When you’re not taking action (even though you want to)

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Sometimes we’re in a space where there’s something we want to do, but we’re not taking any action toward actually doing it. This space is frustrating and icky. We can spin our wheels here for quite a while.

What I find especially stressful (and confusing) is when I do take a step toward whatever it is I want to do, but I don’t seem to build any momentum. Something feels off. I’m not getting caught up in whatever that thing is; there’s no passion, no fire.

What’s going on when we’re in this space? It’s tempting to try to bulldoze our way through and “just do it!” And there are times when that works.

But sometimes it doesn’t work — and, when we plow forward with sheer force, there’s a nasty lingering side effect: We don’t understand ourselves any better. We may get that thing done, but what happens the next time we’re in the “spinning our wheels” place? We force ourselves to plow through again?

I much prefer asking questions at times like these. More than anything, I want to understand myself better so I can have a better relationship with myself. If that relationship is vital to you, too, here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re spinning your wheels:

Do I truly want to do this thing, or do I believe I “should” want to do this thing?

The presence of a “should” is not necessarily an indication that you don’t want to do it; it often means that you have conflicting voices within you around taking this action. If you can untangle the “should” from the rest of it, you’ll have a much clearer sense of what you really want.

Is this something I used to want, but perhaps no longer do?

Does the person you are today actually want to do this, or is this something you wanted to do five years ago? Are you hanging on to an old dream? (“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” – Alice in Wonderland)

* Is there a deadline issue?

Some of us work better and more effectively with deadlines; some of us get panicky and overwhelmed when we have a deadline situation. And sometimes, the deadline is simply too close or too far away to work for us.

If there’s a deadline by which you’re supposed to do this thing, is it possible to push it back, or push it up? Would doing either of those things make a difference in how you felt about taking action on it? (Sometimes we’ve set our own deadlines. Most of my clients have a perfectionistic streak and expect themselves to complete things way sooner than is reasonable, or necessary.)

Am I making the task too big?

One of my clients had decided to apply to a graduate program, but she wasn’t taking any action toward it. The deadline loomed and the weeks were going by and nothing was happening.

We noticed that every day she had been writing on her to-do list “Grad school application.” But when we broke it down, we found that there were at least twenty individual steps involved in completing the entire application process, and some of those steps could be broken down into even smaller steps. Of course she wasn’t taking action on it when “grad school application” was not an actionable step.

We often don’t want to break things down into small steps because we’re in a hurry. We think we don’t have time to take small steps. Then we proceed to do nothing at all because the giant leap we think we have to take overwhelms us. In the long run, we move more quickly and steadily when we take small steps over time. Think turtle and hare.

Am I in somebody else’s business?

Byron Katie talks about the three kinds of business: My business, your business, and God’s business. Much of the time when I’m feeling stressed, confused, or unfocused, if I remember to ask myself who’s business I’m in, I discover the issue. When I’m in somebody else’s business, as Katie says, there’s no one here taking care of my own.

How does this keep me from moving forward? If I’m worried about what someone else thinks of me, or trying to control someone else’s reaction to my choices in some way, I keep on spinning my wheels. I may not allow myself to do what I truly want to do. It’s human to care about what others think; but if we’re paralyzed because of it, we’re way out of our own business and into somebody else’s.

* Is my creative well empty?

I often mention the creative well on this blog. Julia Cameron likens the creative well to a “trout pond” that, ideally, is fully stocked with fish, except, as artists, we stock our ponds with images that inspire. We stock our ponds with the wordlessness that comes from simply being.

When the pond is empty, we need to restock it. And this means we need to practice great self-care and recognize that there are ebbs and flows to our energy and our creativity. Sometimes, when I’m not taking action, it’s simply because I need to be in a place of inaction for a while.

Any of these questions is a good starting point if you find you’re not taking action on something you want to do. If one question doesn’t seem to apply to you, try the next. And come up with your own, too — write them in a notebook where you can refer to them the next time you’re up against the stuckity-stuck.

How do you deal with it when you want to move forward but can’t seem to take action? I’d love to hear from you!

Image is “Bird on a Mirror” © Shane Link | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Feed yourself images — it’s good for you

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“Filling the well involves the active pursuit of images to refresh our artistic reservoirs. Art is born in attention. Its midwife is detail.” — Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

Yesterday I slept in because I had woken up in the middle of the night, scared by a dream. (When I came to consciousness, I was lying flat on my back shouting “death angel!” My boyfriend tells me he thinks Death Angel was an ’80s metal band — can anyone confirm this? — but that is not what my dream was about.)

I was so afraid I’d see a death angel in my bedroom mirror that I got up and went into the living room and watched TV until my bedroom didn’t seem so scary anymore.

Anyway, because I let myself sleep late to compensate for being up in the middle of the night, I walked out of the house at 10:30 to get my morning coffee with my mind full of all I had to do, feeling irritated and stressed. I hate starting the day late. It screws up my to-do list, makes me feel I’m already behind just by virtue of not beginning when I thought I would.

I got my coffee and then walked over to the hardware store to buy some lightbulbs. The person working at the front desk was tied up with a return, so I walked to the back of the store to the other register.

And I noticed the store had an old-fashioned red-and-gold popcorn cart set up back there, complete with little bags of popcorn and a hand-written sign that said “Take one!” I didn’t take one — I was working on my coffee — but I loved this. It brought back another memory of free popcorn, when I was a kid, maybe in a similar setting, and my mom grabbing two little bags of popcorn just like this, and handing one to me.

And then I began to think about how I really like my hardware store. The employees are always friendly, and customers are allowed to bring their dogs in, and when I go in there I feel like I’ve stepped back into the 1980s, in a very good way.

The popcorn cart made me feel happy and I left the store with my lightbulbs feeling a little less stressed. And I thought, you know, it’s Saturday. There was a time when Saturday was my day of relaxation. Now I too often make it my day to “get a lot done that I didn’t get done earlier in the week.”

So I decided I would reclaim some of that old Saturday relaxed energy and take a little walk.

When I returned from it, I scribbled down bits of what I remembered from the walk in my journal:

A snowman dressed like he was on a tropical vacation — Hawaiian shirt, grass skirt, sunglasses perched above his carrot nose — with a tube of SPF 50 lying in the snow next to him.

A sleek black dog in a red collar, digging in the snow and retrieving a tennis ball. The dog pranced around its fenced-in yard with the ball in its mouth, peppy and proud. It was an adult dog, but it bounded and flopped like a puppy. It saw me, dropped the ball to its feet, and froze, staring at me brightly with its ears perked and a dusting of snow on its chin that looked like cake frosting.

The dog and I exchanged a long, contemplative look, and then I rounded the corner and saw the sheets of snow coating yard after yard. The snow appeared perfectly smooth, but when I looked closely, I saw that hundreds of tiny rabbit tracks peppered each blanket. Now, I haven’t actually seen a rabbit in months — unlike squirrels, who are the chatty, ever-visible extroverts of the neighborhood animal kingdom, rabbits keep their distance and when you do see them, they freeze until you move on. But I love that rabbits leave traces of themselves, so we know they’re around.

The popcorn cart in the hardware store drew me into the present moment, and I moved on through my day more alert to the sights around me. Filling up on these images and then writing them down felt so nourishing. It connected me with the wonder that is the world around me, and I forgot about the to-do list that had been hanging over me when I’d left the house. When I returned to it, I felt more grounded and saw that not everything on the to-do list needed to be done. The peace I thought I would have when I had completed everything on the list was already within me.

My walk turned into what Julia Cameron calls an Artist’s Date. The purpose of an Artist’s Date is to fill your “creative well” with nourishment, in whatever form that takes for you. For me it is often the beauty of the everyday. How could so much amazingness be just outside my door? Well, it’s always there, but most of the time I don’t see it. I had to consciously open myself to it — which I did by choosing to slow down and have a leisurely walk — in order for it to find me.

This kind of nourishment is always available, and it’s totally free.

Try this: Make a practice of writing down images that inspire you, in as much detail as you can. See how you feel while you do it, and afterward.

Image is “Benches in Snow”, © David Coleman | Dreamstime Stock Photos