Facing procrastination and imposter syndrome
I couldn’t start my blog with anything else but a thought on procrastination and imposter living inside. I made huge efforts to start a blog and put it off for a long time with my first post. Not because I don’t want to write, but because the imposter inside me tells that nobody needs it. Before moving forward, a small story from my life.
Two years ago I’ve decided to refresh my knowledge on algorithms and study them deeply. Since university I didn’t have a chance to go deep into this topic. Unfortunately, the challenges I had in my career during that period hardly solved any demanding problems which would require use of any complex algorithms, and I concentrated more on learning different programming languages, technologies, patterns and concepts. As a result what I’ve learned at the university got lost somewhere in the hidden spots of my brain.
I did some research about the best sources/books to start studying algorithms and ended up with getting Algorithms, 4th Edition from Robert Sedgewick and The Algorithm Manual Design from Steven Skiena. I was super excited about having them on hand and about the intriguing and challenging time I would spend studying them. It came out to be not as easy as I thought. I’ve decided to start with the Algorithms from R. Sedgewick, as it looked much easier having less math and the main used language being Java, so I assumed it would be more fun. The plan was to finish with it, and jump to the The Algorithm Manual Design from S. Skiena.
I didn’t have any schedule. I assumed I would just read and practice 2 hours a day after work. The kickoff was more or less easy, of course, as the beginning was basic introduction, some sections about Java and libraries which have been used in the book. I reached the first chapter and faced the first challenge. Things were not so easy any longer. Besides, I got home pretty tired and wanted to have some rest, but I started with my studies immediately after having a small dinner. After 20 mins I was exhausted and could not understand a single simple sentence. I was terrified to think that my brain refuses to understand even the simplest problems. Every time I faced a problem I spent 5 minutes on it and jumped back to the easy section, just to repeat what I already understood. I hoped that if I re-read what I already know, I could easily grasp the next topic. Not surprisingly I couldn’t move further. It was a failing cycle, 2-3 times a week the same thing and the same frustration. Finally after a month I gave up, telling myself that perhaps the time hasn’t come yet for me to fully concentrate on the topic. Clearly, I was procrastinating as much as I could.
After a couple of months I took the book once again. The same cycle repeated, but this time I kind of even knew that it would be that way, so didn’t care that much, just gave up on it after some time.
Before the next try after a couple of months, I promised myself not to repeat the same mistakes and took it seriously. To get motivation and encouragement, I was searching the web for some suggestions and similar stories, trying to learn from others. Soon the Imposter Syndrome started to appear. I was terrified, as reading people’s stories and looking at what they did made me think I was the dumbest person in the world. I felt like for the last 5 years of programming I’ve been cheating myself, everyone around - because a good programmer is supposed to know how to solve challenging problems using complex algorithms. This time it didn’t even reach to a point when I would procrastinate, all I had was fear in my head which followed me constantly - at work, at home. I went to the supermarket to buy something and was not feeling competent to do it, I was bad at everything. Everyone seemed more intelligent and competent than me.
The funny thing was that I knew about the Imposter Syndrome, I knew about Procrastination. I knew even the tools which I could use to fight against those - but did nothing.
I didn’t like the idea of living the rest of my life like this, so I decided to do something about it. I decided to view my problems as exciting challenges, not a life sentence. I started with trying to control my anxious thoughts by just asking myself questions and writing down the answers. Soon I started developing a plan of how to fight my fears.
An Imposter is a person who refuses to accept his/her achievements and is constantly afraid to be exposed as a “fraud”, someone who is incompetent and achieves success only due to luck.
How many times back at the university have you thought that other students were better than you? How many times have you thought that your colleagues are more competent and smarter than you? How many times have you thought that your good old friend plays table tennis much better than you? If you think about it, you might be surprised to find out at how many occasions you’ve faced imposter syndrome. It’s particularly frustrating because you don’t realize you might be wrong, you think that you are the only one like that and you are too ashamed to talk to others about it. Sometimes I’ve thought of extreme decisions as a solution, like changing my jobs, or to stop playing tennis with my best friend. In cases I won the set, I thought it was luck, and only that.
To make sense of my feelings, I have started a conversation with myself, reviewing the past and analyzing the present. I felt the need to acquire some tools and mechanisms to help myself get started. Here are some things that helped me:
I’ve accepted my inner reality, not analyzing whether it was right or not. So the “fact” for me was that I was indeed bad at something (everything)! Thoughts like “whatever, life is short and I want to enjoy it anyway” started to rise in my head and after some time it was simply boring to live in constant anxiety. I didn’t want to continue living like that and didn’t want to run away from it. I’ve accepted that I might really not be the smartest and most competent person around, and concentrated more on what I could do about it, not on getting frustrated about it.
Luckily, there are many books and online resources where I could find an explanation for my feelings. While trying to find answers, I’ve also found that I’m not the only one like this. Just knowing that such a syndrome exists and seeing its displays in myself helped a lot.
I fought my “ego” and started to talk to others. One of the main difficulties of the Imposter Syndrome is that you start to isolate yourself from people around you. I knew that there are other people like me, I read many of their stories online, but I didn’t want others to know that I felt like this. I am lucky to have people who I trust, so I’ve talked to them about my feelings. Nothing encouraged me as much as the words of the closest person, to see that someone else believes in me made me start believing too.
Finally I came to realise that if I were so bad at what I am doing, I couldn’t be where I am now. I tried to be kinder to myself, acclaim my small achievements and accept people’s positive feedback about my work, while previously I would think they were mistaken and mislead. Luck can help sometimes, but not constantly.
Procrastination is a state of body and mind as you refuse to do a less enjoyable task and replace it with something easier, something you would do with more pleasure. I see around many people who procrastinate, be it about work or life. I also, would procrastinate for days and weeks and put off harder work until it was no longer possible to delay and I had to face the results of my idling. But I strongly believe that it is possible to enjoy your life and to hard work at the same time, if you change your approach to it.
After some research I came up with these techniques to help me procrastinate less.
Dividing big tasks to the small chunks - not aiming to do everything at once, instead trying to split it to smaller tasks, so that I can work on them individually without being overwhelmed by the amount of work.
Making an appointment with myself - I found that having a strict schedule really works for me. I have a To-Do list. I plan the month in advance by week and in addition I write short to-do list every night before going to sleep. This way my brain can relax, as I don’t have to constantly think of what I need to do. Since then I could sleep much better, which has done wonders to my productivity. Some of my friends think I kill all the fun by making lists, but actually for me it’s the opposite, I thoroughly enjoy the process.
Using Pomodoro technique - short iterations with reward. When I work on a some task, I do it iteratively, doing it completely focused for about 30 minutes and taking 5 minute breaks - this is the reward of my work. I do about 4 to 5 iterations, and take a longer break afterwards.
Planning when to stop - this is crucial, as usually I would plan when to start doing something, but never when to stop it. This was a big mistake and lead to the same loop of procrastination, as I got myself exhausted working on the same task for hours. Also I found that it often helps to get distracted from something for a while and do a different type of work, and then when I returned to it I was more productive. So when I make a to-do list, I make sure that I point out when I am going to start working on some task and when I am going to stop - regardless if I have finalized it or not. Of course there are situations when it’s impossible to follow the schedule, this is completely fine. I try not to be a perfectionist and get frustrated when I don’t manage to stick to the plan.
Making a habit - habits make life easier, they save energy. When I make something to a habit, I don’t put emotional effort in doing it. For example, when you go home after work, you know you have to prepare dinner, so you don’t concentrate on it as an obstacle, but rather do it by default. Through constant repetition, I was able to make learning a habit. Even if I’m tired and not in the mood, it is a part of my day as any other thing I do every day even if I don’t want to, like going to work.
Concentrating on the process, not on the product. My biggest mistake was to aim to finish something in a short time. When you study complex things, it’s not easy. Concentrating on the product was only pushing me back. I stopped doing it, instead I was enjoying the process. Learning something new everyday, however small, was all I needed.
I still procrastinate from time to time, sometimes I’m afraid to go to the same state I was before. I keep learning and growing as a person and in my career. I’m happy that I am surrounded by people who understand and support me and my ideas.
P.S. I’d definitely recommend to check Learning How to Learn course where you can find great suggestions about the topics discussed above.