(last updated on April 29, 2014)
SUMMARY: I’ve been feeling restless about my progress, and have again been wondering why I haven’t been as motivated to work despite having all this inspiration surrounding me constantly. It comes from my excellent group of peers both online and offline. And perhaps that is the problem. This is my first attempt to put it into words.As a fat aging American, I’m familiar with the looming spectre of Type 2 Diabetes, which when untreated threatens blindness and amputation. In the case of type 1 diabetes, the body does not manufacture insulin, a chemical that the body uses to process food into usable energy after every meal. In type 2 diabetes, the body manufactures insulin but also resists it. One of the contributing factors to the onset of type 2 diabetes is poor diet and exercise habits, two areas in which I have considerable expertise. I’ve been feeling rather sluggish lately, and have started the exercise habit again to try to shake myself out of the doldrums. It occurred to me that the ramifications of my physical sluggishness were similar to my mental sluggishness that has manifested as a form of procrastination. As someone with perfectionist tendencies and high aspirations, I am probably a ripe candidate for Type 2 Procrastination, a horrifying conditions in which inspiration does not lead to action. Your mind may be inspired, but you fail to act. I think it’s safe to say that Type 1 Procrastination is a result of people lacking inspiration in the first place, and there’s little to do except administer swift kicks in the ass at periodic intervals to keep things moving. What’s sad about Type 2 Procrastination is that, like in Type 2 Diabetes, it’s the practice of good habits that helps avoid the onset of laziness and broken dreams.
Treating the Symptoms
So how does one retrain the mind to convert inspiration into action? What is the cure for procrastination? I can think of a few that have worked for me:
- Diagnose that there IS a problem, and recognize that you are not alone.
- Find a local peer group of people who are inspired the way you are
My experience with successful diagnosis occurred over two phases. The first phase was being allowed into the 9rules Network, which I applied to because I learned that there were other people who liked writing and creating good content. I didn’t even know that this was important to me, until I realized that I didn’t have to slough through it by myself. The second phase was being introduced to South by Southwest Interactive through the 9rules members, who were totally way more connected to things like this than I. The first time I went, in 2006 I believe, I came into a group of people who were very much like me in significant, unguessed-at ways. I felt as if I’d come home, and this inspired me to try to recreate something like this when I got home.
And that brings me to the second part of the cure: finding the local peer group. It took about four years to do this, finding the intersection of four distinct groups of people I slowly got to know. Not knowing exactly what I was looking for, I used two simple metrics: noticing what energized me and avoiding what drained me, and being proactive about gathering people who seemed to have the same energy as I. By “energy”, I mean a qualitative sense of shared possibility and interest.
I have been feeling rather pleased with myself the past few months because I have the ingredients and insights that should, theoretically, be the foundation of a satisfying life: group energy and peer support. However, what has been missing is the sense of progress. After thinking about this for a few days, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a third element to the cure that I’m missing. I’m probably stretching the diabetes analogy a little far, but if group energy and peer support are “diet”, I must be missing the equivalent to exercise. That is: action. I had previously thought that inspiration results in action, but maybe it’s less linear than I think and more circular. In the case of diabetes, you should exercise more to help avoid its onset. But for that, you need energy. And to have energy, you need insulin to convert food into usable energy from glucose. And energy is what you need to exercise in the first place. It’s a kind of circular dependency. Now consider procrastination. For me not to procrastinate, I need to take action. But to take action, I need inspiration/motivation. And where do I get that from? What is the “insulin” that converts inspiration/motivation into action? And here the analogy crumbles, but the idea that action begets inspiration and inspiration begets action is very appealing. But I’m missing some kind of activating agent to kick off the entire cycle.
Diagnosing the Root Cause
I’ve been so happy at having found a local group of people that I’ve found myself spending more time doing social things than working. It’s part of my being part of things greater than myself drive, which has yielded quite a few insights over the past month. My direction is clarifying with every passing day, and the possibilities are starting to stack up. While this has generated a sense of optimism, I’ve also been feeling unrest because I know that I have to do the work. And frankly, I haven’t really wanted to. The feeling of inspiration and being part of other people’s projects is enjoyable, and I keep thinking that I’ll find the magic combination of social engagement and inspiration to generate that sure-fire “thing I must do” action plan. But you know what? I think I’ve fallen into a trap. Social engagement generates good feelings and inspiration. You’d think that then inspiration would beget action, as I had hoped, but I had forgotten an important lesson about electricity: electricity always takes the path of least resistance. In this case, the path of least resistance is not through action–that’s work. Instead, the path routes right back into itself and generates more social engagement. And THAT is where I have been feeling discomfited.
In other words, I’m short-circuiting myself by mistaking the inspiration and energy I get from my creative peer groups as sufficient for creating action. Action is a deliberate break from social engagement of the type that makes me feel that I’m in good company. At some point, you need to build. And that’s something you need to do yourself if you are doing your own thing.
In the course of my wandering I’ve developed a few skills and even a few product ideas, but I’ve gotten used to the idea of exploring and have tended to think in terms of search rather than build when it comes to my own interests. In search mode, I’m looking for people and good ideas that I can draw strength from, exchanging what I know as completely as possible. This is itself a nomadic mindset. Build mode, however, is when you hunker down and write that book. Or build that city. Or paint that masterpiece. Or design that race car. You get the idea.
Resetting the Cycle
Summing up what I’ve discussed so far, here are the stages of my Type 2 Procrastination treatment plan:
- I found people that were like me in some way.
- I found ways to express myself with those people.
- I refined my understanding of what I was doing.
- I picked the new understanding over the old.
- Realize you are in a loop
- Break away, and ether build or find what is yours.
It’s all very productive, growth-oriented behavior. What confuses the issue is the human need for fellowship that feeds the sense of security and self-esteem. For most of us, it’s stronger than the need to create and build, and we give themselves in to it, because we die if we don’t have it. This tendency to want to hold on to it can drive the the potential to build or the search for understanding away, or at least bury it to the point where it manifests as the that feeling that I’m not being all I can be. And that’s one of the feelings that leads to the feeling that you are procrastinating in the first place.
If it sounds like I’m saying that you need to go through a mid-life crisis, maybe I am. However, you don’t have to be a hermit or throw away your previous life. You can draw upon the friends you’ve found in your journeys; they like you even when they don’t quite understand you, and will continue to like you if you continue to treat them right. You can also be mindful of how you are participating in your peer group by asking yourself whether what you do is for human need, search need, or build need. In other words, are you participating in your peer group because you just like having people to talk to, or are you learning/growing? This may be enough, if this is what you want and you are content. But if you are not content, then you need to ask what you are doing within the group to create what is yours and yours alone. After that is done, I’m thinking you have the luxury to not only doing with it what you want, but you also can pick any path you want in your life with greater surety. There really is no choice but to take the medicine if you want to get better; in this case, to be able to have the choice to make the choice in the first place.
So that is where I am. I’ve built a base of peers that I’m so happy to be a part of, and I’ve basked in that feeling for perhaps a little too long; I’d say it’s been about three years of this. I think it’s time to build what is mine to build. I know I have said this in the past, but I didn’t realize before how much of a balance it would be between my community of peers and being a hermit working in my basement. I don’t think I’m saying anything new, but as someone who’s just discovered that there is a community that I can be part of, it’s harsh medicine to realize that to continue to grow I need to leave the comfort of the group for periods of time.