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.


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