(last updated on April 29, 2014)
When I am feeling overwhelmed or negative toward a task, I borrow a trick from a musician I know: commit to just 15 minutes of work. If after 15 minutes you are still not “feeling it”, then it’s OK stop and do something else. It works amazingly well for unsticking myself, and it fits well with the way I track time. But why does it WORK?
It might have something to do with one of my childhood-era guardian spirits.
Up to now, I have been thinking that the “15-minute kickstart” lowers the threshold of effort, which makes a big task seem more doable. That sounds like a perfectly rational explanation to me, but it feels incomplete.
What I don’t understand is why I procrastinate on my OWN projects. Lack of passion? Perhaps I’ve picked the wrong goals? Maybe I’m just lazy?
It hit me last night that maybe I am acting on an old childhood pattern: avoidance of being trapped. I spent a number of my formative years feeling both unsure of myself as a person culturally and unable to read/speak/write the native language. Breaking out of the feeling of being unsure of myself lasted into my mid-thirties. It never occurred to me that the feeling of being trapped was still in operation. In fact, it is probably why I prefer freelancing to regular employment. I am so sensitive to the idea of being stuck in a boring or uncomfortable situation that ANY demand on my time or resources is viewed with great suspicion. It’s a different story when the demand is something I already find curious, but everything else triggers the negative emotion.
I don’t think I noticed this before because I “know” I am NOT trapped. Afterall all, I have the freedom to do almost anything I set my mind to–theoretically anyway–because I have chosen freelancing over steady employment. But I find freelancing to my taste BECAUSE I like the freedom to choose, and am willing to pay the price for it. I thought this was just a thing of principle, but the principle is probably also driven by the natural tendency to avoid situations that I’ve found unpleasant in my past.
Taking this a step further, what if my desire not to feel trapped was coloring my attitude toward other aspects of work?
Consider the the 15-minute kickstart technique. The wonderful thing about the 15-minute kickstart is that it’s a lightweight, time-limited commitment. There is no pressure or anxiety.
By comparison, when I think of the giant mound of tasks I have to do to create a successful life, or even contemplate a single messy task, I experience a brief but palpable emotional reaction. It’s a little bit of anxiety mixed with fear. I’d assumed it was a fear of failure, but intellectually failure doesn’t really bother me these days because I know I can navigate my way out of it. If I match the feeling instead with the fear of being trapped, it resonates much more.
Of course, it’s not really a trap, because I am still in control. However, my subconscious is was attuned to avoiding even the possibility of being stuck doing something I find boring.
When I think of my pre-adolescent youth, I remember the feeling of being trapped in a pair of footed pajamas, which I hated because my feet would get really hot and the bottoms of the pajama pants would get slick with sweat. Sheer torture! And when I was around 9 years old, our family moved from the United States to Taiwan, and I spent 10 years in a country where I felt I was viewed as a pathetic foreigner that had lost his culture. As a missionary kid, I spent a lot of time going to church events conducted in languages and concepts I couldn’t relate to. My memories of this time is mostly of being in rooms listening to the rise and fall of people’s voices as they spoke in Chinese or Taiwanese, for a seeming-eternity, waiting for it to end so we could go home. This is not the fault of any of the people in the churches or my parents, I should point out. It’s just what ended-up happening, to me.
Today, I find the very idea of going to an organized event filled with trepidation. I anticipate boredom, entrapment, and social judgment. And apparently, the feeling has expanded over the years to include anything that I have to do; in other words, any situation where my choice is forced. By example, say I want to make a cool website. If I want to make a cool website, then I have to work on it; nothing ventured, nothing gained right? The first emotional reaction should be elation and excitement, but a fierce desire to protect myself from boredom asserts itself like an avenging angel. And, if I am already not excited by the idea of (yawn) reading up on AJAX and CSS, the “instinct to avoid” is even more empowered to derail the project, no matter how good it would be for me in the long run.
BUT NOT ANY MORE. While this guardian spirit has served me for 25 years, it’s time for it to stand down and retire to the pasture. With this, my attitude toward the work should improve quite a bit.