Catherine Gracey

Living Life, One Misadventure At A Time.

Change Your Questions

on November 24, 2015

A few weeks ago I woke up in the morning and my mind wasn’t hammering me with a thousand thoughts at once. There was a blessed internal silence that mirrored the peace around me. I was surprised but I enjoyed the moment, because I knew that it might not last.

For years I have put off making hundreds of decisions. Big, small, or somewhere in between, every day a few new decisions have been added to the list. Normally I am a decisive person, so watching myself drown in indecision has been bewildering. I tried every psychological trick I could think of to improve my motivation. I’ve promised myself rewards for getting certain things done. I’ve threatened myself with punishments for failing to sort things out. I’ve written lists, experimented with clothing, and bought new office furniture.

None of the tricks helped beyond the novelty wearing off, but they did leave me wondering if I am not as capable as I believed I am. Could I just be a flake? Maybe I don’t have myself sorted out. Perhaps I am failing as an adult. Or is it simply that I’m lazy, irresponsible, and drifting through life waiting for someone else to bail me out?

No matter how negative my self-talk became, I wasn’t prepared to decide that the insidious questions were correct. The people around me were complaining about how hard I was working, so I couldn’t be lazy. I’ve spent years working on the same project with obsessive determination, so I can’t be a flake. I’ve learned too much in the pursuit of my goals to even pretend that I’m waiting for other people to bail me out.

So what was the underlying problem?

That question changed everything, because it led me to better questions. The problem was that I wasn’t making decisions. Why wasn’t I making decisions? Because I felt as if I didn’t have enough information to make good decisions, and that any decisions I made would be terrible and unchangeable. I realised that I expected to fail, to fail often, and that I wouldn’t be able to correct my mistakes once I saw them for what they were. At that point I stopped asking myself what the best possible decision would be, and how I would fix any mistakes that I had made.

The interesting thing about learning how to fix a mistake is that it is based on a few criteria. Firstly, you have to know exactly what the mistake is that you made. Mistakes are very specific, but success is often nebulous and difficult to define. Secondly, knowing what your mistake was implies that you now have a better plan, so acting on it will make your position stronger. Thirdly, learning how to fix a mistake usually teaches you how to take action in the first place. Asking how to change your appointment time is much easier than asking what the perfect appointment time would be, and you’ll learn how to book appointments in the first place.

Now when I catch myself procrastinating I take a five minute time out. I walk away from what I am doing and find a task that keeps my hands busy while my mind is free. Getting something finished breaks me out of the feeling that I’ve been wasting my time, and it gives me a chance to ask myself what the problem is. Usually I am doing one of two things; either I am focusing on the big picture instead of the small, for instance trying to work out how an entire software library works instead of starting with just the functions that I need to call, or I am fixated on the small picture instead of the big, such as worrying about stationery that costs $10 and ignoring expenses where I could potentially save $1000.

I still have a lot to sort out, but many things that have dragged on for years are now resolved. Dreams have become goals, opportunities have been created, and I can look at my achievements with satisfaction again.

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