In my backyard is a beautiful green Moroccan tile table. I bought it 15 years ago, when my husband and I moved into our first tiny New York City apartment. Later, when we had kids and moved into a larger, ground-floor space, we put it in our garden. It looked great but was exposed to the elements. “Hey, can you regrout and seal the table?” my husband asked two summers ago. “Sure!” I said. (I’m relatively crafty, and this task is not difficult.) I regrouted it, but, uh, I did not seal it. And I continued to not seal it. Then, over the winter, most of the new grout washed out, taking a bunch of tiles with it. I found them one by one in the garden the following spring—it was like a sad, protracted Easter-egg hunt.
I’d made an easy project harder by half-doing it. I wish I could tell you this was a one-off. But I have a history of not completing things—buying curtains and not hanging them; sorting two of the kids’ five drawers of art supplies, then getting distracted and forgetting which two; finding a tattoo artist to cover up a tragic tattoo from my early 20s but never making the appointment. For Real Simple, I wrote about dealing with sentimental clutter, but I still have about 50 percent of mine. I also wrote about coping with my fear of driving by taking driving lessons, but I quit before braving the highway. Why was I constitutionally unable to finish a task?
To find out—and in the hopes of actually completing the projects that I’d started—I consulted Lauren Handel Zander, a prominent life and executive coach and the author of the forthcoming Maybe It’s You: Cut the Crap. Face Your Fears. Love Your Life.
Before we even chatted, she gave me a ton of homework. Zander asked me to assess 12 different aspects of my life, from finances to spirituality, then write up my pie- in-the-sky dreams for each area. I then had to create lists of my parents’ most prominent traits and how they manifest in me. Finally, I had to list at least 10 “hauntings,” or incidents from my past that in some way shook me to the core. Zander believes these incidents can have a huge impact—often unexamined—on self-image, fears, relationships, and challenges.
After reading my homework (which I turned in late), Zander told me, “You’re in a choke. You’re all over the place, so you aren’t fulfilling yourself as a rock star in one or two things. You have 42 plates in the air, so you don’t have to decide about anything and actually have a breakthrough in any area of your life.” I gasped a little, because I was pretty sure she was right, though I hadn’t thought of my many-tentacled career as an excuse for my scatteredness before. “Oh, I’m comin’ for you, sister," she said ominously.
Zander pointed out that my father (a psychiatrist who ran a community mental-health center, worked on a mobile van providing health care to the homeless, consulted to nursing homes and a group home for troubled youth, sang in choral groups, wrote a newspaper column, and taught in a medical school) was also all over the place. “He was a great guy,” she said, in the rapid-fire way she said everything. “But what if he’d devoted himself to only the mobile van, say, and instead of just having one van, he’d developed a whole fleet of them to serve the entire country? Wouldn’t he have accomplished more? Did you ever wonder if he himself wished he’d walked one path instead of 30?”
I’d honestly never considered that my own scattered habits could perhaps be a reiteration of my dad’s. Part of me reacted to Zander’s pronouncements with anger and defensiveness on my dad’s behalf; part of me wondered if she was right. But, uh, how’s about that half-done list? Did being open about my dreams mean I would miraculously finish the tasks I started? (I failed my “dreams” homework, by the way. Zander said my dreams were insufficiently grand, and their patheticness was part of why I was constantly distracted.) “The minute you’re clear about what you want, you can get rid of things you don’t really care about, and your dysfunctional relationship with time gets rewired,” she said. Zander also noted that my entire approach to life lacked strategy. I did what was in front of me and forgot what wasn’t. (In my own defense—which Zander would call an excuse—part of me blames motherhood. While I adore it, it can be a challenge to one’s tactical big picture.) “Instant gratification will always beat long-term gratification,” she insisted.
Zander’s approach seemed like it could be a revelatory game-changer, but I was anxious about so much soul baring, so much vulnerability, so much work. I was seeking a quicker fix for smaller problems. You know, half-done stuff. The fact that I’d been intending to call carpenters to get bids for built-in shelves for three years. That I hadn’t planned my kid’s birthday party six days before it was supposed to happen. That I’d put a pile of recently pruned, outgrown toys and clothes into a corner of my closet to send to my nieces and nephews months ago, and there they still sat. I decided to change course. I turned to the biggest psychological shortcut I could think of: hiring a personal assistant—spiritually cheap but financially onerous.
I used GYST, a New York–based service whose name is an acronym for Get Your Sh*t Together—that sounded right to me! The company sent me Jillian Weimer, a bright and bubbly 25-year-old who shared my interest in musical theater and knew how to prioritize. I had allocated just enough money for 12 hours of help. (GYST’s hourly rate was $85—definitely a New York City price.) Jillian sat me down in my kitchen and asked what tasks I most needed completed. We talked for an hour and made a list.
The next day, Jillian came back and completely reorganized the kids’ half-organized art area. She threw out dead markers and damaged origami paper. She made two piles: one of stuff definitely to throw out and one of stuff for me to sort. I sat there and did it. The kids went nuts with joy.
On her next visit, Jillian decluttered half our living-room shelves. I pondered asking her to hang the curtains I bought six months ago but then thought about spending $85 on Jillian versus doing it my own dang self. I hung the curtains. (Guess what? It turns out that financial incentive is excellent motivation!) I felt stupid asking Jillian to do a craft project for my daughter’s upcoming birthday party—I love craft projects! I just had no time for one. But it was bizarrely important to me, so instead I asked her to make golden snitches as favors. (The event was Harry Potter themed.) Jillian also organized a nightmarish and sharp-object–filled kitchen drawer. She made a round of calls to contractors to provide bids for shelves and presented me with a vetted list so I could make appointments.
I loved hiring an assistant for my half-done tasks. You know why? Because she…finished the half-done tasks! I did not have to soul-search about being a flawed human. I did not have to question my heart of hearts about my own loserdom. I did not have to dig deep (beyond “Can I buy more time with Jillian?”) or reevaluate the life choices of my beloved dead father. Money changed hands; projects were done. It was a miracle!
But a solution this expensive is not really a solution. Not unless you invented Toaster Strudel or are the descendant of a Gilded Age robber baron. Since I am neither, it seemed I had to do some emotional labor after all. I needed new habits, or at least the ability to understand my lifelong tendencies—and more expert help to explore this.
Psychiatrist Julie Holland noted that I seemed to have a problem with executive function. “Executive function is your brain’s personal assistant,” she told me. (It’s like Dorothy trying to get home from Oz— what she needed was right inside her!) “It’s a set of cognitive processes that help you be on time, stay organized, cross things off your list. In cognitive terms, you have a lacuna–that means a missing section. A lot of creative people have deficits in executive function.” This way of conceptualizing my problem made me feel like a wild, brilliant artistic creature, but knowing that I’m a visionary soul does not mean my child will have a birthday cake.
Holland suggested that I might have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. “It’s a hallmark of ADHD that you have multiple things going on, multiple pots in the fire, and nothing comes to fruition,” she said. “I think many women have ADHD and don’t know it, because when we were kids, there was a specific image of ADHD as a boy who couldn’t restrain his body and would fidget.” Holland explained that in women it doesn’t necessarily manifest that way, “and women in general tend to be better at compensating.” She wasn’t saying that I needed medication, just that I should keep my tendencies in mind.
Ironically, a device that is a frequent distraction can often work to keep distractible folks on track, Holland noted. “Smartphones put us in a quasi-hypnotic state. If you use a time-management app or merely set reminders, you can develop a relationship with your smartphone that primes you to obey.” (Apps that could help include Timeful, Evernote, Focus Booster, and Remember the Milk.) We don’t always build time into our schedules for nonpressing tasks, she explained. And in an always-on world, we need to.
Holland also suggested I put my natural hormonal cycle to work for me. This is sort of Holland’s thing. She wrote a book called Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You’re Taking, the Sleep You’re Missing, the Sex You’re Not Having, and What’s Really Making You Crazy. “There are times in your cycle when you feel like taking on projects and other times when you’re stressed and easily overwhelmed, and that has to do with estrogen waxing and waning,” she said. “The first half of your cycle, from the time your period ends until you ovulate, is a time of rising estrogen and more readily available testosterone. You have momentum—your head is in a better place, and you take charge. But from ovulation until your period, it’s kind of downhill, in terms of feeling less resilient and less driven.” Who knew? So, if possible, I should schedule tougher tasks earlier in my cycle.
Talking to strangers is hard for me, so I should interview contractors in the first half of my cycle. Doing mindless organizational work, with the help of a timer and a nudgy app, would be fine in the second half of my cycle. (I’m a freelancer, so I can make use of this advice; folks who work for The Man, who unaccountably expects consistent productivity, may not have this luxury.)
Finally, Holland told me to ease up on myself, because jumping from one project to another is natural. “Novelty is simply more attractive to us,” she assured me. “There’s something called habituation, when your brain just says, ‘Meh, enough,’ and shuts down.”
“Seeing a project through inherently means you’re dealing with mundanities,” Holland said. The only way to cope is to suck it up, remind yourself that getting it done will feel better than having it hanging over your head, and do it. And don’t feel bad about lowering the bar. “Perfect is the enemy of done,” Holland reminded me. A good motto and an ironic conclusion: Perhaps being a little more chill and self-forgiving about not getting more done could actually help me get more done.