Monday, November 23, 2020

The Cost of Responsibility

Many years ago, early in my career, I had the opportunity to travel to Quebec City to give a presentation at a conference. I was terrifically excited. I'd never travelled to Quebec City, nor, for that matter, had I visited any parts of Canada east of Saskatchewan. 

The conference was in an area of rehabilitation in which I was developing some unique expertise. I applied to my employer for funding, and they agreed to pay for the the plane ticket, hotel room, registration, and my meals during the weekend of the conference. It was a very good career opportunity. The icing on the cake was that one of my best friends had also had a paper accepted at the same conference, and was planning to attend too. Fun!

I was a new mom at the time, and our baby was about eight months old. The dilemma I faced was how to attend the conference and also look after my daughter. My husband and I decided that we'd go to Quebec City as a family. That way, he could care for her while I was in the conference sessions. 

We also decided we'd both take some vacation time off and stay for a few extra days after the conference. My husband, of course, paid for his own plane ticket and expenses, and the baby flew for free. We rented a B&B for the extra days after the conference. 

The morning that we were to leave to fly to Quebec, my daughter woke up with a red rash on her face. She'd never had anything similar. However, she seemed happy and her behaviour was normal, and she did not have a fever. The spots seemed to be fading a bit, so we made our way to the airport for our flight. 

But I was consumed with anxiety. What if she had something contagious, like measles? Perhaps we'd be putting others on the flight at risk, crammed together in a row of seats for the hours it would take to fly from Vancouver to Quebec City. 

So, after being cleared for our flight when we went through inspection, I pointed out the rash and asked whether they could change our seating assignment so we weren't seated right next to anyone else.

Well, you've never seen airline officials move so fast. They whisked us out of the inspection area and put us into a holding room while they contacted their supervisor. The verdict was that we couldn't board the flight, or any flight, until we had medical clearance to fly. 

As we made our way back home, I felt like a fool. Why had I opened my big mouth? The airport personnel hadn't even noticed the rash until I'd pointed it out. The baby was clearly fine. She was gurgling happily in her car seat.  

It felt like a crisis. At that point in my career, it was inconceivable to not show up to deliver a presentation that I'd promised to give, that was already printed in the program, and that I'd spent many hours preparing. My employer had paid for the conference and flight. Would they have to forfeit the money? Would I have to pay them back? Would we forfeit the cost of my husband's flight and the deposit for the B&B? My husband had cancelled his clients' appointments for the week. We would "waste" precious vacation days. 

After some frantic phone calls, we were able to get in to see a physician that same day. The physician examined my daughter and declared that the rash was nothing serious, perhaps heat rash or a mild food sensitivity. She filled out a medical authorization form and the airline put us on a flight the next morning, by which time the rash had totally disappeared. 

With friend & daughter; Chateau Frontenac
 We arrived in time for me to attend the opening reception of the conference. The entire conference was excellent, and we had a wonderful time in Quebec City. We happened to be there at the time of lobster fest so we ate a great deal of yummy lobster. 

Strolling Around Quebec City
 For a long time, I thought the lessons that I had learned from this experience were:

  • Don't create problems for yourself by pointing out minor issues that the authorities otherwise wouldn't notice
  • Something that seems like a huge crisis in the moment often turns out to be a minor bump in the road
  • Always leave some extra time before and after a scheduled event when travelling, in case of unexpected delays.

But through our collective experiences during this worldwide epidemic that has been dragging on and on, I suddenly remembered this long-ago experience and realized that I learned something else, too. 

Because what if my daughter's rash had NOT been a temporary, minor occurrence? What if it had been been measles or chickenpox or some other very contagious disease, and by going on the flight we exposed someone else -- perhaps an expectant mother or an elderly person -- to an illness that could cause disability or death? My desire to attend a conference and to tour Quebec City would have seemed like trivial reasons to have put others at such grievous risk. 

There can be costs for making the responsible choice. 

But sometimes the costs of making an irresponsible choice can be ever so much higher. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Procrastination Kickstart


The Beauty of Nature Inspires Me
Have you ever had a big project that you keep putting off, day after day, week after week? 

No matter how much you mentally flog yourself, you can't get started. You find an endless number of other things that suddenly need to be done instead, and manage to put off starting the big project this morning, and this afternoon, and this week. The stress builds, and the lack of progress starts to feel like a crisis. You don't feel good about yourself.

Procrastination is something that I struggled with during my career. I was fortunate to have work that was very self-directed. I had a lot of choice in what projects I chose to take on, and the freedom to structure my work-time as I chose, as long as the work got done. For the most part, I thrived with this much independence. But the downside of all that freedom was that procrastination could strike, and there was no one to tell me what to do and make sure I did it. I remember some projects that "fell off the side of the desk," and I regret to this day that I procrastinated and never finished them (or sometimes, never even started them).

Of course, now that I'm retired, there's way less stress. But I still find there are certain things in life that I procrastinate on. One of the good things about my lifelong struggle with procrastination is that I've learned some strategies to address it. Here are some of them.

Am I procrastinating?

The first thing to do is to notice that I am procrastinating in the first place. 

I am a master of convincing myself that the reason I am not doing the project is because I am too busy, or because something else urgent has to be done first. I have to go out to get my daily exercise, or I have to clean the kitchen, or today is a perfect day to re-pot all the houseplants, or, etc., etc. If I keep myself in a whirl of busyness, I can justify to myself why I can't possibly start the project right now.

A variation on this is, I am so tired or overworked (because I've been so busy!) that I need to rest or do something fun and rejuvenating first. And the days go by. 

I Distract Myself by Going for Walks
And then something will pull me up short -- perhaps someone else has completed something similar to my project -- and I suddenly ask myself: "Wait! Why haven't I done MY project yet?" Or I start feeling really grumpy and annoyed with myself and I don't know why. 

If I stop and think about it, I realize I've been procrastinating.

What is the nature of the project?

Once I notice I've been procrastinating, it's time to figure out why. It turns out that I procrastinate on different things for different reasons.

There are things I have to do and things I want to do. There are things that are important, and things that are not very important.  

For example, I belong to a lot of different community groups. Often, in the excitement of the moment, I volunteer to do something, and then later find myself procrastinating and not wanting to do the thing I said I'd do. I feel as though I "have" to do it because I said I would. 

Strategies: Sometimes, the task is ill-defined or not super important, and just by having a conversation with someone, we decide to go a different route, and I'm off the hook. Sometimes it can be delegated. Sometimes, I simply buckle down and do it while making a promise to myself to not say "yes" so quickly next time when a volunteer is needed for that type of task. Externally imposed deadlines can be really helpful (e.g., it needs to be done by the next meeting). Often, once I make myself do it the first time, it becomes much easier subsequently. Little regular tasks are more likely to get done if I put them into a routine.

There are some things that are unpleasant but very important. These are things you HAVE to do, but really don't want to. An example is having a medical procedure that is necessary for quality of life. Helpful friends who have had a similar procedure can take some of the uncertainty away by talking you through it, making it easier to take action. Support groups or websites or fellow bloggers can be great resources, providing information and encouragement. 

When I discover myself procrastinating about things that I WANT to do, figuring out why I am procrastinating can be a lot more perplexing. 

Do I know how to do it?

Sometimes, I procrastinate because I don't know how to do something. The project can feel too big and overwhelming. The two most helpful strategies for me, in this case, are to research the topic area and to make a plan. Once I gather information about what needs to be done, and ways other people have done it, the project becomes less intimidating. With the information about what needs to be done, I can then sit down and make a plan. 

For a big project, I like to write my plan out. I break it down into specific goals and sub-goals, and list a number of very small, easy steps under each goal. Once I've broken it down into extremely small steps, it is much easier to begin. The whole project might be big, but I know I can figure out how to do each tiny step, one by one. 

What is the fear that keeps me from starting?

Very often, the root of procrastination is psychological. There is a deep-seated fear that your intended project, for some reason, triggers. Perhaps you're terrified of public speaking, and you know that once you've completed your project, you'll have to present it to others. So you don't even start, as a way of avoiding that scary future situation. 

In my case, very often my fears are related to perfectionism and fear of failure. Maybe my project won't be successful. Maybe what I produce won't be "good enough." It will fall short of perfect and reveal that I am a flawed human being.

When I finally zero in on the underlying fear, I can take some of the power out of that fear. Recognizing the nature of the fear helps to get me unstuck.

I can give myself a pep talk, reminding myself of other things I accomplished in spite of being afraid.

I can remind myself that no one really cares about my project but me, or how "perfect" it is. I can remind myself that it's not either/or: fail vs. perfect. There are a lot of gradations in-between. It is the journey that counts, not only the product at the end

Nature's Glory puts Fears in Perspective
The value of examining procrastination

Ultimately, personal projects and goals we set for ourselves (as opposed to those things we say we'll do to please others) are deeply important to who we are as people and what's important in our lives. If we wiggle out of doing things that are essential to our core values or stepping stones toward our life purpose(s), it is a sad personal loss, and sad for others, too, who'll never benefit from our gifts.  

Examining the causes of procrastination can get us unstuck and help us learn about ourselves. The things that seem hardest are often our best learning opportunities, and procrastination can be a signal that we are approaching one of those moments of transformation. 

So, what kind of project is it, you ask, that leads me to reflect on procrastination? I have needed a procrastination kickstart because I am seeking to publish my novel, and am starting to embark on that publication process.