“Low key change helps the human mind circumnavigate the fear that blocks success and creativity.” ~Robert Maurer
I’m currently working on my doctoral dissertation. It’s something I’ve been working on for many years. It’s something that I deeply believe in and want to complete, but I’m also the mom of two small kids and I run my own business.
Making time for to work on my thesis is low down on my priorities.
And for years I’ve been able to justify it to myself that I don’t work on it as much as I should because I don’t have the time.
That may well have been partly true while my children were younger.
But now as they’re getting a bit older, I realize that my procrastination is also about something else.
It’s about all the stories in my head that make working on this project unpleasant.
It’s about the fear, the self-doubt, the worry about not being good enough, the doubt about whether I’ll ever be able to finish, and the expectation that it’s going to be a really hard and frustrating process.
Because I do have time.
I have time to read and work on other projects that interest me. In fact, I make sure I create the time because I enjoy working on them.
This is something that I’ve only recently realized. Recognizing it has been so empowering.
Because I do want to finish it. I’ve dedicated so much time and energy to it, it would feel really good to complete.
Since recognizing this and recommitting to the project, I’ve been experimenting with an idea that so far has been really helpful, and I’m excited about its potential.
Sneaking Past Fear the Kaizen Way
The idea comes from the Japanese art of Kaizen. In his great book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, Robert Maurer describes it as a gentle and elegant strategy to maintain excellence and realize dreams.
He explains how when we try to do big things and make big changes, it triggers our stress response and makes us avoid. So the solution is to make tiny, incremental changes, so imperceptibly small that you don’t activate your stress response.
All kaizen asks is that you take small steps for continual improvement.
As I was reading this I could immediately see where I was going wrong.
Each time I sat down to work on a paper I’m writing I was thinking about how I could make this a brilliant paper that would make the biggest impact and so do justice to the participants of my research.
Wow, the weight of the pressure. No wonder that felt like a big ask and made me avoid it.
The two strategies I have been working with involve asking small questions and thinking small thoughts.
1. Ask small questions to dispel fear and inspire creativity.
Big questions, such as “How can I quit my job and find my purpose?” tend to overwhelm us. Small questions help us get around our fear and start making progress, especially when we ask them regularly.
Maurer illustrates this point by asking you to imagine coming to work and having a colleague ask you to remember the color of the car parked next to you. You probably wouldn’t remember. If they asked you the same question the next day you probably also wouldn’t remember. But by the third day, as you arrived at work, you would probably pay attention to the car parked next to you.
Asking yourself tiny questions consistently helps you teach your mind what to pay attention to.
He recommends asking yourself your question a few time throughout the day for a number of days in a row.
I’ve been using this by combining two questions: “If I was guaranteed to succeed, what would I be doing differently?” and “What small step can I take today to move me forward?”
One idea that came to me today was to reach out to a colleague who I know was also working on her PhD while working fulltime. I shared my experience with her and her response: “Ali, I feel like you’re completely describing my experience. Let’s speak more and find out how we can support each other.”
We’re now going to support each other as accountability partners which I can already feel will make a significant difference.
Some other questions you could consider asking yourself daily:
How could I make working toward my goal more fun?
Who can I ask for help today?
What’s the simplest thing I can do with the time I have available?
2. Think small thoughts to develop new skills and habits.
The second strategy involves a kind of mental rehearsal called mind sculpting, which helps you develop new social, mental, and even physical skills just by imagining yourself performing them. Here you identify the task you want to achieve from your questioning process and then begin to imagine yourself doing it.
But instead of seeing yourself on a moving screen, as is the traditional visualization technique, you are advised to feel yourself doing the task and incorporate all your senses.
So I see myself sitting down, feeling my fingers on my keyboard, hearing the sounds of the birds outside, and seeing the screen in front of me.
And the important part—seeing yourself enjoying the process. Because we avoid what we imagine will be unpleasant and painful.
What I’m doing with that is giving myself the next two weeks while my children are on school holidays to spend a few minutes a day imagining myself working on it and enjoying it.
The idea here is that by doing this for a period of time, you start to rewire your association to the task, which makes it easier to then take small actions.
So choose a task that you’re afraid to do or something that makes you uncomfortable and decide how long you’ll practice for each day. Make the time commitment so little that you’re going to do it consistently, as repetition is important. Maurer recommends starting with a few seconds a day!
So what have you been putting off that you would love to accomplish? I’d love to hear in the comments below.