Why we procrastinate the most when we’re working on the right thing

I’ve had trouble focusing today. A lot of the right things were in place: I had a short list of the most important things to do today, my schedule was almost completely clear, I was in my favorite work space with a good friend there to co-work, and I’d gotten lots of sleep.

Usually, these elements are a reliable formula for a productive day–so what happened???

As I noticed myself starting to beat myself up for not having accomplished more today and lamenting the wasted opportunity, I realized: I think I do know what happened.

Today, I was having trouble focusing because I was working on exactly the right thing, and for most of us, certainly including me–it’s when I can actually see the connection between what I’m working on and a picture in my head of getting something I care about, I balk a little.

It threatens my self-concept–not sure exactly how–but, to paraphrase some advice I’ve heard recently, who I am right now can handle exactly amount of success that I have in my life.

So, when I get working on something that goes beyond that, my self-concept is threatened and I get a chorus of voices saying:

“But this isn’t exactly the right thing!”

“This doesn’t feel right.”

“I don’t know what to do next”

And then there’s this kind of mental blankness, and the next thing I know, I’m clicking on the Facebook button in my bookmark bar.

(Okay, that exact problem will never happen again. Because just after I wrote that previous sentence I removed the Facebook button from my bookmark bar.)

I didn’t usually stay distracted for long, since I’ve gotten pretty good at pulling myself back, but even so, the total amount of time spent staring at what I was doing instead of making forward progress was a lot higher than I’d like.

Anyway, increased awareness about what was going on today–that I was butting up against some sort of identity issue–not only resulted in clarity and self-compassion, it also prevented me from making a strategic error.

When I was reviewing what I’d gotten done today, and wishing that I had knocked more things off my to do list, I could feel myself reaching towards a potential solution. I was imagining, probably accurately, that if I had started the day by taking care of a bunch of other things on my to do list that I don’t have blocks around, I would have had more to show for myself. But it also would have been a mistake.

There’s a time and a place for accomplishing more routine tasks, and I do like being on top of them, but I want to be the sort of person who tackles something important that feels uncomfortable…something high value that I’ve been avoiding because it seems hard, and I’m afraid I might not be able to do it.

Even when it means a day where I’m not as focused.

Thank you, Resistance, for letting me know when I’m working on something that I care about, and that I think has the potential to make a difference in my life.

IFS Question #1: How can I access a part if I can’t remember a specific situation?

Today I was teaching one of my clients to do IFS on himself. We were using the appendix from Jay Earley’s Self-Therapy book as a guide, and doing so made me want to make my own list of heuristics for good questions to ask while doing IFS.

The appendix recommends that you access a protector by imagining a situation where the part was activated. My client said that, while he could remember the part being active recently, it would mostly come up in pretty mundane situations, none of which was particularly memorable.

A strategy that has helped me access parts is repeating thoughts (and other mental movements) associated with the part in question, in order to blend with it. So, if I had a part that thought I should be writing more blog posts, I would think of the reasons that it usually gave and repeat them over to myself, possibly even saying them out loud. I would picture whatever I usually think about when having those thoughts, and try to feel the associated emotions.

So, if you’re trying to access a particular part, try the strategy I just described. Chances are, it’ll work for you too!

Key Terms from Crucial Conversations

I wrote this up and gave it out as a handout at one of my recent communication classes at the Happiness Institute.  Crucial Conversations is one of my favorite books on communication, and I particularly like some of the terms it defines.  Here it is!

Start with Heart

To have a good dialogue, figure out what your goal is at the beginning and stay focused on it no matter what.

Ask yourself, “What do I want for me, for others, and for this relationship?”

When our motives change, it’s usually without conscious thought on our part.

When you’re not sure of your motives, ask: “What am I doing, and if I had to guess, what would it say about my underlying motive?”

Once you get back to what you do want, ask yourself, “How could I behave to get these results?”

Three motives that won’t really get you what you want:

  • wanting to win
  • seeking revenge
  • hoping to remain safe

The Pool of Shared Meaning

The goal of a difficult conversation is to get all the relevant information out in the open.

Sucker’s Choice

The Sucker’s Choice is when we tell ourselves a story about how we’re caught between two distasteful options so justify saying or doing something that violates our own values.

To deal with the Sucker’s Choice, clarify what you really want, what you really don’t want, and ask yourself how you can get both.


In difficult conversations, look for signs of either silence or violence in the other person and interpret them as data that tells you the other person is not feeling safe.

Signs of silence:

  • understating or selectively showing our true opinions
  • sarcasm, sugarcoating, and couching
  • steering away from sensitive subjects
  • withdrawing entirely–leaving the conversation or the room

Signs of violence:

  • trying to force others to think about things your way, including:
    • cutting other people off
    • overstating your facts
    • speaking in absolutes
    • changing the subject
    • using directive questions to control the conversation
  • labeling (putting a label on ideas or people so you can dismiss them as being part of a general category)
  • attacking (moving from trying to win the argument to trying to make the other person suffer)

You can help others move from silence or violence to dialogue by demonstrating that their concerns are discussable.

Safety = Mutual Purpose + Mutual Respect

If the other person is using silence or violence, take it as a sign that one of the conditions of safety is being violated.

Mutual Purpose: Do other people believe that I care about their goals in this conversation? Do they trust my motives?

Mutual Respect: Do other people believe that I respect them? Feelings of disrespect tend to come from dwelling on the differences between yourself and others. To respect someone more, think about the similarities between you and the other person.

Contrasting to Regain Safety

Sometimes, people will hear things as bigger or worse than we intend. One tool we can use in these situations is Contrasting, where you clarify:

“I don’t mean X, I do mean Y.”

Contrasting can be used preemptively or after the fact.

STATE when you have something difficult to share

  • State your facts.
  • Tell your story.
  • Ask for others’ opinions.
  • Talk tentatively.
  • Encourage testing.
    • If you sense that the other person doesn’t actually agree with you, play Devil’s Advocate to make it safe for them to speak up.

The 3 Kinds of Clever Stories.

  • Villain Stories (It’s all your fault.)
  • Victim Stories (It’s not my fault.)
  • Helpless Stories (There’s nothing else I can do.)

To neutralize these stories, tell the rest of the story by asking:

  • “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do what the person is doing?”
  • “Am I pretending not to notice my own role in the problem?”
  • “What do I really want for me, others, and the relationship? What would I do right now if I wanted those results?”

Responding to Others’ Stories

Tell yourself, “Wow, he must have told a really interesting story!” and get curious. Figuring out where someone is coming from in a difficult conversation is like starting to read a mystery novel halfway through.

Learn to Look

Get in the habit of asking yourself, “Are we in dialogue or out of it?”

When you notice that you’re not in dialogue, say it outloud. “I think we’ve moved away from dialogue.”

Video of me talking about Villain, Victim, and Helpless Stories

I’ve been planning to upload video blog posts for a while now, but hadn’t actually gotten around to doing it for a number of excuse-type reasons.

So, since I subscribe to the philosophy that not only is “perfect the enemy of the good”–“good enough is the enemy of at all“, I’ve posted something.  Expect more in the future!

Here it is:

Want an important perspective on bipolar? Watch this video.

A friend of mine sent me a link to the bipolarorwakingup YouTube channel a while back, and I’ve since then shared it with a number of other people, some of whom have diagnoses of bipolar.

I’ve read the book the guy who’s behind this wrote about his own experience, and I can’t say we see eye to eye about every detail (and if I were translating into my own words, the language would be lower on the woo-woo scale), but I think the basic perspective he’s offering on mental illness is an extremely important one.  His videos do a much better job of explaining than I could do justice to in a short post, so just watch.  It may be one of the more mind-altering things you’ve seen recently:

Hear me talk about NVC, the paleo diet, and more!

Stephanie Murphy, a woman with whom I share many interests (including Nonviolent Communication, liberty, and paleo dieting) interviewed me for a bonus episode of her radio show, Porc Therapy: Pro-Freedom Relationship Talk.

In the show I talk about:

Click here to listen, and check out the rest of her site too!