Don’t hold back

I often get frustrated by things I feel like I should be able to do, but don’t. For example,

  • I should be able to get myself out of bed in the morning without agonizing over whether to reset the alarm for later.

Every night I think to myself, “Tomorrow I will just stand up and get going. No debate.” And every morning that resolution seems inconsequential compared to how tired my eyes feel and how comfortable the bed has become and how non-urgent all the small jobs of the day seem.

  • I should be able to eat just one cookie.

When I eat a cookie (or tortilla chip, or pretzel, or even just a bowl of really good curry) I start to internally obsess over when I’ll get to have some more. “I’ll get more enjoyment out of the batch of cookies if I spread them out over more days,” I try to remind myself, but it’s not long before I cave. “Five minutes is spread out enough!” And so I go back for seconds… and thirds…

  • I should be able to recognize the people I’ve met before.

Now I know that this is something legitimately harder for me than for a lot of people. I have trouble telling apart the characters on TV shows unless they all have dramatically distinct voices or hairstyles. Every time I embarrassingly can’t recognize a student or acquaintance, I think “Next time I’ll try harder…” but what would trying harder even look like?

  • I should be able to get stuff done without elaborate task-management schemes.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may have noticed that I put a lot of thought into how to get myself to do the things that I’ve decided to do. If you feel like that level of analysis is excessive, well, so do I. Surely I should be able to just do it!

When I was about eight years old, the ultimate decider of whether you were a big kid or a little kid was whether you could read. I remember a friend’s younger sibling claiming “I can read!” when he wanted to play with us. “Okay, read this,” we said, probably pointing to the Parker Brothers logo on the game of Monopoly Junior we were playing. “Uh… I don’t want to.” Not fooling anyone!

300px-parker-brothers-brand-svg
The ultimate test of literacy.

But these days I feel like I am that little kid, lying to myself. “I can get myself out of bed on time—I just don’t want to!” It’s not really a problem of wanting it bad enough; it’s a problem of trying to see myself as someone who’s got it already figured out: the metaphorical big kid who can read and play board games, the adult who doesn’t let a warm comfy bed hold them back. But as long as I keep trying to look at myself as someone more capable than I am, I’ll keep on being a disappointment to myself.

So what can I do? Lower my expectations? In one sense, no—I don’t want to face life with resignation—but in another sense, yes. I need to recognize that what I can do, not what I should be able to do, needs to dictate the measures I put in place to help myself. I’m starting to recognize that feeling of “I’ll just try harder next time!” as a clue that I’m not admitting my real barriers. Instead, I respond with the mantra “Don’t hold back”: that I don’t have to handicap myself just because in a perfect world I wouldn’t need help.

Here are some things I can do about the problems I mentioned at the beginning of this post, if I accept my current limitations but don’t want to be controlled by them:

  • Not getting out of bed: I can put the alarm in the bathroom so I have to get up to turn it off. Once I’m that far, I’ll probably just continue my morning toilet on autopilot.
  • Eating too many cookies: I can accept that the first cookie will make me want another and just not eat it. Or if I do want one cookie, I can make sure I have a full glass of water so I can wash down the taste of cookie in my mouth. For chips and pretzels, I can put an acceptable quantity on a plate or in a bowl and then put away the bag.
  • Forgetting names: I can start using mnemonics for associating people’s names to their faces, even though I find the practice a little cheesy. For students, in the past I’ve used their student ID photos to memorize their names if I had access to them, but I always did it in secret. I want to be okay with openly admitting my difficulty and asking to take a picture myself if I need one.
  • Not sticking to my plans: I don’t have this figured out yet, but I was amazed at how much easier it was to follow through on my time-management decisions when I was willing to spend a little money on habit-tracking apps and planners that are set up in a way that makes sense to me. For a long time I felt like I was a failure if I couldn’t just make do with what I already had; now I feel like it’s more resourceful to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

How about you? Have you ever had to face your own failings in order to account for them? Let me know in the comments!


5 thoughts on “Don’t hold back

  1. Hey, I feel you on the students’ names. In the real world, I always use the excuse, “I only have room in my head for my current students’ names in my head at any given time!”

    But what about the students? Well, I tried secret study sessions and seating charts, but I found what actually works is hard and fast rules during the first two to three weeks of class:

    1. Always, always, ALWAYS use the student’s name when you address them. Don’t point to anyone, don’t just say “Hello” when you pass in the halls, always say it with their names attached.
    2. ALWAYS ask early. Apologize as much as you need to, but make them keep telling you until it comes easy.
    3. Cold call in those first weeks so you catch everyone.
    4. Change the seating chart at the four week mark to shuffle everything and make sure you haven’t just memorized the row order.
    5. Keep up the “always use their name in EVERY single interaction” as long as you can to keep it there.

    Simple, but it really does work for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those are great rules! I love that you don’t give yourself any leeway: use their names *every* time you talk to them, keep it up for *at least* two weeks, etc. Sometimes it’s easier to do something all the time than to do something most of the time.

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  2. For me the hardest thing is not giving into perfectionism- oh, i missed this habit once- forget it! or I’ll start again next week, next month, next year…
    Also overloading myself with goals instead of, like you said, accepting my limits of where I am not where I think I should be and just adding little by little. I’m learning it is better to TRULY cultivate a single habit over a few months and then move on than to try to juggle ALL THE THINGS and feel like I’m not making any progress on any of them.
    I love your mention of tools as well. I just got a goal setting tool that is totally changing my brain because instead of having a check box next to goals or to-dos it has a progress bar. It is already starting to help change my brain’s tendency of all or nothing to the idea of progress over perfection.

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    1. That sounds like a great tool! Is it an app, or something you do on paper? Days where I work on a lot of things but don’t finish anything can feel really unproductive, and it would be nice to have a visual reminder that I’ve still made progress.

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