You know those moments of wondrous clarity, when you see “The Grand Dream” so clearly before you? It beckons enticingly, and you know in your heart that it will be wonderful. It just will take some dedication and work to get there. You even know that the effort required can be applied in small steps, diligently-but-simply applied, because you’re an experienced creative. You put your foot down on the path, filled with anticipation and excitement…
Yep, I’ve been there too. I’m there right now! I’m working on a few remaining chunks of my new website, which I was hoping to launch this week. These chunks are pretty easy to comprehend, part of my Grand Dream of a better website. However, they’re also chunks that are as maddeningly subtle they are tediously detail-oriented. They are very clearly visible in my Grand Dream, but they are also worlds unto themselves. I’m here to issue a friendly reminder about Dreams and Appropriate Expectations.
The problem with clarity is that it obscures reality
There’s a hidden problem with clarity: it’s often at the 10,000 foot “big picture” level, where everything is nice and neat. At this level, it’s really easy to have Big Thoughts that you can line up into a plausible chain of events, creating a Reasonable Strategy.
If you’re particularly good at this kind of thinking, which I suspect many procrastinators are, then you’re also very comfortable and fast with this kind of thinking. For me, the feeling is like being a little kid running as fast as I can through a meadow full of grass and flowers, trying to catch a jackrabbit with my cat running ahead of me. It is an exhiliarating feeling! However, if during my run I should find that it’s become filled with sharp rocks and unforgiving thorn bushes, that speed becomes dangerous so I would naturally slow down. It becomes more of a deliberate exploration, an expedition of discovery tempered with a modicum of caution. The pace slows, accordingly.
The problem with my actual big dreams is that they’re not as tangible as a field, and so I don’t have the benefit of being forced to “downshift my expectations” to match the terrain. Instead, I have the unspoken expectation that exhiliration and speed should be the way it is, all the time. Of course, I know that there’s hard work to be done and am able to do it, but as I push myself into the territory of deeply detail-oriented work, I forget to change my expectations. Instead, I remember what it felt like to run as fast as my thoughts can carry me, and by comparison the current pace is deeply frustrating.
Adapting expectations to the terrain
I’ve come up with a simple principle for myself: recognize that there are times to take it slower, and that each new challenge may require that I go even MORE slowly. That’s because the more detail there is, the more time it takes to work through it given my limited mental capacity. That doesn’t mean I’m stupid or incompetent. It just means that it will take as much time as it takes.
The implication is that “progress” must be measured on a different timescale with an appropriate set of expectations.
As an analogy, consider the use of maps when you travel from one place to another. If it’s a good map, you can clearly see where you are and where you want to go. You get the information you need, such as distance and travel time, and perhaps some information about the destination itself, and plan accordingly. However, no matter how detailed that map is, it’s still an abstraction that will not tell you anything about the missing stop sign at the corner of Elm and Main which will almost certainly give you the scare of your life, nor will it alert you to the emergency road construction that reduces traffic to a single lane for 3 miles and 30 minutes. You’re just going to have to deal with it. The map also won’t tell you about the ice cream stand with the beautiful sign that you decided to stop at for an hour, the heartbreak of bad tacos received in promising circumstances, and the uplifting NPR news segment about penguins making friends with puffins. Going A-to-B is a great idea, but the speed of travel itself—your productivity, by analogy—is highly dependent on the actual terrain you will encounter. You will go the speed that the terrain and your heart dictates, and experienced travellers know that the key to frustration-free travel is just to go with it and adapt. Telling yourself that you SHOULD have gotten there three hours ago just will burn you up with unhappiness. And that’s the place I’ve been in, much of the time, when facing the challenge of finishing my website. The detailed work is demanding. I have to slow down and handle it, and I have to remember that being forced to slow is not a reflection on how much I suck.
As a more tangible example, let me use my current website goal. To launch, I need to add the productivity forms download pages, which will be indexed using a grid of “post featured images as thumbnails. The theme I purchased has this functionality in it, so it should be easy, right? NOT EXACTLY. The theme uses a content layout plugin called Visual Composer, which relies on ANOTHER plugin that provides the theme-specific extensions to create the grid of thumbnails. This plugin relies on the “post thumbnail” feature of WordPress to show the right picture with each link, which I have never used so I would have to manually add them for the past 7 years of articles, some 1900 individual posts. On top of that, the grid layout isn’t exactly right, but to modify it means I would have to modify the plugin itself, which will take some time to outline so I know just HOW it does its magic. Because if I don’t outline the code, I will also affect the way regular blog posts are displayed on the main page, as it happens to effect both places. It will take time looking through their code, documenting it enough so I understand its big picture, then write test code on a testing version of the website to see if it works without destroying something important.
In just a few minutes, I’ve had to transition from “OK! LET’S IMPLEMENT A FEATURE!” to “OMG, ALL THE MOVING PARTS”. And I haven’t even touched upon the technical knowledge requirements that I have had to learn about before I can actually do anything: WordPress core programmer features, database structure and manipulation, etc. If I am expecting to implement that feature quickly, I am sadly delusional. If I maintain that mismatch between the real demands of the task and my own desires for speed, I will grow frustrated and angry, and then I’ll give up unless I am absolutely forced to. That’s the nature of the resistance, in a nutshell.
Remember, it’s OK to slow down!
So, I remind myself that it’s OK that it’s slow. There are a lot of moving parts, and it’s exhausting to keep track of them. If I remember that it’s OK to downshift into the detail oriented world AND maintain an appropriate expectation of my speed, I’ll be fine. That helps me keep my frustration to a minimum.