- Failure is less painful than doing nothing.
- We figure things out by taking action, not by thinking about taking action.
- Being consistent is key to accomplishing our goals.
My client, "Annie," was a professional photographer who put her career on hold when she had children. Ten years later, she’d barely picked up her camera even though she loved photography and was eager to resume her career. Instead, she beat herself up for letting her skills go dormant. She criticized herself for being financially dependent on her husband. And she lamented the fact that she’d lost her identity outside of being a wife and mom.
At first, what seemed to be tripping Annie up was how to get started. She’d sit down to write emails to old contacts, feel overwhelmed about what to write, and end up walking away from her computer. She had a passion project she’d begun years ago and thought might be good enough to get a grant to finish it but couldn’t make herself sit down and actually apply. She’d tell herself the work wasn’t good enough or that her subject matter wasn’t current enough, so why even try?
Other days, a kid would stay home from school sick, or she’d get a call that the school was desperate for volunteers to take on lunchroom duty, and she’d say it was hopeless: Her schedule was too chaotic to try to do anything but get through the day. Her days flew by in a blur, and she never got to her photography.
We went through all her responsibilities to pare down what really needed to be done. Annie figured that, barring an emergency, she could do everything she needed to do for her family and still have two hours a day to devote to restarting her career.
I said, “Two hours every day is a lot of time.”
“No, it’s not,” she said, already discouraged. “I used to have so much energy. I’d work 12 hours at a stretch! I don’t know what’s happened to me.” But she conceded that even 15 minutes, let alone two hours a day, was better than the zero she was currently doing.
Unfortunately, once Annie cleared the two hours, she started frittering away that time by returning emails, ordering various household necessities, and scrolling on Twitter.
“What is wrong with me?” she asked, “Why am I so lazy?” I asked Annie to sit for and minute and notice how she felt. What were the sensations in her body? Was there something underneath the feeling of laziness? After sitting quietly and tuning into herself, she opened her eyes and said, “I feel fear.”
Annie said she felt paralyzed every time she started to do any work. She was so fearful that her earlier career had been a fluke or that she just didn’t have any talent anymore. “What if I devote all this time and energy to something, and it doesn’t work?”
Has this happened to you? Do you wallow in indecision, unable to figure out where to start or what to work on? Do you tell yourself that you just “are” a procrastinator, unable to hold yourself accountable or move forward on projects, life changes, or risks that are important to you? Do you fantasize about who you could be if you planned a big trip or went back to school or wrote a novel? Do you feel excited and happy while you’re daydreaming, only to come down to Earth with a thud when it’s time to actually work on the bright, shiny thing?
You are not alone. Most people feel this way when they’re trying to make a change or to level up in areas that are important to them. Some part of them imagines that the disappointment of trying and failing is worse than the disappointment of doing nothing at all. If that part of you that is scared of failure is in the driver’s seat, any movement is going to feel impossible. Instead, you’re going to feel overwhelmed, confused, and lazy. Here are a few things to think about when you’re trying to bust out of that cycle.
1. Action begets action.
When we’re feeling fearful and insecure, a common procrastination tactic is to let ourselves get hung up on how to begin. We wallow in indecision, even when the decisions are relatively small.
If you’re looking for a new job, it doesn’t matter whether you start by updating your resume, reaching out to your network, or looking at job sites. Just pick something. If you set off on the wrong path, you can simply course correct and keep moving forward. We figure things out by doing them, not by thinking about doing them.
2. Be mediocre.
Nothing stalls momentum faster than worrying if you’re good enough or viewing your efforts through a critical lens. Even the most talented among us don’t set the world on fire our first time out of the gate. American radio personality Ira Glass describes the problem he sees with most creatives starting out as a gap we have between our taste and our abilities. He says that the only way to get through it is to create a volume of work and keep at it until the quality of your work catches up with your ambitions.
Annie wasn’t able to get started until she admitted to herself that, at least initially, she probably wasn’t going to be the same photographer she’d been, and that was OK. The gap between her taste and her skills would close once she got to work. This is true for everyone—not just artists. Who you dream of becoming isn’t who you are at the beginning. What stands in your way of becoming that person is good old-fashioned practice.
3. Consistency is the only metric.
Quality, opportunity, and momentum always flow from consistent action. It makes sense to focus most of our attention on our systems and habits. Can you think of a single experience where you did something at least three times a week and didn’t get better at it? As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, “You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.” We can’t always control our outcomes, but we have a lot of control over our process.
For Annie, her first efforts after her long hiatus weren’t as good as what she was doing at the height of her career. She was rusty. But once she started shooting every day, even if it was just messing around with her kids, she began to get back in her groove, and her confidence slowly crept up.
We make so many barely conscious decisions to avoid pain and disappointment. But how much worse is it to take that risk, fail, and then be able to move on rather than to live in limbo and inaction? What eventually helped Annie get through her fear was to set a timer for 45 minutes and spend that time on her photography. It didn’t matter how quickly or slowly she moved, what she accomplished, or whether it was any good. She just had to only do photography-related activities until the timer went off. If she felt up to it, she’d set the timer for another 45 minutes, but if not, she could be done.
A marathon is run one mile at a time. A book is written sentence by sentence. An instrument is learned note by note. Anything done consistently will eventually get finished and probably be pretty good.
Predictably, once Annie started working consistently, it turned out she was not awful. She was every bit as talented and creative as she’d been 10 years earlier. Annie’s projects quickly gained traction, and 45 minutes grew into 90 and then more. By the end of a year, her career had gained enough momentum. She had collaborations that kept her energy up and ensured accountability. She’d become successful by admitting she wasn’t confused, overwhelmed, or lazy. She was just scared. And it’s OK to be scared and move ahead on your goals anyway.
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. New York, NY: Avery Publishing.