Long post alert.
I have the misfortune of belonging to that portion of the population labelled as Type A personality, which basically means being a control-freak, time management-obsessed person who at the end of each and every weekend recites the ‘I accomplished half of the things I wanted to accomplish this week’ mantra.
I’m tired of finding myself making my life harder than it actually should (could) be. When I say this I think about language learning of course, but also planning, house chores, and time management in general.
I’ve tried to do some auto-analysis and I’ve found 3 main problematic areas that are preventing me from ______ (insert OCD aspiration here).
Theory No. 1 – The trap of perfectionism
Corollary: If I have access to a internet connection, I’ll use it until exhaustion.
I started a new HSK3 preparation course on Coursera a few days ago. As I’m trying to work my way through vocab and sentences, I would like to find an effective and efficient system for noting my new words an example sentences down so that I don’t engage into another short-lived language learning note-taking attempt.
Can you see where we’re going here?
I can’t simply learn from my on past experiences and mistakes, no: I actually spent countless hours searching for ‘best ways of taking notes for language learning’. The result? I found absolutely nothing worth the attempt, not even a small hint at something that could prove useful in the future – and I wasted precious time that could have been spent studying.
I can’t just start doing what I need to do and adjust from there when something’s not working – no, because this is not enough. I need to have the BEST system for everything – planning, studying, folding the laundry, cleaning the kitchen counter and so on and so forth. I won’t accept failure (i.e. using a method and then realise it’s not that useful) as I often failed in the past and I hated it. I want it to be a perfect, Pinterest-worth system – whatever it is.
Which means: wasting A LOT of precious time on the internet looking at what other people are doing (I’ll get to this in a sec) without usually finding anything that resonates with me, or – worse – not even getting started for the fear of failing.
Theory No. 2 – Experiencing FOMO
This again has to do with the internet and the infinite possibilities it throws at us everyday, every minute. From a great power comes a great responsibility, you know. Endless possibilities, endless resources, endless cool things you could be using/doing/watching everyday. Stepping into a constant feeling of FOMO is just a matter of seconds.
This for me has been particularly true in terms of which planner to use each year, and it’s one of the main reasons why I switched so many different planning systems during 2016, and even more in 2017. It also becomes a trend for language learning: I start focusing on grammar but then I get FOMO about HSK3 as I see other people preparing for it. And it goes on and on.
What kind of negative impact has this in terms of productivity? The direct consequence of FOMO is making you feel like you’re not experiencing enough: you should try more planners, more learning techniques, more productivity apps, more skincare products and routines. The results is of course having too much on your plate, which leads to a scatterbrain attitude, a superficial approach to one own’s commitments and an overall unfocused mental state.
Let’s talk about planners, for example. I love Filofax products and their ring system, but I’m also a Moleskine aficionado AND a huge huge huge MTN fan. I like the bullet journal approach, I’ve toyed with Strikethru in the past and enjoyed it, and I think I’ve used all possible combination of planner inserts (week on two pages, week on one page plus notes, monthly calendar plus daily pages, etc). I’m just lucky that I’m stingy when it comes to shipping costs so I never even thought about the possibility of buying an Hobonich Techo, but you get the idea. I like everything and I would like to use everything, at the same moment. I complain about not being able to have a one-planner system but it’s actually not true, I like having multiple planners because I can’t settle for just one system. FOMO gets the best of me.
So, instead of enjoying what I have at the moment and getting the most out of it, I just keep thinking constantly about all the things I’m not using at the moment, and instinctively I start plotting how I could integrate other planners in my system. That’s one of the reason I was raving against the planner community a few weeks ago. Instead of feeling empowered, I feel impoverished and overwhelmed by all the things I could use but I’m not. And the same goes for everything else (do we want to talk about skincare?).
Instead of focusing on my numerous resources (whether we’re talking about face cleansers, notebooks or Chinese textbooks), I end up looking obsessively at what other people are doing and what they’re using, which ends up with me rushing to buy the new ___ (inserts whatever product here), wasting money, accumulating clutter, shattering my attention and feeling increasingly miserable and unfocused.
Which is exactly the contrary of what mastery is supposed to be.
Theory No. 3 – The illusion of ‘free time’ and the ideal self
This is a big one. We all have an ideal life we would like to live, and we often strive to reach this ideal. The person living that kind of life is, of course, our ideal self: the one eating healthy, exercising everyday, waking up at 5:00 to study Chinese, with the perfect house and he perfect job and the perfect bookshelf.
The ideal self is an essential part of our identity, which makes it even harder to let it go.
Let’s face it: if we’re just imagining doing certain things, and not doing them in reality, there must be a reason.
It’s not that we don’t like those things; and it’s not even that we don’t want them bad enough, or that we don’t have enough self-control or will power to achieve them.
The fact is that we objectively don’t have the time for them.
Yeah, we like to thing that we can do everything and accomplish all the things we would like to accomplish – it’s actually easier, especially for use over-achievers, to think that we’re just too lazy and that we could do everything if we just tried hard enough – than to admit that, really, there’s not place for everything in our lives.
I think a common thought, especially in the field of language learning, is something among the lines of ‘it’s already October and I still have to start preparing for the upcoming session of ___ (insert language proficiency test name here), why on earth didn’t I start studying back in January?’.
Well, guess what? In January you were busy doing other things. Sleeping, for one. Eating. Cooking. Washing the dishes, showering, shampooing. Having headaches. Watching a movie, reading a book. Spending time with your loved ones. Yes, also scrolling the news or Instagram feeds, sure. But it’s not only that.
Even if we cut 100% of the time we spend of social media, it’s not easy to assume we will finally find the time, all the time we actually need to do the things we’ve been putting off.
Does this mean that we (I) don’t waste way too much time on social medias? We (I) do, of course, but I think we should first evaluate how much time in total we have really available, then cut down on the SM consumption, and only then make a plan about how we’re going to use those super precious spare hours.
Adulthood brings along a lot of responsibilities – towards other people, but also towards ourselves. I’d love to find more time to study Chinese, but I don’t think I’ll make a great deal if in turn I have to take time away from house cleaning or personal hygiene.
Yes, my ideal self is the one who wakes up at 6:00am to do yoga and who studies 1h of Chinese before even eating breakfast; the real self is the one who in wintertime struggles to get up at 7:10 because outside is too dark and melatonin remains active much longer that it should. (Seriously, I need to get one of these lamps if I want to survive the Scottish winter).
There’s nothing wrong in trying to make the real self look a bit more like the ideal one; but there’s no point in stressing over it when we’re already juggling between work, family and personal commitments. Plus the ideal self is maybe someone we’re not even that interested in becoming – it took me a couple of months of scribbling in my planner before discovering I actually don’t give a damn about gratitude journals 😌 – despite what everyone else on the internet is doing right now.
The combination of the idea that I have infinite time in my days/weeks and the aspirations of my ideal self brings me to an habit of overscheduling and overcommitting, which in turns causes stress and disappointment in myself (hence the ‘I accomplished half of what I wanted’ thoughts).
Wrapping things up: there’s nothing inherently good or bad out there, and the internet is not exception. Instagram is not evil, Pinterest is not evil, FB is not evil (well, it actually is, but that’s not the point). I can’t even start to list all the ways internet has had an amazing impact on my life; I’ve had the chance to connect with some incredible, like-minded people scattered around the world I wouldn’t had the chance to meet otherwise. But it’s too easy to feel like what see and read online should automatically apply to our life as well, and that’s definitely not always the case.
I often expect too much of myself, without actually considering the material conditions in which I happen to operate. In this regard, browsing the internet is of no help as it fuels the idea that everyone else is doing everything – and so I should watch how they’re doing it, and expect and demand more from myself.
A few quick recipes to try and get the problem under control:
I. restrain myself from typing on google the formula ‘how to….’ whatever follows. I already know how to everything since I spent the last 3/4 years reading every possible article on every possible topic may be of interest for me – and if I don’t actually know, let’s try something myself instead of relying on others.
II. believe in my choices (whether it’s planners, language learning programs etc.) and don’t just assume other people have it all figured out smarter and better. Even if they do, I still have to learn by myself and make my own mistakes – I’m not going to be miss perfect anyway.
III. draw inspiration from my own past work instead of that of others. One of the problems I may have in finding the right system for note taking in Chinese for example must derive from the fact that I never actually stopped to think what worked and what didn’t in my own system. More inward reflection will definitely benefit.
IV. go back to basics – less apps, less planners, less skincare products, less language learning resources. Start again from what worked in the past and stick to it, don’t keep adding things up. Aim at mastery, get my values straight and eliminate everything else.
Will I be able to follow my own advice?