We Often Get In Our Own Way

Lately, I’ve been thinking (and writing) a lot about how we get work done. The focus has been on how we get our personal work done, especially when that work requires creativity and effort, and we are the ones principally responsible for defining, designing and ultimately building the finished product.

Partly, this is simply because I’ve completed a significant quantity of work in the last few weeks. It is also a consequence of thinking a lot about my own work habits and patterns—those that are productive as well as those that get in the way. I also just delivered a webinar on impostor syndrome, which challenges many of us with how we perceive our work, and challenged me to recognize some of those patterns in myself.

A fundamental reality is that when we are working—and particularly when we are needing to be creative in our work—we are putting ourselves out there. We are—we hope—endeavouring to do our best work. We are attempting to deliver results that are meaningful, that are relevant and that have an impact, often without an objective means of assessing its quality.

Putting work out into the world means surrendering it to the perceptions and judgement of others. They will interpret our work products and their relevance, and ultimately they are the final arbiter of the usefulness and meaningfulness of the results. We control the means of production, and transforming our work into a finished product. Once completed and handed over, though, we surrender much of the control of how our work is perceived, evaluated and used.

That’s a scary proposition. In a world where many want clear boundaries around right and wrong and black and white, not having a clear and objective sense of the quality of what we have done—and how the results will be assessed by others—is downright intimidating.

The consequence is that we engage in many behaviours that—to put not too fine a point on it—result in us getting in our own way. The irony of this situation is that rather than trying to maximize the likelihood that our work lives up to its potential and is as good as it can be, we actively undermine it. Our coping and compensating strategies are more likely to compromise the results that we deliver, not enable and enhance them.

One of the most common deceptions that we engage with ourselves is procrastination.

Speaking personally, I have a complicated relationship with the notion of procrastination. There are times that I absolutely, without question engage in it. I know there is a deadline, and I acknowledge its approach. I have a reasonable level of appreciation of what it will take to get the work done, and the effort that will be necessary to complete it well. In fact, my estimate tends to be fairly well refined. At this point in my career, I have a pretty good sense of the magnitude of the work, and I can break the work down and estimate the corresponding effort with a surprising degree of accuracy.

The challenge is not estimation. It is actually getting started. When I’m in procrastination mode, I will acknowledge the deadline. And I will assess my time. And I will adjust my perception of when the work can and will get done in order to meet the deadline. Work I didn’t get done this morning can still fit in tomorrow afternoon. Or the evening of the next day.

What I’m essentially doing is compressing the work into the smallest window of time possible. And I’m progressively removing all margin that might be needed if something goes wrong, or my estimation isn’t quite so finely honed as I imagine. The consequence of this is that I incrementally back myself into a corner, where the only way to successfully deliver by the deadline is to get heads-down, power through and get it done. This usually involves me working hours that I don’t want to, compromising sleep that I’ve rather come to enjoy, and ignoring any other distraction—pleasant or intrusive, urgent or otherwise—until the work gets done.

While I say that I don’t want to work this way, I can also acknowledge that it happens often enough to be a recognizable pattern. It is not motivating in any positive sense, but the pressure to deliver undeniably gets to a result. It is very, very rare a this point when I don’t deliver to a date or time that I’ve committed to. But that doesn’t mean that I enjoy the process any more as a result.

The observant amongst you might be asking, “So what about this makes it a complicated relationship? Looks like a bog-standard, straightforward case of procrastination to me.” And in what I’ve described so far, you would not be wrong. The other side of my creative process, though—the more connected and positive one—recognizes the value of reflection and consideration. It knows the importance of planning and preparation, and the fact that taking the time to organize and prepare means that—done well—the execution effort can be remarkably low.

In other words, the more productive part of me takes the time to plan and consider before actually producing. Particularly where a work product is creative and non-linear, this is critical for me in order to produce a good result. I need to take the time to work through, consider, evaluate and weigh options, and figure out what the solution needs to be.

Often, this planning happens in my head. At best, any outward physical manifestation of progress might be rough notes in a notebook, or a mindmap on a piece of paper. There is a lot of and contemplating and weighing of options. But exceptionally little work product. Until something is ready, it’s not coming out. And then it tends to come out in full form and pretty close to the finished result. From there, minor editing is all that usually is required to get across the finish line.

The consequence is that—to the outside observer, at least—there is precious little objective difference between me procrastinating and me cogitating. Connected contemplation and planning looks identical on the outside to procrastination. The difference is what is going on internally. Connected and productive me is engaged and excited and looking forward to the finished work product, when it’s ready to come out. Procrastinating and avoiding me dreads the work product, and particularly the process of getting there.

What is different, in my internal perception, is attitude and motive. In one orientation, I’m excited, engaged and connected to the work. In another, I’m anxious, detached and disconnected from the work. In both instances, the work comes into being for roughly the same deadline. The difference is the overall effort expended—objectively and psychically—and my satisfaction with the process and the result.

Mine isn’t the only way to procrastinate, of course. Everyone’s experience is different. And there are different motives and drivers and different considerations and consequences. For some, procrastination is a tool of motivation. There are people I know of who genuinely thrive when there is a pressing deadline, and the more urgent the better. It’s a slightly different form of work pressure than fire-fighting, but the underlying reasons are similar: there is a rush of endorphins and adrenaline without which nothing would get done.

In this situation, again, nothing is going to happen until its good and ready to. What’s different is the where and why of the experience. Rather than dreading the result, there is a critical level of stimulation required to engage with and do the work. Without that stimulation, there is no interest, no enthusiasm, and no result.

I suspect this form of procrastination isn’t necessarily as focussed or as conscientious. At least, many of my acquaintances who experience this form of procrastination have a much looser track record of ultimate, on-time performance. The are more likely to ask forgiveness later than they are to consistently hit the mark. Douglas Adams, the author, was famous for this. Most of his Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series was only produced after being locked away in a hotel room, long after the deadline had passed, to churn out a first draft. He is the source of the quote, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Procrastination isn’t the only way that we engage in self-sabotage, although it is an entirely common one. For some of us, we’ve been honing and refining our abilities to put-off and defer since grade school. There is familiar and well-trodden ground there. The grooves of habit are deep, so forging new work practices takes conscious and deliberate effort to defy normal practices (I was going to call them preferences, but that might be a step too far).

Perfectionism is perhaps the other most significant form of stress, anxiety and self-sabotage. The desire to get it right—absolutely note perfect—is the operative motive here, at least on the surface. Probe as to why it has to be perfect, and a different, more insidious cause can be found lurking beneath the surface. Perfectionism isn’t moving towards exceptional work; it’s moving away from criticism.

For the perfectionist, the work cannot be found wanting. There can be no room to find fault. Every argument must be perfect. All grammar must be correct. Each word must be correctly spelled. This is a form of sabotage that deflects and defers completion because there is always just one more thing to get right. Or two. Or three.

Perfectionism can be about process. It can be about content. It can be about facts. It can be about level of detail. It is most certainly about uncertainty. The perfectionist instinct is to continue to refine, to perfect and to optimize, long beyond where refinement has actual utility, because there is work left undone and answers left unadressed. It is the source of the quote attributed to Voltaire, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” It ignores any pragmatic sense of good enough, and resents attempts to sub-optimize.

A refinement of perfectionism is orientation to detail. This is a direct and fundamental consequence of an author’s detail orientation exerting its influence over the finished product. We’ve already established that for many of our deliverables and work products, it is our audience that will ultimately judge quality, completeness and comprehensiveness. And so what we produce should be focussed on what our audience values.

Those values get overridden, though, by a personal value judgement. Our audience may want a summary distillation of the facts. They may be entirely comfortable with—and in fact desiring—a high level summary of what we know, what we’ve evaluated and what we recommend. And they may be perfectly content with making a decision based upon that information.

For the detail-oriented perfectionist, though, this is an unacceptable state of affairs. They wouldn’t dream of making a decision without fully and completely poring over the details. For us to be comfortable doing so is in their eyes unacceptable. They want to take us through the thinking, the analysis, the detail, the rigour, because in their view that’s the only way an informed decision is possible.

Every single one of these behaviours has very similar consequences. Work expands to fill the space available. Deadlines get challenged, and sometimes outright pushed aside or trampled. The needs of our audience—who are the fundamental arbiters of the quality of work—get overridden by our personal needs, anxieties and fears.

The consequence is that—in giving in to our own wants and wishes—we actually deliver a suboptimal product. Partly that’s because we’re not attending to what our audience is truly looking for. And very much because we are letting our own internal narrative about our competency and our work get in the way of actually being competent and doing the work.

So why do we do that? Ultimately, I fear, because it gives us an out. We know our acts of sabotage undermine the quality of the work. We know our anxieties mean our best selves aren’t fully present in the act of creation. We know feeding our own needs displaces the needs of the people we are working to please. And we do it anyway, because then there’s an excuse. If our work is ultimately found wanting, we can credit it to the fact that we were stressed, that we were pressured, that we weren’t as perfect as we wanted or as detailed as we would have liked.

Our not doing our best is—in a very strange and twisted bit of logic—the way we rationalize that we couldn’t do our best work. Which means that if the work is found wanting, there is an external focus for the blame. We don’t have to make it about ourselves. Even if we are the authors of our own misfortune.

Overcoming this isn’t easy. And it will always be tempting to slip into old patterns, especially when those patterns are comfortable and familiar. But if we really want to do our best—and we want our audience to experience our best—then we need to get out of our own way and show ourselves—and the rest of the world—what we are truly capable of.

2 Comments to “We Often Get In Our Own Way”

  1. Michael Hilbert says:

    Thank Mark for an interesting series. The struggle between good and good enough is always a battle and invokes many feelings when a decision between the two needs to be made. I have worked for people who I knew, that my good enough was their GREAT! I also worked for people that I knew their good enough, meant I needed to come with my best. Knowing the customer or reason for the end result goes a long way with making the decision to stop and move on or keep at it until you drop! Have a Great New Year!

  2. Mark Mullaly says:

    Thanks so much, Michael. Glad it resonated.

    Even more challenging is when our own ‘good enough’ fluctuates (often because of pressures and stress about deadlines, or when we are procrastinating). We contain multitudes, and the best that we can deliver on a good day when we are confident and connected is often astonishing.

    Happy new year to you as well.

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