Fits and Starts

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time, of course.

But what if the thought of eating an elephant is really abhorrent? What if I don’t want to consume an animal that buries its dead and can communicate with its friends who are miles away?** What if I think that’s pretty much the worst metaphor for finishing a project that I’ve ever heard?

What do you have when you’re done eating an elephant? A whale of a stomachache, that’s for sure. And, well, nothing. The point of finishing is to get something, right? A medal, prestige, a degree, a new painting, an empty closet, peace of mind. It’s the end point that keeps you taking one more bite of that stinking carcass, right?

I used to call myself a passive perfectionist. I had such a strong desire to get it just perfect that I would put off all projects until I was so close to deadline that perfectionism wasn’t a possibility. At that point, I could set aside perfectionism for “just get it the heck done already!” It wasn’t the most efficient way to work, and it pretty much guaranteed that I never turned in a perfect or near-perfect (or even best-effort) term paper. But I graduated! From high school. And college. And graduate school.

Passive perfectionism (i.e. procrastination followed by frenzied efficiency) is a fine strategy for meeting deadlines. But it’s a terrible strategy for self-improvement. With self-improvement there are no meaningful deadlines. Sure, I can impose one on myself, but what happens if I miss it? An internal wagging finger and maybe a little self-loathing. Nothing I can’t handle. I’m not going to lose my job or get an F.

If I follow through at all on personal projects that don’t mean much to anyone else, I do it in fits and starts: I throw a fit, and I start again. Example:

FIT: “Holy crap, it’s been 2 weeks since I’ve written my first blog post, and I haven’t posted anything since! 14 days is like a millennium in Internet time! I must be the worst blogger in the world! No one will read anything I ever write again! I’m lazy! I suck! I’m George Costanza! I’m bad bad bad bad BAD!”

(re)START: Maybe I’ll just hit PUBLISH on this post and see what happens.

How do you follow through? I could seriously use some help on this one.

**They can seriously do this! Read this book if you want proof.


10 thoughts on “Fits and Starts

  1. I agree; the stinking elephant carcass is a rotten metaphor. But not just because it’s a dead animal. Imagining getting through any project, maintaining consistency on any endeavor, is overwhelming by envisioning ANY kind of big picture, all of which are either exhausting, overwhelming, or disgusting. How do you eat an ice cream sundae the size of the Empire State Building? Each bite could be delicious, but to contemplate eating the whole is revolting.

    I’m not fighting battles with writing just now (though I have and will again), but I spent most of the last year *saying* I was going to get back into yoga but never actually doing it. Until I made a new rule for myself: ass on the mat, every day. I have left my commitment open-ended from there. Could be I lie there in corpse pose and that’s it. Could be I do a full 30-45 minute workout. But the only real promise I’ve made is to put my body on that yoga mat. That, as a commitment, I can handle. (Interestingly, although I’ve cut workouts short, I’ve never done less than 15 minutes and I’ve never just done corpse or child’s pose–even on days when I was sure I’d exercise the right to choose that.)

    I think my point is: you get to choose and define your “bite.” If you’re not getting it down, it’s because you chose something too big. If my goal were to “practice yoga for 30 minutes every day’ I would never ever do it. And yet, by promising smaller, that’s what ends up happening more often than not.

    And so it can be with blogging, or writing, or anything, really. What’s the size of your bite? What does it consistent of, and what does it taste like?

    (Thanks for sharing the elephant info–that’s incredibly cool and something I didn’t know. Thanks, too, for the thought-provoking and eloquent post.)


    • As Woody Allen said, “80 percent of success is showing up.” I’ve actually tried that same strategy with piano before–my goal was to just sit at the piano. For some reason, that was still too big a bite for me. Even when I just think of it as a tiny commitment, the thought of every day starts to morph into forever and I’m back at square one with the whole big picture problem. But I definitely admire your strategy (and your yoga–that’s awesome!). If it gets you over that mental hurdle, it’s a fantastic solution. Thanks for reading!

  2. How do I follow through? Lots of times I don’t. Some projects weren’t ripe for doing. Some were dumb.

    When I have, it was because of these elements:
    • It was the right-sized bite, as Maggie says. Diet changes, for instance. I can do “no gluten, no sugar.” Counting grams? Not gonna happen.
    • The goal was so important I could climb over the perfection crazies, slip by the procrastination, and just do it.
    • Someone I respected was holding me to it and I didn’t want to let them down.
    • The project included this essential factor: some small habitual thing let me easily enter the work and kept me at it. Maggie’s “ass on the mat.”

    Here’s an example (it wasn’t a self-improvement project as much as a country-improvement project): Mike Betzold and I launched a website in 2003 to protest the Iraq War. We were horrified at what our country was doing and felt helpless. The site was our way of doing something-anything. He paid the bill and I did the rest: designed it, put it up, wrote the copy, did the art, and updated it almost daily for a year. The small habitual thing? Looking up the names and bios of the KIA.

    What a motivator to keep on. From those stories came all the columnizing and updating and effort. The waste of those lives was the prime incentive to get the word out.

  3. It’s possible that creative types have a very large need for freedom…I should know! It’s also possible that imposed deadlines or goals (even the self-imposed varieties) activate an inner rebel whose job, it seems, is to “keep the calendar clear”. But, what are we doing with all that time, besides worrying about what we OUGHT to be doing? AH HA! There it is – the dirty word. For me, the question has become more about how to move from OUGHT to WANT, so the rebel within me can relax and I can “fill my calendar”. Most of my life it’s seemed as if being busy was the enemy of the creative life. But now that OUGHT is less and WANT is more, setting goals and staying busy with them is not nearly as scary. Make no mistake, this is a work in progress! But, when I’m joyful about what I’m doing because I’m clear about what I want, there is not as much need for a perfect outcome! So I guess what I’m saying is that I’d rather have 50 small pieces of art that I was happy to create, than one giant that made me feel my self esteem was on the line. (When you want to play the piano, you will…and it will be a joyful noise!).

    • It’s amazing how difficult, rewarding, and productive it can be simply to do what you want to do. Whenever I see someone else doing it, there’s this little petty part of my brain that says, “Hey! Why should you be so successful doing whatever the heck you want to do while I’m over here doing all the things I’m SUPPOSED to be doing?”

  4. I just have to add one more thing. I’ve learned quite a bit about how NOT to procrastinate from my husband, who is my polar opposite. There have been times when I’ve come home from work to find that my front yard had a Mohawk, meaning the edges were mowed but it was still long in the middle. I’ve learned that this means hubby had a few minutes to spare, so he squeezed in some mowing. For him, moving closer to his goal of getting the lawn mowed feels like success (I guess he puts half a checkmark by that list line-item). For me it’s just embarrassing! What will the neighbors think? Ha ha ha.

  5. I have so many projects going on at once (my brain is like an assembly line in an old sitcom– I get behind and it starts piling up and breaking the machinery) that I have to physically clear some of it, and usually just say no to some things. I find lists incredibly helpful, since I can dissect a project into the tiniest parts but still have something to check off my list. Trying not to get mad at yourself and feel guilty about not getting something done (on a specific day, when you told yourself you would) is necessary. The guilt builds up on me until I’ve made the project too big in my mind.

    But in school, I almost always waited til the last minute and never got in trouble for it– I always made good grades and sometimes great grades from barely trying and just scrabbling at the last minute. I always hoped some professor would call me on it and I’d be forced to change. Now I have a lot of free time and freedom to find my way for a while. I’m the professor and the boss of myself, and guilt about not getting things done is not the same as an F or a disapproving look from someone I respect.

    I think one reason I have a blog/twitter/FB page is so I’ll at least be accountable to the internet.

    • “Accountable to the internet”–I like that! I totally had the same experience in school. I assume a lot of kids are like us. After not having to put forth much effort all through school, life can be a real kick in the pants sometimes.


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