What gets in the way of personal progress?

I’ve realized lately, that I’m not where I want to be in life. At the same time, I am pretty ambitious and have a lot of desires for what I want my life to look like. As many people know, just wanting something isn’t enough. So I’ve been putting in the effort to move forward. Much of that effort has been reading and studying. As a design researcher, my first instinct is to understand the problem space and the human at the center of it. This time, the human is me. 

It’s easier to create solutions for others than it is for yourself. There are many reasons why. One is that you aren’t subject to the internal doubts and ingrained beliefs of others. Thanks to that, you can see a clearer picture and have less trouble maintaining focus on the goals. Another is that you have biases and blind spots. At the heart of it though, you have to believe change is possible. And believing that for others is simpler than for yourself. 

Although it’s not easy maintaining that belief, much of what I’ve been reading has helped. If you accept you aren’t the smartest and believe in those who tell you that change is possible, then it’s easier to trust in that possibility. In another post, I wrote about how I will be writing to fuel my learning and growth. This is one such article. 

Start with acceptance.

One book that I’ve been reading is Mindsight by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel. It’s about personal transformation and the power of the brain to literally change. Here’s a quote from the book: 

“Does this seem ironic? Jonathon comes to me to try to change, and now I am encouraging him to accept himself as he is. But here is the distinction: Our effort to combat our actual experience creates internal tension, a kind of self-inflicted distress. But rather than march into our inner world and say “No—don’t do that!” we can embrace what is and notice what happens. Amazingly, time after time people discover that letting things be also allows them to change.”

It’s an interesting thought – if you want to change, you first need to accept yourself as you are. There are probably many interpretations of this, but I have my own. You can’t change something you don’t see or understand. A chef can’t prepare a meal without seeing, feeling, or smelling the ingredients. A surgeon can’t operate if they can’t see what they are cutting. By that same logic, you can’t change yourself, if you don’t see and understand yourself. 

Seeing and accepting yourself also helps to separate emotions from your identity. If you accept something and choose to just let it be, then you aren’t swept away by fear, anxiety, or denial. It becomes easier to identify ways to improve.

I needed to achieve this myself. Being a design research practitioner, I chose a method that was most comfortable for me. I had a stack of sticky notes and I took myself through a process of mapping my internal state. First I explored, grouped, and identified what I thought I wanted. I then used that as a springboard to explore what was getting in my way and what I imagined I could do to move forward. 

This was a challenging and emotional process. It was easier for me than it would be for some others though. I’ve been keeping notebooks for years, so I’m comfortable with self-reflection. For those who’ve never purposefully explored themselves, it can be painful and scary. I’m still working through the process and will be writing about it as I make sense of things. One great part of this has been reflecting on what’s been stopping me from making progress. I’ll be sharing these reflections below as a way to help myself understand them. I also believe they could be helpful to others.

Instead of emphasizing the “blockers,” I worded them as actions and suggestions instead. I don’t know if there’s science to back that up, but it helps me to focus on the change I want to make. I am a strong believer in the power words have in guiding our emotions and beliefs. At the moment, here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Make starting easy.

Most of the procrastination and anxiety around a task happens before the task is ever begun. Once you start, it’s rarely as difficult as it seemed before. So the main thing to try to focus on at the moment is to make starting as easy as possible. Once starting is easy, I can work on sustaining my focus and putting in the work to finish. 

Be kind to myself.

I won’t get everything right all the time, and I will have slumps and failures. All too often, I berate myself for once again failing to do what I want. I need to remember to treat myself like I would treat a friend. Accept, acknowledge, and support my belief that I can change. Because if I put myself down, I reinforce the negative thoughts that keep me from growing.

Be ok with small errors.

In the learning process, there will always be small mistakes or errors. There will be more of them as I learn, and even more that I will recognize in hindsight. I recognize what “good” work means, and because of this, I expect myself to produce work that is the same. What I should focus on is not interrupting my own momentum. If I want to correct the errors, I can do so afterward. The process should continue. This is like separating the act of writing from the act of editing. You shouldn’t try to do both at once as you will struggle to get anywhere.

Examine progress by zooming out.

One of the things that I struggle with is having a large scale view of where I am at. Imagining progress, I see a line going diagonally upwards. Every single day should be an improvement over the previous day. Because of this, it feels like a disaster any day I don’t do what I set out to do. It supports all-or-nothing thinking and derails behavior change and progress. In reality, progress is never a smooth line. On any given day or week, you could be on a downward slope. But when you zoom out, you see that you are climbing up. Just because I’m not doing better than last week, doesn’t mean I’m not better than a year or a month ago. When I feel like I’m not moving, or failing, or wasting my time, I should zoom out and examine my progress from there.

Remember that now is the time.

There are so many important things that are never prioritized because the time is “not right.” I have a belief that at some magical moment in the future, the situation will be better. It will be more conducive to achieving what I want to achieve. There are some things that I’ve delayed this way for over 10 years. The future will rarely be perfect. While looking at the future from my current lens, I can’t take into account the things that haven’t yet come to pass. I should accept that the best time to start is now, regardless of whether it’s perfect or not. 

Set aside my ego and be honest with my weaknesses.

A large part of this whole process revolves around ego and identity. And what’s true on a macro scale, is also true in the details. I’ve worked hard to acquire certain skills, and believe myself to be a particular kind of person. I believe I am a good communicator, a great listener, a problem solver, a skilled researcher, and more. Sadly, those very beliefs hold me back from progress the most. They have become a part of my identity. This closes me off from actively finding information and feedback that will allow me to grow. To improve, I would have to come to terms with the fact that maybe I’m not as good as I believe I am. Maybe I’m not very good at all. And as scary as accepting that may be, it will allow me to start seeing how I can be better. 

Don’t wing things, take them seriously.

No one would go into surgery if they believed the surgeon and his staff were winging it. Doctors and surgeons spend years learning their trade and honing their skills. We trust them because they are specialists, and they take their trade seriously. Not least because lives depend on it. Well, my life and future also depend on me. And in fact, others also depend on me. Many of my efforts have not borne fruit because I did not take them seriously enough. I believed that as long as I just gave them enough time and worked on them occasionally, they would work out. Without a real plan, focus, and effort on my part they haven’t accomplished much. If I continue to not give them the serious effort they deserve, they won’t.

Earn money and don’t waste it. 

A big barrier to change is not having the freedom or flexibility to pursue ideas and projects. Change is hard enough by itself. The countless external factors that get in the way, make change an even more Sisyphean task. For me, one of the biggest barriers has been my lack of finances. Despite that, I haven’t gotten very good at managing my money. Instead, I’ve treated money without much care, believing that there will always be enough. Well, if I’m to be serious with my efforts now, this needs to change. 

What’s next?

That’s what I’ve learned so far. The next step is putting a plan in place. It will help me develop into the person I want to be and to live the kind of life that I want to live. I’m always interested in connecting with others going through their journeys. If that’s you, reach out, I’d love to learn from you as well. 

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