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By: Laura Rifkin, LCSW
On your mark, get set…
I have been trying to write a blog post for over six months. I almost finished one back in November, but I didn’t like how it was turning out and scrapped it before it even finishing. Fast forward to last week when I had a phone call with a consultant from a well-known personality questionnaire to discuss the results of my recent assessment. She noted my high need for a literary outlet in my life, and I shared about my 2016 writing roadblock.
Her external feedback—“hmmm, very interesting”—was motivating enough to get me to open up a Word Doc, and more than that, it prompted me to internally reflect on why it was so hard to start doing something that I want to do. The timing of this post was by no means designed to line up with the beginning of the year, but it’s January 11th and I imagine I’m not the only trying to do something differently right now.
So why does starting have to be such a challenge?
For me, this blog post is totally optional and I certainly don’t have an editor or a deadline hovering over me. I think the same is often true for learning a language, engaging in a workout program, opening a retirement account, and many of the other things in life we want to do, but are not yet doing. It is tough to get up and going. Maybe it’s because our lives tend to be so full, and an optional task is easily replaced by a mandatory one.
Fear of failure can often keep a new idea or plan grounded before there is even an opportunity to launch. If this were an in-person presentation, I would now click to the slide that offers the adage, “hard work pays off in the long run, but procrastination pays off now”. Getting started also means making a change, and change doesn’t always come easily.
In the Transtheoretical Model, or in less jargon-y terms, the Stages of Change model, this likely puts us in the Contemplation or Preparation Stage. We have identified that we want to make a change and have maybe even taken a couple of steps to get ready, but we haven’t modified any behaviors yet. Whether we like it or not, many of us are creatures of habit and it can be very tough to do things differently. In general, we get better at things with practice, which can often lead to habits and patterns that are easy to stay in, even if we want to switch them up. The idea of starting a new hobby and not finishing, trying and failing, or simply finding the time can all be reasons to keep us where we are.
A few helpful tips
Many people can come up with ten reasons why something won’t work, but will struggle with thinking of two reasons why it might. As a therapist, I see a lot of clients who want to make changes in their lives and have trouble getting started, and as a human, I have experienced this personally and with loved ones. Here are a few strategies to try out if you are standing next to the horse, but have yet to get on and ride:
- Start somewhere: My parents like to tell a story about when I was little and couldn’t master the word “grandma”. They said I would only use words I could pronounce correctly, and there I was, stumped on the name of someone I love dearly and saw frequently. I eventually started calling her “granga”, which my family thought was so cute and everyone was sad when I finally got it figured out – except for me. I still experience this feeling when I attempt to use the minimal Spanish I know, but whatever embarrassment I feel initially is almost always quickly soothed when someone can tell that I’m making an effort. Remember, it takes a lot of courage to be imperfect.
- Approach with curiosity: Shame and self-judgment can be major roadblocks when starting something new and can keep people in a holding pattern. A strategy for avoiding that traffic is to be curious, rather than critical. Telling yourself that this new activity is an experiment and inviting curiosity can help to stave off expectations and fear of failure.
- Don’t think, just do: This post is a real-life example of the “don’t think, just do” strategy. My thoughts began wandering, yet again, to the post I’d been wanting to write, but instead of getting stuck on all of the details or forcing it out of my mind, I just opened up a Word Doc and began typing. I basically hit the pause button on my analyzing and second-guessing, suspending the things that were keeping me in this holding pattern. Getting my ideas and sentences out in the open and in one place gave me somewhere to begin, kind of like sorting out the edges on a puzzle before putting them together.
Often times once you begin whatever has been in “on your mark, get set” mode, the activity or task becomes inherently more motivating, and we can shed whatever was initially holding us back.