For as long as I can remember, people have often described me as the most efficient and productive person they know. However, when I embarked on my sabbatical in 2022, I found my tried-and-true approach to life starting to unravel. I traveled to another country, immersed myself in the mountains, and disconnected from work and social obligations. My days were guided solely by my instincts and desires, allowing me to fully embrace the “go with the flow” mentality. But as I delved deeper into this new way of life, I began to face an internal struggle – the tension between “going with the flow” and “pushing really hard.” In this blog post, I’ll share the challenges and lessons I’ve encountered in my quest to find the right balance between these seemingly opposing forces.
For most of my sabbatical, I was been gathering ideas for a new coaching model for social changemakers. It’s been delightful to work on a project with zero pressure to produce anything. If I want to read a book on social justice or coaching or spirituality, I do that. When I have thoughts, I write them down. If I don’t feel inspired to do any of that, I just don’t. Easy peasy!
But recently something has started to shift. Bit by bit, I’ve started to feel an urge for something more. An urge to create. To move beyond just gathering ideas and actually start creating something that might contribute to others.
Can “go with the flow” work?
So that had me start to wonder… ****
Is it possible to always “go with the flow”? Or do we need to “push past the fear and act even when we feel resistance”?
Could I take this new “non-efforting” approach from my sabbatical time and bring it with me into the way I do my projects?
I’m very familiar with how to get myself to get work done: structures, to-do lists, calendar blocks, Pomodoro timers, and co-working buddies. I’ve been doing this fairly successfully for years. But I wondered, is there a way to work without so much “pushing”?
First attempt: creating open space and hope I move forward
I knew it wasn’t working to just wait for myself to “feel inspired” because I keep filling my time with other activities. So I needed something else.
My first thought was to try setting aside dedicated space (a whole day, even) where I don’t have anything scheduled. The hope here was that I would naturally start moving beyond just researching and start actually creating and synthesizing.
That didn’t work…
Even with that space, I kept choosing to read and research rather than write and create!
What was going on?
During one such “reading is easier than writing” moment, I returned to my current favorite book: Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
Realizing how the game works: discomfort is inevitable
In a perfect serendipity, the next chapter in Burkeman’s book held the wisdom I really needed to hear.
… When we find ourselves procrastinating on something important to us, we’re usually in some version of this [perfectionist] mindset. We fail to see, or refuse to accept, that any attempt to bring our ideas into concrete reality must inevitably fall short of our dreams, no matter how brilliantly we succeed in carrying things off—because reality, unlike fantasy, is a realm in which we don’t have limitless control, and can’t possibly hope to meet our perfectionist standards. Something—our limited talents, our limited time, our limited control over events, and over the actions of other people—will always render our creation less than perfect.— Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks
He was speaking directly to me!
I’ve been coaching people on discomfort and procrastination for almost a decade, but I had set aside what I thought I already knew about how to address procrastination in hopes of discovering something new (less rigid, more gentle). And I did learn something, just not what I expected! I discovered that this pull toward perfectionism and the resulting discomfort is inevitable. (Unless of course, you are okay only moving projects forward only after the discomfort has gone away. If you find out how long that takes, please let me know!)
Why does this happen?
I’ve always held the understanding that “worry tends to come up right as we’re about to take something from the realm of ideas into the realm of concrete action.” But I’d never asked why that is.
And now I’m very interested in that question!
Why do we get worried and uncomfortable when we are about to take action on an idea?
Burkeman highlighted a nuance of this conundrum that I hadn’t seen clearly before. His view (and I agree with him) is that discomfort comes up because the fantasy we have in our minds is brilliant and perfect! And we know instinctively that there is no way our fantasy is going to live up to our expectations when we begin taking action in the real world where there are limits: limited time, resources, skills, options, and control.
And in that discomfort with our lack of control, we procrastinate and distract ourselves so we can hold onto the fantasy of perfection a little longer. As Burkeman puts it:
The overarching point is that what we think of as “distractions” aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation.
So from this viewpoint, it’s no surprise that I kept opting to read and research rather than write and create! I was holding on protectively to my precious and perfect image of how this new coaching model could turn out. The truth I had to confront was: that any step I could take to bring my idea into concrete reality would necessarily mean I was falling short of the ideal I held in my imagination.
Using a gentle structure
So how do we move through this inevitable discomfort?
The way through for me was to decide that producing some imperfect results in physical reality was much more interesting and meaningful than keeping the perfect fantasy alive only in my imagination.
From this, I saw it was time to give up my hypothesis that there might be a way to create in an entirely “go with the flow” mode. Because “go with the flow” actually means “do what feels more comfortable and inspiring at the moment.” And falling short of my ideal vision is rarely inspiring!
So the more useful question that emerged was:
How do I create conditions where I can move through the inevitable discomfort of creating something while holding both ease and consistency—both gentleness and forward movement?
I decided it was time to experiment with creating a support structure for myself… a gentle and flexible structure.
I decided to try out this 4-week experiment:
- Aim to spend 30-60 minutes writing a draft article each morning before breakfast (4-5 days per week).
- Aim to spend 2 hours twice a week polishing 2 articles and then publishing them to a small group of friends.
This had all the elements of a good structure:
- a recurring plan so I didn’t have to make a new decision every day about when I’d take action again (which would usually lead to more procrastination)
- an accountability element where other people would be expecting this.
And it had gentleness:
- I am holding it as an “aim,” rather than a strict “promise to myself” (as I used to hold it)
- There are ranges of time and days per week and results rather than strict goals that I was “holding myself accountable for.”
This structure fits well with the wise words of my friend and teacher George Kao:
Be strict about showing up, lenient about results, and gentle about refocusing.
In the first four days of using this structure, I went from zero articles written to having two draft articles and two published articles.
Giving up trying to control the results allows me to actually start actually producing some results. Giving up needing my creations to be perfect allows them to be at all.
I know there will be gaps when I take a break from this structure, and I’m aiming to give myself permission up front!
White supremacy culture, perfectionism, and control
As I ponder this connection between fantasy, perfectionism, and attempting to “control”, I’m reminded of Tema Okun’s Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture and one of the traits she discusses: Perfectionism. In our personal lives, when we engage in perfectionism, we try to control the situation to keep our fantasy in its unblemished state. Systematically, when we engage in perfectionism, we contribute to the idea that we can control life and others until they match our fantasy.
But what if we could free ourselves from this perfectionist mindset? It seems to me that moving beyond our own perfectionist tendencies and saying “yes” to bringing our gifts and ideas into the world—with all its limits and imperfections—is a small act of liberation from white supremacy culture. While this alone won’t transform the systems, it’s a way for us to personally practice what we’re dedicated to creating systemically. In doing so, we not only challenge perfectionism but also nurture our own growth and—perhaps most importantly—we bring our gifts into the world.
Holding the tension
If you struggle with perfectionism, welcome to the club! If you want to try out this “gentle structures” approach with me, you might keep this question in mind: How can we cultivate a mindset that honors both gentleness and forward movement, balancing ease with consistency, as we bring our ideas and passions to life?
- Check out Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. It was the best book I read in 2022.
- Check out this interview my friend Della did with Oliver Burkeman on her podcast, Upstream.
I’ve spent over a decade as a leadership coach, aiding social change leaders to achieve personal growth and societal transformation without running themselves into the ground. Drawing from my own roots in climate activism, I aim to help us transform our movements for change into places that are more nourishing for everyone involved. Sign up for my newsletter to get my latest articles.