Inside: This is a guest post from Jennifer of Simply + Fiercely. After years of struggling with my all or nothing personality, I finally began making peace with slow progress and this is what I’ve learned so far.
Yesterday, I was tidying up my desk and I came across a to-do list that I’d written several months ago. The list detailed step-by-step all the things I wanted to do for an important project I was working on and there were at least twenty individual tasks to be completed.
The list was creased now and the ink already fading but when I held it in my hands, I could still remember exactly how I felt writing it—overwhelmed and unsure how I was ever going to get everything done. At the time, my first instincts were to clear my schedule and throw myself headfirst into my work so I could finish everything as quickly as possible.
A few short years ago, this is exactly what I would’ve done. All of my life, I’ve struggled with my “all or nothing” personality. For some reason, it’s hard for me to see the value of my work when I don’t get instant results.
I’ve been this way as long as I can remember. As a child, my bedroom would either be a complete mess or I’d spend the entire weekend cleaning from top to bottom (usually staying up way past my bedtime to get things done!). It never made sense to me to “just tidy up a bit”—if I didn’t have time to do everything, I didn’t see the point in doing anything.
As I got older, I took on more responsibilities and of course, life got more complicated. More often than not, I found “not doing anything” wasn’t an option so instead, I took on everything. I worked two jobs and always volunteered to stay late or come in early, all while studying full-time and taking the maximum course load.
I was in a hurry to get things done…but despite all my hard work, I never seemed to get there.
As you can imagine, I couldn’t keep up this pace forever. By age 23, I was burnt out and fortunately recognised I needed to change. I took a semester “break” and decided to go travelling for a bit—but even then, I couldn’t hold back the all or nothing side of me! Travelling for “a bit” turned into two long years, which in turn led to moving across the world to Australia (I grew up in the States).
I’ll admit travelling was amazing and living abroad is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, but unfortunately, most of the projects I throw myself into don’t turn out this way. Instead, I caused myself a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety.
In the back of my mind, I’ve always known this is an unhealthy approach to life but for the longest time, I didn’t know how to tackle it. Even when I discovered minimalism—and later started to explore intentional living—I still didn’t know how to make peace with slow progress. I began to simplify my life by letting go of things, including a lot of commitments, but somehow the ones I hung onto simply grew to fill the empty space.
I knew my life would be better if I could learn to take small, more manageable steps (after all—this is what I wrote about on my blog!) but it was almost like a secret addiction. In the same way a compulsive eater might struggle to leave food on the table, I struggled to leave unfinished tasks for the next day. I would frequently catch myself putting projects ahead of my relationships or even my own health. (In the past, there have been times when I’ve spent 12 or more hours at my desk without getting up or even remembering to eat!)
I was holding myself back and it felt like I might never break free until something happened that meant I couldn’t go on with my same all or nothing approach—and that “something” is currently six-months-old and sleeping soundly in the next room.
I wish I could tell you that I had the grace to accept slow progress of my own accord, but the truth is it was a case of necessity.
After my daughter was born, it simply wasn’t possible for me to obsess about work the way I used to. Instead, I had a choice to either fight the inevitable and try to continue my old ways (while sacrificing time with my family and never being fully present) or I could accept things had changed and learn to make peace with slow progress.
I chose the latter and while it hasn’t always been easy (there are still times when I struggle with letting go of my workload) here is what I’ve noticed so far:
benefits of making peace with slow progress
The quality of my work has improved and I’m more efficient.
Just because I have a blog doesn’t mean that writing is easy for me. Before my daughter was born, I’d spend a minimum of eight hours writing each blog post and it was always a painful process. You’d often find me working late, doing obsessive rewrites and pulling my hair out in frustration.
But since I’ve slowed down, things have changed completely. Instead of spending hours hunched over my laptop, I jot quick notes throughout the day whenever inspiration hits me. Then when I’m ready to write, I give myself permission to write messy drafts—and to walk away and leave them overnight (or until the next time I’m free).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve noticed the space I put between myself and my drafts has improved the quality of my writing and made the whole process easier—a win-win!
My work feels more rewarding and I’ve learned to enjoy the process.
I won’t deny I’ve always been a fan of instant gratification (after all, I was a shopaholic for years—but that’s a story for another day!) so I’ve been surprised by how rewarding it feels to work slowly.
Of course, it was uncomfortable at first but it’s because I was accustomed to judging if my time was well spent by looking at the end product. If I didn’t achieve exactly what I set out to do, I felt like a failure.
Fortunately, slowing down has taught me to value the process as much (if not more) than the end result. I’ve learned there is satisfaction in showing up consistently, every day, and making slow but steady progress—and this goes for more than just writing. Other projects, like housework and improving my fitness, feel more gratifying when I take my time.
My work is less stressful and I feel more at ease.
Once I moved past the initial anxiety I felt over not getting things done quickly, I began to feel considerably less stressed and more at ease. I rarely procrastinate now because I know if something gets hard, I can walk away and try again later. I’ve given myself permission to take my time and do what I can—nothing more, nothing less.
Of course, I still have deadlines to meet but I’ve learned that by showing up consistently, I’m usually ahead of the game and not under the pump at the last minute—and as an added bonus, I’ve learned to ask for more time and to say no to unreasonable deadlines (and I set fewer unreasonable deadlines for myself!).
On a final note, I should share that I am still–and will always be—a work in progress. Despite everything, there are still times when I fail to take my own advice because let’s face it, old habit die hard! But ultimately I’m giving myself the grace to make the same slow progress with myself that I’m allowing with my work and surely this is the greatest gift.
Jennifer is the voice behind Simply + Fiercely, a community of women striving to live simpler, more intentional lives. A reformed shopaholic, she’s now a minimalist teaching others how to clear the clutter and live with intention. When not travelling, you can find her in Brisbane, Australia with her husband and young daughter. You can also connect with Jennifer on Instagram and Facebook.