Procrastination comes in many forms. One of the most insidious forms is “I’m not ready.” Or, “First I need to do this in order to be ready.”
This form of procrastination most often manifests on the verge of large, important projects. They are often projects we care personally and deeply about. We are theoretically excited by them. We see them as being significant, profound and perhaps even life-changing. And yet we manage to avoid doing them.
To be completely honest, I have engaged in this particular form of work avoidance many, many times in my life. And I probably will again. I have, in fact, arguably been inhabiting some form of it intensively over the last four months, and on an intermittent, more lingering form for years.
The project in question is a repurposing and expansion of education material that I developed over a number of years, and formed the basis of a certificate program that we successfully delivered in partnership with a university in Alberta over a period of many years. I had undertaken a significant redevelopment of the course materials just prior to the relationship dissolving at the end of 2017.
The program is solid. It has delivered to rave reviews since it launched, and hundreds have participated in the workshops since. The last time that the program was delivered was one of the best yet. The curriculum is modular, delivers well, has a solid theoretical foundation but is practical, engaging, relevant and fun. And currently, it isn’t being delivered anywhere in the world, which is a tragic shame. I have a killer curriculum but no audience to which to deliver it.
While the program has a solid reputation and is well received, that is not to say that it doesn’t have its challenges. It is intensive—fourteen days. We used to deliver it as one cohort, before modularizing it to make it more flexible. It is targeted to an advanced audience, so it isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Delivering education in-person is expensive, and there is a critical number of participants that are required in order to simply break even (which is finally what killed the delivery partnership).
I started this article talking about procrastination. I am now talking about a completed program that I have not only developed but also have substantially revised several times. You might legitimately wonder where I am going with this. Since the dissolution of the partnership, I’ve been contemplating shifting delivery of the curriculum online. Rather than limiting availability to defined dates in a specific geographic locale, the hope is to open up accessibility and availability of the materials to anyone that wants to access them, anywhere in the world, all on their schedule.
And that, dear reader, is the project that has had me stalled. Prior to this year, I’ve had the excuse of other client commitments getting in the way. Certainly, that is a factor. There are only so many hours in the day, and when many of them are tied up with client work, it’s easy to declare yourself “busy” and fence off any consideration of any other activities. Since the start of the pandemic, however, I have not had that excuse. While theoretically having every possible good intention of moving forward on this project, progress to date has been fairly abysmal.
While this is my personal experience on this particular project, it is not unique to other projects I have considered undertaking. It is also not a phenomenon, I believe, that is unique to me. Getting started is hard. Tackling the really big, really important projects that we care about deeply is proportionally harder. But if we want to make progress and get them done, we need to get over ourselves and get on with it.
There are several influences at play in how we conspire to avoid the things we say we care about doing the most. A common deflection is the need to research. There is reading to be done, books to explore, articles to find. We feel that we don’t know enough, that we haven’t searched comprehensively enough, that we might miss something. Research feels like a way of getting ready, in that we are priming the pump so that when we do undertake the work, it will be with the confidence that we have pursued every avenue and covered every eventuality.
Fundamental to this form of procrastination is also the need to build a plan. Recognizing the significance, scope and scale of what we are undertaking, we need to develop a strategy. We need to parse out the activities that are required, and figure out how and when they can get done. We need to carve out time from our already full schedules to make them happen. But first we need a big-picture vision of how it will all come together again. So even more planning may be in order.
Our plan, in turn, often highlights a number of gaps in our skills and competencies. To tackle our project, there are things we need to learn. We need new knowledge and abilities. There are things that we don’t know how to do that we will—or might be—called on to perform. We need new talents and expertise, or our enterprise will fail. We need to go back to the books and invest again in learning.
Finally, there is the need to actually get ready. We may need to clean our office before we can get started. Or our office may need reorganizing. We may, in fact, need to invest in building the perfect workspace so that we can be inspired and engaged and eliminate distractions. There is also the need to acquire office supplies. Or we may need different office supplies. Or—my favourite—we need special office supplies. We require just the right notebook. Because of the significance of the work, we want—no, need—a special pen. Normal, prosaic paper, notebooks, pens or pencils simply won’t do.
What all of this speaks to is a level of perfectionism. It is perfectionism that works on multiple levels, though. It starts with wanting the work to be perfect, to be the fullest and most complete expression of what is possible. That means that we need perfect understanding of all of the factors and considerations that might come into play. We need perfect knowledge of what we are doing, and perfect skills by which to do them. We need the perfect environment for the work, and the perfect tools—arranged just so—in order to make it happen. Above all, we need to perfect ourselves, so that we come to the task with the right mindset and preparation and focus and attention.
In case it’s not entirely obvious at this point, everything I’ve just defined is an utter load of crap. If we wait for the perfect time and the perfect place and the perfect version of ourselves, the work is never, ever going to happen. We are human. We have lives. Our lives are full of activity and interruptions and distractions and opportunities and emergencies that need responding to. If we care about doing something, we need to carve out the time that we can and get on with the doing, with whatever tools, attention, focus and mental capacity we can muster in the moment. We need to accept that good enough is good enough, and we can build on that to better if the need arises in the future.
That’s not to say that we don’t fall for all of the things I just enumerated. I certainly do. Going back to the project I’ve been circling for months (or years, depending on how you look at it) I’ve set many obstacles in my path. Delivering learning workshops online is a different form than in person, and requires different methods of engagement. Interaction is harder. Community and collaboration and connection with other students is more complicated. Different exercises are needed, and different ways of presenting are required.
All of this requires mastery of a number of different skills. Online delivery requires the creation—and potentially the programming—of a learning platform that the content can be built upon. The curriculum needs to be restructured. Exercises need to be rethought. Delivery now involves recording, editing and structuring audio and video in a way that can still be engaging for people sitting on the other side of a screen. All of that requires different teaching skills, technical skills, presentation skills and content than currently exists.
While I’m pleased to say that I’ve gotten over my obsession with office supplies and paraphernalia (although I’m still partial to Leuchtturm notebooks and fountain pens, I no longer define access to them as a barrier to getting work done) that doesn’t mean that other factors haven’t gotten in the way. At one point over the summer, I created a plan and to-do list that covered three pages, enumerating all the work that I had to do before I could get started on developing the course material.
Do I have to do all of those things? Probably not. Are some of them useful? Perhaps. But setting them up as actions to be completed before progress can be made is creating what in no uncertain terms is a roadblock. All I’m doing is throwing obstacles in front of myself that are keeping me from doing work that I theoretically care about accomplishing. Ultimately, there is a fundamental question that needs to be asked: “Why am I doing that?” Or, more to the point, why are we all doing that?
I said earlier that this is a particularly insidious form of procrastination. It takes a very different form. With most procrastination, we are avoiding work—and we know that we are avoiding work. We are putting off doing things that we don’t want to do. When we use the excuse of “not ready,” however, it feels like we’re working towards the thing we actually want to do. But it never involves actually engaging in the real work. It is working around the edges. It is nibbling at preparatory activities. It is creating the theoretical space to do the work, while never actually building space or getting started.
Instead, we are making the work inaccessible. We are reifying it, identifying it as so important, so significant and so essential that the perfect circumstances must exist before we can get underway. And because those circumstances do not—and in reality probably can not—occur, the work stalls. Which is probably an overgenerous description, as it is questionable as to whether something can stall that never actually got started in the first place.
What finally got me to recognize and acknowledge this for what it is was something that manifested itself in another, tangentially related project. In configuring a web site, I ran into a technical challenge where I needed two separate, unrelated systems to talk and share information. This speaks directly to some of the things on my list of “must be done before I can get started.” Those include learning the back end of WordPress, and WordPress development, and the PHP language on which it is based. I have still done none of those things. But I tackled the problem, did the research that I needed to sort it out, and in the space of the afternoon had a perfectly serviceable solution reliably in place, that uses all of those technologies. I had the skills that I needed, and where I didn’t, I had enough knowledge, perspective and perseverance to figure it out.
There is no such thing as “ready.” And there is no unique set of activities that are magically required to be done before you can get ready. You are enough. You have enough. You can and will do the best that you can with what you have. And when you know more, you will be able to do more. Perfect is a myth. But good (and even great) are well within reach. So enough. Get started. Because you are as ready as you will ever be.
Lee Jones says
Thanks for the observations. As a ‘not so recovered’ perfectionist, I recognize every one of those activities in my own life.
Mark Mullaly says
Thanks for the feedback, Lee. I suspect they are not foreign activities to many!
Michael Hilbert says
You spoke deep and direct to my heart with your comment about the proper notebook for the task. For me, it is a classic three ring binder for the project file. The bigger the project, the nicer the binder needs to be. I spent many an afternoon searching the building for just the right candidate. If I found a blue one, all was right with the world! On a more serious note, (although the binder story is true), I feel that perhaps we put obstacles in the way of our own progress out of fear. Fear of not being able to meet the schedule or the scope, Fear of not having the ability of muster the team to perform and deliver on time. Fear of being an impostor in our own trade. Or are those obstacles there as potential future excuses for when we look back and see that things did not go according to the plan we developed? And yet, there is that feeling when we finally do get started, that is ALMOST as good, as when we close that notebook for the final time and start the process all over again. I guess that may be what keeps us coming back for more. A wise man once said “But if we really want to do our best—and we want our 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.”
Thank you for the though provoking writing. This one should make us all stop and think!
Mark Mullaly says
Apart from the fear of having the right office supplies, I think a lot of this is about fear. To your list (and I don’t disagree with any of them) I would add fear of failing, fear of being not good enough (also orbiting the impostor syndrome you mention), fear of being criticized despite our best efforts, and fear of the amount of work it will take to do it properly.
Thanks as always for the perspective.