This is a guest post from Tracy Winchell of Reboots Podcast that recently had a conversation with Shawn Blanc on the topic pursuing focus.
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You may not even notice the life- and productivity-sucking habit of negative self-talk.
For years, I thought inwardly-directed fury was a clear indication I genuinely cared about my work.
I thought “Idiot! You did it again!” was a motivator.
Instead, it was self-inflicted pain – more damaging than a stubbed toe but much tougher to identify and treat.
Losing my job was an indication something was wrong with how I viewed myself and the world around me.
In a storm of self-doubt, I decided this was the perfect time to start my own consulting business.
Shawn Blanc’s The Note helped me slay a three-headed dragon of negative self-talk, perfectionism, and self-doubt.
The funny thing is, I failed miserably at executing The Note as Shawn teaches it, but as so often happens, failure led to something greater.
A few years ago, my boss abruptly retired from a public position – as the chief executive of a municipality.
Within hours, elected officials had appointed an acting chief executive of the city.
The new boss had the unenviable chore of telling me that a couple of those elected officials wanted to eliminate my public and media relations position by the end of the year.
I’d been on the job for 12 years and had been part of some wildly-successful high profile and popular projects.
Several weeks later, and without fanfare, I walked out of my office, went home, and posted a prepared statement to my Facebook page I was no longer a public employee.
The next day, the news of my dismissal was on the front page of our local newspaper.
With tremendous public and personal support (just not from the elected officials in charge of the next year’s budget), I decided to sell my house, move in with my mom, and launch a public relations consulting business.
At the time, I was reeling so much from the sudden upheaval in my career, the pain of rejection and the fear of uncertainty about my future that I couldn’t possibly understand I had a self-image problem.
Looking back – with the benefit of a few years distance from the shock – I can see the “suddenness” of it all had been a long time coming.
My self-image had been eroding for years.
As it turns out, I desperately needed a career change, but I lacked the confidence to make the change.
Even in the days and weeks following the job loss, I told myself everything was “my fault.”
There’s a vast difference between taking a fearless and searching inventory of life and business and owning our parts in events and outcomes, versus blanket statements like, “Everything is my fault.”
With money in the bank from the sale of my house and people who saw value in my media, marketing, and public relations skillsets, I was busy – meeting new prospects, putting together project and service bids, and signing enough contracts to get me started.
Except procrastination was eating my lunch, while self-doubt and negative self-talk were regularly consuming my proverbial dinner – and robbing me of sleep.
I was getting paid – in advance – to create content, but I was so consumed by doubt and fear that the work was backing up and increasing my stress levels and my self-doubt exponentially.
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear describes my plight:
This vicious cycle of beating ourselves up spirals and spirals and we no longer know how to be kind to ourselves. We no longer know how to set reasonable expectations and achievable objectives with weight loss, fitness, career goals, family objectives, and standards for behavior. We lose sight of who we are and what we can become.
One day, I read about how Shawn Blanc jump-started his writing routine by leaving himself a note the night before, thereby reducing the “friction” of deciding where to begin the morning at his keyboard.
I liked it.
So I tried it.
Only the afternoon and evening notes I began writing to my next day self – typed into a Mac app I was beta testing – were lengthy (800 to 1,000 words), which is not what Shawn teaches, right?.
They were often harsh – explaining why my next day self needed to “get busy.”
Today’s Tracy had “left next day Tracy a big mess” because of fear, lack of motivation, or just plain negligence.
Reading these notes to my next day self the following morning evoked visceral reactions.
This process was supposed to help me end the day well, and prepare me for success the following day.
Neither seemed to be happening.
But I kept going because hidden in the diatribes was insights into what I needed to do for the day and how I should approach the task or problem in front of me.
As I’m writing this piece, I’m revisiting what’s left of those notes. I thought it might be neat to share a screenshot of how this process has evolved and how my view of myself has changed.
But I can’t.
I don’t have the stomach to share what early 2017 Tracy was saying about her next day self.
2019 Tracy wouldn’t say those things to anyone, and she would most certainly step in to defend someone on the receiving end of the criticisms I was writing to and about myself.
I will tell you this about those first notes to my next day self; They were filled with criticisms and demands and borderline name-calling.
For a while, no matter how much I’d accomplished that day, it was never enough.
Consistently, I’d write a long, detailed list of action items that “must” be completed the next day.
In reality, those lists couldn’t be reasonably executed in a week, sometimes even a month of work.
I wish I could say the process of writing a note to my next day self magically cured my propensity for self-flagellation.
There’s always more than just one thing, though, isn’t there?
For me, lots of conversations with the safest and most trusted people in my life, and many hours of self-reflection through journaling helped me begin to understand the toll this horrible habit of negative self-talk was exacting on my life, my work, and my relationships.
Three books helped me tremendously.
As I write this, I’m resisting the urge to criticize myself for not keeping all of my digital notes to my next day self, because I think it would be interesting to trace a timeline through my notes, based on when I read the books we’re about to cover.
Alas, I didn’t. And it’s okay. Right?
Shame is a jerk
Let’s begin with two passages from Jon Acuff’s Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done.
More than likely, you’ve spent most of your life choosing to do more than is possible and beating yourself up for not being able to keep up…
Something fails, and at that moment we feel shame. We don’t pull grace out of our pocket and cut ourselves slack. No, on the contrary, most people quit right there. Not just the extra thing that proved to be too much—we give up on the whole goal.
As I read this book, I made some decisions.
I chose to pull grace out of my pocket and cut myself some slack.
Some days I’m still terrible, but I have decided to make this choice over and over and for as long as necessary.
I leaned into my daily gratitude practice and began to embrace the good things in my life – like, who gets to move back in with a beautiful, loving, supportive, encouraging mother?
(Seriously. My mother is incredible. I’m so blessed to have her.)
Acuff’s book taught me perfectionism and shame can be our greatest enemy and I must learn to embrace progress.
The problem is perfectionism magnifies your mistakes and minimizes your progress. It does not believe in incremental success. Perfectionism portrays your goal as a house of cards.
I used my note to next day self to try on this approach to see if it fit me.
Over time, I actually enjoyed the ritual of waking up, grabbing a cup of coffee, working through the rest of my morning routine and wrapping up my quiet time by reading the note I’d left for myself the afternoon before.
After a time, I thought I’d try moving the exercise to a notebook, because I can confine my writing to just a few words that praise today’s self, encourage next day self, offer a list of things that need to be done, how I should approach even the most difficult tasks, and set expectations for my behavior, attitude, and interactions with others.
Highlighted section: But the stuff you get done isn’t nearly as important as the human you are to those you love and those who are counting on you. The next graph says, Don’t forget that, Tuesday Tracy, and all will work out well.
I was getting better, business was decent, and I was adjusting to a new normal.
Until a close friend died suddenly.
The day of his celebration of life, I came home and told my mom I was going to wrap up my client work so I could focus on launching a podcast to help others – and myself – navigate change.
She said, “I’ve been wondering when you were going to figure that out.”
I told you she’s amazing.
As I prepared to launch the Reboots Podcast, I read Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way.
It’s the first time I ever considered the notion the world is – at best – indifferent to me.
It’s not my friend, but it’s not out to get me, either.
Coming to this realization helped me understand the futility of raging against the universe.
How about you?
How many times a day do you call yourself names that, if you heard someone calling your spouse, children, parents, or siblings, you’d speak up?
Pro tip: More than likely, you’re berating yourself a lot more times per day than you notice.
It takes practice, patience, and persistence to learn to realize how ingrained negative self-talk is in our thought patterns.
Full transparency: I caught myself huffing and puffing at myself during the writing of this piece.
What are the lies you tell yourself about you?
That you’re an imposter?
You’re a fake?
Not good enough?
That you don’t deserve the family or the home or the career you’re failing to enjoy because of the tapes inside your head?
I’ve interviewed nearly 100 people about how they’ve navigated change in their lives and their businesses.
Whenever I’ve asked whether their reboot was instigated by a moment or a series of changes, the vast majority have explained their transformation began with a decision, followed by a series of daily – sometimes moment-by-moment – choices.
So if you’re serious about giving negative self-talk the heave-ho, your first step is to grab a pen and an index card.
This is to record the moment of your decision to change.
On one side of the card, write your what and your why. Maybe it’s something like this:
“I will slay the dragon of negative self-talk so I can create energy margins in my life for family and friends, and develop the skills to grow my business by x percent next year because life is meant to be enjoyed. Even on the most difficult days.”
On the other side of the card, choose your tools.
- How will you write this note to your next day self?
- A digital device? Which one? Which program? I’ve recently switched back from a notebook to the Day One app because I bought the Sweet Setup’s course Day One In Depth and I love the search-ability of Day One.
- Old school notebook? Grab it!
Setting the Table for Daily Choices
In Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, Jon Acuff explains the day after perfect is the key to getting stuff done.
1. Set your expectations.
So right now, set your level of expectation for this project. Permit yourself to complete this exercise 3 days a week, or 15 out of every 30 days. Or some other approximate number.
It’ll still work, just not as quickly.
I know this because it’s true in my practice of this technique.
- Where and when will you write this note to your next day self?
- Which shut-down ritual will you chain this new habit to? Just before shutting down your device, or immediately after closing the lid on your device?
2. Tape your note next to the place where you will do this exercise.
Your last first-day step – even if it’s not the time of day you just selected for this step – is to write that note to your next day self.
Perhaps it looks something like this – and seriously, don’t worry about proper tense or agreement. It’s tough sometimes to separate today self from next day self. It may be a little weird at first to refer to yourself in the third person, but the idea is to learn to see yourself as a human being, worthy of the love and respect you show your most beloved:
Dear Tuesday Tracy –
Today Tracy made a decision to stop beating herself up all the time.
It’s going to take work, and it’s going to feel weird.
But right now it feels good to know I don’t have to live life this way.
Tuesday Tracy, I wish you an excellent good morning. Grab your cup of tea, enjoy walking the dog and diving into some reading during your quiet time, then get after the most important task.
And before you shut things down and transition to family time, write Wednesday Tracy a note. Tell her how Tuesday Tracy set up Wednesday for success, and encourage her to work the process and to let the results fall where they will.
Respectfully, Monday Tracy.
For the past several months, I’ve been teaching others how to do this exercise.
The feedback has been phenomenal.
I’ve learned where people tend to get stuck with the note to next day self exercise, so I’ve created a resource to help you keep going long enough to give the three-headed dragon of negative self-talk, perfectionism, and self-doubt the heave-ho.
This is one of my all-time favorite notes to my next day self.
We’ve scheduled you aggressively today. Know why
- We think you’re up to it!
- We’re confident you won’t crumble under the weight – you’ll do your best & enjoy the process.
It can work for you, too – so you have more energy to make things you care about, do things you love, enjoy the people in your life, and the breath in your lungs.
Then, give it a try and let me know how you’re doing!
If you get stuck, I’d love to help you.
If this process helps, I’d be honored to celebrate with you.