Several months ago I participated in a fantastic leadership course where I did one of the most confronting yet rewarding tasks in recent memory - make a list of all the areas in my life where I've been "tolerating incompletion" and get them completed.
(If you're cringing right now just reading that suggestion, you know exactly how I felt.)
This could be chores, hobbies, things we told other people we'd do, etc, and from that list, we then had the challenge to complete five of the items by the end of the weekend.
I made a list of 5 things (which was uncomfortably easy to do) by walking around my house and seeing unfinished projects, unused cooking gadgets, household chores and more. Starting the list initially filled me with shame but by the end of the list I was filled with a new sense of freedom and determination. By acknowledging the things that I had been tolerating I could actually choose to do something about them.
But there was one item that I was horrified by how long I had left it incomplete.
The most embarrassing thing that I had been tolerating was... a jar of cooking grease.
Oh cooking grease. (sigh)
I had been meaning to get rid of this jar of used cooking grease for a long time. I'm not actually quite sure how long but I lived in that apartment for 5 years, so no more than that? (That's not really making it sound any better is it.)
People would look at the jar and say, "what is this?" and then be horrified when they picked it up and looked. I would quickly try to distract them and make them forget they'd ever seen that on my kitchen counter.
Now, some context, I used to work as a recycled water engineer and I know exactly what happens when you put cooking grease down the drain so there was ZERO chance that was going to be the way I dispose of it. But every time I thought about the dang jar of grease I would have the same exact swirl of thoughts - what should I do to dispose of it responsibly, not in the drain, people say not to put it in the trash, even the compost isn't the right place for more than a few tablespoons, I think there's a place nearby that recycles it but I don't really know...
And then MEH. My brain would overheat, I would get overwhelmed and then completely give up.
And so it sat there for years.
Back to the leadership program, I knew that the jar of grease was getting recycled as if my life depended on it.
And so I did two minutes of research, walked 15 minutes and recycled it properly.
Uh, I'm sorry, wait what? It took 15 minutes?? That's all??
With the amount of time that the swirl of thoughts went through my head I could have walked there and back 25 times. 15 minutes to solve a problem that had been grating on me for years? I think that's what they refer to when they say "death by a million papercuts".
What got me moving was a kick in the butt from the leadership program, acknowledging the incompletion, accountability from the team and a deadline. It took all that to be kicked out of my kitchen grease stupor. I still shake my head when I think back about the number of years it sat there and how easy it was to complete the task.
Why is it so important to do the things we say we want to do?
Because NOT doing them erodes our self-trust and our experience of ourselves.
I first read about the idea of eroding self-trust in the book, "The Speed of Trust". Their example was snoozing the alarm clock every morning. We set our alarms with the clear intention of waking up at a certain time and then we snooze again and again and again, constantly making and breaking our commitments to ourselves.
Two quotes from the book illuminate the importance of self-trust:
"When we keep doing this over and over again, we lose trust in our ability to make and keep commitments and we fail to project the personal strength of character that inspires trust."
"The more experience I've had, both personally and professionally, the more convinced I have become of the importance of making and keeping commitments to ourselves. Every time we make and keep a commitment to ourselves we increase our self-confidence. We build our reserves. We enlarge our capacity to make and keep greater commitments both to ourselves and others."
So the bad news might be that it's easy to make a list of all the areas where you're tolerating incompletion but the great news is that keeping a commitment to yourself and taking action can rebuild that confidence and your capacity to make commitments to yourself.
Tolerating Incompletion: Round 2!
Because this was one of my favorite experiences from the leadership course, I recently did this exercise with the participants of my group program, Crushed to Confident.
I wanted to do the exercise with them so I came up with another list of about 14 things I was tolerating in about as many minutes. Half of them came to me off the top of my head, the other half I walked around my house and had visual reminders of all sorts of things.
It was exciting and vulnerable to share with the participants how long some of these things had been on the list.
Then I had them share with each other - where have you been tolerating incompletion in your work or your life?
The answers were so normal and universal that it was almost comical: needing to get rid of old furniture that had been sitting there for years, getting in contact with a gardener, putting things on the walls, etc. The participants had the same experience I did, it was weirdly liberating to declare the things you'd been putting off.
And so we challenged each other to act on 3 things by the end of the weekend and there were some great successes. Dressers mounted to the wall so that kids were safe! Gardeners contacted! Books read! Old furniture removed!
And I was reminded of one of the things that struck me about my first experience - so often the task takes MINUTES compared to the YEARS I've been putting it off. Cleaning my makeup brushes, getting in touch with friends to organize seeing Celine Dion in Vegas, handwashing a piece of clothing, washing the kitchen windows, etc. Was it really necessary to spend so much time avoiding it?
A challenge :D
So! Of course I'm going to challenge you to do the same scary and freeing exercise if you choose.
Here are some places to look:
- walk around your house and look for visual indicators
- emails you always snooze
- people you told you would do something
- open tabs that you've been meaning to watch/read/etc
- ask your friends (or your partner) what you've been talking about doing forever
And then set yourself a deadline. Even better, get friends to do it with you. Declare some accountability to the internet. Whatever it takes.
With each action you'll restore your self-trust and commitment to yourself.
And hopefully you'll have less [insert weird items such as a jars of cooking grease] weighing on your soul.
Careers and Cooking Grease
Now. One last note.
If there anything is on your list about work (especially if your friends call you out for saying you're going to do something about your work situation for forever!), check out my group program, Crushed to Confident.
It's returning in October and there will only be 12 spots available. It will not only give you a huge boost of confidence, motivation and direction in your career, but will also get you moving on some of your personal action items as well.
Please don't let the jar of cooking grease be your career. (That is the one of the weirdest sentences I've ever written)
Don't let it sit there for 5 years, grating on you while people ask you uncomfortable questions about it, while the swirl of thoughts runs around and around and around in your head. I just can't stand for that.
I'm committed to you taking action, relieving your crushed self and having a very hard time thinking of where you're tolerating incompletion in your life.