When I fail at something – or, let’s say, don’t do it as well as I expect of myself – there’s this whole thing that goes on in my head. First, I have the excuses. Too little sleep, too much childwrangling, too many interruptions. Then, there’s the part of me that raises an eyebrow and uses the word “excuses”. Then the dance begins. Yes, but I’m really so unbelievably freaking tired. Yes, but get over it. Yes, but I can’t concentrate on a big job without a big chunk of time. Yes, but you have to, and anyway other people manage. Yes, but I’m thinking in instalments, and the less sleep I get, the smaller the instalments and the stupider I am. Yes, but why are you taking all this on then? What were you even thinking?
And that’s the question.
I say yes all the time when I should probably say no. Maybe because I don’t want to let someone down. Maybe because I fear missing an opportunity. Most often because I want to do the thing, and I convince myself it’s perfectly manageable.
And maybe it is, but circumstances change. Or maybe I should count on circumstances changing and factor a certain amount of Things Coming Up into my plan. Or maybe I’m just totally deluded in the first place as to what I can actually handle. In any case, I end up stressed and flailing, and failing, or feeling like I’m failing, and I don’t even know whether the part of me with the excuses is more or less right than the part of me that thinks I’m full of shit, but it sucks beyond measure.
When I end up with 40 hours of work to do in a week when I have 0 hours of childfree work time, or when I end up taking two weeks to finish a project I thought I could wrap up in half a day, there’s obviously a degree of self-delusion involved. How do I get to that point? What makes me think that I can achieve the impossible just by trying a bit harder?
I don’t think it’s just me. The entire booming productivity industry – all those apps, blogs, books and workshops – is built on the assumption that you can make it work, whatever “it” is, by managing your life that bit more efficiently. And plus, there’s this whole narrative that it’s important to stretch yourself – so the sensible instinct to say “actually, I’m not ready for that” just triggers the desire to prove you can after all.
I have to remind myself of some people I’ve worked with – very smart, motivated and well intentioned people, but they’re always astonishingly late in delivering. I don’t think they’re slacking off; I think they’re struggling to be realistic about what can be done when. You can’t actually squeeze 30 hours out of every 24. And at least in my case, the more I try, the worse I perform, and the longer it all takes.
I’ve conquered the massive onslaught of work I had over the past two weeks. Some of it went well; some of it didn’t. But the final products worked out, in any case, so I’m hanging onto that. I’m off to Edinburgh now. In between the meeting and the laughing and the fondling and the sightseeing, I’m going to be thinking about what’s reasonable, and what’s worthwhile, and what’s worth a bit of unreasonable effort.
And I probably won’t come back with any very profound or useful conclusions, because I do love a challenge and I really hate to say, “I’m not ready for that,” so I’ll probably keep on taking on too much and doing it badly. But… I’ll at least consider the possibility of not.