How to Get Started and Get Past What Holds You Back

I probably hooked you with a self-help “how to” headline, but I’ll admit up front this post doesn’t deliver simple, pithy advice. It’s the distillation of thoughts from a recent long run.

I read an article, listed as the most popular article in The New York Times the other day, about why we procrastinate, and it described what I already knew intuitively: that procrastination is not a time-management or productivity issue. It’s an emotional issue. We put off doing things because of the challenging feelings that a task stirs.

I’ll give you an example.

Emotions, not lack of time, are preventing me from planning a senior grad night party for my son and his classmates, scheduled June 1 following their high school graduation. I’m the de facto leader of the parents’ party planning committee, and it should be fairly simple to take the next steps of soliciting volunteers, figuring out the audio-visual equipment needs for the music and slide show, creating a welcome banner, plus myriad other details, but I can’t bring myself to work on it because I feel anxiety when I visualize all that can go wrong and how my son and his peers, or the other parents, might blame me.

And if I honestly peel back the onion of these challenging emotions further, I confront flashbacks to my own partying that provoke an unsettling combination of remorse, nostalgia and parental angst. Following my graduation in June of 1986, when I was 17, we drove recklessly across the state all the way to Reno to Leslie’s house intoxicated. (Morgan asked that I edit out the details of what we did, but I told him I can’t erase the image of nearly hitting a gray-haired couple as we gunned the car as fast as it would go up the parking ramps of Circus Circus, their faces aghast as they scuttled their old bodies out of the way in the nick of time.)

I recognize I feel conflicted, trying to protect my son from being like me but also on some level wanting him to be like me, just not as risky. See the deep shit that one ordinary project can stir up, provoking procrastination?

Challenging emotions, hand in hand with the psychological hangup of perfectionism, also keep me from blogging. I use this forum to write only maybe once a month. I feel I have to have a story to tell with a tidy narrative arc and life lessons all figured out, along with decent photos to illustrate the piece, before I can sit and write. It hit me on my run that I’m never going to write with consistency and voice—never going to enjoy and develop the craft of writing—if I postpone writing until I have something well formed and figured out. That’s like a pianist expecting to sit and play a complicated piece flawlessly without practicing. So I’ve decided to use this space more regularly to make observations, share anecdotes and organize thoughts to figure stuff out, with little filter.

I’ve been ruminating about my relationship with running—how a joyful, energizing relationship with the simple act of running unexpectedly shifted from hobby to career about a decade ago as I became a writer covering the sport and a coach guiding others in it. Having this sport feel like a job—with concerns about networking, performance metrics, reputation and the like—led to some burnout and thoughts of retirement. I realized I needed to return to thinking about running as a relationship, and fall back in love with it.

I wrote about this topic for my column in the March issue of UltraRunning and drew on lessons from marriage therapy that helped salvage and then strengthen my long-lasting relationship with Morgan, with whom I fell in love as a teenager and married at 21 (crazy, huh?). To have a healthy, passionate, “long-running” relationship with the sport, I concluded I needed to do some things learned in couples therapy, including: Don’t rely so heavily on the relationship (i.e., running) to define my identity and satisfy needs; embrace change and try new things; unplug and make time to stoke the passion.

So now I’m turning 50 in a month and shifting to a new phase of life as we move to Colorado, and I’m thinking about branching out and trying new things, not just professionally (I have ideas for work in addition to coaching) but in terms of hobbies and sports. But procrastination has been getting in the way of me starting what I want to do, mostly due to challenging emotions around new endeavors, such as frustration, inadequacy, or feeling guilty about working on something that isn’t resume-building “real work.”

In February, we took a quick trip to Colorado, and I signed up for a beginner’s lesson in skate skiing (a form of Nordic skiing that requires movement and balance similar to in-line skating). It was so much harder than I thought it would be—I felt terribly uncoordinated, didn’t enjoy it, really sucked at it—and I felt relieved when the lesson ended, not wanting to do it again. But then I realized that this type of challenge is what I need more of, requiring the patience to learn a new skill. Running feels second-nature now; it’s a challenge to run fast for longer distances, but it’s not really difficult or new. It’s feeling a little boring, to be honest. I get excited about my upcoming ultras because they provide a chance to explore a new destination and cover a lot of ground, but the training is feeling rather ho-hum and obligatory.

As I think about this summer and beyond, and what I want to do after we settle into a new home, I feel inspired by my kids, Kyle and Colly, who developed skills out of true interest and playing around with it, not because they felt they “should.” For Kyle, it’s skateboarding and working with horses; Colly, drawing, designing and making things (my girl learned woodworking and welding!), and circus arts.

I see my son maneuver his horse around obstacles and use one arm to throw a rope, or I see my daughter shimmy up a rope using all her hand and arm strength developed over years of practicing aerial arts, and I think, I want to try that.

My son doing his thing.

I want my son to teach me how to rope, even if I never have the real need to rope a cow, so I can feel what it’s like to circle the rope overhead while my horse trusts me enough to stay calm, and then to take aim and throw it over an object (first practicing on a stationary fence post, maybe eventually graduating to a calf), the horse playing his part of backing up to tighten the rope and then standing obediently while I dismount to tie up or release.

My daughter playing around on the beach in LA last week.

I want to learn how to climb and overcome a fear of heights. My daughter has developed so much strength and agility, and watching her on the rope in the video above, or as she develops her specialty in pole dancing, makes me want to work on—or I should say, play around with—these movements that make me feel weak.

I recall the fear—and thrill—last summer midway through the Telluride Mountain Run, having to use my hands and find footholds on a jagged fin of a ridge at 12,500 feet with drop-offs on both sides, how this one section of the ultra challenged me more than any other because I had to manage a fear of falling and had to employ my hands and feet in unfamiliar ways, and I felt a sense of accomplishment that running itself rarely delivers anymore.

When I think of the manual labor we’ll have to do around our new property, such as clearing snow, chopping wood, or loading up and spreading manure around the pasture this summer, I’m guilty of visualizing Morgan doing this because it intimidates me. I naturally lapse into assigning work along traditional gender lines, and then I catch myself thinking, why the hell shouldn’t I also learn to drive a skid steer loader to move manure or snow, and to use a chainsaw and ax to make a wood pile? I don’t want age or gender to limit what I can do, yet I find myself slipping into older-woman ways of thinking, and I vow to resist it.

So I’ll add to my over-50 bucket list: Get my brother to teach me how to use a chainsaw.

My brother David, who also is our neighbor now because he lives across the road from our new home. He is a master at cutting wood.

I’ve been pondering mortality (listening to the audiobook version of When Breath Becomes Air, thinking about a relative’s cancer, witnessing a family mourn the death of their 13-year-old girl) and asking, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

That most famous line from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” should be read in the context of the lines that precede it, the musings following her act of observing a grasshopper:

…Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

As conveyed in that poem, I desire to experience things, beyond running, for the sake of trying and doing—including the act of doing nothing, being “idle and blessed”—for the focus that comes while engaged in something that genuinely sparks interest and creates satisfaction. It could be roping, climbing, making a wood pile or perhaps even skate skiing.

I just need to push aside the feelings (the “can’t,” “too hard,” “not worth the time,” “should be doing something else,” “too old for that”) that prevent me from starting.

A selfie on the run in Tilden Park that inspired this post.

The post above was sparked in part by listening to this excellent podcast of coach Mario Fraioli interviewing Brad Stulberg, who’s also a writer, coach and performance expert. Their talk explores self-awareness about performance, passion, mental illness and more.

And here’s The New York Times piece on why we procrastinate (answer: it’s not about laziness or time management).

Finally, I’ve been inspired, in running and aging, by Kami Semick. I haven’t been writing a lot, but when I spotted Kami’s name on the entrants for Lake Sonoma 50, I knew a good story probably was waiting to be told. So I contacted her and wrote this piece for UltraRunning and then interviewed her on UltraRunnerPodcast.

Pausing mid-run to visit my horse Cobalt. Throughout life, I’ve been blessed to have a horse as a companion and teacher. (thanks to friend Soon-Chul Choi for the pic)

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6 Responses to How to Get Started and Get Past What Holds You Back

  1. Kendra April 2, 2019 at 9:07 am #

    Don’t give up on skate skiing, everyone feels lost when they start. It has a frustrating learning curve, but if you keep attending clinics and put in the work, you will get better. I started six winters ago with no skiing background. I’m proud to complete longer and more technical ultras, but I have a larger sense of accomplishment with skate skiing. I grin when I venture onto a new trail or master a section that used to crush me. The non-stop mental dialogue to cue each kick and pole plant in the correct sequence has faded. Suddenly easy cardio skiing feels similar to a casual run. Yet many trails still terrify me and the techniques will take a lifetime to master. The Nordic community is also extremely welcoming. I highly recommend the West Yellowstone Festival clinics.

    Good luck pursuing new and scary things! I’m at a similar point in life.

  2. David Lavender April 2, 2019 at 5:29 pm #

    What a great post (this deserves a wider audience!). I, too, read that NYT piece and thought about how debilitating the impulse toward resignation can be. I so encourage you to GO FOR IT–whether it be another run, a new sport like skate skiing, or, yes, even cutting wood (I look forward to getting the chainsaw fired up and sharing insights on the subtle differences between an axe and a maul when it comes to splitting wood).

    Colly is flat out amazing. What a video!


  3. Anthony April 3, 2019 at 5:52 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this. It has inspired some reflection within myself. You write in a wonderfully easy manner that lets your voice sound very clear and genuine. There are things I’m not doing due to limiting beliefs – and there are things I am doing because of limiting beliefs. TIme to take a closer look at both. Good luck with your adventures.

  4. Thea Gavin April 4, 2019 at 3:35 pm #

    Thanks for the encouraging words of this blog post . . . and . . . the New York Times article was really helpful as well! Learning about Kami Semick via your well-written interview was also inspiring . . . I hit 60 this year, and am having more fun than ever trail running (barefoot, which makes it fun for me but sorta weird for other trail users. Oh well 🙂 ). Happy Trails!

  5. Ryan April 24, 2019 at 7:07 am #

    Thanks for the encouragement, I have dusted off my own blog and started working on that as well, and also finished reading your book…time to start training for the dream of ultra running.


  1. Ultramarathon Daily News | Tue, April 2 | - April 2, 2019

    […] Sarah Lavender Smith: Are you procrastinating or not chasing your real passion? There’s a reason why. […]

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