As a work-for-hire freelance writer, I have always believed that the deliberate practice of my work over the years/decades would give me some small semblance of financial success and a more continuous stream of reliable, paid work by this stage of life in my early sixties. I believed I would have more clients to write for to a point in which I’d be forced to refuse potential customers, and that my fees would go up due to my professional experience and honed talent. Instead, I’m experiencing less work due to ageism. Plus, even in those instances when I had garnered an occasional writing assignment, the pay had dropped dramatically to less than 50 percent of what I used to get.
Once this rude realization hit home, I changed my work habits, putting a positive spin on all the ageism-related rejection by turning my efforts toward personal, self-rewarding writing projects. If I can’t get any paid jobs like I have always managed to get in the past, I could finally spend time on what really mattered to me. And, if I got enough readers of my new writing and self-publishing ventures, I believed that perhaps I could then make even more money than what I earned in the past working for others. All I needed to do was write, write, write with a vengeance on a daily basis. All I needed to do was get on a strict routine in which I produced all that stuff that needed to come out of my creative brain.
Problem is I became a procrastinator.
How did I become a procrastinator? I think it’s because this new semi-retirement phase of my life taunts me into doing more philosophical contemplation than anything else. I discovered, too, that this was not unusual for someone who was half-heartedly fighting retirement. In Contemplative Aging: A Way of Being in Later Life, author Edmund Sherman explains how a segment of the elder population — typically those in their late stages of life — has a strong desire to start living a more contemplative life than continuing in the world of work. Many so-called successful aging proponents claim that working part-time or full-time during your retirement years is a healthy way to stay in the game, to continue to have some sense of purpose, but I’m starting to think otherwise. This kind of thinking, however, is not in my best interests primarily because I don’t have a nest egg. I need income above social security during my retirement years in order to survive.
Contemplative agers are people who have decided to just be, as opposed to do. “It is a way of aging in the latter stages of life, in which there exists both greater indwelling and considering—with continued attention—the meaning and experience of one’s own being,” Sherman writes. “In one sense, this is an existential or philosophical kind of attention, not as formal philosophical study, but as viewing one’s life in toto, from past to present to future, especially ‘in the moment,’ so as to understand or comprehend it.”
The problem with being a contemplative type is that I’m not getting any of my writing projects done. After spending several months of jump starting three personal writing projects that would bring me fame and fortune, I finally came to the stark realization that I was not fulfilling any of my goals. Instead of spending four solid hours every morning pounding the keys, I was delving into numerous Kindle ebooks on philosophy and psychology in between meaningless, unproductive spurts of web surfing, social media posting, and combing through emails and electronic newsletters I had subscribed to on everything from healthy aging, to finding one’s purpose, to how to be a minimalist, to low-carb cooking. I won’t even get into the numerous distractions emanating from the White House that took me away from work.
The Gifts of Imperfection
After reading Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, I concluded that I was experiencing an “unraveling.”
According to Brown, an unraveling is “a time when you are challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and to embrace who you are.” She presents a list of life events that can cause an unraveling, two of which I am currently experiencing: semi-retirement and an empty nest. Moving is another catalyst for an unraveling. We moved under one year ago.
Brown’s book is about how to be authentic and self-compassionate, traits I have always admired in people and aspired to myself. One aspect of life she promotes centers on “healthy striving” as opposed to “perfectionism.”
“Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis,” Brown notes. “Life-paralysis refers to all of the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. It’s also all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing, making mistakes, and disappointing others. It’s terrifying to risk when you’re a perfectionist; your self-worth is on the line.”
So, the message seems to be that I should accept my procrastination and simply move on, keep working at it, etc. In other words, stop beating myself up for not producing perfect content. And, as the title of her book suggests, acknowledge my current “imperfection” as a gift that, in due time, will catalyze into being more consistent with meeting my inner goals. It’s like a Jedi mind trick telling me to be authentic and self-compassionate while at the same time getting the necessary work done, albeit perhaps on a different and slower time schedule and incrementally.
The Mature Mind
This feeling of unraveling is identical to experiencing a “reevaluation phase” of life that author Gene D. Cohen outlined in his book The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain. This is when we pointedly start asking ourselves where we are, where we have been, and where we are going. All this consternation eventually leads up to acquiring “developmental intelligence” and moving ourselves into a final “encore phase” in which we manifest “our creatively restless brain creating an Inner Push for reflection and a desire for continuation and celebration,” Cohen wrote. Even at this stage of our lives “new perspectives” can develop. Although we are typically set in our ways by now, we are, however, “capable of ‘jumping the tracks,’ in spontaneous and wonderful ways,” he noted.
With all this reevaluation and unraveling going on, I looked deeper and expanded my reading into several additional books dealing with procrastination. I decided that getting multiple points of view from some of the experts who write about this topic could be a smart strategy.
The Now Habit
I’ll start with Neil Fiore’s book The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play. “Play hard in order to work more productively and efficiently,” he writes with a direct shot into my welcoming mind. Hmmm. In other words, prioritize fun, because once you have satisfied your fun gene, you will take more work-oriented actions.
Similar to Brown, Fiore also explains how focusing on the results of your efforts and not self-blaming – in other words, focusing “on what is rather that what you think should be” – carries “a level of positive energy free from the unnecessary struggles of the past and negative comparisons with the future.”
My current “what is”: A screen play I started years ago still languishes; a push toward more articles like these dwells in an outline/idea phase. Work on my memoir, however, seems to be growing with more creative insights sporadically bursting out, but the whole thing is a complete mess right now, very unorganized and all over the place.
There is some positive energy in there, and the question now becomes how do I keep that positivity moving forward and not overly dwell on results.
According to Fiore, “the three major fears that block action and create procrastination are the terror of being overwhelmed, the fear of failure, and the fear of not finishing.” So, frankly, rid yourself on any such fears.
“You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your success or failure,” adds Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Ah, Dah, but worth reinforcing.
Similar to Fiore and Brown, this too entails tackling the enormity of creative work without beating yourself up over the lack of possible outcomes. What I really enjoyed about Gilbert’s book, however, is that she proposes paying closer attention to the magic of creativity. This is where she reaches into the paranormal, and, to my surprise, I completely agreed with her out-of-this-world description of how creative insights arrive at our doorstep unannounced.
Her magic theory goes something like this: Numerous creative ideas are floating around the invisible-to-the-naked-eye ether about to bolt into any receptive soul. If you pay attention to this free-floating idea and dedicate your time to this incoming gift that comes out of nowhere, your creativity will surge and you will eventually produce something of value to yourself and others you may share it with.
“Ideas are alive,” Gilbert writes. “Ideas do seek the most available human collaborator, ideas do have a conscious will, ideas do move from soul to soul, ideas will always try to seek the swiftest and most efficient conduit to the earth (just as lightning does).”
I’m here, man, hit me! I’ve experienced many lightning bolts, and I’m now more of a susceptible receptacle.
The War of Art
After reading Brown, Fiore, and Gilbert, I expanded my examination into the world of procrastination by rereading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles. Pressfield is the master of bluntness when it comes to advice about the production of creative work.
Can it be his repetitive mantra – “resistance” is the culprit? Is that the main reason why I’m not completing anything?
The problem with Pressfield is there is no “play” in his barefaced advice: “The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not,” he writes. “He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation (all mechanisms for resistance to actually doing the work). The artist must be like that Marine. He has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.”
Where is the fun that Fiore writes about? Where is the openness to the magic that Gilbert posits? For Pressfield, it is simply a matter of engaging in a fierce battle against resistance – that is the only way to complete any of your goals. My response: Who wants to battle anything?
In all fairness, Pressfield’s book dishes out plenty of easy-to-comprehend and valuable common-sense worth repeating, such as when he defines another level of resistance dealing with the ego. “Resistance also told me I shouldn’t seek to instruct, or put myself forward as a purveyor of wisdom; that this was vain, egotistical, possibly even corrupt, and that it would work harm to me in the end,” he explains. “That scared me. It made a lot of sense. What finally convinced me to go ahead was simply that I was so unhappy not going ahead. I was developing symptoms. As soon as I sat down and began, I was okay.”
I can relate.
After Pressfield, I read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport, whose notions hit me square on with his definition of “shallow work” as “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
Guilty as charged! For example, I love redoing my calendar each day, adding this to-do and that to-do only to-do nothing other than my calendar updates.
Additionally, “in an age of network tools, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative—constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction,” Newport writes. “Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality. To make matters worse for depth, there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.”
Not everybody, of course, is so distracted as to be unable to reverse it, but I’m finding that, indeed, all this surfing around between social media and emails has turned me into someone who cannot stay fully focused on one task for more than one hour. In the past, before the Digital Age, I could easily focus hard on one important task for at least three to four hours. So, for me at least, this is a problem that needs to be overcome soon as feasibly possible. Let’s just say I’m working on it.
The next level of sound, practical advice came from Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.
Halvorson pushes the notion of examining your “what” mindset as opposed to your “why” mindset. She says this kind of practice is “an excellent way to not only be more realistic about your time, but also to prevent procrastination.” She points to a survey of undergraduate college students in which participants were asked to complete a task. For promoting why thinking, these students were asked to explain why they did certain activities, such as writing a diary or opening a bank account. For promoting what thinking, the students were asked how they go about actually doing such activities.
“The researchers then recorded how long it took for the students to achieve their goal (by completing the survey and sending it back),” Halvorson explains. “Remarkably, the ones who had been encouraged to think what sent in their surveys nearly ten days earlier on average than those who thought why. So thinking about your goal with a what mind-set leads you to focus on the specific action you need to take, which helps you to act more quickly in achieving your goal. Focusing too much on why you want to do something, on the other hand, may lead you to be rather sluggish when it comes to actually doing it.”
A Handy List for Procrastinators
Well, all this reading has brought forth a handy list that synthesizes everything.
- It’s alright to live a contemplative life (or life of leisure) as you age, but don’t let it overcome you and take too much time away from the work you should be doing to complete all of your life’s goals before you exit. Be more cognizant of how you are actually spending your time. Be mindful.
- Don’t be a perfectionist and don’t beat yourself up if you are not always meeting your goals.
- Be open to new perspectives and new goals that are not consistent with who and what you used to be for most of your adult life.
- Have the most enormous amounts of fun as you can and use those experiences as catalysts to get back to the projects you want to accomplish.
- Pay attention to the mystery of great ideas that float around seeking to bolt into your open mind. Be that receptacle to ideas an act on them immediately if you can.
- Watch out for those things that form a block to real progress, such as being overly egotistical, and over thinking your work with feelings of despair, self-doubt, rejection, etc. Just sit down and do the work as best as you can.
- Beware of this digital age of distraction. Make note of all the distractions and get rid of them.
- Focus on what you are doing more than why you are doing something. This will help you get things completed quicker.
What do you think?
Thanks for stopping by,