Category Archives: Essays


separating you and the ‘problem’

Consider the difference between saying ‘I’m a perfectionist’ as opposed to saying ‘Perfectionism is giving me a hard time today.’ In the latter case, you are, in language at least, separating you – the person – from the problem. The separation opens up different ways of talking about the problem and helps bring to the surface different options for responding to it.

Of course, you can think of impediments to productivity as a manifestation of your basic essence, your basic nature. The impediments may be your intrinsic laziness, slow-wittedness, or clumsiness showing through. On the other hand, you can externalise these impediments, think of them as objects or agents that are distinct from you and with which you have a (sometimes troubled) relationship.

When problems are externalised, it’s much more natural to think of them as coming and going, sometimes being strong, sometimes weak. It is much more natural to ask when they arrived on the scene, to ask whether they might leave, and to ask whether and how you might change your relationship with them.

Naming problems

If something is holding you back, you can seek to find a name or other means of referring to the problem, a means that makes it separate from you. Sometimes just putting a ‘the’ in front of it will work, e.g. ‘The Perfectionism’ or ‘The Block’. There are no right answers here. The point of the technique is to find a name that means something to you. And if your first couple of tries for a name don’t feel right, you can always try others.

Names people have shared with me for problems that have interfered with achieving their goals in a sustainable way include: ‘The Critic’, ‘Perfecto Man’, ‘The Pressure Cooker’, ‘The Boulder’ and so on. Having a name for your particular problem, one that means something to you, helps create the separation between you and the problem. For some people, the business of naming a problem can seem daft. And for very many people naming a problem can be both fun and a helpful first step in loosening its grip.

Finding out more about a problem

Once you have a name for your problem – and even if you do not – you can find out more about it. How does it like to operate? When is it most active? Does it have a gender? Does it have a colour and a shape?

When is the problem in charge and when are you in charge? What aspirations does the problem have for you in the short and in the long term? What do you like about it and what do you dislike?

What positive intentions does the problem have (even if, overall, it does not play a positive role for you)? What consequences does the problem tend to bring about?

Exceptions and unique outcomes

Problems and the problem-talk that they promote, often like to generalise recklessly. They are very fond of words such as ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘not once’, ‘every time’ and so on, e.g. ‘Every time I start to write I get blocked. I will never finish this report.‘ If this is your experience, it’s worth gently probing your history to see whether such statements really stand up to scrutiny.

You might, for example, get curious as to whether there are any occasions where the problem has not got its way. What was different on such an occasion? Can you find a common thread that links together a series of occasions where the problem did not interfere in a way that you would rather it had not?

This line of inquiry is not about denying the power of the problem. It’s not about pretending that it is not an issue. Rather, it’s about opening up some space for another story thread. If, as can sometimes happen, the dominant story thread is one of being stuck – ‘I have terminal
writer’s block, I’ll never get finished‘ – then this can sometimes drive out exceptions. Learning more about the exceptions, especially if you get stuck a lot, can be a route to renegotiating your relationship with a problem.

At the same time, adopting different and richer ways of describing your relationship to a problem, can help prepare the path for changing the manner of that relationship, e.g. ‘On Tuesday morning, The Block started to work on me just as I was making coffee and didn’t let go for the rest of the day. But on Friday, after lunch with Emily, The Block was just absent. I didn’t even think about its presence or absence until now.’

You are not the problem, the problem is the problem

Externalising emphasises that you are not the problem. Rather, the problem is the problem. Getting some distance from the problem can help you see your abilities and competencies, can help you see the differences between what you want for yourself and what the problem wants for you. Having this space can often help you renegotiate terms with the problem or, in some cases, break off relations with the problem altogether.

Externalising has it origins as a subtle technique that is used by narrative therapists. For the best DIY results, read up more about it and work with another person who has also read up. If what you try works, keep on with it. If it doesn’t, stop and try something else.

Origins and understandings

Narrative therapy, and the technique of externalising, was developed by Michael White and David Epston.

Generalising recklessly is a topic addressed within Transactional Analysis therapy in relation to the concepts of ‘discounting’ and ‘grandiosity’.

References and links

Hyperlinks can be great. They can also dilute your focus and tempt you into putting off what you most want to do. Here I chose to place links at the foot of the page to help you to make an active choice as to whether to surf or refocus your attention elsewhere.

  • A very approachable introduction to narrative therapy, including externalising conversations, is What is Narrative Therapy?: An Easy to Read Introduction. Extracts of the book are available at site, which is an excellent first port of call for anyone interested in these ideas.
  • A fairly short but very effective text on narrative therapy (and solution focused therapy) is Brief Counselling: Narratives and Solutions. The authors’ have a great slogan – ‘if it works do more of it, if it doesn’t do something different’ – which they put to use throughout their book.

Note: the links to books on Amazon generate a tiny kickback for
me if you make a purchase.

The Perfectionist Itch

Unless it’s perfect it has no value…

Some people suffer from a persistent perfectionist itch. If you are smart and productive, you may be even more prone to the itch than others.

Even if you suffer from a perfectionist itch, there may be many areas of your work or your life, where the perfectionist itch gets no look in. Or there may be times – times of the day, times of the week, times of the year – where you tend to get the upper hand on the itch. It’s worth accounting for these cases where the itch does not get its way.

If your perfectionist itch appears to be overactive, appears to be stopping you getting more of what you want, then you might be interested in exploring some options for doing things differently.

Here are some things that the perfectionist itch might have you believe:

  • if it’s not perfect it has no value
  • ‘it’s good enough’ is an excuse for producing work that’s well below standard
  • if there is a flaw in my work then that shows there’s a flaw in me

When they are not tired, under pressure, stressed or anxious, many people who suffer from the itch find these statements implausible and extreme. But these are not the conditions where the itch most often operates. Rather, it tends to work when you are tired, under pressure, stressed or anxious. And it often operates in the shadows, lurking at the edge of awareness. It definitely does not like its working methods to be revealed.

You can try to disarm your perfectionist itch by challenging the things it would have you believe, explaining to the itch how they are implausible and extreme. This can sometimes work.

Or you can make the case for shipping, e.g. you can argue that it is better to ship something (where there is still some room for improvement) than to ship nothing (but be secure in the knowledge that you have not shipped something flawed).

The itch gets the logic of an argument like this. Indeed, it can concede this argument. However, it will point out that it’s only reasonable to achieve some minimal standard before shipping. If you, the person with the itch, concede this point, then the itch may have you. Because having secured this concession the itch will go on to argue that, in this particular case, the standard you have reached falls a long way short of the minimal standard. For the itch, the minimal standard tends to be a pretty high one. More critically, the itch tends to push the standard up over time, leaving you chasing a moving target.

Tips for treating the itch

You can sell the virtue of alternative approaches to your perfectionist itch. Some itches may buy a ‘‘good enough’ is good enough’ approach. Other itches won’t buy this because they hear ‘good enough’ as ‘sub-standard’ and they fear that if you ship sub-standard work, you will get some sort of kicking. It’s only because they really care, that these sorts of itches can be so potent, that they have the power to prevent you from completing and letting go of your work.

Given this, for the most persistent itches it can help to roll with them a little, rather than oppose them flat out. Alternatives to ‘perfect’ that might be more persuasive to an itch than ‘good enough’ can include:

  • top notch and finished (at least for this round)
  • damn fine and actually shipped
  • really very good and submitted
  • definitely pleasing a good number of people a lot of the time, and, after all, you can’t please all the people all the time.

These alternatives – and you will be able to generate your own variations tailored to your particular itch – may be more appealing to your itch because they acknowledge the importance of high standards.

Other useful ways to treat the itch:

  • step back from the task at hand to help you gain perspective
  • review the standards you want to achieve, perhaps with your peers, and write them down
  • make sure you are well-fed, well-watered and well-rested when making important decisions
  • focus on some of the good things that can come as a result of shipping / completing
  • examine the often diffuse and unfocused anxiety about finishing that the itch is generating and look to see:
    • how real the concerns are; and
    • for the concerns that are real what practical steps you can take to minimise the risk of negative consequences.

And remember…

And remember, unless you can eliminate your perfectionist itch for once and for all, such that it never returns in any way, shape or form, then you have failed and you might as well not have bothered taking any steps to minimise its impact at all. If you think there is any chance at all of failing to eradicate the itch, probably best not to bother trying. (Does your itch agree?)

Origins and understandings

I’m sure this short essay on perfectionism could be better. And that did not seem a good enough reason to exclude it from the app. Or a good enough reason to hold up making the app available. And so on…

I chose to write about the ‘perfectionist itch’ rather than ‘perfectionism’ because I wanted to separate the person and the problem. By talking about the problem as something separate from us, there is scope to open up more options. This approach draws on the idea of externalising conversations, a technique used in narrative therapy.

References and links

Hyperlinks can be great. They can also dilute your focus and tempt you into putting off what you most want to do. Here I chose to place links at the foot of the page to help you to make an active choice as to whether to surf or refocus your attention elsewhere.

Note: the links to books on Amazon generate a tiny kickback for me if you make a purchase.

Do a dash

take ten minutes to make a difference

What is a dash?

A dash is commitment to bite off a small chunk of the task at hand and a self-given permission to stop at just one bite. You might commit to ten minutes to file bills and give yourself complete permission to stop at the ten minute mark. Or you might commit to reply to just one email in the big stack of emails you have been trying to ignore and give yourself total licence to stop at one.

Dashes can vary in size and shape, but always have the twin characteristics of a small, very doable initial step and a genuine permission to stop once the initial step is complete.

Doing a dash can be very useful for times when you find yourself repeatedly putting off a task or for times when you don’t seem able to get started on anything and just giving yourself a hard time isn’t making things any better.

For the best results:

  1. Pick an initial commitment that is very modest. You cannot dash up a mountain. One reason you may be stuck is that you perceive the task at hand as mountain-like. And note, the fact that some part of you thinks it is is daft to think of it as mountain-like is completely irrelevant. That part of you is not the part that’s struggling to get going.
  2. Be serious about the permission to stop. If you are insincere about giving yourself free licence to stop, then you undermine the power of the dash. For the dash approach to work, you need to think of anything you do over and above the initial commitment as a bonus. If you think you have failed because you’ve not achieved the bonus, then you’ve not really given yourself the permission in the first place.

The dash is an excellent way to get started on an activity, especially when you have been putting that activity off for a while. Many dash users find that, once started, they have momentum to carry on. But even if you only do ten minutes, that’s still ten minutes more than you would have done. So why wouldn’t that count?

Why is it needed?

However elaborately spun, the reasons for not getting started on a task invariably boil down to one of two things:

  • fear some part of you is worried about the consequence of getting started – this could be fear of failure, fear of success, or fear of the project growing arms and legs thus becoming a source of further unwanted obligation;
  • ambivalence some part of you really does not what to do this and is digging in, even if some other part of you is quite convinced that you either do want or ought to want to do it.

Fear and ambivalence are ludicrously common.

In some circles they are not talked about much, but don’t take that as evidence they’re not around. Even the productivity ninja experiences fear and ambivalence. These people are ninjas not because they don’t experience such feelings, but because they continue to be in charge of their choices even in the face of them.

In other circles people talk about fear and ambivalence freely. This can be good. And it’s always worth checking whether such talk is buttering any parsnips. If talking about fear and ambivalence is not leading you to get more of what you want and if you actually want to get more of what you want, then notice this and switch tack.

If fear is the underlying issue for you, then reality-check the fear. Ask, realistically, what’s the worst that could happen? And if it looked like the worst was going to happen, could you change course later?

When fears lurk towards the back of your mind – as opposed to being pulled out for systematic scrutiny – they tend to loom much larger. And if, after scrutiny, your fears are well-founded, that is still useful information, e.g. for re-evaluating your decision or for putting in place a plan B.

If ambivalence is the underlying issue for you, then take some time to carefully assess your goals. See if you can distinguish what you want as opposed to what other people might want for you.

These other people can include old voices that rattle on in your head, perhaps versions of the voices of parents and other adults that featured significantly in your growing up. Is what you want the same as what other people and/or the old voices want for you?

Of course, you may be ambivalent and still have no viable alternative choice. And knowing clearly that you do not want to tackle a task but are, for other reasons, obliged to do so, can make it easier to get doing. Now maybe get started with a dash.

On the other hand, if reflection leads you to discover you really don’t want to do the task at all and you don’t have to, well, then just bin it.

Origins and understandings

I first encountered the idea of ‘the dash’ in a piece by Merlin Mann on 43folders.

Susan Page, in books on dating and on getting yourself published, shows how easily we can be driven by fear or ambivalence without really knowing so. What is more, she is always practical, constantly nudging her readers to move from insight to action.

My understanding of why the dash is such a powerful technique, which informs my remarks above, comes from Transactional Analysis (TA). In particular, this is the source of the idea of permissions (licenses to think, feel and act) as a means of breaking free from an inner battle of various oughts, shoulds, and must-dos that often dog even the most well-adjusted mind.

References and links

Hyperlinks can be great. They can also dilute your focus and tempt you into putting off what you most want to do. Here I chose to place links at the foot of the page to help you to make an active choice as to whether to surf or refocus your attention elsewhere.

  • Merlin Mann’s original dash piece can be found on his 43folders site. Also check out Merlin Mann’s posts on Inbox Zero, soon to appear in book form.
  • Susan Page’s If I’m So Wonderful, Why am I Still Single? is the best book of its kind. Although it addresses a specific topic, it has a lot of material on getting focused and getting on with getting more of what you want. The discussion of ambivalence is especially recommended. See also her excellent How to Get Published and Make a Lot of Money. Again, the book addresses a very specific topic, but the techniques for self-management and the attitude can be widely applied.
  • David Allen’s Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-free Productivityoffers a complete system, including some dash-like techniques. Of particular note, is his two minutes rule. If an action is going to take less than two minutes it is always better to do it straight away rather than defer it. Easily said and, in fact, often not that hard to do. It makes a difference.
  • If you take to heart the lessons in Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles you won’t need to use the dash technique because you will march steadily forward conquering every creative battle. Pressfield adopts a very strong, and far from gentle, tone; more Sergeant Major than Life Coach.
  • If your main focus is productivity, most material on Transactional Analysis will be too much. Abe Wagner’s Say it Straight or You’ll Show it Crooked: Speak Openly and Get Results is a friendly and practical introduction to the topic, with an emphasis on communication. It can be difficult to get hold of. A more demanding read, but comprehensive and well written one, is TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis by Ian Stewart and Vann Joines.

Note: the links to books on Amazon generate a tiny kickback for me if you make a purchase.