The Waiting Game

Ever noticed how most of us play destructive games which prevent us from achieving our goals and living the life we want? The waiting game is a classic example. We want to do something, but we tell ourselves we won’t do it or start working towards it until we are less stressed/thinner/richer/more experienced. We wait for a better time.

Blue owl timer
His name is Owen. Owen The Owl.

Except the better time never comes.

We keep making excuses. When we have some time we could use to pursue our goals, we decide to wait until we have more time. When we have enough money to make a start, we decide it’s better to wait until we have enough money to finish. When we feel a little more confident, we tell ourselves it’s better to wait until we feel very confident.

Are we really waiting for a magical time when everything in our lives is perfect? Judging from our behaviour, yes. It’s ridiculous, but it’s true,

I’m an expert at the waiting game. Having mental health issues creates a whole new level of excuses: I’ll wait until my anxiety is better, until I go at least 2 weeks without a bad day, until I’m less dissatisfied with life. And yes, I am aware that waiting until you are less dissatisfied with your life before you make changes is utter nonsense!

 

The answer is to stop playing.

All versions of the waiting game are destructive. You trick yourself into thinking you are making things easier/better, but you are only preventing yourself from achieving what you want. There will never be a “better” time. Life will always throw obstacles your way, no matter how well you prepare or how carefully you plan your timing.

Mental illness is unpredictable, so I have learnt this lesson over and over again: what seems like a “better” time can quickly change and what seems like a “worse” time can become better within an instant.

You can’t predict the obstacles you will face, but you can plan for them – to a degree.

There is an important distinction between achieving your goal and working towards it: the latter is about laying the groundwork, preparing to the best of your ability so your chances of success are optimal. This can include learning or honing skills, saving money, improving fitness, networking…anything which is pertinent to your goal. Note: preparing to the best of your ability does not mean over-preparing, using research and learning new skills as an excuse not to take action. You need to strike a balance.

 

Putting your life on hold doesn’t work.

Believe me, I tried for years. It made all of my problems worse, especially my mental health. You need to do what you can, when you can. You need to chase your dreams because the life you want is not going to land in your lap.

Working towards your goals will look different for everyone, depending on individual circumstances and your personal goals. How you work towards your goals will also vary over time, especially if you have mental health problems. Sometimes working towards my goals involves very small steps which seem trivial to other people, such as going for a walk on my own or putting £10 in my savings account. Sometimes my long-term goals have to take a backseat while I prioritise my immediate mental health. It can be frustrating when that happens, but it’s part of achieving my goals while managing my mental health problems.

Does this sound easy? It’s not. It’s simple in theory, but continually working towards your goals is hard work. You will probably struggle with confidence, procrastination and self-doubt at many points. There will be days when you think it’s not worth trying to achieve any goals.

So why continue? Because the alternative is worse. Living an aimless life, reacting to all the crap the universe throws at you, is harder than being proactive and trying to create a better life. It leads only to misery.

 

Not waiting doesn’t mean being impulsive.

I emphasise working towards your goals because it involves a great degree of thought and taking responsibility for your actions. Picking arbitrary goals which mean nothing to you personally is pointless. Risking your future happiness by getting into debt without careful consideration in order to achieve a goal isn’t a good idea. Not discussing your goals with your partner (if you have one) is selfish and stupid. Working towards your goals means you figure out as much as you can, gathering support and avoiding potential pitfalls.

As I write this, it occurs to me that most worthwhile goals cannot be achieved through a single act of impulsivity. Even if you sign up for something on an impulse, you still need to follow through. Anyone can enter a marathon, but if you want to complete it, you need to train.

However, setting a goal into motion on what seems like an impulse can be driven by your intuition. Decisions based on gut feelings are often the best ones, because they have a strong connection to your core values and passions. Your actions may seem impulsive, but set you on a path towards what you really want.

 

Trusting your intuition is a learning process.

I have acted against my intuition many times, choosing the “safe” or “sensible” option – and I have regretted it every time. Conversely, when I trust my instincts – even when I think I must be crazy – I make the best decisions of my life.

I still experience self-doubt when I trust my intuition, but underlying those layers of doubt is an unassailable feeling that I’m doing the right thing for me. I know I’m meant to do whatever I have chosen. My decision may have unexpected consequences, but I’m certain I’m on the right path.

When I act on impulse, on the other hand, I have an underlying feeling of dread, shame or guilt. I know, deep down, that I’m making the wrong decision and letting myself down. I get this feeling when I buy junk food or expensive shoes I don’t need. I also experience it when I make excuses for not working towards my goals and seizing opportunities.

We usually associate impulsive, thoughtless decisions with irresponsible actions, but they can also result in avoiding action.

Every time you make an excuse not to take the next step towards your goal, you are acting on impulse. When you procrastinate instead of being proactive, you are acting on impulse. When you choose television or browsing the internet (guilty!) over working towards your goals, you are acting on impulse.

Your intuition, however, will indicate the best course – which is unlikely to be watching television for hours on end.

 

Defeat the waiting game with your intuition.

What does your ideal life look like? I can’t promise you will achieve it, but you can definitely work towards incorporating elements of it into your actual life. You know, deep down, what you need to do.

What grabs your attention when you are chatting to people or browsing online? What makes you think “I wish I could do that”? Who do you envy or admire? Where would you like to live? How would you like to fill your days? What are your passions?

Finding the answers to these questions is an adventure in itself – especially as they may change over time. Look inside yourself and ask what feels right for you.

Again, I’m not saying you can get everything you want. All of us will have to compromise at some point, because our resources (time, money, skills) are limited. You might not get what you want – but you can certainly get closer to it.

Another version of the waiting game is thinking in black and white terms: “if I can’t guarantee I will get everything I want, I won’t try to do anything.” You deny yourself success because you are afraid of uncertainty; you prefer the certainty of remaining where you are now, even if you are unhappy and dissatisfied with your life. I used to think like that, wanting things to be perfect and viewing anything less as inadequate, but it’s no way to live. Perfectionism is soul-destroying and stops you from doing the things which would make you happier, if not completely happy.

Trusting your intuition and moving towards the life you want is bloody difficult, but I believe it’s worth the effort. My life is far from perfect (laughably so, in fact), yet I am happier than I have ever been. I’m working towards my goals and – regardless of the outcome – that feels good.

The Must-Do List

I came across the idea of writing a must-do list in a fun and practical book I read recently, Get Your Shit Together by Sarah Knight. It’s simple: write your to-do list, featuring everything you need or want to do, then prioritise it and choose 2/3 top priority tasks each day to put on a separate must-do list.

Must-do list

How to use the must-do list.

Using the must-do list is simple in theory: you must get these tasks done today, no matter what, before tackling anything else on your to-do list. These are your top priorities.

If you have a clear demarcation between different areas of your life, such as work and home, you can make separate must-do lists for each one. However, be aware that having more than a couple of must-do lists will defeat the object and make the strategy less effective. It may also be a good idea to keep your work must-do (and to-do) list at work, to help maintain focus.

Personally, I combine work and everything else onto a single to-do list, from which I create a single must-do list each day. I work from home and my hours are variable, since I work around my mental health problems, so there is little distinction between my home and work life.

The tasks on the list should be small and specific — even if they are part of a larger project. Split large tasks into smaller ones until you have manageable chunks.

 

The must-do list forces you to focus.

You are faced with your top 2/3 priorities in small, manageable chunks and can ignore everything else on your to-do list. This is why it’s important to make a separate list, so you don’t get distracted by lower priority tasks as you consult your to-do list.

Many of us are guilty of procrastinating through busyness. We convince ourselves we are being productive because we are crossing items off our to-do list, yet high priority tasks are left unfinished while less important ones are completed. You then have the perfect excuse to claim you have no time to complete high priority tasks, because the crossed-off items on your to-do list provide evidence. You can ignore the fact that you wasted hours doing busywork instead of working on a major project.

The must-do list cuts through this bullshit. It makes you hyper-aware of your priorities and splits your goals into small tasks, so you are less likely to feel overwhelmed or intimidated by the important stuff.

 

The must-do list helps you realise you have plenty of time and space to tackle your priorities.

You don’t need to panic about how you can fit in everything on your to-do list, because you are not trying to fit in everything. You only have to fit in your top priorities. This enables you to approach your most important tasks with a clear mind.

You can focus on what is most important to you and accomplish what you want.

 

Must-do lists improve productivity.

Once you complete your top priorities, you can tackle the next ones on your to-do list. By doing this, you are getting ahead and have the security of knowing the most important tasks are done.

Compare this approach to the conventional to-do list: you get distracted by minor tasks which you do because they take little time, not considering how those “insignificant” 10-20 minutes here and there soon add up to hours. This leaves you with inadequate time to tackle the most important tasks, so you fall behind and if you manage to work on your priorities, you are forced to rush. You figure it might be better to leave those tasks, which also tend to be the ones requiring the most energy and concentration, until tomorrow — when you add more items to your to-do list and start the whole process over again, playing catch up and racing without getting anywhere.

The ridiculous thing is, it’s easy to make time for lower priority tasks at the end of the day, whereas doing them first swamps your whole day. The must-do list approach also leaves you in a better frame of mind to tackle those lower priority tasks: you are less stressed and frazzled, because you know you have taken care of your priorities. You feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction, which motivates you to complete a few more tasks instead of slumping in front of the TV all evening.

 

Must-do lists may seem counterintuitive, but they work.

I decided to try the approach because my chronic procrastination often meant I did nothing important for days, using my time and energy to complete meaningless tasks which I told myself “needed” to be done. I figured it would be better to get a couple of high priority tasks done, rather than several low priority tasks.

I discovered that writing a must-do list was far more effective than I had anticipated. Not only am I completing high priority tasks, but I’m also getting through many medium and low priority tasks.

Must-do lists have a huge psychological effect, setting you up to succeed. To-do lists, while useful, offer too many pitfalls which could lead to failure. Even when you prioritise to-do lists, you are faced with the distraction of other tasks on the list — a separate must-do list avoids this, while still providing you with the security of a to-do list.

The to-do list is a crucial part of this system, because it collates everything you need to remember. Trying to make must-do lists without the foundation of a to-do list doesn’t work. You can’t prioritise effectively unless you consider everything you need/want to do and trying to remember non-priorities creates a distraction. When you put everything on a to-do list, you don’t need to think about anything but your must-do list.

It’s early days, but I’m very impressed with the must-do list system. I’m more productive than I have been for months and less stressed. Give it a try — you might surprise yourself!

Create a Not-To-Do List

I first came across the idea of creating a Not-To-Do list, aka a Stop-Doing list, in a book by Chris Guillebeau (I can’t remember which one, but it might be The Art of Nonconformity). The basics are:

1. Write a list of things which you often waste time doing, which don’t add value to your life

2. Stop doing the tasks on the list

So it’s the opposite of a To-Do list, but harder to follow!

Start your not-to-do list today

What kinds of tasks should go on your Not-To-Do list?

Anything you use as a distraction from doing things which add value to your life. These may include:

Constantly checking email, texts, social media, etc. Very few people need to be on call in order to respond to a life or death situation (i.e. mainly firefighters and doctors), yet most people act as if the world will end if a few hours go by without checking their messages. Checking your emails, phone, etc. at regular but less frequent times throughout the day saves time, allows you to respond efficiently and minimises the probability of your getting distracted (especially in the case of social media, when a “quick check” can easily turn into an hour’s browsing).

Busywork which doesn’t yield results. Sending several emails instead of collating the information into one, constantly rearranging documents, writing unnecessary reports… Anything which you do because you feel you ought to, rather than because it’s effective.

Watching television programmes you don’t particularly enjoy. As a rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t bother to record a programme when you go out, don’t watch it just because you’re in!

Casual gaming. This is one of my downfalls! These types of games are designed to be addictive and to distract you throughout the day. If you can’t limit your playing to a certain period of time, for example 30 minutes in the evening, cutting them out altogether might be easier.

Online shopping. Instead of immediately searching for something you want as soon as the thought occurs to you, make a note and shop for it later. This consolidates and reduces the time you spend shopping (including the research as well as the actual purchasing!), plus it prevents impulse buying.

 

You can also include mental timesucks.

Certain thinking patterns can be as much of a distraction as physical activites. While limiting them can be difficult, especially if you have mental health problems, putting them on your Not-To-Do list can help you to become more aware of these cognitive pitfalls — which is the first step in tackling them.

Mental timesucks might include:

Worrying, particularly about things outside of your control. A lot of people find it useful to set aside a time every day (around 15-20 minutes is common) to spend worrying. Whenever you start to worry throughout the day, you write it down and defer the worrying until your worrying time. Often, you will find your worries aren’t important when you return to them.

Generating excuses for not doing something more productive. It’s amazing how we can put more time and effort into procrastinating than is required by the task we are putting off! Increase your motivation and get stuck in.

Daydreaming. I know it’s something adults aren’t supposed to admit to, but everyone daydreams — even if they define it as something else. You might not indulge in full-on fantasies, but everyone wastes time wishing things were different, remembering past events and wondering “what would happen if…?” Try practising mindfulness to bring yourself back to the present.

 

So what do you do with your Not-To-Do list?

You can simply read your Not-To-Do list each day to remind yourself not to succumb to bad habits. You could make it into a poster and display it above your desk or some other prominent place where you will see it throughout the day. Or you could track your progress…

Try making a mark next to an item on your Not-To-Do list each time you engage in that habit.

You will build an accurate picture of how often you waste your time by doing this, which could motivate you to improve. It can also be useful to make a chart showing days and/or times, so that you can spot patterns and anticipate when you are liable to slip into bad habits.

 

Don’t forget to update your list!

Habits and tastes can change over time, but the main reason for updating your Not-To-Do list is that you will notice more timesucks as you become more aware of how you spend your time.

Because many of the ways in which we waste time are habits, we tend not to notice them until our awareness is increased. Not-To-Do lists increase your awareness of how you spend your time.

A note of caution: you are not creating a Not-To-Do list in order to punish yourself.

Don’t beat yourself up if you spend more time than you would like on the tasks on your Not-To-Do list. Creating the list is about regaining control  of your time and punishing yourself for not measuring up to your expectations relinquishes control. Acknowledge that you could do better and move on.

Aim for gradual improvement, rather than a massive shift overnight. You will be surprised at how effective small tweaks can be!

 

 

How to Get Motivated

Many of us get caught in limbo between wanting to achieve our goals and not being able to find the motivation to work towards them. It makes no sense — we want to succeed, yet we struggle to take the  necessary steps.

Of course, the reality is complex. There are psychological reasons for procrastination, such as fear of failure or even fear of success. Sometimes it is valuable to work through these reasons, either by yourself or with a life coach or mental health professional, but what do you do when you just want to take action now?

Here are some strategies which can help you build motivation and be proactive:

 

Reconnect with why you want to achieve your goals.

Why do you want to do whatever it is you are avoiding? What will be the end result? How will accomplishing your goals make you feel?

Look at the big picture and the small one. For instance, going for a run today will contribute to your goal of leading a fit, healthy life and being able to play with your children without collapsing, but it will also give you a boost of mood and confidence straight after you do it.

If you are avoiding a task you hate and which seems to have no bearing on your happiness and long term goals, you might need to think creatively. A mundane task like filing, for example, contributes to your wellbeing by providing a well organised environment which you can negotiate easily when completing other tasks which relate more directly to your goals.

It helps to make a list of your goals or to create a vision board, whether with scissors and glue or on Pinterest. Look at this reminder regularly. Place it where you will see it every day.

It can also be helpful to read about people who have achieved similar goals. Scour the internet — you will find blogs, ebooks and forums full of people who have been successful in the area in which you are aiming to succeed. Their stories are not only inspiring, but often reassuring: many of them will have struggled at various points, but they overcame these problems.

Do anything you can to remind yourself of the benefits of completing the task(s) you are avoiding, instead of getting caught up in how bad it feels to procrastinate.

 

Gather a support team.

Find people who will help you achieve your goals. Sometimes you will be lucky enough to find these people already in your life, in the shape of family and friends; sometimes you will have to seek them out.

The most valuable people will be those who are aiming to achieve similar goals — or who have already achieved similar goals. They will be able to give you advice and empathise in ways which other people won’t be able to, because they have had similar experiences to you.

Depending on your goal, you might find your support team in local groups or classes. You could meet people through those you already know, such as a friend of a friend who has done something you are aiming to do. However, the internet is a valuable resource in finding your support team.

Search for blogs and forums which relate to your goals and use social media to find likeminded individuals. You may have to work hard to cut through all the crap and people you just don’t click with, but online friends can often be better sources of support than people you know in real life. Because you are connecting through your goals, it gives your interactions a focus which is very motivating.

Sharing your goals with your support team helps you to remain accountable. In addition to providing help and advice, they will want updates on your progress. This motivates you to do something — anything! — so that you don’t have to admit you have done nothing.

Of course, your support team should also be compassionate and have your best interests at heart. They will encourage you to work towards your goals, but won’t stress you out by putting you under a lot of pressure. Consider this when selecting who you want in your support team — anyone who endangers your emotional health will not be motivating in the long term, even if their pep talks get you fired up.

 

Divide your goals into chunks and start small.

Big goals are not only intimidating, but can lead to inertia because you simply don’t know where to start. You need to work out each step which leads to your goal — or at least the first steps.

If you face additional challenges, such as mental health problems, make these steps extra-tiny. They might seem ridiculous, but it helps. Make your chunks as small as they need to be — the sizes may vary at different times. For example, sometimes my to-do list says “redraft X story” and other times, this step is divided into smaller chunks like “flesh out the ending” and “refine dialogue in first section.”

The point is to reduce the steps towards your goals into chunks which are so small that they won’t seem intimidating.You can then start with the smallest/quickest/easiest steps.

Once you complete a couple of these tiny steps, you will usually finds your motivation kicks in and you want to tackle more chunks. If this doesn’t happen, simply repeat the process and (re)start with the next smallest/quickest/easiest step. Even if it feels like a slog, you will have gotten something done, which is better than nothing.

 

Record your progress.

It doesn’t matter how you track your progress, as long as you do it somehow. Figure out how you can measure your goals, whether it’s ticking items off a to-do list (my favourite method), colouring in a chart (I love how this lets me visualise my progress) or crunching numbers with an app/calculator. Recording small increments is usually more motivating than just tracking huge milestones which take ages to reach.

The most important thing is to use a tracking system which suits you and your lifestyle.

After all, a tracking system is only effective if you use it. Consider your preferences and what would be most convenient — writing everything in a beautiful notebook can be inspiring, but not if it’s too big to carry around so you forget to actually track your progress. Using an app on your smartphone is probably a better option if you travel a lot (I don’t, but I love Evernote anyway!).

Here are some old school ways to track your progress, which is the approach I favour:

6 Simple Ways to Track Your Progress Towards Your Goals

If you prefer a techy approach, here are some apps you could use:

7 Tools to Help Keep Track of Habits and Goals

And if you want some more ideas, I like this post:

7 Great Ways to Track Your Progress Towards Your Goals

Remember to look at your progress regularly, to remind yourself of how far you have come. It’s easy to forget when you are focused on what you need to do, so take time to celebrate your success and use it to propel you on to the next success.

 

Cultivate positivity.

A negative mindset is procrastination’s best friend. Do everything you can to adopt a positive attitude — here are some ideas:

Repeat affirmations or mantras. This can be very effective in crowding out the critical voice telling you not to bother trying to do something because you probably won’t succeed anyway. Something as simple as “I can handle it” (borrowed from Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway) is often helpful in reassuring yourself.

Challenge your negative thoughts. There are several types of negative thinking, which are addressed in more detail here, but the basic guide to challenging them is to look for evidence that they are wrong. For example, if you keep thinking “I’m stupid” consider situations you have experienced which dispute this, such as passing exams and performing tasks successfully. Write down the negative thoughts you are experiencing in relation to your lack of motivation and then write down at least 5 pieces of evidence which disprove them. You will find this evidence, because all negative thoughts are incorrect — they exaggerate and ignore information.

Remind yourself of your achievements. While this is related to challenging negative thoughts, it is a useful exercise in itself. List everything you have done which you are proud of, which you had to work hard for or which other people admire. Everyone has achieved something — don’t belittle your own achievements.

Surround yourself with optimistic people. Seek out your support team and tell them you need encouragement. Avoid people who bring you down, no matter how much you love them — not forever, but long enough to give you a break so that you can get things done. Find them online — whether via social media, blogs or YouTube videos.

Listen to upbeat music. Sing along, too. I have a “happy music” playlist for this purpose — make your own or find one you like on a music site. Singing along helps because, in my experience, it absorbs you so much that there is no room for negative thoughts.

 

Go for a walk.

Seriously. I know it sounds really random, but I think it’s a combination of factors:

Physical exercise. Which has loads of benefits for mental health and puts you in the mood for action because of the biochemical effects. It also gives me a feeling of accomplishment, which motivates me to take more action.

Mindfulness. I make an effort to focus on my surroundings when I go for a walk, not least because I tend to walk on a narrow country lane and have to step aside for traffic! Being mindful means I’m not paying attention to negative thoughts or stressing about anything.

Sunlight. Being outside in daylight, even if the sun is hidden by clouds, can boost your mood. Feeling better makes it easier to get motivated.

Connecting with nature. I don’t apologise for having a hippy streak, but this applies to everyone — regardless of a desire (or lack thereof) to commune with Mother Earth. Being outside makes you appeciate the beauty of the world and that you are part of it, albeit a tiny part. It puts your worries into perspective.

You don’t have to go for a walk — anything you can do which gives you these benefits will help — but I haven’t found anything else as potent for increasing my motivation. Give it a try!

 

Get ready to go.

Prepare to start your first task, even if you don’t think you will. Set up any equipment you need and wear an appropriate (comfortable) outfit. Put on some upbeat music. Drink coffee or cola if you need/want a stimulant to help. Switch your phone to silent and turn off the TV.

Make it so easy to start your task that it would be ridiculous not to do it.

Setting a timer can help — you can follow the pomodoro technique, but my version is to set the timer for 5-10 minutes and do everything I can to tackle the task at hand in that time. Sometimes I manage very little or nothing, but at least I know I gave it a shot.

However, I usually find that I continue the task until it’s complete. Often, this is enough to motivate me to complete more tasks. I think it helps that I have a cute blue owl timer. However effective this technique is, remember to be compassionate towards yourself — the results don’t matter as much as having tried.

 

Moving forward.

If you feel you need to work through your procrastination in more detail, I found this cool poster, which is free to download:

Get Motivated poster

Bear in mind that you will have to try these techniques over and over again — doing them once might get a few tasks completed, but reaching your goals requires more consistency.

Most importantly, figure out which techniques work best for you. Keeping notes can help, because different techniques may be more/less effective at different times. Don’t be afraid to experiment — you’re already procrastinating, so you have nothing to lose!

Beware Your Inner Critic in Disguise!

You are probably familiar with the concept of your inner critic — it’s s way of identifying that voice inside your head which criticises your every move and often insults you outright. When something goes wrong, your inner critic is always there to say “I told you so” and “you were stupid to even try.” When you are considering taking a risk which could reap plenty of rewards, your inner critic tells you “it won’t work out” and “you’re too weak/timid/untalented to do that.” It’s much like having a bully as your constant companion.

Silencing the inner critic is probably impossible, but there are techniques you can use to push its whiny or thundering voice into the background:

Look for the evidence. Take a cool, logical approach to the concerns your inner critic raises. If it says “you’ll never win that competition/game/promotion,” answer “maybe not, but I might — and the only way to win is to try, whereas not trying guarantees I lose.” Writing it all out helps you to assess the truth of the situation.

Make your inner critic into a ridiculous character. What would he/she/it look like? Would they be human or an animal or a monster? How would they dress? How would they act? Exploring the character of your inner critic often reveals them to be a scared, weak creature who wants to hide in a corner and prevent you from reaching your potential. When you view your inner critic as a ridiculous character, their words lose their power.

Distract yourself. When your inner critic starts harrassing you, do something else. Anything else — as long as it’s something which requires enough concentration to stop your thoughts taking over. The best form of distraction is to do something which the inner critic is trying to dissuade you from doing, like learning a new skill or applying for jobs, but other activities are also effective. Try running, drawing, reading, singing along to your favourite music, baking, etc.

The inner critic can be tricky, but these techniques will chip away at its influence on your life. However, the inner critic can resurface in different forms — when you least expect it. It’s difficult to be prepared for these occasions, because they are outside of your usual thought pattern, but identifying the inner critic’s presence is the first step to subduing its new manifestation.

How can the inner critic disguise itself?

The inner critic is most destructive when you don’t recognise it, so it may disguise itself as a friend or someone else who has your best interests at heart. Its tone and vocabulary might change. Instead of telling you not to bother doing something because you will fail, it says “try X instead, X is your priority” and the X it suggests is usually busywork or trivial tasks which might fool you into thinking you’re making progress, but actually steal time and energy away from your goals.

I have been experiencing this a lot over the past few weeks. It took me a while to realise that the voice telling me to focus on the smallest tasks on my to-do list is my inner critic. I thought I was being sensible, tackling the smaller things first — until I realised that more of the same type of tasks replaced them on my to-do list, before I could get started on the bigger, more important tasks. My inner critic was distracting me. I thought I was accomplishing a lot because I was getting a lot of tasks done, but I was neglecting the tasks which mattered the most.

Whenever you find yourself getting in the way of your goals — especially through procrastination — try to identify the role your inner critic is playing. Is it convincing you to achieve small goals at the expense of what you really want to do? Is it persuading you that you need to relax, so you end up watching TV instead of working towards your goals? Is it telling you to follow small possibilities rather than seizing opportunities with more potential?

Imagine the voice as a person: if you saw this person interacting in the same way with your best friend, would you accept its behaviour and recommendations?

This is often the most effective way of identifying an inner critic in disguise. If someone was telling your best friend to apply for unsuitable jobs instead of working towards her ideal career, would you think they were supportive? If they advised your friend to watch a rerun of Friends rather than go for a run, would you say that was helping her to achieve her fitness goals? If they told your friend who wants to save money that he might as well buy a takeaway because he deserves a treat, would you think that was a good idea? Again, you may find it useful to write down the “advice” you are being given.

When you take yourself out of the equation, it’s easier to discover whether the strategies recommended by that voice in your head are genuinely supportive or just your inner critic in disguise. If it’s the latter, you know what to do — use the techniques above to push their voice into the background.