourself what you’re really afraid will happen if you start a business venture and it fails. I think you’ll find that your fears surrounding “unemployment” aren’t as reasonable or convincing as you’d thought.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Success and Abundance Mindset, located at http://www.thehomebasedbusinesscenter.com/blog/success-and-abundance-mindset-042408.htm.)