I have to be honest.
In addition to being a leadership coach, I’ve been a productivity coach for over ten years, helping hundreds of people be more productive, less stressed, and more engaged in their commitments. But I failed at the productivity game when it came to getting one of my most important projects done: creating my website.
About five years ago, as I was first venturing out on my own with my new coaching and consulting business, it was time to put myself and my offerings out into cyberspace and hang my virtual shingle. I’d already defined my business model, chosen a name, found a URL, and even had a pretty solid client load. I felt confident and ready. So I added the project to my project list and the first few steps to my action list.
For all of my years of teaching and coaching my clients, practicing what I preached, I felt sure I’d be able to knock it out and go live with the new site in, at most, six months. After all, I’d learned from and worked for David Allen, the most revered modern productivity guru!
I pushed all the right buttons, and twisted all the knobs I knew to twist: I articulated a really attractive vision for what success would look and feel like; I brainstormed approaches and defined the rough process I’d follow to get through various milestones; I named clear, unambiguous next actions, clarified clear project outcomes, set aside project working time on my calendar… Heck! I even eventually hired a consultant and a designer to support me in the process. What did I get for all of that? The shame, frustration, and hair-yanking heartache of three years of mostly inaction.
I totally failed.
Or did I?
Was this a sign that I was a fraud and a failure? “The productivity coach who can’t even get a simple website done!” For many months, I believed this to be true. And I felt like crap about myself every time I reviewed my lists and realized how much wasn’t getting done.
However, in hindsight, it was one of my most important learning experiences as a coach.
My experience clarified to me that my role as a workflow coach, when I help clients improve how they manage their commitments, is actually not about turning them into perfect, flawless “doing machines.” Yes, it’s true that the approach I teach and use in my own life does tend to result in commitments that are met more frequently, with more peace of mind and greater satisfaction. But what I discovered in my own painful process of procrastination was that when I am really clear about what I’m intending to do, and then fully confront the fact that I’m not doing it, those are the moments of greatest opportunity for real learning and growth.
Over the months, as my avoidance and inaction became painfully obvious, my orientation shifted from being a victim of inaction, to being a student of it.
For two years I was in a state of almost torturous stagnation, where I relentlessly avoided, skipped, fell asleep to taking action on the project despite my almost-weekly recommitment not to do so. I had a few successful sessions here or there where I got few small early steps done, but for the most part, I was stuck. As soon as I got close to really doing something that would create real momentum, I’d experience huge emotional stopping points that sounded something like:
You’re going to screw this up! You’re not doing it right!
You should be ashamed of yourself, you’re a productivity coach!
You must be a fraud! There’s no value in what you offer!
And I found myself more and more stuck, helpless, and angry at myself.
But at about the two-year mark, enough was enough! I resolved to do what it took to not just get the project moving, but more importantly, to face and understand what was really going on under the surface of all of these emotional blockades.
I began a practice in which I would literally force myself to be in action, in ANY action, in a way that would move the project forward. And as I kept forcing myself back into my chair when the rest of me wanted to go get a snack, look at facebook or just fall into a fog of hazy forgetfulness about these commitments, something started to shift. When I was able to fully face myself in the precise moments when I felt the deepest resistance and unexplainable stuck-ness, I gradually began to develop the ability to stay with myself in those moments, to feel the full landscape of those tensions and emotions and not run away from them. It required the ability to non-judgmentally observe my emotions, thoughts and body sensations with real curiosity, self-compassion, and strength. And the longer I stayed with my immediate experiences, the more those qualities arose.
As I allowed myself to inquire through those often directionless, difficult, and confused moments within, I started to uncover the truth about the dirty little secrets that had actually been holding me hostage without my knowing it: The hidden commitments that were actually running the show: my commitments to avoiding rejection, to staying hidden, and staying small. These hidden commitments were held by younger parts of myself from my past – parts that had decided to make those commitments once upon a time, because they needed to protect my younger self, to stay safe. Once I started to really understand that internal territory, then I had something to work with, to inquire about. Rather than just banging against the same brick wall again and again, in a downward spiral of self-degradation, I could start to inquire from a higher perspective: When did those hidden commitments get created? What happened to that young child stuck in my psyche? What was really true now?
Over time, as I continued the practice, I started to test those commitments, to see if the assumptions underlying them were really true or just old figments of my conditioning, of my past. And finally, I started to feel freedom, and even excitement about the progress I was starting to make on the site. Little successes turned into bigger ones. One conversation turned into many. And soon, the possibility of the website started turning into a reality. I was so proud to finally see it live.
In my experience, there are two ways through moments like this: one way is to just force ourselves to muscle through the procrastination and push aside, reject, or avoid the difficult emotional territory that’s wanting our attention. While this can and does often result in getting things done and accomplishing goals, it leaves the underlying inner struggle unresolved, only to keep showing up again and again in the future. It also robs us of the chance to fully metabolize that emotional knot in our psyche into real learning and ultimately greater freedom.
I had honestly thought that I was a productivity failure, and from the point of view of the typical definition of “productivity” I was. But my definition of what it means to be truly productive is not just about getting stuff done faster, but also about how available we are to learning and growing along the way as we’re in action in the world. In other words, even when you have a breakdown in getting something done, you can still turn it into a productive learning experience about ourselves and what got in the way – whether that thing is in the outside world, like a broken calendar, or an overstuffed project list, or in the interior world, as I discovered. What’s required is the cultivation of an ongoing orientation to learning about yourself, and the continued trust that there are always new things to learn.
My invitation to you is to take a moment to review whatever lists or calendar you use to manage your commitments, and pick out one or two of your most confounding procrastinations. Maybe it’s that non-urgent but super-important project that’s been begging for your attention. Or that item on your action list that you consistently go numb to and unconsciously look past every time you see at on your list.
Take a breath. Feel your feet on the ground. And do your best to start taking action and moving forward with whatever actions that will get it started. This might look like setting some specific time aside on your calendar, adding a due date to your task, telling a friend that this is what you’re up to, or whatever else it takes for you to “up the anti” on your own commitment to yourself. Then, as you start, take out your own inner flashlight to see what comes up in you if things don’t go so well. There could be a goldmine in there if you’re open to compassionately staying with whatever messiness and discomfort arises and available to being surprised by what you find. These areas can be difficult to dig into on our own. So get support from a trusted friend, coach or therapist if you need it.
Also, as a bonus, if what I describe here about hidden commitments has you curious to learn more and work through some of your own, I highly recommend the book, Immunity to Change, by Robert Keegan and Lisa Lahey. In it they lay out a straight-forward map to use with yourself (or your clients if you’re a coach or therapist) that walks you through a process to uncover the hidden commitments and assumptions driving you to unconsciously work against yourself. I’ve used it for my own development and with clients and have found it to be a very powerful approach to quickly getting to the deeper truth about what’s really getting in the way.