My biggest mistake of the last two years was a to do list.
A friend of mine and fellow blogger convinced me to do a “30 Before 30” list. The concept is pretty simple: write down thirty goals on your twenty-eighth birthday, and then spend the next two years trying to finish them all.
It was an ambitious list. It looked impressive, and I did a lot of work on it—an amazing amount for two years, I thought. But when my thirtieth birthday rolled around, I didn’t feel very impressed. I felt dissatisfied.
See, I was able to predict the goals I wouldn’t get done. I finished the showy goals and the little goals and the goals I could easily brag about and check off the list to show my progress. But I didn’t finish the big goals that I actually cared about—particularly, writing.
I’ve been moving towards writing more and modeling less, and that’s going well enough. I sold my first short story. I’ve seen articles and essays and blog post reprints in various books, websites, and magazines. But finishing a book of my own? Not even close.
Writing a book has been on my to do list since I started making to do lists, and that was a long time ago. I want it so badly. And yet, I keep not doing it.
It’s gotten to the point where I’ll make to do lists with Even More Goals—sometimes, even thirty of them—and I’ll finish all the other goals but that one. So in my frustration, I started poking around the internet, looking for more productivity hacks. Previous research over the years had yielded useful tools like pomodoros and bullet journaling. I needed the silver bullet to finish my unfinished goals, and maybe this time I’d find it.
I did not. Instead, I found an article on procrastination. An article that made the bold claim that, if an item had remained on your to do list without any progress for over a year, you were probably procrastinating.
That was, indeed, a bold claim. But perhaps there was something to it. Well, I guess it technically had been over a year since I’d made any forward progress on my novel. But there were reasons for that. I was overscheduled, and I had this 30 Before 30 list, and sometimes life just happened and things weren’t always within my control.
Besides, I wasn’t a “procrastinator.” I was a productive person! Productive people don’t procrastinate by definition. And look at all the other things I had accomplished. I couldn’t possibly be procrastinating…could I? And yet, despite its importance, I hadn’t really moved on my novel in an entire year.
So I started to do some more reading into procrastination. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony of procrastinating more by researching procrastination). Turns out the kind of procrastination described in the article is pretty strongly linked with being held to high expectations as a kid. Failure is equated with anything less than perfection, and perfection and high performance become the child’s self-identity. When failure threatens who you are, you’re much more likely to never start in the first place.
Why yes, that sounded familiar. I was the child who needed a 4.00, and when I scored a 99%, I would focus on what I got wrong.
So I don’t think I was lazy. Actually, I was the opposite of that. I was over-motivated. I had built up the goal in my head so much that I was scared to start. I had always wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t want to threaten that identity by actually writing. Then I might screw it up.
But I was still a golden retriever. I still needed external validation. I still needed to feel like a “productive person” to fulfill my sense of identity. So I checked off smaller goals one by one. I turned productive procrastination into an art form.
My 30 Before 30 was just the tip of the iceberg. Overscheduling can be a form of productive procrastination too, and an attempt at positive self-identity through external validation. In a way, productive procrastination even started my entire modeling career. I didn't think of myself as a model—far from it. So I wasn’t afraid to try it and possibly fail. And I’m so glad that I did. Although building myself an identity as a model is a hell of a way to avoid writing a book.
My initial impulse was to not talk about this until I had it all figured out, book in hand. But I know that’s a bad idea. That’s just me trying to avoid being vulnerable. And maybe this will be useful to other overachieving procrastinators like me.
I think it’s also important to realize procrastination isn’t the only reason I might not be getting something done. For example, this essay is quite late. I wish I could say it was because I was procrastinating, but it’s not. I broke three bones in my ankle. Turns out it’s hard to write coherently when I’m high on painkillers. Turns out sometimes life actually does “just happen,” and it’s important to be open and honest about that.
In the same way, if your mental or physical health isn’t in order or your job is slowly killing you, you’re probably not procrastinating. You’ve got to solve those completely legitimate problems first, and that’s okay.
For me, I'm trying to change where I get my identity from. I’m trying to let go of “I’m a productive person, look at all these lists." I’m telling myself that I am not defined by what I accomplish, or what I fail at. But I just may be defined by what I choose to work on, and how I go about doing it. Am I being a golden retriever? Am I rushing? Am I avoiding? Or am I pursuing what I want, the best that I can?