Warning: This article is not for normal people. The goal of this article is to provide a step by step framework to help creative-types do a paralyzingly simple activity which we would generally be unable get started otherwise.
If you are normal, you are going to look at this and wonder what is wrong with us creative types. Well, you can keep your little judgmental thoughts to yourselves, please, normal person. (And yes, I did just spit that epithet like a curse.)
TL;DR: Stalling is not going to help. The hardest part of anything is just getting started, but the prospect of doing anything even remotely high-stakes can feel petrifying. Paradoxically, moving up your mental due-date and doing a low-stakes (but nonetheless serious and thorough) dry run makes it possible to de-dramatize the activity.
Setting the scene
How do you work best? When you imagine the absolute ideal circumstances to get your best work done, what does it look like?
This is kind of a trick question, isn’t it, because it probably depends on what you need to get done. And even within the same umbrella of work needing to be done, there are potentially vastly different circumstances.
Brainstorming the outline of a novel is one thing. Writing a novel is another. Editing a novel is another entirely. Each requires a different mindset and different tools. None of these are high stakes, but if I screw up the outline, then there will be a plot hole. A plot hole will really mess up the rest, both writing and editing. So I stress out a little when it is time to sit down and plot out the outline of my novels. I have invented a complicated formula of how many words into the book the inciting event needs to happen, and exactly how many words into the book the turning point will happen and within 3000 words of where the climax must happen. Every chapter is between 1500 and 2000 words long. No exceptions. All this is in the outline which I typically take about 3 weeks to prepare.
Balancing the checkbook (You don’t balance your checkbook? Oh, honey, my fabulous creative friend…you should really start balancing your checkbook…your bank account. Whatever. Just do this.) is one chore that requires a specific set of circumstances and materials. The stakes are fairly low, since the outcome only effects us.
Doing our taxes, on the other hand, is another–(be very very glad you don’t live in France and have to the FBAR. There is nothing scarier to someone who has very modest means and fear of screwing things up than filling out the FBAR.)
If both of these examples: dealing with our finances and writing a novel, constitute work I need to do, why can I sit down for six hours a day for three weeks and plot out a novel without batting an eye, but must fret over doing my taxes for a month before even taking the first concrete step towards doing them?
The things that stress us out
There are people who suffer from diagnosed administrative phobia. A lot of these people are creatives. Because I love you, my creative friend, please take this PSA to heart: There is cognitive behavioral therapy for this. Please seek it out.
There are others of us who just have your run-of-the-mill fear of screwing things up. The potential to screw something up that has comparatively high stakes is paralyzing.
If this speaks to you, then please enjoy my Hacks and Handy Tips for Doing Things That Scare the Living Daylights Out of Me, Namely, My Taxes. (Catchy name, I know.)
Do your Mise en Place
- Decide in advance what your reward is going to be for completing this dreaded task. For this example, I am going to take myself to my favorite coffee shop and get myself a vanilla latte.
- You know about when this big thing you are going to have to do is due. Even if it isn’t for six months, make yourself a repeating monthly event on your calendar (with a reminder) that this thing is due for each of the six months to come.
- Say it out loud: ‘You need to do the taxes before April 1.” Not think “I need to do the taxes.” No, you need to actually say, to yourself, in your sternest tone of voice, “You need to do the taxes before April 1.” (Oh, yes. I always advance the date to make it seem more urgent. I work best under deadline.)
- Do not ignore the reminder. When you get the reminder, say out loud, “In March, you need to do the taxes.”
- Each time you get the reminder, allow yourself to imagine what you will need to do the taxes. What documents do you need? Where do you keep those documents? Do you need any passwords to access online documents? It literally takes ten seconds to think about this, but the payoff is huge.
- Every time you come across one of the documents you will need, say to yourself, “This is where I am putting this document.”
Does this sound ridiculous? Maybe it is. But I have found that by spreading out the stress over time, it makes the stress less unbearable when it comes time to actually doing the deed.
When you get the reminder that comes one month before the taxes are due:
- Make a date. Plan a first meeting of two for which you are going to loudly announce to everyone with whom you live: “I am going to be working on our taxes on Sunday afternoon from 2:00PM to 3:00PM. Please pray for me and LEAVE ME ALONE.”
- Download any forms or documents you need and make a little dossier on your desktop. Open these documents to make sure they work.
- When your first date comes up, you are going to do a practice run. Announce loudly, “I am working on the taxes. PLEASE LEAVE ME ALONE. This is a good two weeks before you need to actually do your taxes, so there is zero stress. You are just practicing.
- Fill in the forms. Do the calculations. Are you missing some documents? Take the time to look for them. There’s no pressure, no need to panic. This is a practice run.
- Once you’ve gotten through all the documents, just for good measure, go ahead and save them. If you’ve got any paper copies of anything, compile them in a file folder.
Doing the deed
- When the second of your two meetings comes up, it is now time to actually do your taxes. Announce loudly to the people you live with: “I am working on the taxes. LEAVE ME ALONE.”
- Open up the forms on your computer.
- What’s this? They are already filled in? Oh! That’s fabulous.
- Reread the forms. Double check the numbers.
- Make sure you have printer paper and the printer is on.
- Make any photocopies you need to make.
- Panic search for the address to which you need to mail your return. (This is my default stance on this point: If you have done everything else and the only thing you have left is to figure out where to mail it, you are going to panic search. You know what I am talkin’ about.)
- Create an event on your calendar so that you remember to actually take the return to the post office and then actually do it.
- Go to the coffee shop, get that much-deserved vanilla latte and celebrate just how fabulous you are.
Adulting is hard.
I make mountains out of molehills. I get stressed out the minute I have to fill in my family name on an form, whether for music school, renewing our zoo passes or doing my taxes. Add the (according to me) untrustworthiness of internet and you have a genuine stall-fest on your hands.
Stalling is not going to help. The hardest part of anything is just getting started, but the prospect of doing anything even remotely high-stakes can feel petrifying. Paradoxically, moving up your mental due-date and doing a low-stakes (but nonetheless serious and thorough) dry run makes it possible to de-dramatize the activity.
The singlemost important thing you must do once you have successfully completed that dreaded task: celebrate. Do not forget to celebrate.