Therese Borchard at Beyond Blue recently did a couple of posts on managing time. She described the Stephen Covey
method of separating the urgent from the important, and a guest she interviewed emphasized a related idea of focusing on significant goals rather than isolated tasks.
This is excellent advice if you find yourself getting distracted from the big things in favor of reading the latest email, following the interesting links they contain all over the internet, or delaying the important tasks because something inside is reluctant to take those on just now. The problem is that I’ve tried this method and a dozen others, and none of them have worked. Many are complicated, take hours to learn and set up, demand detailed updating and take so much time that I can’t keep up with the important goals I’ve spent days trying to refine.
Reading about this problem, though, helped me remember a book I have called Never Be Late Again by Diana DeLonzor. She takes a completely different approach. Though her emphasis is on the “punctually challenged,” I found her ideas to be just as applicable to dealing with lack of focus and perpetual delay. What sets her book apart from the others is that she looks at the psychological causes that underlie these self-defeating behaviors.
There are a couple of important principles that guide her thinking. First is that people do things in a certain way because they get a benefit out of doing them. Although many of these benefits may seem self-defeating to others, they satisfy important psychological traits. The second principle is one she quotes from Tom Rusk, a physician and the author of Instead of Therapy: “Resistance to change is the most powerful force in human psychology.” Overcoming problems of time management, procrastination and lateness demands much more than restructuring and prioritizing specific tasks. It has to begin with the inner motives of that behavior and the resistance to change created by long-term habits that satisfy those psychic drivers.
She does discuss specific techniques, but these are adjusted to each of seven sets of psychological traits she identifies that underlie such issues as distraction from tasks, missed commitments and procrastination. The first task is to figure out which set or syndrome fits you most closely. These are the syndromes:
The Rationalizer – blaming outside circumstances
The Producer – driven to stay busy, thinking magically that everything can be done in less time that it really takes
The Deadliner – getting an adrenaline rush from beating deadlines
The Indulger – wanting it all, choosing comforting activities in favor of discipline and avoiding discomfort at facing hard tasks.
The Rebel – needing to feel powerful by setting own pace, challenging authority, resisting expectations of others
The Absent Minded Professor – lacking focus, easily distracted, constantly shifting attention.
The Evader – lacking self-respect, delaying things to relieve or avoid anxiety, and self-handicapping out of fear of success or failure.
While many of these syndromes reflect an inner emptiness, it’s that last one that is often associated with high levels of anxiety, depression and perfectionism. And if you’ve been reading this blog, you may recall that I’ve had extensive experience with a couple of those problems and withresisting success. Self-handicapping is a great way to capture the problem in a word.
As DeLonzor puts it, there is a close link between the level of self-respect, the expectations you set for yourself and the motivation to take actions that help you achieve success. That’s what she sees as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In its positive form, you think well of yourself, set high expectations, and instinctively take actions to become successful. In its negative form: you lack self-respect, set low expectations (perhaps even of failure) and then set out to complete the actions (or non-actions) that fulfill your low expectations. That, in turn, justifies and perpetuates your lack of self-respect.
In the midst of similar experiences, I couldn’t achieve the distance to see myself repeating that pattern, but, looking back, that’s exactly what I did.
Here’s how I sometimes followed the cycle in my former work life. I might be facing the task of helping a couple of dozen tense people resolve several hard problems. I used to do that quite well, experiencing only the sort of nervousness an actor might feel before going on stage. But in the last several years, I sank more and more deeply into depression, erasing whatever self-respect I’d been able to maintain, and my mind was regularly fried in anxiety.
I would try to tell myself I could do this no matter what I was feeling because I knew all the steps so well. But my anxiety levels zoomed, I couldn’t really think straight, and I was convinced deep down that I couldn’t do the job. So, at the meeting itself I would split in two. The part of me that knew how to ace the whole thing would watch in frustration as the other me made mistake after mistake. By the end, I would feel like a complete failure, unable to understand how I could mess up the most elementary things, convinced I would never be able to do this work again and confirmed in the belief that I wasn’t worth much.
That followed DeLonzor’s self-fulfilling prophecy quite well. Low (or no) self-esteem would create low expectations, leading to action that guaranteed poor results. A sense of failure, in turn, justified and strengthened the lack of self-respect: I knew I couldn’t do it – why did I try? Add to such experiences missed deadlines, broken commitments, incomplete projects, lateness to meetings, etc., and the self-fulfilling prophecy would be nicely rounded out.
Dealing with all this has taken nothing short of recovery from depression, yet even that has not been the full answer. With depression out of the way (here, please add sound effect of sore, bruised knuckles knocking my wooden desk to pieces), there’s still a lot of anxiety and stress to deal with. Radical changes in workload, meditation and a generally different practice of living have starting to bring those problems to more manageable dimensions.
But as Dr. Rusk noted all too accurately: Resistance to change is the most powerful force in human psychology. Perhaps Diana DeLonzor’s book can help you break a destructive cycle you might be caught in.
Have you found effective ways of breaking this cycle of negative, self-fulfilling prophecy?